Is Focus the Key to Happiness?

I really didn’t give much thought to the concept of happiness in the workplace until I was walking through the Phoenix airport and spotted The Harvard Business Review (HBR) out of the corner of my eye. Why did it catch my attention? Because here was a big yellow Smiley Face on the front cover (gasp!). Intrigued, I picked up a copy and discovered that the magazine dedicated a robust thirty pages to The Value of Happiness: How Employee Well-Being Drives Profits. 

Since I am a Healing Conversationalist with a nerd’s affinity for technology, I continued to ponder the implications of being able to measure the state of happiness using today’s mobile technology and discerning the implications (connecting the dots) through scientific research from neuroscience, psychology, and economics. At the end of the day, the relationship between happiness, focus, and ultimately productivity, put a twinkle in my eye, so I decided to explore a little further.

As it turns out, there is quite a bit of interest in the happiness arena with much of the buzz hovering around how we are able to use today’s mobile technology, such as the iPhone, to capture real time personal data – anywhere, anytime. The intriguing part is that these new capabilities are challenging previous assumptions about happiness on both a personal and business level.

One excellent example of this is a new way of perceiving and measuring happiness is illustrated through a project called Track Your Happiness. It is the brain child of Mathew Killingworth, a doctoral student in psychology at Harvard University who has managed to recruit about 15,000 people in 83 countries to report their emotional states in real time, using devices that they carry with them every day.” Why is this important? According to Harvard professor, Daniel Gilbert, the advantage of this approach is that instead of asking the decades old question “What makes people happy?” they are now able to “discern when people are happy, and what they are doing at the time”.

What I find fascinating is that their preliminary findings indicate that “no matter what people are doing, they are much less happy when their minds are wandering than when their minds are focused.” (Hmm, if you are curious about the amount of time people’s minds wander during the day … including work … the research-based answer is about 50% the time). So, it only stands to reason, that if we can train ourselves to focus more, we will be happier (yes!), and more productive (yes!) … because research also shows that happy employees are more productive employees.

To learn how to become more focused during the work day, I turned my attention to the work of Paul Hammerness, MD, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and Margaret Moore, co-director of the Institute of Coaching at McLean Hospital, Belmont, MA.

In their article Train Your Brain to Focus, these two well-known practitioners have come up with three great techniques to help your brain learn to ignore distractions, and in turn, providing the benefit of making you more focused, creative, and productive. Here are their suggestions, for your consideration as presented in the article:

#1: Tame your frenzy

Frenzy is an emotional state, a feeling of being a little (or a lot) out of control. It is often underpinned by anxiety, sadness, anger, and related emotions. Emotions are processed by the amygdala, a small, almond-shaped brain structure. It responds powerfully to negative emotions, which are regarded as signals of threat. Functional brain imaging has shown that activation of the amygdala by negative emotions interferes with the brain’s ability to solve problems or do other cognitive work. Positive emotions and thoughts do the opposite — they improve the brain’s executive function, and so help open the door to creative and strategic thinking.

  • What can you do? Try to improve your balance of positive and negative emotions over the course of a day. Barbara Fredrickson, a noted psychology researcher at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, recommends a 3:1 balance of positive and negative emotions, based upon mathematical modeling of ideal team dynamics by her collaborator Marcial Losada, and confirmed by research on individual flourishing and successful marriages. (Calculate your “positivity ratio“). You can tame negative emotional frenzy by exercising, meditating, and sleeping well. It also helps to notice your negative emotional patterns. Perhaps a co-worker often annoys you with some minor habit or quirk, which triggers a downward spiral. Appreciate that such automatic responses may be overdone, take a few breaths, and let go of the irritation.
  • What can your team do? Start meetings on positive topics and some humor. The positive emotions this generates can improve everyone’s brain function, leading to better teamwork and problem solving.

#2: Apply the brakes

Your brain continuously scans your internal and external environment, even when you are focused on a particular task. Distractions are always lurking: wayward thoughts, emotions, sounds, or interruptions. Fortunately, the brain is designed to instantly stop a random thought, an unnecessary action, and even an instinctive emotion from derailing you and getting you off track.

  • What can you do? To prevent distractions from hijacking your focus, use the ABC method as your brain’s brake pedal. Become Aware of your options: you can stop what you are doing and address the distraction, or you can let it go. Breathe deeply and consider your options. Then choose thoughtfully: Stop? or Go?
  • What can your team do? Try setting up one-hour distraction-free meetings. Everyone is expected to contribute and offer thoughtful and creative input, and no distractions (like laptops, tablets, cell phones, and other gadgets) are allowed.

#3: Shift Sets

While it’s great to be focused, sometimes you need to turn your attention to a new problem. Set-shifting refers to shifting all of your focus to a new task, and not leaving any behind on the last one. Sometimes it’s helpful to do this in order to give the brain a break and allow it to take on a new task.

  • What can you do? Before you turn your attention to a new task, shift your focus from your mind to your body. Go for a walk, climb stairs, do some deep breathing or stretches. Even if you aren’t aware of it, when you are doing this your brain continues working on your past tasks. Sometimes new ideas emerge during such physical breaks.
  • What can your team do? Schedule a five-minute break for every hour of meeting time, and encourage everyone to do something physical rather than run out to check email. By restoring the brain’s executive function, such breaks can lead to more and better ideas when you reconvene.

In my next blog, I’ll talk about Dr. Catherine O’Brien’s work in the area Sustainable Happiness, an innovative program that, at the invitation of the King of Bhutan (Gross National Happiness ), will be presented at the United Nations (UN) in April 2012.

Photo credit:  Smiley Face by Calsidyrose via Flicker

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