“Empathy is the world’s most precious resource. Be kind. Be gentle. Don’t let panic and chaos rush you. Stand your ground. Keep your spine straight, shoulders back and hold your core firm. Unfurrow those brows. Breathe belly deep. Trust your knowing.” - Kassie, Unboxeder
As we near the end of January 2021 we are reflecting on how we usually welcome in the new year with anticipation, excitement, reflection and of course, resolutions. 2021 has, however, been unlike any other, and we have started the much awaited new year with another national lockdown, bringing more uncertainty for many. Resolutions might not be high on the list of things to do in January 2021, other than keeping our heads above water. But practising empathy will go a long way in what looks set to be another challenging year.
The good news is, it turns out that as humans, we are hardwired to adapt to, and be happy within certain constraints - we just don’t always know it! And once we do, we have the capacity to focus, adapt, be resilient and even happy!
All too often, we hear talk of ‘difficulty’ and all that is wrong or even disordered, with ourselves and the world. It’s understandable then that we can easily lose sight of how resilient, adaptable and capable we actually are. Positive psychology is concerned as much with our strengths as with our weaknesses, measuring and classifying character strengths, and virtues as opposed to diagnostic abnormalities. It shines a light on the importance of being able to recognise and apply those strengths to further our emotional wellbeing, be happy at work and in the rest of our lives, even though our brain often works in opposition to us.
Hedonic adaptation or, the hedonic treadmill, is the process of becoming accustomed to positive or negative stimuli in such a way that the emotional effects of that stimulus are attenuated over time. Which means, we get used to stuff and situations pretty quickly, both positive and negative. In other words, regardless of what happens to us in our lives, our happiness levels generally always return to our ‘baseline’. Dan Gilbert refers to a 1978 study on lottery winners and paraplegics which showed that contrary to what we might predict, paraplegics were shown to be only slightly less happy than lottery winners. Gilbert notes that 40 years later, psychologists would agree that the study found weak and inconclusive findings, but the point about hedonic adaptation has been confirmed by more methodologically superior studies.
The down side of this adaptation is that we often feel unsatisfied, simply because we have got used to stuff and circumstances and it doesn’t have the same ‘feel good’ effect on us anymore. The upside however, is that in difficult situations we do adapt, we get used to things - and we cope, sometimes under extraordinarily difficult conditions. We only have to look at the news at the moment and wonder at the incredible strength and resilience of those working in the NHS at the moment.
At Unboxed we have adapted pretty well and very quickly to our new pandemic situation - working remotely, more isolated from colleagues and clients. That’s not to play down the multiple detrimental effects the pandemic is having on us. But it does mean that we do cope and that we are also able, with a nudge, to find the opportunities.
“Synthetic happiness is what we make when we don’t get what we want and natural happiness is what we get when we get what we want”
The American social psychologist and writer Dan Gilbert talks about the marvellous adaptation the human brain has made over 2 million years, tripling in mass and gaining new structures, one of which is the prefrontal cortex, or as Gilbert calls it, the experience simulator. This fantastic adaptation means that we are able to have experiences in our heads before we try them out for real. No other species can do this in quite the same way!
However, this brilliant experience simulator tends to work badly. Gilbert shows from research that impact bias makes us believe that different outcomes are more different than in fact they really are. He also enthuses about what he calls the psychological immune system - a system of largely unconscious processes that help us to change our views on the world in order for us to feel better about the worlds in which we find ourselves in. He argues that we all have this system, but that most of us just don’t know it. And if we did, we would be better able to find happiness and fulfilment.
Instead of looking for happiness or fulfilment (natural happiness) we can often find it where we are (synthesized happiness) - through these structures we are able to synthesize happiness and the psychological immune system actually works best when we are stuck or perhaps have limited choices.
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” Dr V Frankl.
In her 3 session resilience training session Tune In, Bounce Back, Deliver, Mette Andersen references Victor Frankl, a holocaust survivor, author and neuropsychiatrist. In his famous work, Man’s Search for Meaning written after surviving Theresienstadt Nazi concentration camp, he wrote “when we are no longer able to change the situation, we are challenged to change ourselves”. Astonishingly, through such adversity, between the stimulus and response is a space in which we have agency to be responsible for our thoughts and actions.
A Fresh Start
As I suggested at the beginning, we are hardwired for negativity. It’s part of our ancient survival instinct. So while we experience many positive emotions, we tend not to remember them so well, without a bit of focused work. Being more mindful of the emotions we are experiencing and re-framing them can help to shift us out of the negativity bias and recognise that we do have agency.
The ‘fresh start’ effect is very powerful and starting a new period with a sense of optimism is an opportunity for change. For one Unboxeder, simply making a change to the home desk environment for the new year has had a positive effect:
“It’s not a goal or resolution really, but something I wanted to do for my home working set up at the start of this year was to change my view. I’ve rotated my desk by 90 degrees, and sometimes I have meetings from my kitchen now. It helps with the ‘I’ve been in the same room all day’ feeling which I was having before"
Most commonly, New Year’s resolutions focus on physical health; dry January, Veganuary, losing weight or stopping smoking (all very good things to do no doubt) but Laurie Santos of Yale University suggests that we might be focusing our resolution energies on the wrong areas. Great news, I can stop dry January now! Research shows that most of the popular January goals don’t improve our happiness as much as we assume. They can often involve being harsh on ourselves, with plenty of negative self talk. As we’ve noted already, our mind gives us the wrong intuitions about what makes us happy and what improves our mood.
So Santos has committed to a different type of new year resolution - “instead of hitting the gym or the diet books, I’ve pledged a little more self-compassion.” And she suggests we do the same. Instead of trying to change your body shape, try focusing on changing your mindset. Try practising gratitude, or being more present - we are usually happier when we are paying more attention. Small changes are easier to sustain if we are kind to ourselves and with self-compassion comes the greater ability to be resilient and procrastinate less.
This sounds like a more sustainable, beneficial and frankly more enjoyable approach than deprivation, particularly in the challenging times we still find ourselves. The thoughts of one Unboxeder summarise this positive approach to new year resolutions, all of which seem like a great way to head into this year with whatever it brings us in our work and home lives.
- More naps. Rest and Digest is this year’s mantra
- Prioritize fitness again. Reclaim my mountain heart space (for weekly nature dosage) and get climbing fit
- Be more mindful of my emotional capacity budget so that I can spend time and attention more wisely
- Old books, old friends. Morning coffees and glorious sunrise stretches. Slow and steady wins the race. When I panic-work, burnout is inevitable. When I prioritise my health and wellness, quality work follows naturally and sustainably