People often ask me, "What can I do to boost my happiness?"
I tell them that there are tons of things you can do, but then my aging brain can only recall one or two examples in that moment. So, here is the complete guide for how to be happier, according to science.
If you use these 23 practices consistently, you are very likely to increase your personal happiness.
What you can do to be happier
1. Find out what to do first
How are you supposed to build the right happiness skills if you don't know which ones you are struggling with in the first place? This is why it's helpful to take a quiz to explore your happiness strengths and weaknesses. Then, get a better understanding for what these skills are all about and learn how to improve upon your weaknesses and build your "happiness strengths".
2. Give yourself a confidence boost
Why would you bother increasing your happiness if you didn't think you could be successful at it? You wouldn't. This is why it's so important to build your self-efficacy- to prove to yourself that you can increase your happiness. The best way to do this is by starting with easier skills - skills like gratitude or prioritizing spending time doing fun things. Get a quick win and you'll be more confident that you really can change your life.
3. Fuel progress by learning how to feel better about yourself
You wouldn't practice math to get better at cooking. And you wouldn't learn another language to lose weight. To be happier, you'll likely make more progress by focusing on the skills that are most closely linked to happiness. In my research, the skill that usually turns out to be most closely linked to happiness is: Positive Self-Views. Learning how to feel better about yourself - for example by imagining your best possible self, noting your positive qualities, or identifying your strengths - can go a long way to increase your happiness.
4. Create balance; overcome burnout
How are you supposed to have the energy to be happier if you're exhausted and miserable from work? It will be really hard. Building new skills - skills that will help to be happier - will take time and energy. So first, it's helpful to create better work-life balance.
5. Build a growth mindset for happiness
Growth mindset refers to the belief that we can change ourselves. When we build a growth mindset for happiness, we believe we can change our happiness. This is super important because if we don't believe we can increase our happiness, we wont even bother to try.
6. Make positive memories
Every region in our brains can be strengthened through practice. If our brains are really good at remembering negative things that happen, it can be useful to strengthen the regions of the brain responsible for remembering positive things.
7. Find silver linings
Everything we experience can be a bummer if we choose to see it that we. But when you search for the benefits or silver linings in your life, you may be surprised to discover a lot of good. Keep practicing to increase the positive and decrease the negative to cultivate happiness. And, this skill has been linked to better ability to cope with stress and be more resilient.
8. Take breaks from Facebook
Facebook tends to have a negative effect on our happiness. By choosing to take breaks from Facebook - or changing the way we use Facebook - we can boost our happiness.
9. Spend smarter for more happiness
How we choose to spend our money impacts what we can do and how we live in ways that impact how happy we are. When we choose a less fancy house or car - things that don't bring us much happiness - we have more money to spend on adventures or on gifts for friends - things that actually do make us happier.
10. Communicate kindly
When we are kind to others, we feel better about ourselves. We can do nice things for others, be empathetic, or we can just treat each other with respect, communicating kindly rather than assuming the worst.
11. Stop those negative patterns of thinking
Let's face it. Sometimes we are what's making us miserable. We just can't stop thinking about how so-and-so wronged us or how our life didn't turn out as we hoped. Negative thought processes - like worrying, ruminating, self-judgement, and fearing rejection - just keep us miserable and unable to move forward. When you find yourself thinking negatively - pause and refocus your thoughts. In time, your brain will be able to do this more easily on it's own.
12. Find clarity
How are you supposed to move your life forward when you don't even know what you feel or why you feel it? To get happier, try to gain clarity on your emotions, so that find out what your feeling and what caused those feelings.
13. Live your values
When you start to explore your self and your values, you may discover that you've known all along what would make you happy, but you're just not doing it. To be happier, get clear on your values, so that you can a live your life autonomously, according to your own principles and values.
14. Pay attention to the good
Sure, sometimes life is hard. But by paying attention to the good, you can rise above it and be more resilient. When you find the good, savor the moment and bring it with you to maintain happiness even during hard times. Or, try thinking about a time in the future when you'll feel better.
15. Use your imagination to create the life you seek
Did you know that your brain has a difficult time differentiating between things that happen in your imagination and things that happen in real life? So when you imagine something - even happiness - your brain acts as if it real. We can use imagination to help create happiness out of thin air and enjoy our experiences more.
16. Stay mindful
Sometimes we want to escape. The world seems dark and scary, but by practicing mindfulness we experience more fully both the positive and the negative - we are more fully engaged in our lives.
17. Explore what happiness means to you
We all define happiness in different ways. When you know what happiness means to you, you'll have an easier time finding it. So explore happiness - what it means, what it looks like, and what it feels like - to more easily create it.
18. Go after life
How are you supposed change your life by doing the same things you've always done? It's pretty tough. Instead, push yourself to overcome fear and approach life with enthusiasm. Try "doing the opposite" to see how it feels and make your brain more flexible.
19. Speak up and be yourself
When we let people walk all over us, we're unhappy. But when we advocate for our own needs assertively and express ourselves we feel more in control of our lives. Learning how to express yourself can help you overcome interpersonal challenges which can make us unhappy.
20. Find your purpose
We all want to feel like we made some sort of positive impact in this world, but sometime we are uncertain of the type of impact we want to make. Explore exactly what gives you a sense of purpose and how you want to pursue this purpose to give your life a greater sense of meaning.
21. Build meaningful connections
Did you know we enjoy just about everything more when we do it with others? This is why one of the best things you can do for your happiness is to build meaningful relationships and social connections. To strengthen these relationships, practice kindness and gratitude towards the people you care about.
22. Get off the hedonic treadmill
The "hedonic treadmill" refers to the tendency for us to return to our original happiness level over time. To boost your baseline level happiness, you can try changing your physiology through nutrition and exercise. To maintain your happiness, you have to get out of your comfort zone, and keep adding variety to your happiness plan.
23. Hold yourself accountable
We are more likely to actually do the things we say we're going to do if we schedule time in our calendars to actually do them. We can also more easily stay on track if we get accountability from others. So if you really want to be happier this year, don't let yourself get away with being unhappy.
Whow! You made it all the way to the end! You clearly have the dedication to boost your happiness. If you need a bit more help putting this all together, check out my Happiness Program. It'll help you learn the right skills, in the right order, in the right ways.
Why is it so hard to find our life purpose? There certainly is no short supply of problems in this world that need solving. There is no limit on the number of people who we could help, or inspire, or support. There is no cap on the number of passions we could pursue. Yet, our life purpose often feels just out of view.
There are many reasons why you may not know your life purpose. Sometimes it's because the world's problems seem too big. Or we seem too small. Or maybe we are just exhausted from life and don't know where we'll find the energy to fight for what really matters to us.
But if you want to change all that and find your life purpose, here are the steps to follow.
Step 1: Find out what drives you
When I was a teenager I was at a party and came upon a friend of mine. Her head was cast downward, her bangs were in front of her eyes, and she was squeezing her hand into a tight fist. As I approached, I noticed something red on her hand.
It was blood!
I rushed over to her, grabbing her hand, demanding that she let me help her. Finally, after much prodding, she opened her hand. Laying in her palm was a piece of glass, glass that she had been squeezing as hard as she possibly could.
It was then I realized that she was intentionally making her hand bleed. She was so unhappy that she squeezed that piece of glass until blood was dripping on the floor.
I didn’t know it at the time, but this moment was the first in a series of moments that would show me my life's purpose.
In the years that followed, I saw the scars of self-burning, the glazed over eyes that come with extensive drug use, and the skin that hangs off a body that is being intentionally starved. I witnessed the depths of depression and the heights of mania, suicide attempts and near overdoses. It turns out that a person can only see so much pain before becoming driven to stop it.
One way to find your purpose is to ask yourself: What pain or injustice or unhappiness have you witnessed? Is there anything that drives you simply because you don't want to live in a world where it exists? Often, a powerful purpose can come from deep pain.
STEP 2: FIND OUT WHAT ENERGIZES YOU
It was a sunny but cool spring morning. I had just started my shift at the addiction rehab center where I worked. As usual, I went to the back yard to make sure none of the teenagers were smoking on the back roof. One of them was so I told him go back inside. He spent the next 8 hours cussing at me, right up until the moment my shift ended.
This was the day I learned that your life purpose can burnout if you pursue it in ways that deplete rather than energize you. It is not enough to know the problem you want to solve, you have to think carefully about they way that you want to solve it.
So ask yourself: What energizes you?
Step 3: Find out what you are willing to sacrifice for.
Feeling deflated and defeated after working at the addiction rehab center, I paused to ask myself what I really wanted to do. I don't know about you, but often I'll think I want to do something, but then I don't follow through or put in the work required to succeed - a sign that whatever it was, it wasn't really important enough to me to sacrifice for.
I decided I wanted to go to graduate school to study emotion and mental health. I had applied to graduate school before, and even enrolled in a masters program for one year, but I wasn't clear about my purpose and wasn't yet willing to sacrifice my time, efforts, and energy for it.
This time was different though.
This time, I listened to GRE words on my iPod during my lunch break at work. I volunteered in a research lab on my days off. I studied and wrote and learned until I passed out from exhaustion while preparing my graduate school applications.
This willingness to sacrifice didn't end when I got into graduate school. I worked relentlessly to the point of burnout. Now, I'm not recommending that you sacrifice to the point of burnout. All I'm saying is that when you find something that you are willing to sacrifice for, you know you've found your purpose.
Step 4: Find out who you want to help
I have taught hundreds of students across 4 different universities and created positive technologies that have reached more than a million people worldwide. But the time I felt like I had the biggest impact was when I mentored a student during my first year in graduate school. Always eager to learn, she'd smile big, excited about each new project and responsibility. At the end of our time working together, she became the first person in her family to graduate college.
Even though most Psychology PhDs help students in universities, help customers or employees in companies, or help clients as therapists, I feel most inline with my life purpose when I support the change-makers - the people who will make this world a happier, healthier, better place. In fact, most of my work now focuses on doing just that - consulting with entrepreneurs and organizations to help them increase happiness in their communities.
To find your life purpose, ask yourself: Who do you want to help? There are many ways to chip away at the same problem. By figuring out the specific person or people you want to help, you can more easily find your purpose.
Step 5: Find out how you want to help
When I first started working with entrepreneurs, I helped in any way I could. I conducted research, ran statistics, and created surveys. This is what I knew and was good at, but it didn't energize me (remember Step 2). As I acquired more and more clients with different needs, I found a real passion for product development and content creation. Yup! I like to write and like to create happiness products. I'm sitting here on a Saturday afternoon writing this article... because I feel like it.
What do you love to do? And how do you apply this passion to your purpose? To find your purpose, you need to figure out how you can best use your passions and skills to achieve your unique goals and solve your unique problems.
Taking the steps to find your life purpose
Finding your life purpose is a life-long journey. It's okay to take it one step at a time. It's normal to pause and re-evaluate regularly. And it's ok to feel overwhelmed. Nothing worth doing is easy and this will not be easy.
You will encounter frustrations and challenges along the way. Some days, you'll throw your hands up in the air in defeat. But then you'll remember Step 1 - you're driven to solve this problem, and you wont let yourself give up.
Click Here to join me on this life-long journey towards greater happiness.
Like games? Want to get happier? These games were increase your happiness.
Do you remember playing games like the Oregon Trail or Carmen Sandiego? These games helped you develop skills like planning and world geography. But learning these skills was fun because it was just part of the game.
Now imagine for a moment that you could learn happiness skills – skills like positivity, gratitude, and self-esteem - just by playing games. Well, it turns out you can, because happiness has officially been gamified.
Now there are several games that help you build the skills that contribute to happiness. So if you’re like me and want to gamify your "happiness journey", here's how:
1. Try gamified happiness activities
One way to play your way to happiness is to use apps that gamify the happiness building process. For example, SuperBetter gamifies happiness by giving power-ups, challenges, and quests as you engage in happiness-boosting activities. Similarly, Happify enables you to track your progress and earn medals for completing happiness-boosting activities. Or, if you prefer games that are a little more artistic, Mindbloom is another lovely way to help motivate you to “grow the life you want.”
2. Play games that build happiness
A second approach is to play games specifically designed to build happiness. For example, to build self-esteem, you can use McGill’s online self-esteem-boosting games. To build your ability to pay attention to the positive, you can try Personal Zen or a Uplift made by Happify. And, to increase accessibility of positive words and concepts, you can play a game that I helped make: the smiley face game.
3. Build happiness creatively
A slightly different approach to gamifying your happiness is to engage in gamified activities. For example, you can explore what brings you the most joy with this Pinterest-based activity or discover your definition of happiness with this drawing activity. You can also use this word-game to help strengthen neural networks for positive information in your brain and you can use this activity to help you more easily remember positive information.
4. Immerse yourself in beautifully designed games
Another approach to gamifying happiness is to engage in beautifully designed games that immerse you in an experience and generate the emotions of that experience. For example, Elude takes you on a guided journey of what it feels like to have depression and Flower helps you experience what it is like to float on the wind.
Looking to the future...
When it comes to building happiness games, we've only just scratched the surface. So keep your eye out for more happiness games - they're on their way.
Many happiness seekers have read dozens of articles on happiness, yet they don’t feel much closer to creating the happiness they desire in their lives. Reading about the practices that increase happiness is a great first step. But one thing that you may not have heard is this:
You can increase your happiness by turning your "happiness weaknesses" into "happiness strengths".
To turn your weaknesses into strengths, you need a plan. Think about it: Would you bake a cake without a recipe? Would you fix your transmission without the car manual? Would you go on a journey into the wilderness without a map? You know intuitively, that a plan or guide or map—some kind of tool—makes it much easier to effectively navigate new territory.
If long-term happiness is new territory for you, then you need some kind of plan that maps out a strategy for increasing your happiness.
How to make an effective happiness planIt turns out that happiness is not something we find, or reach, or become—we learn happiness skills, just as we would learn any other skill. Most likely you are already really good at some happiness skills and not so good at others. For example, you might already be great at resilience, but not so good at empathy. By practicing resilience, you are not likely to become more empathic. So your happiness skills, as a whole, will improve more if you spend your time practicing empathy, one of your weaknesses.
So how do you figure out your happiness strengths and weaknesses? You can join my mailing list to get a free report of your strengths and weaknesses. Or consider how well you demonstrate the following skills in your daily life:
Positive thoughts about the self
Acceptance: The ability to accept yourself and your emotions non-judgmentally.
Positive self-views: The ability to see yourself as a good, worthwhile human being.
Clarity: The ability to understand what you value, how you feel, and who you are.
Positive reappraisal: The ability to change your thoughts in ways that help you experience longer-lasting, more intense, or more frequent positive emotion.
Positive thoughts about others
Rejection tolerance: The ability to perceive the actions of others as inclusive rather than rejecting.
Empathy: The ability to put yourself in another person’s shoes and see the world from their perspective.
Gratitude: The ability to be thankful for the experiences and people you have in your life.
Letting go: The ability to stop fretting and ruminating about negative interpersonal situations.
Positive behaviors involving the self
Planning: The ability to develop effective strategies and take actions that progress you towards your goals.
Growth mindset: The belief that your strengths can be developed through hard work and dedication.
Self-care: The ability to resist engaging in unhealthy behaviors (drugs, alcohol, shopping, or overeating) as a means to increase happiness.
Prioritizing positivity: The ability to make time for, and consistently schedule, activities that you enjoy.
Positive behaviors involving others
Kindness: The ability to be friendly, generous, and considerate of others.
Autonomy: The ability to resist the influence of others, make your own independent decisions, and take action based on your unique values.
Expressivity: The ability to easily communicate and share intimate aspects of yourself with others.
Assertiveness: The ability to stand up for yourself, speak up, and communicate your needs.
You can read more about these skills here.
Once you know your happiness strengths and weaknesses, choose just one skill that is a weakness for you. It’s important not to try to develop too many skills at once. If you focus on too many things, you’ll have a difficult time making progress on any of them.
Once you have decided which skills to work on, think about how and when you will practice. Plan to practice building these skills at least a little bit every week for a few months—and see if you get a happiness boost.
This article was originally published in Greater Good Magazine.
It was my last year in college, and I needed to take physics to graduate. The only problem? I had skipped physics in high school, so I had no foundational physics skills. After only one week in the class, I was completely lost. I read every word in the textbook, went to office hours, and attended a study group, but I just barely passed the class.
My experience probably doesn’t surprise you. You know that to learn something new, you have to start with the basics—and this is also true for learning happiness. We can make it easier for ourselves to build happiness when we choose the right habits to work on first. Here’s how to get started.
Get a Quick Win with Something Easy and Fun
Researchers believe that some happiness habits are easier to build than others. So rather than starting with whatever happiness habit is currently the most popular—meditation! self-care!—you’ll likely be better off starting with habits that are easier or more fun.
The broaden-and-build theory suggests that experiencing positive emotions broadens our mindset and builds our psychological, intellectual, and social resources, allowing us to benefit more from our experiences. By starting with easy or fun practices, you may be able to get a jumpstart in happiness, subsequently boosting your sense of self-efficacy and propelling you forward in the happiness-building process. And luckily, now there are lots of these easier-starter activities online.
Illustrating this theory, one study showed that people who felt more positive emotion in the beginning of a happiness program reported greater improvements at the end. By going after the low-hanging fruit of happiness, you can build up reserves of confidence and good feelings that may help you tackle the trickier skills later.
Which Habits Are Easy to Start With?
Well, one habit that researchers believe is relatively easy to build is savoring good things in your life (like a special trip or awe-inspiring concert) by continuing to reflect on them and share them with others. On the flip side, surveys suggest that learning mindfulness can be relatively difficult, as beginners may struggle and become cognitively depleted.
Another good way to get started is with something fun. The Greater Good Science Center's free Science of Happiness online course invited students to try out 10 different happiness practices, and (at the end of the course) reflect on their experience. The surveys showed that among those 10, students most enjoyed mindful breathing, awe exercises, gratitude journaling, and listing three good things. They found these practices to be a better fit—aligned more with their internal values and natural inclinations—than practices like forgiveness or self-compassion.
In a 2012 study, people chose which activities to practice. They selected exercises related to setting goals, savoring the present moment, and recording gratitude more frequently than thinking optimistically, savoring the past, expressing gratitude to others, and recording acts of kindness. This evidence gives us some idea about which habits are the most enjoyable (or, at least, which ones we think will be most enjoyable).
So when getting started with happiness habits, try to begin with easy, fun ones—but don’t stop there. More difficult habits are valuable, too.
Get more bang for your buck with high-impact habits
It stands to reason that some habits have a bigger impact on happiness than others.
In a recent survey, for example, I aimed to find out which happiness habits likely contribute the most to happiness. What I discovered is that some, like developing positive feelings about the self, appear to be more closely linked to happiness than the rest.
Other research supports this idea. For example, researchers found that one group of habits that highly impact happiness in the long run are those that shape what you pay attention to. This includes practices like anticipating good things in the future, paying attention to the positives rather than the negatives of a situation, and reflecting on good things that happened in the past.
Perhaps more compelling is the research suggesting that healthy behaviors—like exercise—improve well-being, even among people who have a difficult time building other types of happiness habits. In fact, one study showed that a health enhancement program alleviated depression and increased life satisfaction faster than a mindfulness program among those diagnosed with depression. Although both programs were effective in the long term, the authors argue that positive health habits may more quickly increase well-being, while mindfulness may lead to more gradual but sustained improvements.
Using a greater variety of practices, regardless of what the practices are, may also be beneficial. For example, one study found that compared to a program including fewer types of happiness practices, a happiness program including more practices led to greater increases in well-being. Other research suggests that the people in happiness programs who choose to engage in more different practices show greater increases in happiness than those who choose to engage in fewer practices. And people who engage in a diverse range of practices and engage in them in more situations seem to show the most benefit of all.
In sum, trying to create any new habit can be tough, so it’s worth thinking about which happiness habits to cultivate first. Once you’ve built a few of these habits, you’ll get the hang of it, and building other habits will feel easier. Use these tips to start off on the right foot—and avoid the mistake I made in physics.
Originally published by The Greater Good Science Center.
Is she mad at you? Is he in love with you? Here's some ways to decode emotions in text messages to find out.
“How do you decode emotions in text messages?”
It’s easy when people say they are angry or sad or excited, or if they tack an emoji to the end of a text. But when they don’t? Given that even face-to-face communication can be confusing, it should not surprise us that truncated, dashed-off text messages can result in disastrous misunderstandings.
In the age of technology, we not only need to decode in-person interactions, we also need to decode textual transmissions. How do we know what a person is feeling when we can't see their faces or body language? Here are six tips to help you better decode emotions in text messages, or at least prevent yourself from jumping to conclusions based on scant evidence.
1. Assume good intentions
In general, text messages are short. We have very little information to work with. A smiley face or series of exclamation points can help assure us that the text is meant to express positive emotion, but texts do not always include these extra emotion indicators. Our friends’ busy schedules lead to abrupt messages, and our partner’s playful sarcasm isn’t always read as playful.
Keep in mind that texts are a difficult medium for communicating emotion. We have no facial expressions or tone of voice, or conversation to give us more information.
If the text doesn’t say, “I’m angry,” then don’t assume that the texter is angry. We are better off reading texts with the assumption that the texter has good intentions. Otherwise, we may end up in lots of unnecessary arguments.
2. Cultivate awareness of unconscious biases
In my research, I have had to train numerous teams of emotion coders. But even trained coders who meet weekly to discuss discrepancies don’t agree on which emotion (or how much emotion) is being expressed. People just do not see emotions in the same way. We have unconscious biases that lead us to draw different conclusions based on the same information.
For example, every time I lead a coding team I am reminded that males and females often differ in how they interpret others’ emotions. If Bob writes: “My wife missed our 10-year anniversary,” men may think Bob is angry, while women may think Bob is sad.
I don’t presume to know exactly why this is, but I can say confidently that our emotion-detection skills are affected by characteristics about us. When it comes to detecting emotion in texts, try to remember that our unconscious biases affect our interpretations. The emotions we detect may be reflective of things about us just as much as they are reflective of the information in the text.
3. Explore the emotional undertones of the words themselves
The words people use often have emotional undertones. Think about some common words—words like love, hate, wonderful, hard, work, explore, or kitten.
If a text reads, “I love this wonderful kitten,” we can easily conclude that it is expressing positive emotions. If a text reads, “I hate this hard work,” that seems pretty negative. But, if a text reads, “This wonderful kitten is hard work,” what emotion do we think is being expressed?
One approach to detecting emotions when they appear to be mixed is to use the “bag-of-words” method. This just means that we look at each word separately. How positive are the words “kitten” and “wonderful”? And how negative are the words “hard” and “work”? By looking at how positive and negative each word is, we may be able to figure out the predominant emotion the texter is trying to express. Give this bag-of-words method a try when you are having a hard time figuring out the emotion in a text.
4. Don’t assume you know how a person feels
Text messages aren’t just short. They’re also incomplete.
With text messages, we are pretty much guaranteed to be missing information. When we read a text, we can’t help but try to fill in the gaps with the information we do have. We automatically start thinking about how we would feel in the situation the texter is describing.
Unfortunately, there are huge individual differences in how people feel in any given situation. For example, if I grew up in poverty, earning $30 per hour might make me feel pretty darn good; but if I used to be a CEO at a Fortune 500 company, $30 per hour might make me feel dissatisfied or even depressed. Similarly, if I am an athlete, playing sports likely makes me happy; if I am a klutz, playing sports might be really frustrating.
The emotions that emerge in a given context are highly dependent on our unique perspectives and experiences; this makes it very difficult for us to guess how someone else is feeling. Always ask yourself: are you drawing conclusions based on emotional information provided by the other person or are you making assumptions based solely on how you would feel in the same situation?
5. Explore your theory of emotion
Academics are not the only ones with a theory of emotion; everyone has a theory of emotion, even you. In other words, we all have an idea about where emotions come from and what they mean. It might help to consciously explore your own (possibly unconscious) assumptions about how emotions work. Do you think feelings like anger and sadness are discrete and separable from each other? Or do you think they can mix together?
Research suggests we do tend to experience a greater amount of discrete emotions, like fear, in response to specific environmental triggers, like encountering a bear in the forest. That being said, the research also shows that when we are feeling one negative emotion, we are much more likely to be feeling all the other negative emotions as well. This evidence has important implications for interpreting emotions in texts. If you’ve successfully detected that a person is feeling sad, you can be almost certain that they are also feeling anxious or angry.
6. Seek out more information
If you used the first five tips and are still unclear about what emotion is in a text, seek out more information. In an example above, Bob’s wife missed their 10-year anniversary. What if you asked Bob to tell you more? Bob might tell you that his wife died, and that is why she missed their anniversary. Suddenly, we may believe that Bob is feeling more sadness than anger. The bottom line is that you should try to avoid guessing. You need to ask questions, be empathetic, and try to see the world through the other person's point of view.
Work-life balance is one of the things I struggle with most when it comes to building my personal happiness. Do you struggle with work-life balance, too?
As a happiness writer and program development consultant, I really do try to practice what I preach. But if I'm being honest, I have a tendency to be a workaholic.
I know that I am not the only one that struggles with this because work-life balance is increasingly tough in the age of technology. We are now constantly attached to our work through cellphones and email. And since the great recession, workplaces have increasingly emphasized productivity and speeding up. Let's face it—we live in a burnout culture.
Today, I want to talk about four risk factors for burnout that you may not be familiar with and how to overcome them.
1. You're Passionate, Hard-working, and Motivated
I began to see people struggle a lot more with work-life balance when I entered graduate school, and I’ll tell you why. Universities select grad students who can persevere year after year after year to complete a Ph.D.—a degree that takes an average of 10 years to complete. So they pick students who, as a group, tend to be ambitious, focused, tenacious, and even obsessive about their work. Although some people struggle with setting aside enough time to do work, grad students tend to be the type of people who struggle to set aside enough time not to do work. As a result, they may neglect to eat right, exercise, engage in hobbies, or even see their friends and family.
What to do: If you’re already a hyper-focused, motivated, planner-type, then I know you can successfully apply your skills to create better balance. Get out your calendar and schedule time to spend on your health and happiness. Build in systems to prevent backsliding. For example, by scheduling your "happiness activities" at a regular time each week, you can build healthy habits.
Scheduling regular “friend time” is also helpful. My workaholic friends and I have pre-scheduled weekly activities to do together. So we don’t have to make the effort to schedule fun time each week; it just happens. Because we have agreed to meet each other and we hold each other accountable, we help each other succeed in creating balance. The more you can plan, automate, and increase accountability for your behavior, the easier it will be to improve your work-life balance.
2. You Compare Yourself to Others
As grad school progressed, the social comparisons started kicking in for me and my peers. I heard things like, “Sally has five publications, but I only have two. I need to write more,” or “John finished his qualifying exams in his third year, but I won’t do mine until my fourth year. I need to read more,” or “Mila gave such an amazing research talk. I should be spending more time honing my presenting skills.” And so on.
When top performers are all gathered together and all asked to do similar tasks, now only one person can be the top performer. Everyone else, who may have been considered a rock star in a different setting, is now average—or worse. This type of environment leads everyone to work harder and harder to regain that sense of mastery, self-esteem, and respect. But when everyone works harder, no one gets any further ahead. Pretty soon work-life balance is long gone and everyone still feels like a loser.
What to do: It is human nature to compare ourselves to “similar others”. This isn’t always a bad thing; it helps us work harder and be better. But if you want more balance, you may benefit from working in an environment where most people are doing work that is very different from yours. For example, let’s say you are a chef and you work with a brilliant team of managers, marketers, and waiters at a restaurant. When these colleagues do well, it probably won’t make you feel like you are not doing well yourself. But when you get selected to go on the popular reality show Top Chef, suddenly you are working with brilliant chefs who are at the same skill level as you and know the same cooking methods. In the face of their success, you might feel like a failure.
If you feel that social comparison is hurting your work-life balance, you may want to shift to working in an environment where everyone has more defined and discrete roles.
3. You Don't Fit Inside the Box
It wasn’t until I finished my Master’s degree and started my Ph.D. at a top-tier school that my local culture became an additional risk factor for me. At top-tier schools, everyone expects you to be a star. For the sake of argument, let’s say that they define a star as being yellow and having five points. This means that a star is not blue, it is not circular, and it doesn't have 3 points. Of course, every human being is different and has different strengths and weaknesses. So very few of us fit the definition of what it means to be a star in other people's eyes.
What happens when people feel they are not what they “should be”? They overwork themselves to become what they should be, sometimes developing issues with sleep, health, or even depression or anxiety.
What to do: One thing you can do is build a growth mindset, the belief that people can grow, change, and improve. It means that people are not born stars; they become stars. Be careful, though: A growth mindset alone might just become one more reason to work yourself even harder. So ensure that you also practice self-acceptance and self-compassion. Remember, no one should make you feel bad about who you are. Maybe you are an octagon (and not a star). If so, try to view yourself positively and celebrate your distinct shape (by the way, I'm more of an octagon).
4. You Don't Stand Up for Yourself
UC Berkeley—where I did my Ph.D.—sits right next to San Francisco and Silicon Valley, an area often considered a technology mecca. Some of the world’s best-known tech companies, including Facebook and Google, operate here. Tons of small startups operate here, too. If you are sitting at a coffee shop, you are almost guaranteed to overhear someone who is starting, working at, or discussing a startup.
It is an inspiring and invigorating culture, but it also prides itself on extra-hard work. You may have heard stories about startup founders forgoing sleep, food, and socializing to build their companies. Indeed, startup culture reinforces the idea that success can only be achieved by working non-stop.
What to do: Try to establish boundaries. You decide: What is an acceptable number of hours for you to work? What life experiences would you regret missing? What are your work-life balance deal-breakers? Once you establish what is acceptable for you, be assertive in advocating for your own needs—no one else is going to.
What Happens If You Do Burnout?
While pursuing my Ph.D., I founded my first company. In between teaching and doing research and dissertation writing, I was fundraising, grant writing, and pitching my company. I also took classes in business and technology, picked up a minor in Management of Technology Innovation, and taught myself how to code in R. When my startup started failing (just like 75 percent of all startups), I just worked harder, and I took on consulting jobs to build skills. At this point, balance was not something I was prioritizing at all. The risk factors added up and got the best of me.
I started getting migraines, insomnia, and numbness in my hands and back. I stopped valuing and prioritizing the people in my life, even neglecting to spend time with my husband and my friends. My work stopped giving me a sense of purpose. I felt aimless, and I started wondering why I didn’t feel like my life had meaning.
Then the unthinkable happened. Little by little, the quality of my work started to decline. I would schedule meetings at the wrong times, write reports that were missing lots of words, and be unable to answer the simplest of questions. “What was happening to me?!” I asked myself, “If I can’t work, then what else do I have?!”
When I asked myself this question, it stopped me in my tracks. Was I seriously asking myself what else I had? I had an amazing husband, a wonderful family, and great friends. I had so neglected the non-work parts of my life that I didn’t even think they existed anymore. It was only at this point that I realized something was really wrong with me.
It turns out, I was well into the worst phases of burnout. Because burnout builds slowly, you can miss it entirely. Your health, relationships, and well-being start to falter, but you may not know why, or maybe you don't even notice. Eventually, your body and brain start shutting down to prevent you from working—to protect you from what you are doing to yourself. In a frightening case of burnout, Arianna Huffington collapsed and woke up in a pool of her own blood.
Burnout is serious. And balance is how you stop it.
How to Recover from Burnout
Just as it takes time to develop burnout, it takes time to recover. Returning to a regular 40-hour workweek is usually not enough to make up for years of overworking yourself. You may need to take long chunks of time off, work part-time for a while, and learn how to better cope with stress.
What did I do? First, I got clear on what was important to me. Yes, I did prioritize spending more time with my family and friends, but if I was going to be able to sustain balance, there was more work to be done.
Second, I left academia to start my own well-being consulting business— The Berkeley Well-Being Institute, which focuses on well-being products and tech—and this time, I did it my way. I decided I would not work (or even answer emails) on weekends. I would spend about 20 hours per week helping clients build well-being tech products and, with whatever energy I had left, writing about happiness and well-being. I would work with clients that valued my creativity and respected my boundaries.
I didn't achieve these goals right away, and I have had to be careful not to lose sight of them. But a year and a half later, I can happily say my burnout is completely gone. I have learned a lot about myself and a lot about what it really takes to build happiness in the age of technology. I can't wait to share these insights with you.
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