Tired, Stressed, Bored
Every single day there are countless scenarios in which we misjudge what will replenish or fortify us. After spending nine hours at your desk and another hour getting home, it’s understandable that all you want to do is collapse onto the sofa. A friend calls and invites you out to meet her new boyfriend. You decline because you just don’t have the energy. Spending the evening in front of mind-numbing television is so much easier and requires so little.
But as much as doing nothing seems like the perfect way to unwind, the results of a study, “The Guilty Couch Potato,” found that people who turned to screens as a strategy to decompress didn’t feel better afterward. In fact, instead of becoming relaxed and recovered, they felt even more drained and reported decreased vitality.
Vitality is cultivated and enhanced through productive and meaningful actions: having a good conversation, doing a favor for someone, going for a walk, reading an interesting article and then calling a friend to discuss it. These commonplace experiences and micromoments are the building blocks of everyday resilience. They are other-oriented. They are outward-oriented. They are action-oriented. They are not internal, nor individual, nor do they require sustained self-immersion. On the contrary, they require engagement and interaction.
Vitality involves intersecting with and participating in the world around you. It is not predicated on taking a year off to find yourself. It doesn’t require making a drastic change. You don’t need to lose yourself in self-reflection. You don’t need to overhaul your existence, or reinvent your life, or wait until the chaos surrounding you settles down. These ordinary, simple shifts in behavior can easily become a part of your daily routine.
Letting go of the notion that people “are as they are” can help reduce depression and anxiety. High school students who were given lessons on the topic of neuroplasticity and who learned that personality traits are not fixed were better equipped to handle stress, were more confident, and achieved better grades than those who didn’t. Individuals open to the idea of growth are the people most likely to grow. They believe that interests and passions are not innate but can be developed.
Life experiences clearly shape our personalities. When psychologists discuss personality traits, they are often referring to the “Big Five”: openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. The particular combinations of these five traits are believed to be the core characteristics that form an individual’s personality.
Just as it’s important to recognize your own potential to change and grow, it’s also important to allow for change in others. Too often we judge people quickly and interpret a minor offense as a permanent character flaw. Young people are especially vulnerable to jumping to conclusions. From getting bumped in the hallway or left out of a game during recess, students determine that the “perpetrators” are bad people, acting purposefully to do harm to others. Students who are taught that individuals can change are less likely to think this way and, more important, they’re less likely to want to retaliate. Placing others in categories may make the world seem more predictable, but it limits us from seeing them fully.
Hard, but in a Good Way
Stress has a bad reputation, but studies show that some stress is in fact good for us. Hans Selye, “the father of stress research,” demonstrated that good stress—or eustress—is a powerful motivator. Eustress pushes us to do our best and facilitates optimal performance. Too little stress—hypostress—can lead to boredom and feelings of ineffectiveness and even depression. Of course, a given challenge and the stress that accompanies it are beneficial only if we have the resources available—including the ability, stamina, energy, and time—to meet it.
With so much focus on happiness these days, it’s tempting to look for shortcuts to bypass challenges of any kind. Unfortunately, shortcuts rarely work, and there is a lot to be gained by taking the long cut. Researchers at Harvard and Duke asked one group of students to assemble an IKEA storage box, while others were given fully assembled units. Both groups were then asked which boxes they liked more and what they would pay for them. You might think that having to build the box would drive the price down and make them less appealing, but it seems the builders preferred their own boxes to the preassembled ones and were willing to pay 63 percent more for them. The researchers called this phenomenon the “IKEA effect,” in honor of the Swedish manufacturer whose products typically require some assembly; “When Labor Leads to Love” is the title of their paper about the experiment. Building the boxes made people feel competent, capable, and proud. Anyone who has ever put together a piece of furniture can relate. Even though the completed chair might be a little wonky and one of its legs might be askew (and ignore that chip in the paint because the screwdriver slipped), the fact that you made it with your own hands adds value.
There is evidence that looking beyond oneself and channeling someone whom you admire provides better guidance than stewing in your own emotions. A study of children highlights the benefits of not being yourself. A group of six-year-olds was asked to work on a repetitive task on a laptop but could take a break whenever they wanted to play games on an iPad. The iPad was placed right next to them. One group of children was told to think about their own thoughts and feelings. A second group was told to think about themselves in the third person. A third group was told to think about someone else who was really good at working hard and to pretend to be them. Batman, Rapunzel, Dora the Explorer, and Bob the Builder were possible choices. The iPad games proved to be a tempting distraction for all the kids, but the kids who pretended to be someone whom they admired persevered the hardest and staved off temptation the longest.
Tapping into the capabilities of those who exemplify qualities or abilities we wish we possessed may, in fact, help us find them for ourselves. A study found that people demonstrated greater flexibility and were more successful at creative problem-solving when they imagined themselves to be eccentric poets. When people typically think about creativity, they assume it is a fixed trait, a talent people are either born with or not. But as this study highlights, to unlock creativity we may only need to get out of our own head and imagine ourselves in that of a creative individual.
Gain Some Distance
Immersing yourself in your feelings does not necessarily facilitate insight or understanding. It can actually get you stuck. When you step outside of yourself, it is easier to understand opposing viewpoints and appreciate subtlety. Issues are less black and white. A bit of distance can help you make better decisions and manage negative feelings more adroitly.
Immersing yourself in your inner thoughts narrows the lens through which you view the world—think of a horse putting on blinders. That perspective may be ideal for barreling ahead but terrible for viewing the entire landscape. Frequently discussing and speculating about yourself and rehashing your problems can increase distress and undermine resilience.
Let’s say you’re having a conflict with a coworker. When self-immersed, you’re more likely to jump to a superficial explanation for the disagreement. You might simply dismiss your colleague as an “idiot.” If you’re self-distancing, you’ll gain the perspective of the entire landscape and be able to identify where your views actually diverged. You might still conclude your coworker is annoying as hell, but it won’t feel as personal.
Taking an outsider’s point of view can provide insight and reduce negative feelings about setbacks and conflicts from the past. Self-distancing also has application in everyday life. On those days when everything seems to be going wrong and you are convinced that the world is conspiring against you, remember . . . it’s probably not.
Talking about oneself is most individuals’ favorite subject of conversation. One study revealed that people spend two thirds of conversation time discussing their own thoughts, feelings, and beliefs. Many in the experiment were even willing to forgo money so they could chat about themselves. Brain scans reveal that self-disclosure activates areas of the brain associated with pleasure and reward. Put simply, it feels really good to talk about the holy trinity of me, myself, and I. But if you want to connect with someone, ask more questions instead.
People who do ask questions are better liked than those who ask few or none. Question-askers are also more likely to be asked out on a second date and to do well in job interviews. There are many reasons people don’t pose questions. Some are unsure of what to ask. Some worry that their questions might be awkward or make others feel uncomfortable. Some are just too focused on themselves. When meeting someone new, focusing on yourself often becomes the default. People try to sell themselves and seize upon any opportunity to redirect the conversation back to their favorite topic. Could we be trying too hard to impress? Researchers found that when applicants went for a job interview “redirecting the topic of conversation to oneself, bragging, boasting, or dominating the conversation, tend to decrease liking.” We all know the types who ask about our holiday simply as a means to get us to ask them about theirs.
One myth about emotionally healthy individuals is that they don’t get sad or angry. Or if they do, they’ve learned how to grin and bear it. When someone cuts these people off on the highway, they smile. When their boss gives them a new project on a Friday afternoon that’s due on Monday, they respond, “No problem!” Although suppressing emotions is effective at stifling a potentially harmful impulsive reaction like punching the wall or getting into a fight over a parking space, it’s actually not a healthy long-term strategy for managing negative emotions. Habitual suppression comes at a real cost, most likely increasing the risk of dying from heart disease and even certain forms of cancer. Nor is it good for mental health. Suppressors are also more likely to be depressed and to lack social support.
Emotionally healthy people don’t avoid negative feelings. They accept these emotions as a normal part of life and use them as valuable information. A certain amount of emotional discomfort alerts us that something isn’t quite right and requires attention and possibly action. When used effectively, negative emotions can prompt us to change our behavior and help us to guide a situation in a new direction.
Feeling disappointment better enables you to learn from your mistakes and also provides motivation to work harder the next time. In a study, “Emotions Know Best,” participants were asked to complete a task to win a cash prize. While performing the task, the members of one group were told to focus on how they felt afterward. The members of the other half were told to rationalize why they didn’t succeed if they lost. The task was rigged so that all the participants failed. When asked to complete a second task, the group that allowed itself to feel disappointment exerted 25 percent more effort than the rationalizers.
Fortify the Body, Fortify the Mind
Feeling mentally strong isn’t confined to what is going on inside your head. Psychiatry may be considered an “above the neck” discipline, but mental health includes the entire body. How you move, sleep, and eat affects your mood, which in turn affects your interactions and experiences. Every breath, every bite, every step has the potential to shift how you perceive the world.
Knowing that good eating habits are important doesn’t necessarily translate into real-life behavior. Many other factors influence decisions about what we eat. There was a scene in the popular film When Harry Met Sally when Harry and Sally are sitting in a deli, and Sally loudly fakes an orgasm to prove that men can’t always tell when women fake it. The other diners listen and watch in amazement until an elderly lady tells the waiter, “I’ll have what she’s having.”
Other people’s behavior rubs off on us. Subconsciously we mimic gestures, adopt mannerisms, and even “catch” the moods of others. Consider what happens when you go to a restaurant with friends. If one of them orders a cheeseburger with fries, you may feel tempted to do the same. We like to think of ourselves as unique, but much of the time we’re copycats. You might rationalize your choice by telling yourself, If she’s having it, it can’t be that bad.
Physical sensations cross over into emotional ones and vice versa. When you’re hungry or tired or under the weather, a molehill easily becomes a mountain. When you’re upset or down, physical pain is even harder to bear, and shortcuts are more appealing. Pay attention to the signals your body sends you, because they can impact not only the quality of your day-to-day interactions and experiences but also your long-term mental health.