Make Way for Happiness

As we move into the pandemic recovery process, how do you make way for happiness? Let me ask: do you find yourself less happy than you anticipated?

An answer of “yes” to the latter question is not uncommon. What we think will make us happy is often off-base. It might sound like:

  • I’ll be so happy when businesses re-open to full capacity.
  • I’ll be so happy when we get a vaccine.
  • I’ll be so happy when we can return to “normal.”

While these things are wonderful, and for many, a great relief, we commonly overestimate the impact they have on our happiness.

If you were somehow spared a personal loss or trauma during the pandemic, you are still part of the collective trauma. A perpetual fight or flight mode has an impact on our emotional, mental, and physical being. As a result, happiness can elude us.

Stressors, Stress, and Happiness

Consider how we respond to stressors. Our brains function to protect and serve: our primitive brain reacts to protect us from real or perceived threats and our modern brain serves in conscious thought and logic.

For example, the danger of contracting a potentially deadly virus triggers our fear. When we sense a threat (real or perceived), our brain reacts in hyper-drive, bypassing information processing sequences. Typically, the modern brain engages a moment later to gather more information, analyze the threat, and modulate our behavior. However, when our primitive brain remains engaged too frequently, or strongly, survival-based emotions become the norm. This lives little room for happiness.

The factors that influence our happiness are easily misunderstood. Eliminating or changing stressors is not enough. Managing our stress is not enough. To actually increase our happiness, we need to take more action. And it’s worth it: happy people are less likely to have psychological or social problems, are less likely to get ill, and are more likely to do well in their career.

What Makes You Happy?

The past year has been a roller coaster of feelings and emotions, adaptation and change. The ups and downs have taken a toll. Let’s take a quick look at a bit of neuroscience.

Bio-evolutionary theory reveals why we react as we do to stressors. These include family issues, work issues, financial issues, health issues, etc. And, it includes our thoughts around these issues: the future, certain events, particular people. Our stress is the physiological response to the stressors.

The process has three parts:

  • Beginning: perception of threat
  • Middle: response to threat (dealing with stressor)
  • End: response to stress (managing physiological response)

While being mindful of each step of the process is important, the action we take in response to stress is critical to manage our emotional well-being. You see, we are finding that self-care alone is not enough. Nor is grit. Happiness requires compassion, empathy, and connection. And it requires ease.

Ease Into Happiness

What brought us joy prior to the pandemic may not have the same affect. Consider this: how you have adapted over the past year? What was the impact to your social contacts?

Our social interactions dramatically decreased and our personal time increased. As a result, our threshold for stimulation decreased. Returning to the same level of social interaction prior to the pandemic may be overwhelming.

Fortunately, research has found that roughly 40% of how we experience satisfaction—our happiness level—depends on our motivations, goals, and behaviors. This is encouraging: it suggests that what an individual thinks, believes, and does—things within their control—can improve their happiness.

Communities of Care

The Harvard Study of Adult Development tracked 724 men over 75 years, asking about their work, home lives and health. Two groups of men—sophomores at Harvard and boys from the Southside of Boston—were interviewed and tested. Three big lessons were learned:

  • The impact of isolation and loneliness is toxic to our happiness and well-being. Social connections are critical. Our bonds are strongest between individuals, rather than small groups (families or teams) or villages (tribes or companies).
  • It’s not the quantity, rather, it’s the quality of relationships. The study found that the people who were the most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the most satisfied in their 80s.
  • Good relationships protect our bodies, as well as our brains. People in strong, trusting relationships are the healthiest in their 80s.

What does this mean today? Waiting for happiness to happen isn’t the answer. We can take action.

Share Laughter

Practice leaning in to relationships and sharing laughter.  Here’s a simple exercise from The Greater Good Science Center to get you started.

  • At the end of the day, list the three funniest things you saw, heard, or did that day.
  • Describe your feelings about the events: How did it make you feel?
  • Explore the circumstances of events: Why was this event funny? Why did this funny event occur?
  • Repeat this every day for a week, and allow 10 minutes every day to write out as much detail as possible.

Now, ask someone to share your laughter and confidentially exchange your three funny things. You can share via email, read it out over the phone or video call, and work your way toward an in person exchange.

You see, when we practice laughing at the absurdities of our daily life, we create an opportunity to practice gratitude. By sharing gratitude and laughter with others, we create stronger relationships. We make way for happiness.

Leadership, Trauma, and Recovery

The way we live and work has changed dramatically the past year, upending our routines, our identities, and for many, our sense of security. The trauma of job insecurity, health insecurity, major intergenerational loss, and culture assaults leave us reeling and impact our productivity. Leaders are concerned about their employee’s well-being and safety.

Traditionally, when employees share or demonstrate a need for assistance, we rely on our human resources department (or representative) to step in.

However, leaders and managers who are able to work with HR and their employees through trauma recovery are of greater help to those they lead —and their entire organization.

The Catalyst for Change

It’s no wonder that reports of anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are on the rise. Experiencing violence (as a victim or witness), a serious illness, or the death of a loved one can trigger post-traumatic stress. Unfortunately, fear, misunderstanding, and lack of trust prevent many employees from seeking assistance or even reporting events.

Trauma can impact anyone. Great leaders recognize this. They understand that how we manage trauma can define our life. The best leaders share openly about their own struggles, how they manage uncertainty, and are able to engage others to share their story. Why?

Individual wellbeing matters in every organization, small or large. When leaders and managers are equipped to treat everyone with care and compassion, everyone benefits.

In Posttraumatic Growth: Theory, Research, and Applications, (Routledge, 2018), authors Richard G. Tedeschi, Jane Shakespeare-Finch, Kanako Taku, and Lawrence G. Calhoun share their research on trauma and how leaders can help traumatized people recover. According to Tedeschi, “…despite the misery resulting from the coronavirus outbreak, many of us can expect to develop in beneficial ways in its aftermath.”

What is Trauma?

Although trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are frequently used interchangeably, they are different. Trauma is time-based, can be experienced more than once by an individual, and there are multiple types of trauma:

  • Physical or psychological
  • A one-time event
  • Historical – this type of trauma is often associated with racial and ethnic population groups in the United States who have suffered major intergenerational losses and assaults on their culture and well-being
  • Traumatic grief/separation/forced displacement
  • Natural disasters
  • Witnessing any of the above traumatic events

Responses to trauma can be expressed through emotions and/or behavior, and can impede an individual’s ability to function.

What is PTSD?

PTSD is a longer-term condition that can develop as a result of trauma, however, not all traumatic events lead to PTSD. Re-experience of the event can occur through flashbacks, dreams, and thoughts. Common signs and symptoms of PTSD include:

  • Avoidance of people, places, or memories of the event
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Being easily startled
  • Feelings of guilt or blame for the event
  • Outbursts of anger
  • Constant state of agitation/arousal  (not triggered by traumatic event reminder)
  • Event memory lapse
  • Negative thinking about self/world
  • Loss of interest in pleasure, family, or friends

PTSD symptoms can begin as early as three months post trauma or years after, occur for more than a month, and interfere with work, relationships, and daily tasks. A diagnosis of PTSD can be done by a trained medical professional, but leaders who have a greater understanding of the condition can aid in the recovery process.

What Leaders Need to Know about PTG

Post-traumatic growth (PTG) occurs through the struggle with adversity and results in a transformative, positive change. Based on the research published by Lawrence G. Calhoun and Richard G. Tedeschi in The Handbook of Posttraumatic Growth (Routledge, 2014), people who make meaning out of trauma:

  • Increase their sense of personal strength and ability to prevail
  • Improve their relationships and sense of belonging
  • Experience greater compassion
  • Deepen their sense of purpose and appreciation for life

Research also reveals the benefits of small support groups. These offer the opportunity to share our stories, an invaluable tool in PTG.

PTG at Work: What Managers Need to Know

Managers and team leaders can provide a psychologically safe-space where employees can share their stories, restore their wellbeing, and re-affirm their sense of purpose. Below are five key questions to help employees validate their experience and move forward constructively through the pandemic recovery:

  • What is your greatest loss as a result of the pandemic?
  • What is your greatest gain as a result of the pandemic?
  • What self-discoveries have you, or are you making as a result of the pandemic?
  • How can you apply your discoveries going forward? What would it look like?
  • What can you use to prompt you to apply your discovery? Specifically, what two words or phrase?

Remind your team to refrain from cross talk (don’t interrupt or comment on what someone else has said), as well as keeping what is shared confidential. You see, listening as “attentive companions” creates and holds a safe space for one another. When we use storytelling based on these questions, we express authenticity, vulnerability, and trust: for and in others.

Your Trauma Recovery:
What Employees Need to Know

As many return to pre-pandemic routines, trauma and trauma recovery are frequent topics of discussion. For some, the challenges have brought a new appreciation (and recognition) of personal strengths. They are exploring new possibilities personally and professionally.

If you’re not there yet, know you are not alone. Help is available. While post-traumatic growth (PTG) may happen naturally, there are steps you can take to facilitate the process.

Five Ways to Facilitate Growth after Trauma

A traumatic event is often shocking, scary, and sometimes, dangerous. It disrupts our beliefs and challenges our assumptions. Trauma can produce anxiety and repetitive thoughts.

  1. Educate: Trauma disrupts our beliefs, challenges our assumptions, and can be a catalyst of positive change. Consider where you might find positive impacts.
  2. Regulate emotions: Notice feelings as they occur. Then, determine what thoughts preceded negative feelings. Replace negative thinking with positive thoughts.
  3. Share your story: Talk about your experience: past and present.
  4. Create an authentic narrative: In what ways are you changing or have you grown? Where are new possibilities and opportunities?  
  5. Be of service: Helping others can renew our energy and help us find meaning.

Be patient with yourself. When you are ready, the effort is worth it: you are worth it. If you need help, ask your manager, a trusted mentor, or a qualified professional.

Inspirational Leadership

What does inspirational leadership look like in your organization? Let me ask: what impact do inspiring leaders have on performance, both organizationally, and at an individual level?

Consider this: while an employee’s mindset is important to their overall performance, without support from their leadership, even the most committed and motivated employee may not reach their potential. This became very clear during the pandemic, as studies now find. When uncertainty and anxiety are high, employees must have clear expectations and emotional support.

Unfortunately, some leaders have risen to the top through marketing or hype. They sway others to do as they ask (or command) with a lack of genuine concern for their well-being. As a result, there is a large degree of distrust and reluctance.

Conversely, inspiring leaders take action because of their care and concern for others. You see, inspirational leadership is not about being in charge, it’s about taking care of those in our charge. While rank or title may indicate leadership authority, they are not indicators of leadership ability.

Inspirational Leadership Can Be Developed

Inspiring leaders are often described by their innate traits, strengths, or title. Fundamentally, inspirational leadership is the ability to positively influence and/or motivate others. In today’s world, inspirational leadership is about connection: connecting with those you lead in ways that are meaningful to them.

You see, the relationships you create determine your abilities as an influencer. If you build trust and practice empathy in your relationships, you’ll create higher-quality connections. This may sound simple, but it poses certain challenges that require nuance and practice.

Fortunately, we can develop inspirational leadership. At the core is our ability to see those around us.

Why We Need Inspirational Leadership

In a 2017 survey recently published in Harvard Business Review, 85% of 14,500 workers across a variety of industries said they were not working at full potential. We know that external incentives or benefits alone are not enough to motivate workers. Great leaders inspire their people with why they do what they do, instead of the what and how.

When employees believe their work matters; when they have a purpose that aligns with the mission of the organization and their leader, they are more creative and productive. They care because their leaders skillfully communicate genuine care.

Engage the Heart and Mind

Great examples of this in action are those leaders who engage both the heart and mind. Consider the entire speech of Martin Luther King Jr. delivered on August 28, 1963. He didn’t begin with “I have a plan.” Nor did he open with the changes that needed to be made. He began by telling us why: why all people need to bond for a better future.

When we begin a communication with why, we engage the part of the brain most responsible for decision-making. It registers subconscious thoughts, lacks language, uses gut intuition, and is heavily influenced by feelings and drives for survival. When leaders share a greater cause and higher purpose, listeners are sifting, sorting, and deciding whether and how much to trust, and ultimately, commit. Then, leaders can focus on the how and what.

How Leaders Inspire (or Not)

The pressures of the pandemic have affected our communication. We’ve reverted to old school communication styles that are less effective: define the problem, analyze it, and recommend a solution.

If you want to inspire and motivate others, this approach does not work. Worse, it can create more problems. Employees who disagree, have other ideas, or ingrained habits won’t respond well to a perceived command and control order, or a lecture on beliefs.

Communication That Inspires

Leaders inspire their audience when they pay careful attention to communication details and understand the importance of:

  • Word choice
  • Patterns  of words
  • Order of patterns

In addition to words, the language of leadership is most effective when you:

  • Can share intelligent stories and narratives
  • Display appropriate, congruent body language
  • Demonstrate an understanding of the audience’s story and context

What Your Audience Wants to Hear

Most of our communication is done electronically (email, phone, video-conference, etc.) and people aren’t necessarily listening. Inspiring leaders understand this, and use four methods to grab focused attention.

  • Sharing a personal story or message – sharing “why”
  • Triggering emotion – sharing “how”
  • Presenting trustworthy data or reliable source – sharing “what”
  • Using concise language, without relying on jargon (i.e. industry specific terms, abbreviations, etc.)

The Role of Positive and Negative Messaging

Personal stories that trigger emotion are more than twice as likely to resonate with your audience. Negative messages are also more effective when they illustrate the seriousness of a problem, the trajectory, and how it was and can be overcome. However, negative messages can de-motivate people.

Positive messaging creates a desire to change and sparks imagination. Clear examples of how others are making a difference appeal to the heart, and the mind. This enables your audience to see the possibilities and create their own conclusions.

What Your Audience Needs to Hear

Inspirational leadership relies on the establishment of an emotional connection, as well as sound reasoning.

The Importance of Connection: At its core, inspirational leadership is about connection: connecting with those you lead in ways that are meaningful to them. The relationships you create determine your abilities as a motivator. For example, if you are empathic and establish trust in your relationships, you’ll create higher-quality connections.

Encourage individuals to speak truth to power. Create an environment where there is safe-space to share ideas, including disagreement and dissent. This enables greater collaboration and innovation.

The Importance of Compelling, Sound Reasoning: Any desire or willingness to change will wane unless it’s reinforced by compelling, sound reasons. Appeal to your audience in story forms that communicate:

  • Why: why the change is needed
  • What: what the change is and how it will impact them
  • How: the change will be implemented
  • Why this change will work: the sound reasoning

Inspirational leadership creates a scaffolding­—a catalyst for a creative process—that enables an audience to see the world for themselves, view their relationships in a new way, and make progress in reaching their full potential.