It was pitch dark and cold as we scrambled up Mount Batur at 4.30am.
We were in a rush to the top of the Volcano up in the Balinese highlands to see the spectacular sunrise that greets the people who endure the vigorous climb.
At full pelt, my lungs were straining to get more air and my leg and thigh muscles were beginning to feel the build-up of lactic acid. Being fit was helping but I was surprised that as different thoughts passed through my mind they had an immediate effect on my energy…
How is your thinking affecting your performance or the performance of your people?
If I thought about previous climbs where I had struggled, like when I was very ill with Giardia in the Himalayas, my strength waned significantly and I had to slow down, widening the gap with our guide.
When I noticed what was happening I focused on the moment: the flickering torchlight on the steep and dusty track, the cold air entering my lungs, the shape and feel of the rocks I had to carefully and quickly climb over, the spots of light from the village of Toya Bunka way down below…the more present I was to what was actually happening and not to where my mind was wandering my energy and strength returned.
It was very subtle but it made a big impression on me because during the intensity of the 1.5hr climb I had to focus my mind continuously on the moment and on the goal of seeing one of my favourite sights; the dawn light from the horizon melting from deep orange through turquoise and indigo into the dark inky blue of the night.
The climb was a great metaphor for life. How easily are you distracted and let your energy be drained by negative unhelpful thoughts? How vigilant are you at monitoring your thinking and the effects it has on your resourcefulness?
How aware are you of any drops in energy and how they link to what is on your mind? How is your thinking affecting your performance or the performance of your people?
The neuroscientists are now able to explain what is happening at very subtle levels…scientific research is showing how people with a positive mind-set have better levels of performance on many levels including productivity, creativity and engagement.
In a major analysis of 225 academic studies, researchers Sonja Lyubomirsky, Laura King, and Ed Diener found strong evidence of directional causality between life satisfaction and successful business outcomes.
Positivity is clearly linked to happiness and yet happiness is still one of the most misunderstood drivers of performance. Most people still believe that they will be happy only when something specific happens. “I’ll be happy when I get promoted…or when I hit my target”.
Once these things happen (if they do at all) the feeling of happiness is very fleeting because life moves on and there is always another target that needs to be achieved.
Real lasting happiness comes from cultivating ‘Positive Intelligence’. Consider for a moment the etymological root of the word intelligence – from the Latin ‘inter’ meaning between and ‘legencia’ meaning lines. This means it’s the ability to see what is between the lines; what is not explicit.
It’s about appreciating the little things and developing an inner knowing that you are being the best you can be and appreciating what you have.
Just like the best way to improve your personal sense of status is to be better (at anything you choose) today than you were yesterday, being happier is about practicing the things that stimulate positive neuro-transmitters like serotonin and oxytocin.
Developing new habits
Many people believe that happiness is dependent on a combination of our genetics and environment. These have an impact but the latest research in neuroscience shows that the brain is more malleable than was previously thought, even in adults.
This neuroplasticity means that you can change the way you think and therefore the way you feel. All it takes is some effort and a willingness to explore new habits because these new habits will re-wire your brain.
The researcher Shawn Achor did an experiment with Tax Managers at KPMG to see if he could help them become happier, and if that was not challenging enough, he chose to do it in 2008 just as the Banking Crises was in full swing. The results surprised him.
He asked them to choose one of 5 activities that are known to correlate with positive change:
- Jot down three things they were grateful for.
- Write a positive message to someone in their social support network.
- Meditate at their desk for two minutes.
- Exercise for 10 minutes.
- Take two minutes to describe in a journal the most meaningful experience of the past 24 hours.
In a recent article he went on to say: “The participants performed their activity every day for three weeks. Several days after the training concluded, we evaluated both the participants and a control group to determine their general sense of well-being. How engaged were they? Were they depressed?
"On every metric, the experimental group’s scores were significantly higher than the control group’s. When we tested both groups again, four months later, the experimental group still showed significantly higher scores in optimism and life satisfaction.
"In fact, participants’ mean score on the life satisfaction scale—a metric widely accepted to be one of the greatest predictors of productivity and happiness at work—moved from 22.96 on a 35-point scale before the training to 27.23 four months later, a significant increase.
"Just one quick exercise a day kept these Tax Managers happier for months after the training program had ended. Happiness had become habitual.”
To test yourself on the ‘Satisfaction with Life Scale’ used in the Achor’s experiment just click here. We’ll also send you some explanatory notes by Professor Ed Diener, the chap who developed it (My score is currently 31).
Food for thought
The vigorous climb up Mt. Batur was quite exhausting but as we got higher and left the treeline we could see the outline of the summit against the stars and that energised us even more.
Behind us the horizon was showing the first hints of light and as we got to the top we were rewarded with a perfectly clear view of the magnificent sunrise illuminating a band of high cirrus that changed from deep mauve to pink and created a perfect and very satisfying start to the day.
As a leader, manager (or parent) how effective are you at enhancing your own sense of happiness and satisfaction? How is your behaviour affecting the happiness and satisfaction of your people?
As with so many things in life it is all about the basics. Be clear about what you want to achieve and share it with others. Be clear about what you expect from others and provide plenty of feedback. Catch them doing things right – frequently!
Be humble enough to ask for feedback and be open to alternative ways of thinking so you avoid any blind spots. Listen to what your people really need and give it to them – or explain why you can’t provide it at this time.
What will it take for you to try one of the 5 activities above on a daily basis? I recently developed an ‘Introduction to Mindfulness’ programme and it is proving to be very popular. It contains a number of very simple exercises like the ones above that can help you develop new habits. If you would like to access it just click here.
David Klaasen is director of performance improvement consultancy, Inspired Working.
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