By Art Markman, Ph.D. for YouBeauty.com
Sitting at a coffee shop in downtown Austin recently, I overhead two women at the table behind me. One was talking about how stressed she was at work. There were new responsibilities and endless deadlines. She concluded by saying, "I just want to be happy."
I think this lament is common. The workplace has always been stressful. These days, many companies ask employees to do more with less. Support staff has been cut to a minimum. For global companies, it seems as though the workday never really ends, because business is always open somewhere.
So, if stress is making us miserable, then less stress will make us happy, right?
Not exactly. It turns out, it is trickier to get from stress to happiness than you might think. To understand why, it is important to learn more about these emotions.
Emotions arise from our interpretation of the feelings we have. There are three key dimensions of emotions that we need to distinguish: valence, arousal and motivation.
Valence is whether the feeling is positive or negative. Stress is clearly negative, while happiness is positive.
Arousal is the strength of the feeling. Think: excitement versus boredom. Stress is often a low arousal emotion, though sometimes it can be particularly strong. Happiness is also generally low arousal, though there can be moments of great joy.
Motivation refers to the particular motivational system that is active. We have two motivational systems. The approach system becomes active when there is something that we are trying to pursue. The avoidance system is active when there are potential negative consequences that we are trying to prevent.
You feel stress when the avoidance system is active. At work, responsibilities and deadlines reflect negative consequences you are trying to avoid, and so they engage the avoidance system. When you are concerned that you may not successfully avoid a problem, then you experience a negative emotion. The bigger the consequences, the stronger the emotion, the higher your stress.
Happiness differs from stress in two key ways. First, happiness involves engagement of the approach system. And second, it is a positive feeling rather than a negative one. Happiness is not, therefore, the absence of stress. It is actually two dimensions away.
That means that if you want to turn stress into happiness, you have to take two (often very big) steps. First, you must shift from avoiding negative outcomes (i.e. disengage the avoidance system) to pursuing positive ones (activating the approach system). Then, you need to pursue your positive goals until you succeed. Therein lies true happiness.
And if you need some help fitting those big picture contributions into your work life, check out the Smart Change Journal. Use it to chart your path to happiness. You're going to need to stop living from crisis to crisis if you want to find happiness. If you're stressed out at work, figure out what disasters you are trying to avert. Then, spend some time thinking about the big picture goals you want to achieve at work, such as making a bigger contribution or earning a promotion. Focus on those desirable outcomes and go after them.