Happiness is very different from survival. The human machine - our bodies and minds - evolved to increase the chances of our survival and the continuation of our genes and our species.
The mechanisms that helped us to survive don't promote happiness. In fact many mechanisms that helped us survive do just the opposite - they make us unhappy. They also promote illness and a loop of perpetual stress. Here are some examples:
Negativity Bias - this is the tendency to see or seek out possible dangers in any given situation. The mind evolved this capability in order to protect us from danger - real or imagined. Better to imagine a danger that isn't there than to miss a danger that is. By being ever vigilant to danger, we prevent ourselves from being eaten by bears. We also increase our own tendency to see the negative side of our client's request for changes and that new corporate policy.
Fight or Flight Hormones - These are hormones that are put into the body when you are under stress. They help you handle short term bursts of danger, but they cause long term break down of the body's systems. They were designed to be introduced when very significant immediate stressors were placed on an individual to power survival, they did not evolve to meet the demands of day-to-day stress of the modern work place where fighting or fleeing is not terribly useful.
Chaotic Heart and Breathing Rhythms - this was also part of the fight or flight response and it evolved to AVOID the use of higher brain functions in times of immediate physical danger. When heart and breathing become chaotic they suppress higher brain function, this is why we may feel like our brain is not helping us out when we are 'on the spot' or 'on stage'. This is because the stress is causing erratic heart and breathing rhythms which impair our higher brain function.
The good news is that we understand all of these things now. We know that it is happening and we can do something about it.
The trouble is there isn't a traditional class you can take or procedure to address these things. They're emotional and physical and you must practice self-awareness in order to be aware that they are happening to you and do something about it.
The last two points come from Coherence by Dr. Alan Watkins, which I am currently reading. It is an excellent book and I recommend picking up a copy if you are interested in the human condition, physiology, business leadership, and the overlap of all those things.
I've been meditating and using focused attention training techniques for all of 2017 and a little more than 1 year in total. So, I decided to reflect back on how that year has gone, what I've got out of the practice, and what I've learned so far.
I describe my journey in the steps below. I hope it will be valuable to others who might be considering meditation. While I'm focused on business leadership in particular, I hope my list will be useful to anyone in terms of what you can get out of meditation. In particular I'm talking about the question: How can meditation help you? It's a personal activity, but here, described in detail, is how it helped it me.
Why does that matter? Well it matters because I often see 'improved focus' or 'stress reduction' as benefits. So, then how - exactly how - does that work? My answers are below.
As a leader I feel it's important for me to frame this in one more way. As a leader you deal with stressful situations at work. Most of us can handle these types of situations, if you couldn't handle them you wouldn't be a leader or manager very long. But after 10 years in management in several different organizations, I was unhappy with my stress management techniques and wanted something better.
So I decided to try mindfulness and it has had a big impact on me in one year. I recommend it.
Without further ado, here are the ways in which I feel meditation has helped me this year. These go in roughly chronological order as they happened during the year:
Almost immediately I began to be able to see an emotional reaction coming and to distance myself from it, if only slightly. This was imperfect (it didn't work all the time) but it was consistent enough to be noticable, and it has improved in consistency over time.
By being aware of my reaction I began to see that I was making a situation more about me than was really necessary. Is this person upset? Well, yes, but they're really just looking for help and I know how to help them. By focusing my thinking in this way I could get even more distance and be more effective in high-stress situations by focusing clearly on the problem.
Understanding the connection to The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. This book is an important tool and framework I've used in my career long before I started to practice meditation. The foundation of the Seven Habits is to be proactive. There's a lot more on this topic in this blog post, but suffice it to say, I see meditation as a useful tool to understand your responses to events and improve your ability to be proactive (and not reactive) in response. Meditation allows you an ability to practice this awareness in an offstage way. This is an extension of 1 and 2 to some extent, but for me it is a useful extension that places my practice in a broader context. It's also a useful way in talking about this topic with colleagues.
In Andrew's class I learned about Negativity Bias - this helped me understand some of the why behind the reactions that I was having. It isn't that I'm a pessimist. My brain is built to identify negative (and potentially negative) situations. This is an evolutionary adaptation which served early man well, and kept them from being eaten by bears, but it needs to have some regulation to be useful to a modern person. It is very helpful to be aware of this fact and no when Negatiiy Bias is in play.
I began to be able to predict some of the time when I was headed into a situation that might produce an emotional response. This allowed me a little bit of forethought on how I would handle this situation and the possible stress responses I might have.
Working on Positivity Bias. By reading Hardwiring Happiness I was able to not only identify Negativity Bias but to actually work toward adding Positivity Bias. This is achieved by focusing on positive experiences and success and more fully integrating them into our conscious and subconscious minds.
The Waste of Worry. I know that people trust a worrier - someone who is obviously aware of possible future implications is often considered more trustworthy than a person who seems unaware, even if their lack of awareness makes them confident. This is useful up to a point, but also puts a wasteful burden of stress on people worrying about things more than is necessary.
As it relates to number 7, I don't have a final resolution to perfect balance. I can counteract some of the stress from it and help others to do so, but it is useful sometimes. As I work on it I hope to integrate it both for myself and help my team. I want to balance the necessary concern and planning that is crucial to individual, business, and societal success with more tools to keep that in its proper place.
After a year of meditating, I feel that mindfulness practice has helped me to manage stress better than I could without it. But stress reduction has been achieved through the advancements listed above, not on it's own as a separate outcome.
Here's hoping that 2018 will be a great year with further refinement and improvement of the abilities listed above and new discoveries as well.
I am really enjoying it which is why I am sharing this before I'm even half done.
The book digs into Negativity Bias (which I've written about before here) and the reasons why it exists. AND, it provides you with ways to combat it and develop help develop Positivity Bias.
The exercises/practices it provides are related to mindfulness practices but are even simpler to get started with. The tools this book provides are designed to specifically attack Negativity Bias by changing your brain to be more receptive to positive experiences and hold onto them longer.
So, while these simple practices are behavioral (they are things that you decide to do and you develop the habits of doing them), the goal is much more than that, the goal is changing your brain.
This is pretty exciting and you can get started with them quite easily.
As a leader this is a crucial tool to develop if it doesn't come naturally to you. And Negativity Bias tells us that it won't come easy to most of us.
Andrew is extremely knowledgeable and has been developing his mindfulness curriculum over the last few years.
His corporate mindfulness sessions emphasize focused attention training, awareness, managing negativity bias, and stress management. He really helps you get at the underpinnings of what mindfulness is, how it works in your brain, and how it can help you.
As a leader you're trying to effect change in your organization.
So, what do you do when you run across this:
This change is wrong. Why are you doing this thing that damages our culture? Before you make any changes you should have consulted the whole organization.
Let me say first, if you actually get this question, consider yourself lucky. It means people trust you and you have made some progress already. You also may not hear it. But many will be thinking it as you try to make changes and improvements.
You have change occurring in your company (who doesn't). This person is looking at it and their brain is processing the information. The first thing it is going to do is look for threats. Evolution has programmed us this way.
"Where is the bear?" this person's brain is saying, "If there's a bear around here. I don't want to get eaten."
Of course, there isn't a bear (hopefully) but our brain is going to look anyway. Specifically, this is being done by primitive parts of our brain that don't handle logical reasoning.
So, you can't reason with it. Not really.
Things you should do:
Respond with empathy
Give people space to process.
Things you shouldn't do:
Don't tolerate overt negativity or poison attitudes in group settings. Take people out of rooms if they seem to be going overboard.
Don't react strongly to concern or fear.
Don't go into authoritarian "Do it because I said so." mode.
Depending on the stage you're in, questioning can mostly be encouraged. Questions can make a policy or change better.
People do come around to positive intent, but they need time and you need to encourage them to consider things from different angles.
Your focus as a leader should be answering questions, not reacting strongly to negative emotions, and listening to concerns.
Now, when a manager or another leader sees this and says, "Why can't so-and-so assume positive intent?" You now know the answer - we're programmed not to.
If you really want to tackle this head on, a mindfulness program can take you far. It gets at the root of the fundamental issue and helps people understand their brains better.
They'll still experience negativity bias. You can't stop that. But they can be better prepared to handle it.