As I’ve been in at client sites in the past couple of weeks, I have started to feel the energy change. There’s a mix of frenetic activity, high stress, some exhaustion, and a little bit of apathy mixed in for good measure. Everyone has so much to achieve and so little time to do it before the big bearded man arrives late December, and emotions are starting to frazzle.
We all know Christmas is supposed to be a time of celebration, spending time with family and friends, giving, and generally quite a lot of eating (and maybe drinking). However, what happens in the lead up to Christmas can really affect our ability to retain our ‘Christmas Cheer’.
As we get stressed at this time of year with so much going on, we often react on auto-pilot, and our body has a flight or fight response. If our body suspects a threat, it releases the chemicals adrenalin and cortisol, triggering the feeling part of the brain before the thinking part can act. This often causes us to ‘react’ rather than giving us time to fire the neocortex in the brain, which assists us with empathy, flexibility, decision making and skilful thinking. These responses can lead to negative moods or extreme stress, causing chronic sympathetic arousal in our body, impacting on all aspects of our health including our immune system, heart, digestion, sleep, muscles, bones, the brain and nervous system (Bradberry & Greaves, 2009; OpenGround, 2016). Imagine trying to digest Christmas lunch when this is happening in your body!
So, what happens if we are able to be more ‘response-able’ with our emotions, choosing how to respond rather than react and to focus on the positives, rather than only the negatives in the situation? Funnily enough, this is not just the ‘warm and fuzzies’, there’s actually quite a lot of research to explain the benefits to our health and wellbeing, as well as our productivity at work (and our Christmas organisation!) if we’re able to induce a positive mental state.
One of the well-known theories to emerge from this space is ‘Broaden and Build’ by Barbara Frederickson. Frederickson has been able to show that there are two core truths about positive emotions. The first is that when you are in a positive state, you are more likely to ‘broaden’ the thought-action repertoires that are available to you. What this means is that the boundaries shift and you literally take in more from a visual perspective, you scan for more information and open your awareness to more possibilities. This in turn promotes more creative ideas and actions, which assists you to ‘build’ your personal resources (including physical, intellectual, social and psychological). Studies have shown more creativity, resilience, and an increase in performance when positive emotions have been induced prior to particular tasks (Fredrickson, 2004).
In addition, Shawn Achor (2018, p.126) explains that what we say and do tells our brain what to focus on, and what we focus on tells our brains what to repeat. So, if we focus on the positive, we are likely to see more positives and repeat this pattern, and if we focus on the negative, we’re more likely to see more negatives and repeat this pattern. Unfortunately, neuroscience has shown that in the absence of positive feedback, we will naturally go straight to the negative and perceive criticism that is not actually there (Achor 2018, p.127). Think about this for a minute; at work, if we’re getting no positive feedback, we’re likely to perceive that things are negative and something is wrong. Not great huh, especially when things are so frenetic.
What does this all of this mean? Where we are able to induce positive emotions in ourselves and others (love, joy, interest, contentment etc) we can amplify our ability to see more possibilities, increasing the chances of creativity, problem solving and higher performance in the workplace. Isn’t this exactly what we all need right now in the pressure cooker that is the lead up to Christmas?
So, the question is, how do we do this?
There are a few easy things you can do to improve your mood, which will in turn help you focus on the positives.
Each day, ask yourself; what’s going right, what are you grateful for, what are you looking forward to? Focus on how you describe your day to yourself and others; the more you explain your reality through positive observations, the more likely it is you can change your experience of the world around you AND as your mood is contagious, it will also affect those you come into contact with.
Another simple way to improve your mood is to smile! Smiles help to reduce stress and instantly effect positive emotions (Finzi, 2013). A genuine smile, called a Duchenne smile, involves two muscles in the face which raise the corners of the mouth and wrinkle the corner of the eyes like crow’s feet. One longitudinal study looked at photos of young women in their college yearbook and divided the women into groups as showing a Duchenne smile, a ‘say-cheese’ smile or no smile. Up to 30 years later the women who were smiling a true Duchenne smile in these photos were happier, had higher wellbeing and more positive marriages (Harker & Keltner, 2001). And who doesn’t want a little more joviality and HO HO HO at this time of year?
So, take some time to notice how you’re thinking about what’s happening and reframe this to focus on some of the positive aspects of your day. Apply Broaden and Build Theory at work – think about how to open a meeting with positivity to get everyone in the right mood; the team will be more open, creative and see more possibilities. Genuinely smile at your family and your colleagues.
Go on, I dare you, spread some Christmas Cheer!
Achor, S. (2018) Big Potential: Five secrets of reaching higher by powering those around you. Random House.
Bradberry, T., & Greaves, J. (2009). Emotional Intelligence 2.0. TalentSmart: San Diego.
Fredrickson, B. L. (2004). The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 359(1449), 1367.
Finzi, E. (2013). The face of emotion: How Botox affects our moods and relationships. St. Martin’s Press.
Harker, L. and Keltner, D. (2001). Expressions of positive emotion in women’s college yearbook pictures and their relationship to personality and life outcomes across adulthood. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 80(1):112-124.
Open Ground (2016). Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction: A Resilience Training Coursebook; 8th Edition, OpenGround Training and Consulting.