Happiness researcher Shawn Achor shares five evidence-based methods for nurses to raise their levels of happiness and rational optimism.
Starting May 6, the annual wishes of "Happy Nurses Week," will begin as National Nurses Week gets underway once again.
Last year, I wrote about intangible gifts such as thoughtfulness, compassion, or mentoring that nurses have given and received throughout their careers. This year I'd like to talk about a gift nurses can give themselves—happiness.
Back in March, I attended happiness researcher Shawn Achor's opening keynote session at the American Organization of Nurse Executives' 2016 conference in Fort Worth, TX. It was a not a Pollyanna speech about putting on a smile no matter what and [Beyoncé notwithstanding] making lemons out of lemonade.
Instead Achor, whose research is rooted in positive psychology, focused on the science behind happiness, how it influences many aspects of our lives, and the steps we can take to cultivate it. It's a topic that's been getting a lot of attention over the last few days. Last week, the Harvard School of Public Health announced it will launch an academic Center for Health and Happiness.
"All this research comes down to three conclusions," Achor told the crowd. "Scientifically, happiness is a choice. Scientifically, happiness is an advantage, improving every single one of our business and educational outcomes and many of our health outcomes, and happiness is extraordinarily contagious."
More Than a Feeling
To be clear, Achor points out, happiness is not synonymous with pleasure.
"As soon as I start talking about happiness, most people actually get the wrong idea," he says. "They immediately start thinking we're talking about pleasure—like you have to have a smile all the time or work always has to be fun."
Rather, he says, we should define happiness as the ancient Greeks did. "They defined happiness as the joy you feel moving toward our potential together," Achor explains.
And joy, he says, is something we can experience even when life is not pleasurable. "In the midst of working long hours, trying to care for other people, [is] not going to be pleasurable, but you can actually feel joy that you are helping them reach their health potential," he says.
I'm happy—well, maybe appreciative is a better word—he made this distinction. There are many aspects of nursing that are not so pleasurable, like when a patient dies or gets a difficult diagnosis, or when you have to miss out on holiday celebrations because you have to work. But, if you follow some of Achor's principles, you can find joy and positivity in those situations.
For example, you can feel honored that you were able to be part of something as intimate as the dying process. You can have pride that you were there to help guide someone in understanding a frightening diagnosis. You can feel connection to your fellow nurses when you all bring dishes to share with each other during the inevitable holiday shift.
Even those prone to pessimism can recalibrate their brains to achieve what Achor describes as "rational optimism."
"Rational optimism doesn't start with rose-colored glasses. Rational optimism starts with a realistic assessment of the present, but throughout that process you maintain the belief that your behavior matters," he says.
In other words, rather than pretending a problem doesn't exist or, alternatively, assuming a problem is permanent, a rational optimist acknowledges a problem and takes steps to fix it.
Cultivating the Happiness Habit
A person's optimism or pessimism hinges more on the lens through which they view the world versus external circumstances or genes, Achor says.
If you train your brain to look for mistakes and errors, then that is what your brain scans the world for first.
And yes, nurses must be on alert for potential errors because catching them before they happen can mean the difference between life and death. But they need to take care that this vigilance in spotting the negative doesn't ooze out into the rest of their lives to negatively shape interactions friends, colleagues, and loved ones.
"Our brains become whatever we practice," he says. "If we can find some way of helping people become more positive… it takes the cap off our potential for happiness but also human potential at every level—our creativity, our energy levels, our resilience."
By doing at least one of these five simple habits—most of which take less than two minutes—for 21 days in a row, you can develop a sense of optimism and happiness, Achor says.
Write down three new things you are grateful for each day and be specific about why you are grateful for them. If you simply say you're grateful for work, family, and health the habit won't have an effect. But Achor says, "If I say I'm grateful for my son Leo, he gave me a hug last night which means I'm worth love," that will raise optimism levels.
After employees at American Express implemented this habit for 21 days, Achor found that by day 22, those who originally tested as low-level pessimists began testing as low-level optimists.
Think of one positive experience you had over the past 24-hours and write four details about that experience. This helps your brain stamp the memory as meaningful and allows it to relive the positive experience a second time.
"This is the fastest and cheapest intervention we've found for raising engagement scores at companies worldwide," Achor says. Expressive writing, such as this can affect health outcomes, as well. Achor says research has found that when patients with chronic neuromuscular disease engaged in expressive writing, they were able to decrease the use of pain medication sometimes by as much as 50%.
Do an enjoyable cardio-activity for 15 minutes. Achor says your brain records exercise as a victory and this feeling of accomplishment transfers to other tasks throughout the day. "People who exercise for 15 minutes a day in the morning, even briskly walking a dog, are better at dealing with their inbox in the middle of the day," he says.
While at work, take your hands off the keyboard once a day and pay attention to your breath going in and out for two minutes, Achor suggests. When Google employees did this exercise, the company saw significant results.
"21 days later, their accuracy rates improved by 10%, their levels of happiness rose, and their engagement scores rose significantly," he says. Though the perks of free food and exercise equipment may attract employees to work there, that's not what keeps them at Google for the long haul.
"Once they're there, [the external environment] doesn't sustain engagement after the first six weeks," Achor says. "What they find sustains engagement better than anything is their mindfulness training."
5.Conscious Act of Kindness
Take two minutes to write an email, praising or thanking one person you know. Much like the gratitude exercise, it must be a different person each day and the email must be authentic and specific about why you appreciate them.
"Social connection is the greatest predictor of long-term happiness we have," he says. "It trumps everything else we do."
And, as an added bonus, you'll get "people writing back about how great they think you are," Achor says.
I encourage you to celebrate Nurses Week by starting one of these habits on May 6 and continuing it for 21 days, as Achor recommends. Make it a happy Nurses Week by become a happy nurse.
Jennifer Thew, RN, is the senior nursing editor at HealthLeaders.