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.
Jennifer Thew, RN, is the senior nursing editor at HealthLeaders.