“Our people are under constant pressure, working 24/7, facing impossible demands,” the head of human resources at a global consultancy tells me.
Who isn’t these days? Stress has become a given in the workplace, with people taking fewer vacation days than ever, and staying tethered to work by their smartphones wherever they go, whatever time of day. Stress is the new normal.
So here’s the test. When a particularly stressful event comes along – a colleague, or, worse, your boss, blows up at you, say – how long do you stay upset? Do you fret about that upsetting encounter for hours, wake up worrying about it that night, ruminate for days?
Or can you drop it soon after, focusing on what you’ve got to get done?
The amount of time a stressful event preoccupies you afterword marks how well or poorly you can recover – and that’s the key to the resiliency found in the most successful people, according to research by Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin.
Resilient people bounce back, no matter what happens. Instead of their body carrying the symptoms of constant stress and their minds tied up in knots, they are able to return to a relaxed calm even after the most upsetting events.
Davidson finds that such stress resiliency has a brain basis. And some people seem blessed with this capacity from birth, while others have a lifelong history of worry and preoccupation.
The good news: we can all change for the better. It just takes spending time each day in the mental gym, exercising the mental muscles for focus and concentration. As research at Emory University shows, the longer people have engaged in such mental workouts daily, the more quickly their mind can drop a distraction or upsetting thought and return to a better target, topic, or task.
In my emotional intelligence model, this comes down to using self-awareness to enhance our emotional self-management. When I interviewed the Dalai Lama for my book A Force For Good, he used the term “emotional hygiene,” or getting our distress under control. We all understand the need for physical hygiene, he points out – so why not the emotional kind, too?
There’s a simple way to increase our recovery time from stress, as research at Davidson’s lab and many others shows: rehearse letting go of our thoughts and returning our attention to a chosen topic. That mental move is the essence of mindfulness, or any other meditation.
In my own research at Harvard on this, I found that people who meditated recovered more quickly from a stressful challenge later. I start my own day with such an inner workout.
After hearing all this empirical evidence, that head of HR at that stressed-out consultancy invited me to their headquarters. He wanted me to explain mindfulness-based emotional intelligence to their teams – and show them how to meditate.