Caroline Webb is a thought-leading economist, leadership coach and author of the neuroscience-backed book, How To Have A Good Day. Here are her key steps to improving your chances of saying a cheery ‘Great!’ when asked: ‘So how was your day at work?’
1. Choose your filters
The part of our brain responsible for reasoning, self-control and planning has only so much attention to give to our complex world. So as we go through the day, our brain prioritizes whatever seems most worthy of its attention, while screening out anything that doesn’t seem important. This filtering happens without us being aware of it, and it’s central to our brain’s ability to cope with the complexity of the world. But sometimes our brain filters out stuff that is not irrelevant.
A lot of the work that I do is to help people be more aware of the filters that they’re setting. There’s a very basic rule of thumb that our brain follows: if something is already top of mind for us, the brain will make sure that we see things that resonate with that – whether it’s our aims, our attitude or our assumptions. So we want to be very deliberate about our starting point in any conversation, because it’s really going to affect what seems to happen to us.
If we go into a conversation with someone whom we expect is going to be a jerk, our brain will make sure that we see all the evidence that confirms that that person is indeed a jerk. They may well be, but we may also miss the one moment where they’re being more helpful, more open-minded or more collaborative. Our brain is perfectly capable of filtering that out unless we’re deliberate in saying at the beginning, ‘You know what? This person may be a bit difficult, but this is what I’m going to go in and look for: I’m going to look for that moment of possible collaboration.’
It’s very important to be aware of the fact that we do have this incomplete, subjective view of reality, but we have some degree of control over what we perceive and what seems to happen to us.
2. Fake it till you make it
Research shows that there’s a two-way feedback loop in the nervous system that connects our brain and body. The mental-to-physical side of this flow is familiar to us. For example, we know that when our minds are relaxed and happy, we tend to breathe and smile more easily. It also goes the other way.
This is one of the areas of research that’s been under the most scrutiny, but what we do know for sure is that our brains are very highly associative. So if you hear a song that reminds you of a great night out with friends or family, it puts you in a good mood. It triggers the same mental state that you had when you first heard that song. The same is true when you think about physical stances that you associate with feeling confident or with feeling calm.
I think the physiological evidence is still mixed, but the associative evidence says that if there’s something that makes you feel calm and strong and confident, then do that thing, and it will feed back onto your mental state. For some people this might mean listening to a particular song. For others it might mean standing tall and proud. For me, smiling makes a big difference. If I haven’t smiled for a while, I feel that my face is a little bit frozen and I take the time to find a reason to smile, and then I notice the feedback loop on my body and my mind. That’s very powerful, and very helpful.
3. Reward yourself
When you score a success, do you stop to congratulate yourself? Most people don’t. We tend to bank successes without too much reflection, because our attention is naturally drawn to the things that didn't work so well.
Evolutionarily, it was very helpful for us to be exquisitely sensitive to things that were not going well. You want to be really, really aware of the sabre-toothed tiger that’s running towards you. That’s actually more important than just about anything else, and that’s why we’re very sensitive to what our brain perceives as a threat. But the things that our brains perceive as threats are pretty broad: it’s not just physical threats. It’s anything that undermines our sense of self-worth or affects our social standing. That means we’re surrounded by little things that put our brains slightly on the defensive, every day, all the time.
The challenge is that when our brain is on the defensive, it’s launching some kind of fight, flight or freeze defensive response. When it’s doing that, there’s less activity in the brain’s prefrontal cortex, which is the more sophisticated part of the brain that’s responsible for our more careful thinking. As a result, everyday life can very readily make you slightly duller than when you’re at your best.
It’s really helpful to be aware of this and to know that you need to reset the balance a little bit. The more you can get your brain focused on what you’re doing well and what’s going well, the less likely you’re going to be on the defensive, and the more likely you are to be your best self: better able to think clearly, to be generous and expansive and creative. What this means in practice in everyday life, is just taking stock from time to time and saying, ‘What is going well?’ At the end of the day, it’s about saying: ‘OK, today might not have been the most perfect day, but what did go well?’ That’s something I do with my husband every evening, and it’s one small intervention that makes the biggest difference in my life. We’ll take stock and look back on what was good about the day. It resets the balance, reduces the sense of threat, and amplifies the sense of reward.
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We sat down with economist, leadership coach and global productivity expert Caroline Webb to get insights from her book, How To Have A Good Day, and some neuroscientific 'brain hacks' to help you flourish at work – both mentally and emotionally.