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Archive for the ‘Wellbeing’ Category

Within a turbulant economy and in the midst of an individualist culture, people feel the pressure to find different ways to make themselves an appealing investment for a company. When the social loses its significance in joint creation of wellbeing, people turn to themselves for help. People seek to better themselves in a number of ways during their free time as well as at work. A somewhat ridiculous example of the pressure for self-development and self-help on the modern information worker are the gyms offering treadmills not with TV shows to lookat but simultaneous brain training games. Sounds appealing, enhance your cognitive capacity AND do your cardio at the same time!

Extremes aside, people do invest a lot of time and effort into becoming better and feeling better at what they do. In essence, this is a positive trend, highlighting personal responsibility and ability in self-development. However, with all the offerings and help for self-improvement out there, one may get a little lost, like in the gym example above.

How do you know when and what type of self-development is needed? A simple answer is: when contentment ends. When viewed from an environmental perspective, sometimes there are rules in play that force action that is not good for you or at the end for the environment. This is the case for instance when an employee has to work in an organization according to rules that she feels are not supporting her best efforts; lord knows how many people are at the moment doing for example work in a manner they know is not their best, in unsatisfactory circumstances, or with people they feel are not helping. However, there is no need to succumb to the situation. These are moments where the rules have reached their limits, they are inadequate and do not serve a purpose. These situations open a window of possibility for change: the possibility to take a step back, observe the situation, revise and transcend.

It is quite easy to notice rules and restrictions in your operating environment that make you unhappy and inhibit your success. Discontent about your own actions or thought processes is however easily subdued or avoided. Noticing what inhibits yourself from being better in your surroundings as well as in your own thoughts is vital for going forward. There is no reason people could not step back, observer, revise and transcend in their own minds as well.

What is it that separates highly successful individuals, excellent performance or wellbeing from their opposites? Luck or circumstance, the predispositions caused by individual genetic makeup and the environment, such as the networks we choose to belong to and build, all play their part. However the individual is not a dummy but a willful agent in the world. What are the actions that a person can take that help reach excellence and be better?

It seems that in the end te answer is very simple – reaching good quality and continuing development require: 1) challenging your own views about what you are doing 2) recognizing points of discontentment 3) making a conscious effort to do things better and 3) using your time correctly. Seems pretty manageable. But when looking at the popularity of services and consultation telling people to do just this, it also seems we need some help in the process.

The thing that connects most self-development programs, psychotherapies, meditation, yoga, life-coaching and career counseling, basically anything that promises you development, wellbeing, problem solving is that they aim at making use of the mind is “a combinatorial and recursive system” with the metacognitive capacity to have thoughts about thoughts as well as thoughts about thoughts about thoughts (you can continue this sentence for as far as your metacognitive capacity permits).

Recognizing and developing this particular cognitive capacity would be the first step for any person aiming at developing either outer or inner faculties. It would help in all the steps needed: noticing where and how things could be better in your own actions, understanding what is needed for improvement, what you do not yet know and how you could find this information as well as finding ways to motivate yourself into action. It seems that the power for becoming better is an innate faculty and one that to a great length defines human nature. Without clear and insuperable environmental or deeply rooted genetic obstacles for development, we find there are no more excuses…

 

 

Thank you Linda Nordberg and Vesa Putkinen

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Photo credit: ZeroOne, Flickr

According to a case study by Jarmo Suominen at MIT on campus mobility, creative thinking and new discovery does not solely happen in labs, meeting rooms or classes but all the more in leisurely and informal places like out at a park where people go out for picnic lunches. In general, a big theme in the explanation of innovative thinking and creative information intensive work is “encounter”. People seem to be at their most creative when around and in contact to others. New ideas come about in relaxed settings and in contact.

What does fruitful encounter require? As it seems, the surroundings matter. Although a work place may have designated rooms for interaction around work subjects, the most rewarding and rich places for coming up with new ideas are ones that are less obvious, or ones that do not deliberately try to direct people’s thinking towards work. These places include coffee shops, lunch restaurants or parks where colleagues can easily get to from the work place and that aren’t specifically built and designed for efficient working. They are also places where people across business areas and departments can meet, share information and create unusual connections. As work places and offices typically aim at getting cost-effective solutions from human beings as well as the office solutions, what people are mostly surrounded by may not be the most fruitful place for creative thinking.

What do the places that spur on creative thinking have in common? Coffee shops, parks, bars and restaurants are designed for recreation and pleasure. They aim at helping people enjoy themselves in each others’ company, have their needs met, making people feel relaxed, safe and at peace. These spaces are not designed for containing, controlling and streamlining the use of human resources, they are meant to produce good feeling. One way they do this is by supporting relaxation through a combination of thought-out choices and structure but at the same time freedom of choice for the customer. When entering a park of coffee shop, the person can freely choose where to sit, what to do although the surroundings obviously permit only a limited set of actions. Through relaxation, feeling of safety and satisfaction, people can enter into encounters through a positive and energetic mindset.

If a company wishes to support the creativity of its employees and coming  up with innovative new products is a core function, it may be unwittingly be working against these goals through tightly set boundaries for work time and work place. Most employers may think that it is not their responsibility to be there for employees’ “recreation and pleasure”. Employers are however required to provide work tools and other requisites for completing the work they are asking employees to do. The main question here is: is the office a good tool for creative work?

The need to control processes and streamline human action as part of production may have lead to environments that stifle new thought. A process can be defined as repetition of a function that has been defined beforehand. If a company wishes to create something new, they need to free their employee minds from previously defined processes and environments that encourage repetition towards freer interaction and thought.  Making offices more leisurely, personalized and relaxed may be one way to increase creativity at the workplace. At a minimum, it is essential to make sure that people are situated at the office so that are able to relax, concentrate and yet freely interact. This is something that sounds simple, but when you think about how offices are typically arranged, there are a lot of small things that could be changed with big results. For instance, the open office where people sit behind each other creates a, evolutionarily understandable feeling of insecurity – someone can be lurking behind your back.

Nevertheless, even though the office could be transformed to resemble a coffee shop, it will still not be as spontaneous as the outdoors. In the search for new ideas that produce new connections, chance and randomness are important.  Allowing more choice about work places and supporting voluntary, undefined out-of-the -office encounters and engagements with other people is one way for companies to support creative thinking.

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The importance of recovery from work-related stress in supporting personal wellbeing has been widely researched in health and organizational psychology. The mechanisms for recovery can be divided into psychological detachment, relaxation, mastery and experiencing control. The recently held annual Psychology Congress of Finland provided detailed insight especially about the mechanisms and effects of psychological detachment in relieving job related stress. The information in this text about psychological detachment and its effects on wellbeing is based on the articles and work of Dr Sabine Sonnetag.

Psychological detachment can simply be defined as not thinking about work-related issues after work hours. The relationship between detachment and wellbeing has been thoroughly researched as well as the characteristics of different kinds of employees and the ways they handle work related stress. The relationship between detachment and wellbeing is evident through for instance decrease in fatigue and negative affect. Detachment is especially important when job demands and time pressure are high. However, it has been found that employees who highly identify themselves with their work, and could thus be expected to also experience high job demands and time pressure, do not use detachment as a way to relieve job stress as much as people with less personal identification with work. It seems that the people most in need of the protective influence of detachment have a relationship to work that makes detaching somewhat impossible.

When thinking about modern information intensive work that pervades the typical limits of working hours and places, it may be that it will present individuals with increasing challenges for recovery from stress by detachment. What to do when work is no longer defined by work hours and work roles that can be isolated from other facets of life? Is high job-related stress inevitable when people find work in which they wish to immerse?

It seems intuitively reasonable that thinking about work related matters during non-work time, or failing at detachment, may increase experience of work-related stress. However, the pathological nature of work-related thoughts is difficult to comprehend: What is the difference between thinking about a concept that has to do with what you do for a living than for instance one about your leisure time interests? Is the pathology of work-related thinking created more by loss of control over thought processes than the contents of the thoughts themselves?

Loss of control over thoughts is a characteristic of the mind that is already noted as a factor in many mental illnesses. Increasing control over thought processes is a major goal of many psychotherapies and as a part of metacognition a vital cognitive process in learning and intelligent human function. Increasing metacognitive awareness and skills could provide a way for busy people to support wellbeing despite high immersion in work. Especially activation of negative work-related thoughts has been connected with increased fatigue and negative affect. Using metacognitive skills and control to stop negative thought cycles about work-related issues, identifying the most important things to think about and recognizing their influence on emotions and wellbeing would provide concrete and powerful internal tools to support stress management in lack of possibilities for detachment.

What could help in creating a sense of detachment in highly engaging information intensive work is finding a new way of thinking about work. People’s lives are in any case filled with a constantly transforming mass of subject matters and tasks. Some tasks and subjects are defined as work and people are rewarded money for letting these take up their time and brain activity. Some for instance have to do with hobbies and can activate a person and take up time and energy without any direct monetary consequences. A person’s work can in itself contain profuse tasks and subject matters varying in how motivating, challenging and rewarding they are. If the tasks that make up leisure time and the tasks that make up work would lose their imaginary boundary of definition, there is no reason why thinking about one work-related subject matter could not produce detachment from another. When thinking of tasks in this way, there would actually be no reason to specifically strive for detachment. Everything a person does is transient attachment, to different kinds of parties, matters and with different material and non-material consequences. For true stress relief and long-lasting wellbeing, it would be best to create as much positive, energizing and rewarding attachment as possible within and outside work-related circles. Detachment from one thing happens by itself through attachment to another.

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Photo credit: vanlaar, Flickr

The concept of self, the dynamics of the mind and the mechanisms of consciousness are ideas which, despite great advances in cognitive neuroscience and psychology, still remain unexplained. People operate smoothly in everyday life through these functions but their definition still somehow escapes the logic and reasoning of which minds are capable.

When a person becomes interested in taking a deeper look at his thought processes or in understanding the personal meaning of his existence, more questions may arise than answers. If thought processes or the feelings tied to them do not define who a person or what his mind is, what then does? If a person is for example able to separate the definition of his self from a maladaptive thought content and decide to attach it to a different thought content with more positive ramifications, what is the stable part of the self that defines who a person is?

The only thing that is stable, continuous and that one can truly be certain of is the experience of “I am”. The pure feeling of existence or existing is stable throughout life, while the cells in our body change and the functions of the mind undergo huge developments. The feeling of existence is the only thing that you can really count on and as such may be a great source of comfort and energy. When recognized, it can provide a feeling of continuation in the midst of the relentless transience of other aspects of life.

Many philosophies and even some religions concentrate on definition of the self, the soul or human existence. Some psychological constructs such as metacognition provide ways to cultivate self-perception and awareness, but ultimately it seems that the mind cannot be defined by thought functions generated within it. The self cannot be wholly defined and explained by the mind’s functions, because in the end, the self is more than only a collection of intellectual and emotional constructs.

Scientific attempts to define consciousness and the self are very rare even within psychology that as a science strives to analyze and explain human behavior. Most research concentrates on models of neural interaction, neurological correlates to psychological events or theoretical models of psychological functions. A comprehensive explanation of what the mechanisms that produce a concept of self are or how consciousness could be explained are apparently too vast questions about too ill-defined constructs for research. A quick search through one article database returned only 4 articles, with two of them concentrating on coma.

One brave article on the concept of self relies on the theory awareness and consciousness as only be by-products of neural interaction. According to this principle of organizational invariance for example replacing any or all of the neurons in a human brain with microchips that have the exact same excitatory and inhibitory functions as the neurons would not alter consciousness as a phenomenon. This idea starts coming pretty close to esoteric concepts of cosmic consciousness but takes us quite far from trying to understand specifically human existence. It seems that whilst waiting for means of more refined measurement of the mind and the brain, all that people can do is speculate.

So what is the point of this kind of thinking? It may not be fruitful action to spend the majority of one’s time thinking about how to define the self and one’s existence. However,  as a thought for the mind to experience, these kinds of themes may provide a refreshing sense of release. Thoughts and feelings as events happening in the mind have such definitive and profound effects of people’s lives. They can be detrimental to the point of making someone seriously ill and on the other hand support long-lasting wellbeing and success in life. Recognizing the tremendous power and simultaneously the temporary nature of these internal constructions helps in creating a healthy perspective on life events. With more distance between the definition of self and the ongoing dynamic of feeling and thought, getting past negative happenings and concentrating on positive ones can become easier. Finding a more stable concept of self that does not follow the rollercoaster of emotional experience can provide a sense of security and enhance trust in oneself.

The nature of consciousness equips people with the ability to have control over their own thoughts and with the power of choice. The means to create happiness are within peoples’ minds but the point of access may be tricky to find. There is huge potential within every mind but at the same time the time for discovery is very limited. The distractions of everyday life take us along easily and most of the time in the midst of all this hurry it seems like a waste of time to take a moments to try and explain one’s existence. Maybe only posing the question from time to time is enough. Taking some time to ask and question vague concepts like meaning and existence can give the self a little holiday from endless definition and outer requirements.

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Photo credit: Todd Huffman

Meditation, mindfulness, awareness, consciousness and metacognition are terms appearing in different contexts and defined through different schools of thought. They all refer to processes within the mind that have to do with the mind itself. They all try to increase knowledge about the self and help find some degree of control over or release from the automatic verbal and nonverbal hum generated by neural networks in the brain. The idea is that through self-awareness, release and increased knowledge, more control and autonomy can be experienced. A person can more fully concentrate on the most important thoughts at the moment and choose to feel better by centering on adaptive feelings and mindstates.

The brain never sleeps. It continuously goes over information recorded in activity of neural networks, rearranging and combining it with past experience and producing future predictions. Meditation techniques that aim at silencing the brain usually actually result in immense activation because the brain cannot cease doing what it is built for. The brain does not want to be quiet because the fluctuations of activation and deactivation are what define its existence. And as people typically relate the self to activity of the brain, the brain’s activity defines the existence of the whole person. Trying to silence the brain can therefore result in a quite discomforting feeling of nonexistence.

In addition to endless activity, the brain does not understand the word “no”. When your try not to think of something, the mental image of the “thing” will automatically be produced in the mind. There is then, no sense to try and stop the brain from producing for example maladaptive thoughts or feelings. This will only result in activation of their representations in the mind as well as the negative feelings associated with them. Trying to actively stop thinking depressive thoughts will only result in a mind full of depressive thoughts.

However, the ongoing automatic and responsive activity of the brain naturally contains many levels of control and awareness. When there are maladaptive thought processes or mindstates that a person wishes not to experience, what needs to happen is a shift in the level of awareness and a change in feelings towards indifference. Through recognition of malign thought processes, a person can gradually learn to view them more objectively and detach emotion from thought content, which leads to deactivation of the thought and more infrequent appearance in the mind. Techniques that increase self-awareness are thus also the core of many types of psychotherapy. Problems of the mind can be cured by consciously altering processes of the mind.

Although thinking about the functions of the brain and awareness of thought processes may feel detached from normal life, there is a lot of which people without specific problems can make use.  Approaching the workings of one’s mind in a more relaxed and objective state is beneficial for not only people with thought processes disturbing mental health but for everyone. For example, increasing metacognitive awareness and metacognitive skills can support learning . Becoming more aware of own thought processes helps identify the way that knowledge is constructed in the mind. It helps answer questions like: ”That do I know?” ”What do I not know?” ”How could I understand this better?” and ”Where could I find this information?”.

Information intensive work typically requires functioning within hypermedia contexts. Even the more conservative companies have now evolved into complex organizations with numerous parallel processes through which employees have to define their work. When thinking about the nature of modern work it becomes evident that the amount of specific knowledge that people have is actually less important as flexibility of thought and use of metacognition. To succeed it is more essential to understand how to make use of available resources, how to develop oneself and operate within different contexts. Information contents do not matter as much as the employees’ flexibility in using them and viewing their personal contribution from different points of view.

Developing oneself through meditation, increasing self-awareness and training metacognitive skills are not only for those in therapy or those quitting work and leaving for India to become enlightened. They are ordinary human skills that are already needed in day-to-day work. There are ample possibilities for learning more about self-awareness and a lot of scientific and non-scientific information available from studies on metacognition to yogic philosophy about self-awareness and enlightenment. What is still missing is an integration of this knowledge into leadership and management. Ideas about personnel development and wellbeing are typically somewhat regarded as expendable or additional on top of “real work”. However, as metacognition is becoming a vital skill for knowledge workers, companies should consider integrating more metacognitive and awareness-supporting elements into their basic functions. Luckily with the abundance of different types of software and platforms, there are many possibilities to further this kind of thinking and integrate it into the core functions of work. In the future, instead of arranging for separate personal development programs, working itself can contain functions that increase awareness, wellbeing and learning.

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Photo Credit: kevindooley / Kevin Dooley

A startling discovery was made around the 70’s in psychological research about motivation: money doesn’t cut it. In fact, giving a small monetary reward for completing a task resulted in decrease of intrinsic motivation. Also, what seems to be more important than reward is how the person perceives meaning in the task: if a task is truly intrinsically motivating, by for example producing information about the performer himself, then extrinsic rewards such as money have little effect on subsequent motivation. It seems then, that money as a reward can meaningless or even detrimental for motivation. More recent studies have found the same with some specification.

An intricate psychological event like motivation can of course not be simplified to only an interaction between reward and choice, but research such as the ones cited above do highlight a quite obvious thing that is still, for indeterminate reasons, not completely understood in business: people need more than money to be motivated. More specifically, people need tasks that are personally meaningful.

This is a troublesome and quite inconvenient thought when building incentive systems or trying to lead people so as to increase motivation. Experience of personal meaning at work varies endlessly according to personal and quite immeasurable human logic, not to speak of feelings and emotions. There is no common algorithm available be applied to everyone because motivation is a sum of so many personal dimensions. There can be no common incentive system in the name of equality – it will fail to provide truly compelling incentive.

For corporate motivational or incentive systems to work they should be different for everyone and vary not only pay but also the content and structure of work. This is attainable in small organizations but gets too complicated in bigger ones where there is no sense in expecting leaders or corporate functions to be involved in such a level of detail.

So how can bigger companies support enduring motivation? The answer is that the company shouldn’t actually try to motivate the employees – they should provide support for employees to motivate themselves. People clearly are the best experts themselves when it comes to personal subjects such as motivation and happiness. Choosing the kinds of tasks, teams and environments that support personal motivation and wellbeing is best done by the person whose motivation and wellbeing are in question.

People are however not always fully aware of what they need in order to experience fulfilment. In fact, the bulk of career coaching centers around the question “what do I want?”. Building good self-awareness is a lifelong development process, but support is available in many forms – e.g. coaching and psychological measures can provide a wealth of tools for people to think about their happiness and increase the freedom to have an impact on personal motivation.

Thinking about motivation like this is a definite challenge for management because what is literally needed is less management. Adding freedom of choice about task content, composition of work teams as well as work environments is the only way to support people in building sustainable personal motivation. This requires that companies don’t see people and their knowhow as something they own and must “milk” but as a developing, self-organizing intelligence that is temporarily leant to the organization to achieve a specific goal. If a company is afraid of losing knowledge and strives to incorporate and detain it in itself, it will result in structures that decrease motivation and obstruct development of information. Giving more power to employees, acknowledging the importance of personal factors, sense of meaning and self awareness in motivation will result in more power in thought and action, and since money is a necessity, ultimately be a more cost-effective incentive system.

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Photo credit: D Sharon Pruitt

Growing information intensity in business requires a new way of thinking about work and managing it. When tasks contents define work instead of job roles and processes, new types of possibilities for personal and economic development and happiness are revealed.

In Finland more people retire because of health reasons than of age every year. The leading cause for disability retirement is chronic musculoskeletal pain and after that mental illness, mostly depression. With big age groups about to retire, we will soon lack important human resources in many fields of business.

One way to respond to the growing need of human resources is to try to attract migrant workers. Another way is to just make people work longer by not allowing pension before a certain age. However, work can in itself incorporate things that hinder personal wellbeing and produce disability. Lack of control, misfit between work tasks and personal goals as well as discordance between personal values and the values of others in the work environment can create a continuum of stress, burnout and depression. How can we keep people in job roles if they do not have personal interest to stay there or if work is making them sick? And how can burnt-out people working in over-defined roles and work processes produce creative solutions, new ideas and stay productive in the midst of ever increasing demands?

Work can find the best possible, motivated, self-realizing doer when people themselves choose to do the kinds of tasks they are interested in. When people only do things that feel meaningful, only functions that seem good from the human perspective will prevail in companies. It seems like a hippie statement to say that freedom of choice and personal happiness of employees is important for the success of companies. Wellbeing and fulfillment are hard to price. However if a company wishes to produce innovation and do things increasingly better, it is essential that the brain power behind the company’s services is at its best.

Happiness at work requires recognition of personal goals and the capacity to realize them at least to some degree through work. This seems simple, but requires a lot from the individual because the self is a hard thing to observe. Luckily, psychology has produced loads of conceptualizations of different aspects of the self, techniques that increase perceptive ability, self knowledge and ways to measure and quantify sides of the personality and bring them into consciousness and discussion. An important quality in a successful knowledge worker is being self aware and using any way available to deepen awareness.

In addition to personal awareness, happiness requires the freedom to choose. Defining work through task content and not work roles, work places and working hours liberates the employees as well as the company into creating meaningful cooperation that always produces something valuable. Tasks can be as small as the human intelligence tasks that can be resourced through crowdsourcing or bigger entities of complex action organized around specific goals. Work could even be organized in an ad hoc fashion to serve specific transient or more permanent customer needs and allowed to take its form according to the best solution that people come up with as the needs arise.

The constitution of work defined through task contents can easily be altered to suit very different cognitive settings and life situations. People whose capacity to work is temporarily compromised due to sickness or other reasons or who just wish to do other stuff instead can alter their work load easily. Truly embracing task-based work independent of time and place will free people to do the kind of work when and where they want and most importantly, with the people that best support their development and wellbeing.

All in all work defined by tasks could at its best be meaningful interaction that increases knowhow and self-knowledge, that helps fulfill values, life goals and that molds itself according to changing life situations and personal development. Who wouldn’t want to experience that for as long as they can?


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