Recently, I was walking my dog before heading into work. I was on a quiet residential street near our house when a good friend of mine drove by. Due to my busy travel schedule, we had been playing phone tag for weeks and hadn’t seen each other in person in at least a few months. As soon as she saw me walking, she pulled her car over, jumped out and gave me a big hug.
As we stood on the side of the road for all of about 5 minutes, we noticed 5 cars drive by. Each driver either scowled at us or threw up their hands in despair because maneuvering around my friend’s car added about 5 seconds to their morning commute. You would’ve thought we had set up chaise lounge chairs in the middle of I-70 by the looks we were given for chatting on a quiet 15mph road.
In each instance, the driver had a choice, they could bask in the warmth of positive emotions as two friends took a few minutes out of their busy lives to catch up, or they could curse us under their breath as they were mildly inconvenienced by having to veer a grand total of about 5 inches to the left to get around us.
Our choices have consequences.
The choice to frown in disapproval probably had more of an impact on them than just etching angry wrinkles into their faces. They were setting the tone, first thing in the morning, for finding more things to be annoyed about throughout their day.
Researcher Barbara Fredrickson has done extensive research on how positive vs negative emotions impact our actions. Negative emotions narrow our focus to a specific action. It’s why when you’re annoyed on the road, your specific action might be to flip someone the bird, honk a horn or make passive aggressive faces driving by. Negative emotions are harder to recover from. They stick around longer, ramping up our limbic systems so that we become hyper-focused on even more small offenses and inconveniences.
Those drivers probably showed up at work thoroughly irritated by the incident only to find more things wrong with their day. This likely decreased their cognitive resources while increasing their overall allostatic (stress) load.
Positive emotions, on the other hand, broaden and build. They open us up to possibility, engagement, collaboration and innovation. They quiet our limbic system giving us full access to the range of executive abilities housed in our prefrontal cortex. If a driver had decided to interpret our reunion as something positive, they might have called an old friend to set up a lunch date, then showed up at work all jacked up on the wellbeing effects of oxytocin and spread their good mood far and wide during their client and co-worker interactions throughout the day.
While we might convince ourselves that we don’t have a choice in how we act, current research in mindfulness shows us we do. Mindfulness is the tool that gives our brain a pause long enough to make a conscious choice rather than a reactive one. A consistent mindfulness practice enables us to have a tiny bit of space between what we are seeing and how we want to respond.
And, in any given moment, we can make a choice that will enhance our day rather than diminish it.
I was just in New York City last week to give a keynote at a financial organization. As I was packing for my trip, I was hearing non-stop freak-outs about Winter Storm Stella hitting the area. My news feed filled up with frantic reports of panicked people cleaning out grocery shelves of bread and milk. I felt my own stress response kick into high gear going through all kinds of frenzied worst-case travel scenarios. By the time my limbic system was through one news report, it was telling me to shut down my company, vowing that I should never travel, again.
Then, as I was obsessively scrolling between the airline and weather app, I took a pause and ended up stumbling upon a photo of a father and daughter sledding down 26th street. No bread, milk or worried faces; they chose to meet panic with play and glided happily down what is usually a busy Manhattan street.
Seeing this photo shifted me out of my panic. This father/daughter’s choice to respond to winter storm Stella in a playful way helped me relax my limbic system, access my prefrontal cortex, again, and formulate several solid alternatives based on what I currently knew about the storm. 5 minutes earlier, I was ready to hide under my bed covers until July. Instead, I made the choice to focus on the positive, packed my bags, worked through plans A, B, and C and ended up having an easy travel day and a successful business trip to New York, after all.
So what choices are you making in your day?
Every day we are all faced with little choices that can have a big impact on our lives. If you’re feeling chronically annoyed or inconvenienced, can you choose to take a little pause (and a tiny 5-inch detour) into positivity, instead?
And if life feels like snowmageddon, instead of immediately going into panic mode, take a pause, then grab a sled and find a little playfulness in the storm.
Kristen Race, Ph.D.
and the Mindful Life Team
PS Last call for our Mindfulness and the Workplace course. It starts on April 3, 2017.