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[First appeared in LinkedIn Thought Leaders]
Isn’t it funny how life holds a mirror up to you? I have a colleague who has been on the journey of thanks with me from the start. I returned recently from an overseas trip to share what I’d learnt from Shawn Achor, the author of The Happiness Advantage, and the principles of positive psychology that fuel success and performance at work, including the importance about being mindful about happiness.

One of my colleagues here at RedBalloon.com.au won’t mind my sharing that she’s not had a great year, starting with an inoperable cancer diagnosis for her mum (living alone, 17,000km away), job instability for her husband, with its associated financial impacts, as well as changing school for her 2 young children. Individually fine, combined they can be stressors enough to put positive thinking and gratitude practises to the test.
Originally Phil (center in the picture) embraced these stress challenges. An only child she flew across the world to support her Mum in a new treatment and at the same time worked remotely to produce amazing outcomes for RedBalloon, including creating the workbook for my first entrepreneurs mentoring weekend and our application to win a spot in the BRW Top Fifty Best Places To Work.
Yet in the weeks following her return, her success and performance at work wavered. Where had the devil in my detail gone?
What I’ve learnt is that the ability to embrace stress challenges – whilst a predictor of happiness and success – can only be sustained for short periods. Longer term it has a serious impact on physical and psychological health due to sustained high levels of the chemicals released in the ‘fight or flight’ response. After flying on highs of cortisol and norepinephrine – with the excess of the latter linked to depression – 8 weeks after Phil was crashing back to earth.
Then, just as she was leveling out, she received the call that her Mum was no longer in the remission as originally diagnosed a month before, but had only weeks to live. In fact, it was only a week. Phil and her family were able to charge across the world in time to spend the last 3 days with her, followed by three weeks of sorting out affairs, emptying homes of memories, and arranging a funeral.
Phil came straight back to work. All seemed well. So I was totally broadsided the other day when she shared she was really struggling with our project of gratitude and thanks. After all, isn’t this the antidote to depression? The way to make the world a happier place? Imagine you’re a unicorn – in the words of Shawn Arthor.
Phil likens it to ‘good’ depression and ‘bad’ depression. Bad earlier in the year when she overloaded on stress hormones. Good now within the grieving process. Depression, reflection and loneliness are necessary to come to terms with loss – but not necessarily a time when accessing happy thoughts comes easily.
I am delighted she is about to take a week playing in the theme parks on the Gold Coast with her husband and children. Soaking up Vitamin D and creating dopamine. Writing down three new things each day she is thankful for. Whilst grief may not have a linear progression, accepting and reminding our brains there will be more good days than bad days is an affirmation of living.
Plus, as she told me, it’s no surprise that right now her next project with me is FiveThanksADay. She says it’s confronting, but also just what she needs. And she now brings a whole new lens to look through. For without sadness, how can we recognize happiness? It is life.

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