In baseball or tennis, the sweet spot is where the ball seems to rocket off the bat or racquet, giving maximum power. It can be a delicious moment, and Christine Carter believes we need to find its equivalent in our daily lives.
The sociologist, who lives near San Francisco, defines our sweet spot as the place where we are feeling good, working without much stress, yet at the same time feeling powerful and a sense of mastery.
After the publication of her parenting book Raising Happiness, she found herself coaching two kinds of people: parents who didn't want their kids to feel any stress in school, thereby robbing them of the chance to develop strengths and experience, and talented Silicon Valley executives who were relentlessly seeking more formidable challenges, thereby robbing themselves of the chance to maintain their high performance. Both were missing the sweet spot.
"When we find our groove, we increase the amount of time that we are operating from the strength and ease of our sweet spot. Being in our sweet spot is a felt sense; we know intuitively that everything is aligned. Our sweet spot doesn't require conscious thought; our unconscious mind tells us that we are there through our bodies," she writes in her new book The Sweet Spot.
Central to living in the sweet spot is the notion of recess. We must take breaks, as we did in school, from our instrumental lives – and not to handle e-mail as a change when writing a report, but as in childhood play.
She points to a study by the famed developer of the notion of flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, which had to be curtailed when it unintentionally induced generalized anxiety disorder in its subjects. They were asked from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. to carry out everyday tasks – be it making beds, washing dishes, driving kids to school, working, and cooking dinner – without doing anything that was play. This chain of instrumental tasks quickly produced restlessness, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, muscle tension, and irritability. The study was ended, but too many of us live it – a life of task, after task, after task.
"We are not computers that can work on and on. We are animals. Our bodies have natural rhythms. You can't do your best work unless you honour what it takes to be human," she said in the interview.
She urges you to take a recess after 60 to 90 minutes of work – a true break, not just switching to another task but instead doing something not on your to do-list. She will follow 40 to 60 minutes of focused work with a break, whether to read an interesting article on a non-work topic that intrigues her, peruse poetry, or enjoy moments with her dog. "I spend a lot of time goofing around – so much that my neighbours make fun of me. They see me outside playing with the dog or taking a walk," she said.
This may seem a process of separate elements: Focus-rest, focus-rest. But it's deeper than that. While we relax – play – our unconscious mind is still at work, liberated to play with ideas and come up with unexpected ones. That helps us with our work, making us ultimately more productive. While we know that can happen, however, we resist recess, preferring to steamroller through the day, thinking we will accomplish more.
Positive emotions are also critical to keeping stress at bay. She says the research points to a tipping point when we are experiencing about three positive emotions for every negative one. That allows us to flourish – be more productive, happier, and resilient. Recess can help tip us toward the positive.
To change your ratio of emotions, she suggests that you:
Deliberately induce positive emotions
This extends beyond happiness and pleasure to contentment, bliss, engagement, mirth, frivolity, and silliness. Indeed, more broadly, we can feel positive emotions through awe and inspiration. You can deliberately extend gratitude to others, seek moments of inspiration, dream about the future (your next vacation, your hopes and dreams for a decade from now), bliss out through meditation, check out something you are curious about on the Internet, dance, laugh or make a joke.
Amplify the positive emotions you already feel
She recommends savouring precious moments by taking a mental photograph and reviewing it. Draw out positive experiences so they take longer. Practise looking for positive moments, which can itself become a positive experience.
Skip the emotion and go straight to the physiology
Facial expressions and body postures can translate into emotional feelings. So smile. Stand up straight.
Don't let the many possibilities depress you because they seem to add to your burden. She stresses that you already have moments of positivity now, and some incremental changes can push you over the tipping point. That can involve building habits, and her book has an impressive chapter with 21 tips to help you sustain a habit, and achieve the desired effect through auto-pilot. Her website also offers a free 21-day course that might help with those New Year's resolutions. A key element is building triggers so your good intentions turn into reality.
"You can achieve more and be happy by doing less. Being busy and stressed out and not enjoying life is not a foregone conclusion," she sums up.
Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column, Balance. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org