When I talk about longevity – and living to 100, possibly 150, and even 200 years – I sometimes get comments from people that they don’t actually want to live that long. Longevity means extending the last part of their lives when they are likely in a frail or diseased state (spoiler: longevity is actually about prolonging the healthy part of your lifespan). But others are worried about outliving their finances and having to work longer at a job they hate. As a matter of fact, some people even reach out to me saying they would rather ‘be done’ with life ASAP – with work burnout often being the cause of wanting to give up. These people are mentally exhausted and emotionally drained. They simply cannot go on and want ‘out’.
It’s Not All About The Money
Every March 20th (which is ‘International Day of Happiness’, if you didn’t know), the United Nations publishes the World Happiness Report. This year, the U.S. ranked 19th among the world’s countries, with an average life satisfaction score of 6.95 on a scale of 10. With U.S.A. being one of the wealthiest countries in the world (by GDP), why isn’t it also the happiest? Is the adage ‘money can’t buy happiness’ true? Perhaps. In fact, a 2017 Gallup poll of 1.7 million people worldwide showed that, after meeting a certain household income threshold, wealth adds no more happiness to our lives.
Can happiness actually be a national issue? Does the government have a role to play in improving life satisfaction of its citizens? The idea that policymakers should focus their attention on the wellbeing of their people goes back centuries. Thomas Jefferson, Founding Father and third President of the United States, said, “The care of human life and happiness … is the only legitimate object of good government.”
So, what can governments do to help create happier nations? Historically, they tried to achieve this by increasing countrywide economic productivity and growth. But, as many policymakers are beginning to realize, this isn’t likely to be sufficient. In his book ‘21 Lessons for the 21st Century’ Yuval Noah Harari says that governments should focus on “providing for people’s basic needs and protecting the social status and self-worth”. This could be done by swapping the concept of Universal Basic Income (UBI), which pays citizens a set amount of money, to Universal Basic Services (UBS) where the government provides public services such as education, healthcare, transport, etc. for free (or, at the very least, heavily subsidized).
This might be a more powerful idea than it may seem at first. Much of happiness in adults begins with addressing their needs as children. Schools – and even individual teachers – have as large an effect on kids’ happiness as do their families. Not surprisingly, the world of work has a huge influence on our happiness as adults, providing not only income but also important social interactions and purpose. Providing fair access to meaningful jobs (via free education), the ability to pursue a new career painlessly (with free re-training programs), or even the opportunity for new parents to return to work earlier (using free childminding services) is crucial to lasting happiness because unwanted unemployment is destructive to people’s wellbeing. The employed evaluate the quality of their lives much higher on average, with individuals who are unemployed reporting around 30% more negative emotions in their daily lives.
Burnout @ Work
What if you are gainfully (and maybe even happily) employed but feel burnt out? A recent report from Indeed found that’s how 52% of employees of all types and ages feel. The World Health Organization (WHO) classifies employee burnout as a syndrome “resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” It lists the main burnout symptoms like exhaustion, feelings negative towards one’s job, and reduced productivity at work. It’s a type of emotional exhaustion that has a serious impact on employees’ mental and physical wellbeing – including insomnia, high blood pressure, and even Type 2 diabetes!
First, to understand burnout, you need to learn how to reward circuitry works in our brains. As explained by Simon Sinek, there are four main chemicals that affect our work happiness and satisfaction – oxytocin, serotonin, dopamine, and endorphins:
- oxytocin (the ‘love hormone') is responsible for social bonding and feelings of trust. Nobody feels safe on their first day at work – it takes time. But if you have been at your job for several months or even years, ask yourself: how connected to your colleagues do you feel, and how much do you trust and respect your boss?
- dopamine (the ‘feel-good hormone’) drives us to hit our goals and feel successful. It is released every time we get stuff done and check an item off our to-do list. How autonomous do you feel in your job and in your ability to grow within your company?
- serotonin (the ‘happiness hormone’) is released when you feel accepted, respected, and admired by others. How often are you recognized for your contributions at work?
- endorphins (the ‘runners high’) are the same chemicals that are released when we laugh. They are also released to help you keep going while you are working hard. Have you noticed that sometimes it is hard to start a project, but, once you are fully into it, it is hard to stop? It feels good to make progress!
So, how exactly does burnout happen? My friend Dr. Andrew Huberman, neurobiologist and tenured Professor in the Department of Neurobiology at the Stanford University School of Medicine, says that work burnout happens when we don’t achieve a completed ‘reward circuit’. It’s when we don’t get the four chemicals listed above in the right pattern. For example, you do something at work, but the ‘prize’ (psychological or otherwise) is not coming. It is called a ‘reward prediction error’.
Andrew gives a brilliant explanation of this. Take dopamine, for instance. If you get more dopamine while you are pursuing something, then what you get when you finally reach your goal, it’s going to lead to a disappointment. If the dopamine you get at the final finish line is less than the dopamine generated along the way, it becomes a depletion event, which drains you emotionally and exhausts you mentally.
The Burnout Fix
So what can you do to successfully treat or prevent burnout symptoms? Not everyone can quit their jobs or take a year off– and, frankly, I am not going to suggest that. But there are ways you can take care of yourself while you are working on making things better for yourself – be it improving your work relationships, looking for a different job (or maybe even career!), or simply wanting to make your new job burnout-proof.
It is amazing just how much good sleeping habits can help you manage stress. Following a regular sleep routine restores the body and mind, improves concentration, and sharpens decision-making. To help you get some truly refreshing sleep, it is important that you eliminate anything that could distract or wake you up at night. Get blackout blinds to block out the light. Turn off your phone – or, better yet, leave it in another room and stop using it one hour before you go to bed (which is what we do in my household).
Next, it is important to establish a regular routine. This will help you fall asleep faster, wake up easier, and make your sleep more efficient overall. If your job (and time zone!) allows, experiment with falling asleep at sunset and waking up at sunrise. See if you like how it feels to be connected to nature and have it gently direct your sleep cycle. If this is not an option for you, for whatever reason, simply try to go to bed and wake up at the same time – even on weekends. In the morning, try to get some direct sunlight on you by going for a walk, having breakfast outside, or even opening a window. You don’t need to stare directly at the sun. And it doesn’t even need to be sunny, either – even if there’s cloud cover, a lot of photons are still coming through.
Finally, feel free to use a sleep-tracking app like Sleepio or Sleepscore, or use any that come with your fitness-tracker such as AppleWatch, Fitbit, or Oura Ring. Assess the quality of your sleep and test how different things you do before bedtime, and during the day, affect it. For example, I found that for me, having coffee or alcohol worsens sleep, while having a long walk before bed improves it. See what works for you and make it personalized.
Deep breathing is an incredible tool in fighting stress, managing your wellbeing, and remaining calm under pressure. Breathing and relaxation activate your parasympathetic nervous system, which sends a signal to your brain to tell your body that you're safe and don't need to use the fight, flight, or freeze response. It also slows our heart rate, lowers blood pressure, and promotes digestion, while freeing up mental energy. Another reason for practicing deep breathing is to get more oxygen to your brain to help you become more alert and support your thinking capacity.
At work, try to incorporate 3-5 breathing exercises spread throughout the day. They are very quick and easy to do – you can do them while commuting to work, sitting behind your desk, or even during one of your bathroom breaks. There are many breathing exercises available online, but I will give you one that you can start doing straight away. Inhale twice (ideally through the nose) and then exhale long once through the mouth. Repeat for up to 1-2 minutes or whatever feels good to you. If you need more structure, try inhaling for 4 counts, and exhaling for 8 counts (i.e., exhaling twice as slow). If you are enjoying how this feels and want to dive into a deeper practice, you can try guided meditations or an app like Calm or Headspace. Research shows that meditation also relaxes your body, improves mental wellbeing, and even raises your dopamine levels.
Now that we have sorted out our sleep and relaxation habits, we are ready to take on this final step. Try organizing your work tasks in a way that helps you feel rewarded when you complete them so that you can enjoy a boost of those feel-good chemicals.
For example, create a checklist of things to do and cross off items, one-by-one, as you achieve them for a dopamine boost and that blissful feeling of achievement. Minimize distractions and stay entirely focused on one task at a time – this will help you get the work done and release those wonderful endorphins to help you along.
As you are done, share results with your team. Getting praised and recognized for your work, while further bonding with your colleagues will increase your oxytocin and serotonin (just make sure you return the favor!) As you schedule your work activities for the day, keep in mind when you are most productive. Protect this time from any distractions (such as checking your email or chatting to your colleagues next to the coffee machine) and use it to tackle the more difficult projects that required additional effort. Make sure to include both right/left-brain activities throughout the day for an even bigger boost in productivity. Take time to move between analytical left-brain activities such as working on a budget in Excel to creative right-brain activities such as a brainstorming session with your team. This will help take your productivity to the next level!
I hope the above will help you stay on top of your job, while you are searching for your ikigai – but remember, your life’s purpose does not need to be exclusively related to your career. Love and responsibility for a child, friend, family member, or pet can be your purpose, as can beloved hobbies or personal goals. As the 16th U.S. President Abraham Lincoln said, “It’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years.”
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