Money, happiness, and your mental wellbeing

Riches help us stay healthy, but apparently, money doesn’t make us happier.

As far back as 2004, researchers already concluded that life experiences are more likely to make us feel happy than material possessions. Despite that, like the participants of a 2014 study, we still feel that our money is better spent on material purchases than on life experiences.

In fact, some of us may not benefit from spending on a life experience at all. According to another study, if we’re buying an iPhone, a Balenciaga clutch and a Bulova watch to fit in with our peers, we’re not likely to feel happier after spending our hard-earned savings on a safari in Botswana or a nice dinner out with friends at a new gastropub like Timbre+. In fact, happiness won’t be the outcome for as many as a third of us, whether the purchase is something material or a life experience.

So, since getting the latest GoPro, admiring your newest acquisition at the Affordable Art Fair, eating your heart out at the current food fest Gourmet Japan, and taking your little ones to KidZania on Sentosa Island, may not improve your wellbeing, what could you be doing instead?

1. Know the value of your time
Happiness is linked to how much we value our time. A 2016 study found that happiness ratings were higher for people who chose to prioritise their time (e.g., a shorter commute or shorter working hours) over salary. It pays dividends to pursue work-life balance, it seems. But not necessarily in dollars and cents.

2. Practise gratitude
Results of a recent study show that those who express gratitude tend to place less emphasis on the contribution of material gains to their sense of satisfaction in life. To a smaller extent, people who experience positive emotions are also less likely to view material possessions as the ticket to happiness. So, even if shiny new things make you happy, you can elevate your wellbeing by being grateful. (And gratitude not only improves mood and sleep quality, but it’s associated with less inflammation and lowered risk for cardiac events).

3. Develop your sense of compassion
current study based at the Malaysia campus of The University of Nottingham is investigating the impact of loving-kindness meditation on individuals’ wellbeing and happiness. But earlier work has actually already established a number of benefits of practising mindfulness which focuses our attention on being kind and showing empathy to others. This sort of mindfulness practice encourages positive emotions and helps with anxiety and chronic pain.

4. Plan your travel and social events in advance
It seems that our experience of happiness — in the form of pleasantness and excitement — endures while we anticipate the enjoyment of a life experience. But this wellbeing doesn’t apply as well to material purchases, says a recent study in Psychological Science. In short, lengthening that anticipatory period might heighten our excitement and ultimately bring us more joy. Might we be even happier if our life experience was free (e.g., a picnic at Marina Barrage or a free concert).

5. Get involved with your community
Another way which raises our “psychological, emotional, and social wellbeing” involves voluntary work, while being employed on a full-time or part-time job. A 2015 study reports that voluntary work leads to greater satisfaction with work-life balance and lower stress levels.

6. Consider life’s adversities
It’s possible, it seems, to have too much of a good thing. Having an abundance of experience and being well-travelled, we can be underwhelmed by a visit to a “pleasant but ordinary” destination. But contemplating past adversities and considering life’s uncertainties, according to this 2015 study, can help us enjoy the small things in life.

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Maybe work isn’t your happy place

Maybe work isn't your happy place

Not long ago, a study reported that a substantial number of people were found to have lower levels of stress hormone while at the office than when at home. This finding downplays the stress at the workplace. To be more precise, men were the ones more likely to experience stress at the office than home.

But it doesn’t discount the fact that people still experience stress at the workplace. As many as 20% of those polled in a 2013 HPB survey reported high levels of job stress. That’s 2 in every 10 employees. And almost half of those polled in a separate survey (comprising at least 400 employees per country) reported a lack of job satisfaction. More disturbing is the finding that over half of those polled in a recent LinkedIn survey would consider sacrificing a workplace friendship for promotion. That spells for a happy workplace. Not.

Although job stress often surfaces from employees managing heavy workloads, there are many other factors which impact employee engagement. Things which managers and supervisors play an enormous role in shaping. Things like team dynamics, personality clashes, and leadership styles.

Here are 10 ways line managers can help:

1. Social support
A Gallup poll found that engaged employees were more likely to have friends at the workplace. Line managers play a role in cultivating a work culture which encourages friendships. Look here for tips.

2. Work-life balance
Employees are more likely to be engaged and productive when their leaders value sustainable ways of working, which includes supporting work-life balance. A HBR survey reveals that it’s important for leaders to practice what they preach. It’s a tune that’s getting more airtime these days.

3. Find ways to get active
We all know why we should invest in moderate to vigorous exercise three times a week and incorporate fruits, veggies, and whole grains in our daily diet. It does wonders for our cardiovascular health. It protects against dementia and certain types of cancer. But workplace health programmes may not always stress a key benefit (no pun intended). Exercise is the key to managing stress levels. Here’s an incentive for line managers to support the Get Fit programme at the office!

4. Find time to relax
Research supports the view that engaging in relaxation activities helps us manage our stress. A recent INSEAD study shows that spending just 15 minutes focused on breathing enabled people to make better decisions. Another recent study shows that creative pursuits are an effective way to recharge and destress. Daily practice of a relaxation method resets the threshold at which we get angry (Goleman, 1998). Findings that extroverts relax more easily than introverts suggests that we need to recognize that there is no one-size-fits-all way to relax. 

5. Assertive communication
Exercise is an excellent way to get back into a good mood. But we’re probably not going to be running a treadmill or smashing a ball against the wall when given extra responsibilities at work. There are no appropriate moment to go “en garde”. Or signal for us to put on the boxing gloves. We can however learn to say no. Line managers have the responsibility to encourage staff to practice assertive communication.

6. Sleep is underrated
Sleep is not just for those who party hard. It’s for those who want to learn, solve problems, remember things, and make good decisions (here’s the science). What’s more, sleep is the anti-aging treatment. But you’ve heard this many times over. But did you know that exposure to blue light which your smart devices emit in large quantities makes it more difficult to get to sleep quickly or to get good quality sleep? It’s time to tell your staff to switch off their devices and get more REM and deep sleep – essential for enhancing job performance (tips at the end of this article).

7. Use your Employee Assistance Programme!
Family conflict affects relationships at the office, not just at home. A recent study shows that conflict at the home causes employees to react negatively to co-workers and to use fewer adaptive strategies (e.g., social support, assertiveness) at work. Another study shows that mood affects productivity. Those coping with a difficult life event (e.g., bereavement, illness in the family) make more mistakes when adding two numbers together than those not experiencing such an event. Those coping with life events also report lower happiness and productivity ratings than their peers. Managers in organizations with an EAP can encourage staff to use their EAP to tackle work-related and/or personal problems. Recent research indicates that “organizational support programs, which aim to improve employee well-being, are not being used by the employees who need them most”.

8. Training evaluation
A 1997 study showed that an in-house time management training programme, which enhanced employee’s capacity for impulse control and for regulating their own emotions, had a 1989% return in a 3-week period. It’s noteworthy that employees were not given generic, practical tips but instead encouraged to manage their emotions. Most importantly, the organization measured outcomes in terms of employee performance (e.g., rated by co-workers, line managers) not satisfaction with the training programme.

9. Organizational structure
It’s not hard to see how workplace harrassment can negatively impact employee well-being and physical health, in turn affecting productivity and employee engagement. But a recent review of the literature indicates that workplace harrassment does not arise from just personality clashes alone. The way an organization is structured may make it easier for bullying to take place. So it’s ever more important now than before that senior management explicitly supports respectful behaviour.

10. Self-care
Fair bosses are the best! They produce engaged employees and productive companies. But they’re prone to burn out (evidence here). So self-care is imperative for managers and supervisors. That is, doing all the above themselves. This includes: “getting sufficient sleep, taking short mental breaks during the workday, adhering to a healthy diet and detaching from work completely when outside of the office”

Bosses, take note!

Clothes — The long and short of it all

We already know about the benefits of exercise. Exercise increases life satisfaction, improves mood, and reduces feelings of depression and anxiety (read this for the full story). Blah blah blah…yes, exercise makes us feel better. And it plays an important role in helping us maintain our self-worth (here’s the evidence for that claim).

There are other things which raise self-esteem: positive self-appraisal (what’s that?) and self-awareness (how can I achieve that?). As with exercise, we see what we need to do, but the legs, arms, and mind aren’t particularly motivated to get us there. Gadgets or no gadgets.

There is however a speedier solution to boosting one’s confidence (note: it is of course easy once you know how): It’s about what you wear.

Clothes make the dog!

There is evidence that how we feel affects what we wear. In a 2012 study by Fletcher and Pine, women reported themselves more likely to wear baggy clothing and jeans when experiencing a low mood (e.g., feelings of depression) and more likely to wear their favourite dress when feeling happy.

There’s evidence that what you wear affects how you behave. A study showed that putting on a doctor’s white coat made participants perform better on a cognitive task (here’s that study explained).

And there’s evidence that what you wear affects how others perceive you. A study found that participants rated someone in a tailored suit as more successful and confident than the same person in a off-the-peg version. Findings from yet another study revealed that a subtle change in the length of the skirt — whether it was just above the knee of just below the knee — influenced how study participants viewed the person wearing the clothes. In the condition where the person was introduced as a “senior manager”, participants judged her to be more intelligent, confident, and responsible with the longer than shorter skirt. Turn these findings around, and they actually tell us that we make snap judgements about others (and ourselves) based on what they (or what we) wear.

And a 2013 poll of 100 respondents found that 2 in 5 women believed that wearing red increased their professional confidence. Clearly, we know that clothes do affect how we feel about ourselves, as demonstrated in this guide on How to dress for success by Real Simple (look here for tips on dressing well for men).

So what clothes make us feel better about ourselves? There’s really only one thing to know and that is to wear clothes that fit you! It’s important to put on clothes which fit, not clothes that are in fashion right now. Real Simple has a guide for different body shapes, while BBC programme What Not To Wear offers tips on making the most of our assets. Wearing a pencil skirt that stops exactly at the knee (not an inch above it or an inch below it) or jeans which are bootcut or skinny depending on your body shape is half the battle won.

The other half is what you do with that extra confidence you’ve gained.

Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.
~Mark Twain

 

Executive coaching is not for life

We know a coach as someone who demands drills on the field and laps in the pool or that comfortable but speedy curtain-clad air-conditioned double-decker which delivers customers at the doorstep of the newest mall across the causeway. It’s also that classic Vespa light blue leather must-have, complete with requisite tassels, zips, and shoulder strap.

Executive Coaching

But there’s another kind of coaching that’s becoming increasingly ubiquitous.

Life coaches aim to help people reach their goals, as this article indicates. Life coaches may however not have the training, skills, or empathetic aptitude they should be equipped with, as the author of this article discovers. In fact, data from this study suggest that a substantial proportion of those who seek help from a life coach show signs of depression. As such, it seems important for life coaches to have received adequate and appropriate training. As this CBS Moneywatch article suggests, the importance of being coached by a professional life coach cannot be overemphasized. Even so, there are benefits to life coaching: Specifically, evidence-based life coaching has been shown to improve psychological wellbeing (Green, Oades, & Grant, 2006) and help clients achieve and strive for their goals (Spence & Grant, 2005).

There is another sort of coaching known as business coaching. This is where business owners receive advice about growing their business. The kind where social enterprises receive guidance from peers in the same industry under a scheme hosted by the Ministry of Social and Family Development. And in the same vein as Social Inc., the Channel News Asia programme, in which new social enterprise start-ups receive mentorship from established business owners in the same industry. The benefits are not only qualitative (read this blog), but quantitative (read this article).

And then there’s executive coaching, which based on a definition by Kilburg (1996), involves using cognitive and behavioural techniques to help a manager/supervisor improve his/her performance, wellbeing, and effectiveness of his/her organization. To be distinguished from mentorship, which facilitates an employee’s professional and career development (here’s a fact sheet), executive coaching provides a structured environment in which managers or supervisors work with the coach to identify and meet specific and short-term (even immediate) goals to solve work-related issues.

Evidence from research including random controlled studies, indicates that the cognitive-behavioural solution-focused approach brings about goal attainment, increased mental resilience, improved psychological wellbeing, and reduced stress levels. Other studies report benefits which extend beyond a six-fold return-on-investment to include improvements in teamwork, relationships, job satisfaction and performance.

But as this Harvard Business Review notes, the results can also be a bit of a mixed bag. Much depends on the coaches hired. There is certainly value in hiring someone with senior corporate management experience (“Coaching the Next Generation“, Straits Times, 2004), particularly since executive coaches need to have insight into “the demands of the leadership roles from first-line supervision to middle management to the top executive” (APA, 2002). At the same time, there is also value in hiring someone trained to handle underlying interpersonal relationship issues (“Coaching the coaches“, Psychology Today, 2009).

Moreover, there is funding available to support executive coaching initiatives. Training staff through executive coaching (using local funding such as the Productivity and Innovation Credit scheme and Capability Development Grant from the National Productivity and Continuing Education Council’s Way to Go! campaign) meets the target of enhancing productivity by helping managers and supervisors optimize employee engagement. It’s not for life but it will give you a head start in the corporate world.

Staying safe

reading the signs

Cyberstalking’s a word that’s frequently bandied about in the news.

But the real deal really does hurt. These recent reports (“Leandra Ramm’s cyberstalker gets 3 years’ jail“, CNA, 20 Dec 2013; “Cyber stalking case: American singer harassed by Singaporean has written an e-book about it“, Straits Times, 4 Dec 2013; “Singaporean who cyber-stalked US singer Leandra Ramm jailed 3 years”, Straits Times, 20 Dec 2013) bring to light the psychological consequences of exposure to online harassment: symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (“He kept me in a virtual prison”, Straits Times, 23 Dec 2013).

But it can be suggested that two emails of harassment, of any nature, are already one too many. Actually, two too many. Given the serious consequences of cyberbullying on mental health, it’s important to know what to do in that situation.

The case above also raises the issue of being alert to situations in which interactions involve hurtful communications and unhealthy relationships. We may not be stalked by someone with an antisocial personality disorder, which as defined by the Mayo Clinic, is “a type of chronic mental condition in which a person’s ways of thinking, perceiving situations and relating to others are dysfunctional — and destructive“, but we may have come across or had to deal with someone who, to some degree, shows poor respect for others, lacks compassion for others, and is manipulative towards others. It may be someone we spend time with regularly (Psychology Today offers advice on how to gently let go of a toxic friend). It could be someone with whom we have had only online contact with. Either way, we need to recognize a situation for which we want to do something about.

A CNN report offers advice on how to deal with stalkers on the Facebook platform (“How to handle a cyberstalker“, CNN, 21 July 2010), while Yahoo has general tips for dealing with a cyber stalker. And WikiHow has an excellent step-by-step guide. The advice from www.bullyingonline.org succinctly states, the first rule is not to engage. It’s excellent advice, but in this digital age, you can protect yourself with one more thing you can use to your advantage: Emails can be automatically filed in a folder you’ve created specifically for the purpose of a) not reading it and b) documenting all correspondence, using keywords in a rule or filter in your email client. The canned response function on gmail is one such example. Finally, the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) offers wonderful advice we should heed. Stay safe!

“Let’s find out more about mental illness”

Mental health resources

Yes, let’s. The article “Let’s find out more about mental illness” published in Straits Times, 16 Nov 2013, talks about childhood mental health disorders, and specifically, depression, anxiety, and schizophrenia.

It’s timely, given that understanding about mood and anxiety disorders involving adults tends to be poor, let alone mental health disorders involving children and adolescents. And it’s a good time as any to talk about mental health disorders, especially in the light of recent news reports involving individuals with depression.

But what is it that we understand about mental health disorders? From the resources made available to various organizations dealing with mental health issues, quite a lot actually.

But first, maybe we should know at least a few things worth knowing:

1. Stigma is everywhere, not just in Singapore.

That there is local stigma about seeking help for mental health disorders is not surprising.

But these are ubiquitous issues, relevant to other communities such as those in UK (“Understanding anxiety and mental health stigma”, The Guardian, 27 Sep 2013), Australia (“Mental health stigma still affecting Australian workers, with research showing 4 in 10 hide depression from their employers”, ABC, 12 Nov 2013), Canada (“Montrealers demonstrate to end mental health stigma”, CBC, 20 Oct 2013), Hong Kong (“First mental health web radio in Hong Kong raises the community’s awareness on mental illness and mental health”, UHK, 15 Nov 2013), and Taiwan (“Society must confront mental health stigma, redefine success”, The China Post, 3 June 2013).

We may not have progressed very far (“S’poreans fear mental patients, study finds”, Straits Times, 29 Oct 2007), but at least we’re increasingly cognizant of the issues and are adding to facts not fiction.

This Huffington Post article provides 3 helpful suggestions for how you and I can make a difference. The UK campaign which started in 2009 to end mental health discrimination at their www.time-to-change.org.uk offers useful tips on how to talk about mental health issues.

2. There are resources out there for the public.

3. There’s information about mental health disorders in children and adolescents.

4. Other resources include information about developmental disorders.

5. We can always do more.

A 2012 report in the Singapore Annals Academy of Medicine did not investigate whether their stratified sample of 6616 respondents, among whom 12% met the criteria for mood, anxiety, or alcohol use disorders but less than a third had sought professional help, used the internet to find out more about mental health disorders. Given that the same report acknowledges 80% or more of the local population aged 49 years and below (and 40% of those aged 50 to 59 years) has internet access, there’s much scope for accurate information about mental health to be provided on an online platform. This BBC Wales health report presents possibilities, while the UK Child and Maternal Health Intelligence Network offers ideas via a Tackling Stigma Toolkit. There are always more things that can be done. Something we can work towards perhaps?

World Mental Health Day 2013

It’s World Mental Health Day! In commemoration of World Mental Health Day, try a self-assessment tool about your well-being:

1. Assess your psychological wellbeing.

2. How is your physical health?

3. Are you psychologically resilient?

4. Are you happy? What’s your life satisfaction score?

Friends make you happy

It’s official. Social interactions in person make you happy. Not facebook.

And it’s not something that’s been made up, just to support the notion that social support plays an important role in building psychological resilience. There’s research to support this idea! A recent Economist article, “facebook’s bad for you” (August 2013) highlights these findings: Participants in a study who reported high facebook usage were more likely to report poorer life satisfaction, in comparison to those who were infrequent facebook users. In the same study, Kross and colleagues also reported that engaging in face to face social interactions with other people was related to improved mood.

It would be interesting if future work were to uncover that frequent facebook users who tailor their news feed for their wall and/or limit their online social network to friends they regularly meet, report more positive outcomes in terms of mood and psychological well-being compared to frequent facebook users who are indiscriminate news feed consumers and whose online social network includes people they’ve not said two sentences to. It’s lovely that your friends are out there enjoying their strawberry shortcake, sunny Greece, their new washing machine, and home-made bento lunch of grilled fish marinaded in miso and crunchy asparagus, but sometimes it’s better to talk to your friends about it over a cup of tea or coffee!