Meditation, yoga, mindfulness, napping, and deep breathing once upon a time might have been thought of as New Agey, alternative, and part of a counterculture. But in the past few years we’ve reached a tipping point as more and more people realize that stress-reduction and mindfulness aren’t only about harmonic convergence and universal love — they’re also about increased well-being and better performance.
Indeed not only is there no trade-off between living a well-rounded life and high performance, performance is actually improved when our life becomes more balanced. As Sheryl Sandberg told me, “I found that when I cut my office hours dramatically once I had kids, I was not just working less, but I was more productive. Having children forced me to treat every minute of my time as precious — did I really need that meeting? Was that trip essential? And not only did I get more productive, but everyone around me did too as I cut out meetings that weren’t essential for them also.”
In 2008 and then again in 2012, The Huffington Post decided to demonstrate that a balanced life is possible even during the most compulsively hectic days on the political calendar. During the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver, we offered harried conventioneers — including delegates and members of the media — a chance to unplug and recharge at the HuffPost Oasis, where we offered yoga classes, Thai massages, hand massages, mini facials, healthy snacks and refreshments, music, and comfortable seating for lounging and unwinding.
The response was overwhelming. In fact, many hardened reporters told us that they had a difficult time tearing themselves away and returning to the convention, and we also had plenty tell us that taking time to recharge allowed them to cover the convention with more energy and come through the grueling week without being completely burned out. So in 2012, we did it again, on a larger scale, bringing our Oasis to both the Republican convention in Tampa and the Democratic convention in Charlotte. The connection between being able to unplug and recharge and to think more deeply and productively about critical issues, such as poverty, education, the environment, and the jobs crisis, may not be immediately obvious. But the better people are at taking care of themselves, the more effective they’ll be in taking care of others, including their families, their coworkers, their communities, and their fellow citizens. When you’re on an airplane you’re told to “secure your own mask first before helping others,” even your own child. After all, it’s not easy to help somebody else breathe easier if you’re fighting for air yourself. As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn asked in his novel In the First Circle: “If you wanted to put the world to rights, who should you begin with: yourself or others?”
Of course, the idea of taking time out of our busy lives to rest dates back to the Ten Commandments, when God commanded the Israelites to “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work. . . . For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” For observant Jews, the time from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday is a time for introspection, spending time with family and friends, and doing anything but working — a biblical mandate to unplug and recharge. And Shabbat ends with the ceremony of Havdalah — separation — in which participants thank God for distinguishing “light and darkness” and “the seventh day of rest and the six days of labor.”
For women with jobs and careers, taking care of themselves becomes even harder if they become mothers. In our current corporate culture, having children is often seen as a major barrier to career advancement. There are certainly challenges in juggling family and career, and there are many badly needed institutional reforms that would make it less challenging. But for me, having children was the best possible antidote to my workaholic “always on” tendencies. It gave me perspective and the ability to be more detached from the inevitable ups and downs of work life. Of course, you don’t need to have children to have a healthy sense of priorities, but for me, they did make it easier. Just knowing I was going to see my daughters at the end of the day put my whole workday in a different light. Even a simple phone call from one of my daughters during the day, I found, was a reminder of what is really important in my life. And that is true to this day, now that my daughters are in their twenties. I’m far less likely to get stressed over a setback. And by the way, have you ever experienced a day without setbacks? Perhaps one day a brilliant scientist — undoubtedly a scientist with a big family — will come up with a name for this effect. But whatever it is, it has had a big impact on things like my confidence, mood, and enthusiasm, all of which are huge assets in the workplace.
Here, too, the science has caught up. According to a 2009 study from Brigham Young University, having a family has a measurable impact on our health, including on our blood pressure. Attaching blood pressure monitors to nearly two hundred husbands and wives, researchers noticed that couples with children had significantly lower blood pressure than those without kids. The effect was even more pronounced among women.
This is not to say that companies don’t urgently need to address the structural impediments that make having children and a successful career so much harder. For far too many people — women especially — there is too little support in place to help balance career and family — which is crucial if we are truly going to redefine success for everyone. Flexible time, telecommuting, project-based work, and a company culture that does not expect employees to be wired and responsive 24/7 need to become the norm if we are to make our workplaces truly sustainable.
Our current toxic definition of success and our addiction to our devices is having a particularly negative impact on the next generation. “Generation Y,” otherwise known as the millennials, could be given a third, more alarming, name: “generation stress.” A study commissioned by the American Psychological Association asked participants to rank their stress level. Millennials marched at the front of the stress parade.
Moreover, the findings were dismally consistent across almost every question. Nearly 40 percent of millennials said their stress had increased over the past year, compared to 33 percent for baby boomers and 29 percent for older Americans. Over half of millennials said that stress had kept them awake at night during the past month, compared to 37 percent for baby boomers and 25 percent for older Americans. And only 29 percent of millennials say they’re getting enough sleep.
In the United Kingdom, according to a study by Oxford professor Russell Foster, more than half of British teenagers may be sleep deprived: “Here we have a classic example where sleep could enhance enormously the quality of life and, indeed, the educational performance of our young people. Yet they’re given no instruction about the importance of sleep and sleep is a victim to the many other demands that are being made of them.”
Higher levels of stress put millennials at higher risk downstream for all sorts of destructive consequences. Stress, as we’ve seen, is a huge contributing factor in heart disease, diabetes, and obesity. And already, 19 percent of millennials have been diagnosed with depression, compared to 12 percent of baby boomers and 11 percent of older Americans.
Not surprisingly, one of the biggest causes of stress among younger Americans is work. Seventy-six percent of millennials report work as a significant stressor (compared to 62 percent of baby boomers and 39 percent of older Americans). Among the challenges facing millennials is the growing number of them who graduate college with massive student debt and find themselves entering a weak job market. So millennials more than any other generation are casualties of the stress built into our economy — either overworking and hooked on technology, or unable to find work and struggling to pay the bills and survive.
Of course, many of these are problems that require political action and economic reform. But whatever end of the spectrum one finds oneself, mindfulness, meditation, and assorted tools and practices not only help strengthen our resilience and ingenuity in the face of adversity, they also lead to greater performance in the workplace.
And, yes, I realize there is a paradox in using the idea of enhanced performance as a selling point for practices that would help us redefine success. What we are talking about, after all, is what’s ultimately important in our lives. In other words, meditation, yoga, getting enough sleep, renewing ourselves, and giving back make us better at our jobs at the same time that they make us aware that our jobs don’t define who we are.
Whatever your entry point is — take it. Right now you may just want to be better at your job, or help your company become more successful, and that’s the reason you start meditating, or practicing mindfulness, or sleeping more. But along the way you will likely also gain some added perspective on what matters in your life. Writing in The New York Times about the Third Metric conference we held in June 2013, Anand Giridharadas pointed out that “there is risk in this approach. . . . To make the case for greater attention to well- being in terms of its effect on work performance may be to win the battle and lose the war. The victor remains the idea that what is good for work is good for us.”
I believe we can win both the battle and the war. Paying greater attention to our well-being — for whatever reason — connects us with parts of ourselves that now lie dormant and makes it more likely that there will no longer be any split between being successful at work and thriving in life.
Excerpt from Thrive pp. 67–73
Originally published at journal.thriveglobal.com