Happiness Researcher Emma Seppälä on How to Beat Back Stress and Anxiety
“Living in constant fight-or-flight mode is not bringing out the best in us.”
Emma Seppälä is the Science Director of Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education and the author of The Happiness Track. She recently joined science journalist and host of TEDx Lund University Lisa Kirsebom for a conversation on how the science of happiness can help you succeed. Their conversation was recorded live at the 2016 Gothenburg Book Fair—the full video can be viewed below.
Lisa: Stress and anxiety are a huge issue these days. In Sweden, social security handled 26,000 cases of people taking sick leave due to stress reactions—that almost doubled over only a couple of years. Where do we go wrong?
Emma: We believe that in order to get things done we need to be in a high adrenaline mode, which is why when we have a big project coming up, we think, I’m going to get another coffee, more caffeine in my system. We wait until the last minute to get things done. We over-schedule ourselves.
There are a lot of ways that we buy into this idea that we need to have a lot of stress in order to be productive. Of course, a little bit of stress is going to push you through that deadline, but if you are depending on this high adrenaline, fight-or-flight mode day after day to get things done, what happens is burnout. We are seeing 50 percent burnout across industries in the United States!
Living in that constant fight-or-flight mode is not bringing out the best in us. If you are continuously in that mode, you are going to see cognitive decline. Your memory and attention decline, your immune function gets affected, and your ability to connect with other people declines, as well.
Lisa: Why don’t we see this? Or do we see this and we are unable to change it?
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Emma: A lot of people go home at night and can’t sleep or feel anxious or tired. It is not normal to spend an entire day sitting in front of a computer and come home exhausted. We are not working in the field, most of us aren’t construction workers. Why are we so tired? We shouldn’t be, given what we are doing. It’s because we are taxing our adrenals, going to that fight or flight mode, which is exhausting.
Look, for example, at animals in the wild. A professor at Stanford wrote a book called Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers—the idea is, if you are a zebra being chased by a lion, you feel stress, and you are only supposed to feel stress five minutes in your life, right before you die.
You are being chased, you feel stress for five minutes, and you either die or you get away. When you get away you immediately go into a very calm mode. Why? When you are calm you are able to restore yourself physically, psychologically.
One of the things I address is energy management. How can we have more energy to meet the demands of the day without being exhausted? I’ve worked with some of the most stressed individuals in U.S. society, veterans returning from war with a lot of trauma, and they are in constant fight-or-flight mode.
They can’t sleep, are very restless, can’t go to work, can’t learn at school, have problems with relationships. We did a very simple intervention. We used breathing. Breathing is interesting because if you slow and deepen your breath you can lower your heart rate and your blood pressure in minutes.
It is probably the fastest way that we can address the stress in our system. After a week of learning these breathing practices, their trauma and anxiety had significantly lowered, and that improvement was maintained one year later. If it can work for them, it can work for us.
Lisa: Why isn’t this used everywhere by everyone? It took a week and lasted a year?
“For every emotion, you breathe differently. Fear, anxiety: you breathe more quickly and more shallowly. For emotions like happiness, we have deeper breaths. You can see that in little children running around playing. They have these deep belly breaths.”
Emma: I’m hoping more people learn about this study and the technique that we researched. It is available to the general public through a non-profit called Earth Living, but in your day-to-day you can use breathing, too.
I’ll give you a short anecdote that can illustrate what I’m talking about. Jake was a Marine corps officer in charge of the last vehicle in a convoy in Afghanistan and all the other vehicles had passed before him.
Jake’s vehicle hit an IED [Improvised Explosive Device], there was a huge explosion, and when the dust had settled he looked down and saw his legs were severed below the knee. He could see everything on the inside, bone and everything. That is a moment of huge shock, but he remembered in that moment a breathing technique he had learned.
It allowed him to stay calm and have the presence of mind to do his job, to make sure his men were okay, to give orders to call for help. He tourniquetted his own legs, bandaged them up to stop the bleeding. Only when everything was said and done did he fall unconscious. Later, he was told if he had not done that he would have bled to death. I know Jake personally, and that is why I write his story.
This story can seem really foreign to us but at the same time it is so real. It can help someone in one of the most high stress situations you can be in. There is so much for us to take away regarding the breath.
Research shows that when you breathe in, your heart rate increases, and when you breathe out your heart rate decreases, so lengthening your exhales starts to calm your heart rate. The other thing we know is that emotions are linked to breath—it is really hard to change how you feel with your thoughts. When you are feeling stressed it is hard to tell yourself, “don’t be so stressed.”
Lisa: Which is what other people often tell you, that you need to calm down, you need to not stress so much or you will get sick. You’re like, “Oh good, I’ll stop stressing right now.” It doesn’t work like that.
Emma: It is actually unhelpful and annoying when people tell you that, because it is so difficult. That is where breathing kicks in. In one study out of Belgium, researchers had people come in, experience different emotions, looked at how they were breathing, and saw that for every emotion you do breathe differently.
Fear, anxiety: you breathe more quickly and more shallowly. For emotions like happiness we have deeper breaths. You can see that in little children running around playing. They have these deep belly breaths. When you come home at night you will notice that if you are tired you will fall onto the sofa, take a deep breath, and sigh. Sobbing, laughing, those are examples of how breathing changes with our emotions.
In the second part of the study, they had different people come in, and those people were given the breathing instructions that corresponded with the emotion. Can you guess what they found?
They started feeling the emotions that corresponded to the breath. This study is revolutionary, because we can’t change our emotions with our thoughts. Yet it is what everyone tells you to do. This is where breathing is very powerful, both in everyday situations but also to build resilience.
Lisa: What else do you do at the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education?
Emma: We have a compassion training program and put on events—a compassion and technology conference, compassion and business, compassion and health care—and we also put out publications. We have an Oxford handbook of compassion science coming out next March summarizing all of the different findings from top experts in the field.
“Economists have told us that first and foremost, we are selfish. Psychologists have disproven economists again and again on this point. If you give adults only a few seconds to make a decision that is either fair or selfish, their first instinct is to do something fair.”
Lisa: I’m sure that you must occasionally meet skeptics that are like, compassion research? What is that?
Emma: Absolutely. Economists have told us that first and foremost, we are selfish. “Look out for number one,” is what people are told to be successful.
Psychologists have disproven economists again and again on this point. If you give adults only a few seconds to make a decision that is either fair or selfish, their first instinct is to do something fair. The same is true with a child. If we give people longer to think about it, maybe they will think more selfishly, but that very first instinct is fair, altruistic, and even exists in the animal world.
A rat will go out of its way to help another rat if it is suffering. We see it in apes, chimps, so altruism is something that is very innate. In fact, you’ve probably heard of “survival of the fittest.” That is often attributed to Darwin, but he actually didn’t coin this phrase. It was said by Herbert Spencer, a social Darwinist, and someone who had an agenda to justify racial and social hierarchy. If you look at what Darwin had to say, his message was much more about the fact that we would not have survived had it not been for sympathy.
Just look at us. We are so vulnerable. There is no way that our ancestors could have survived in the wild if we hadn’t stuck together. Human beings have babies who have the longest period of vulnerable time that they need protection for.
We need to have that caring, nurturing aspect as a strong part of ourselves. It is actually our most predominate feature. Well then, why are people selfish sometimes? There is a norm of self interest that has been propagated by economists—sometimes people want to help, but they stop themselves because they are worried that others will think they are doing it out of self-interest.
In terms of compassion science, research shows that if you have more compassion and altruism in your life you are happier, healthier, recover from disease faster, and live longer. There is a study of people who have had very stressful life events and usually when you have had a very stressful life event your longevity is shortened.
They saw that, for some people, it wasn’t the case. When they looked closer at the data, they saw that even if you’d had a big, stressful life event, if you engaged in altruistic actions it was as if that stressor hadn’t happened. You are buffered, protected from that stress.
Lisa: Are you compiling a book on this?
“How could we think that we go into the workplace and our emotions don’t matter? How can we think we are robots doing whatever action we need to do? Just because it’s a professional environment, it doesn’t mean that we don’t have the same needs, or react to each other in the same ways.”
Emma: Actually, one of the chapters in The Happiness Track goes over this—it dispels the myth that we have to always look out for ourselves. Even in the workplace, it is people who are kinder, more supportive, more helpful, that actually end up being more successful.
Just because it is a professional environment it doesn’t mean that we don’t have the same needs, or react to each other in the same ways. So bosses that are more kind, more compassionate, have much greater loyalty. People prefer to work for someone in a place where they are happy than to get a bigger paycheck elsewhere.
Lisa: Do you have any other hands-on tips that people can try?
Emma: Well, we need creativity, even in the workplace. If you ask CEOs across industries, “What is the number one most valued quality you look for in incoming employees?” they say creativity. It makes sense. Every organization needs to be creative in order to be competitive. They have to be the most innovative. Creativity is also important at home. In your personal relationships, we all encounter difficulties, challenges that we need to figure out how to resolve.
Research shows that we are most creative when we are not focused. The brain goes into this daydreaming state, even though it feels like we are not doing anything. We think, I am wasting time sitting around being idle, but actually your brain is in this active problem solving mode.
Don’t feel bad about taking those moments off. In the United States, people only have ten days off, maybe, and don’t take them. Those that do take them, 91 percent are checking their emails. If you do unplug, even those few moments a day, you are boosting your creativity. You don’t have to feel guilty.
Lisa: Right, but then you actually have to stay away from information. Unplugging work but checking into Facebook doesn’t work for creativity.
Emma: Right, you don’t want to engage in another very focused activity. Going online, checking Facebook, you are tiring yourself out and not letting your mind go into daydreaming mode. You want to alternate focused work with activities that are more calming and that don’t use up all of your brain capacity, like sorting through mail, clearing your desk, entering data. That is one really simple tip for managing energy but also maximizing your creativity.
A 2009 study showed that we take in 34 gigabytes of information every day, equivalent to 100,000 words. That was 2009. How much are we taking in now?
Lisa: You also talk about something you call self-compassion, the “be nice to yourself” principle. How do you see this as a way to become more successful?
“Research shows that people who are more self-compassionate are much more resilient—they bounce back from their challenges, learn from their mistakes, have the enthusiasm to keep going in the face of difficulty.”
Emma: We often have the misconception that self-criticism leads to improvement, but if you look at the research, self-criticism is like self-sabotage. It leads to greater anxiety and depression, and you are less likely to learn from your mistakes and grow.
Imagine you are training for a marathon for the first time in your life. It is the big day, you are running, and you trip and fall. Someone on the sidelines says, “You’re not a runner! You are such a loser. What are you doing here? Go home.” Imagine how you feel. Now imagine someone else on the other side says, “Everybody falls. You can totally do this. Go ahead, get back up and go for it.”
Who is the first person? That is self criticism. Having that self-critical voice is actually like beating yourself up. Research shows that people who are more self-compassionate are much more resilient—they bounce back from their challenges, learn from their mistakes, have the enthusiasm to keep going in the face of difficulty.
I’m not saying we should not be self aware. Compassion doesn’t mean just letting yourself off the hook, it doesn’t mean letting yourself be lazy. Having self compassion sometimes means getting yourself off the couch and to the gym.
Lisa: When you say self compassionate people are more successful, these are not people that never see any faults in themselves.
Lisa: What do you hope for your book? How much of an impact do you hope it will have?
Emma: I just hope that it helps people. I’ve found, personally, that a lot of these techniques have been extremely helpful for me. I’ve seen it be very helpful for other people, like the veterans that I work with. We live in a time where we are told to purchase and accomplish, and not told how to be happy and fulfilled.
Interestingly, a lot of the research suggests things that our ancient religious and philosophical traditions have been telling us for ages, but the data is now there to show us that they mostly had it right.