June 7, 2019
How do self care self-care and motivation link to positive psychology?
To state the obvious, work can be damned stressful. And when we think about relaxing after work and recharging our batteries, we usually think of doing something kind for ourselves. In fact, many well-meaning bosses now encourage their employees to practice self-care.
But is this the best advice?
Professor Sonja Lyubomirsky at the University of California has conducted several studies into what works, and what doesn’t work in self-care.
In one study, a group of employees were instructed to perform regular acts of self-care over a period of four weeks. Examples included treating oneself to a massage or buying a special lunch.
A second group were instructed to perform acts of kindness for other individuals over the same time period.
After the four weeks those who showed kindness toward others were more than two times happier than the self-care group. In fact, the difference between the groups was evident at a midpoint assessment (after two weeks) and continued to the end of the study.
To be clear, self-care is still important. In the study both groups still did better than a control group who practiced business-as-usual. However, if you really want to maximize self-care, there’s more impact in making someone else happy.
Another self-care myth is that we can recharge our batteries by ‘chilling out’ or taking it easy after work.
Broadly speaking there are two distinct types of after work activities. The first are the ‘chill-out’ activities that allow us to mentally and physically detach from the world. These activities, such as a warm bath or sitting in front of a screen help us to disengage and escape from stress.
The second type are the activities that involve more engagement and participation. These include reading, enjoying hobbies, going to the gym, practicing a skill, learning something new, or cooking;- anything that you find stimulating and fulfilling. These activities promote a sense of engagement and, most importantly, they promote a sense of mastery.
Professor Sharon Parker at Curtin University has been comparing these two kinds of activities, with the results now published in the Journal of Applied Psychology. It seems people who spend their evenings enjoying a sense of engagement and mastery, are more likely to feel motivated and capable as they head into work the following day. They also sleep better and report feeling more inspired and happier about work. In contrast, those who spend their evenings detached and distancing themselves from the world do not have these benefits.
Importantly, this study also found simply being empowered to choose for ourselves how we spend our free time further predicted the above benefits (especially if our choices favour experiences of mastery).
So, if you do something after work that is your own choice (one form of mastery) and if that choice involves something you find stimulating and engaging (more mastery) you will sleep better, have less stress and hit the ground running the next day.
Its tempting to chill-out after work. But it’s better to engage in something that makes you feel more alive (especially if the activity is your choice).
It’s intuitive to practice self-care. But there’s more impact in making someone else happy.
“Oh great. Now you tell me!”
Burnout, a final note
There will always be those occasions when, after a particularly long day, the only thing we want to do is collapse on the couch. If this happens on occasion, and you are still sleeping at night, you are probably coping. But if it is happening more often and your sleep is being affected it’s time to talk to your health professional. Stress and burnout are genuine concerns and ‘soldiering on’ has its limits.
Layous, K., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2014). The how, why, what, when, and who of happiness: Mechanisms underlying the success of positive activity interventions. Positive emotion: Integrating the light sides and dark sides, 473-495.
Nelson, S. K., Layous, K., Cole, S. W., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2016). Do unto others or treat yourself? The effects of prosocial and self-focused behavior on psychological flourishing. Emotion, 16(6), 850.
Ouyang, K., Cheng, B., Lam, W., & Parker, S. (2019). Enjoy Your Evening, Be Proactive Tomorrow: How Off-Job Experiences Shape Daily Proactivity. Journal of Applied Psychology. 10.1037.