Designers Mind: Happy to Perform

12th June 2023

Designers Mind contributor Martina Frattura discusses “self-actualisation”, and the importance of postive mindsets on productivity.

When a title can be read in more than one way, it is up to the experience of each reader to assess how to approach it. In this case, for those familiar with the term ‘performance society’, where we use a good deal of self-regulation to stay busy and deeply productive, it may not have a positive meaning.

In fact, it is often implied that productivity, the apparent child of tight schedules, is not entirely related to the happiness of the person who is called upon to perform the task, even though various studies now prove otherwise.

If we consider the balance between reward and emotional values as an inescapable feature of maintaining self-control, every time we tackle a time-consuming task (e.g. a delivery, a presentation, etc.) we take some energy away from it.

Self-control, in fact, serves not only to avoid major temptations, but also to tune our behaviour according to the conditions we face in each specific moment of our daily lives.

And what happens when, in the grip of a pressing need, we become too hard on ourselves?

The social psychologist Baumeister called it Ego-Depletion, the state of diminished resources given by a high request of self-control. Considering that we have a certain amount of energy that can be dedicated to deal with these challenges, when our mental resources are engaged, our capacity to regulate our thoughts diminishes, therefore we have less control over our emotions as well.

In other words, it seems that we may suffer emotional instability after being forced too hard on a specific request. Any coincidental moment during working hours, for example, which may not find us particularly prepared in terms of our psychophysical condition at that particular moment to deal with it, and inversely more attracted to a series of distracting temptations, leads to a weakening of the mental capacity to override negative impulses and thoughts, which may also affect the control of our emotions.

The strength of positive emotions

An emotion can be described both as short-term and long-term affective states. These, respectively, refer first to emotions that occupy the foreground of our consciousness, second to moods that appear in the background of it. They are the responses to external stimuli as well as the internal mental representations, and in both cases, they are compared to previous feelings stored in our memories.

Studies, and eventually our own direct experience, have shown that we need positive emotions to overcome any drained state.

The key to understanding why they have such a power over our mental strength is that emotions are able to recollect past feelings and give them the power to trigger them again in the present time.

It is likely that in a moment of tiredness or difficulty, one finds it difficult to consciously open oneself to a positive thought, but when we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves: a conscious decision not to let the positivity be switched off.

A brief pleasant memory is enough to trigger a domino effect of positivity. Being happy creates a cue for similar emotions, creating a loop that sticks with good thinking. In simple words, people in a good mood tend to see things in a positive light.

However, the main obstacle to this is what, nowadays, we call Tunnel Vision, that is the exclusive focus on a particular emotion. As Fredrickson suggests, sometimes we just miss the big picture by getting stuck on thoughts that bring us acting and feeling in a certain way. We create ourselves an opposite loop that instead of helping us to gain our strength back, forces us towards one direction, given by our temporary inability to go over our own perspective.

The role of rituals in self-actualisation

The perception we have of ourselves, turns out to be key to overcome these obstacles. We are all different and erratic, sensitive to what is outside and what belongs to our personal history. The discovery of our true self and its expression and development are necessary factors for a healthy performance and respect for our wellbeing.

Of course, people will always be permeable to what is outside and the influence of the environment on people’s behaviour may help recovering from mental fatigue, helping us to think positively or negatively, but there might be more.

Letting negativity hold the reins of our moment is, in fact, a possible habit of our mind: a ritual. Often, in fact, it is automatic to put all our attention on what is exhausting our mental energies, without considering what we could do to get out of that, perhaps superficial state of consciousness.

Making room, voluntarily, for positivity will be rewarded with renewed energy for the self: vitality.

Vitality is defined as physical and mental energy; in fact it is linked to both physical and psychological wellbeing. It can arise from the feeling of freedom, autonomy, support and intrinsic motivation, and is associated with feelings of vigour, positive affect and calm energy.

The term energy is used here as what a person needs to cope with the difficulty of breaking out of a negative loop.

Experiencing vitality is what would manage to restore people from their mental depletion and help them with keeping on with the good mood, without fearing to fall in negativity again.

And our work will benefit from it too. Feeling positive also improves executive functioning, synonymous with self-regulation and higher order cognitive processes such as directed attention. The cognitive material we have access to is in fact expanded and reorganised by positive thinking: a person can start looking for possible alternative ways of relating elements, as well as being creative about the way one looks at an element.

It takes guts to be positive, but it is our superpower.

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