I used to think that to improve meant that you had to have some negative emotion that you were trying to correct. In other words, there has to be something that you don’t like in order to work hard to change something.
Years ago I came across the Yerkes-Dodson curve. The Yerkes-Dodson curve shows that as arousal and anxiety increase our performance increases up to a point and then decreases as we add more arousal or anxiety.
So when we take a test we will perform better if we want to do well on it and it causes us a little stress. But if it causes too much stress then it will likely hurt our performance.
This is very interesting and helpful but the problem that I found is that this is for increasing or decreasing arousal/anxiety and not on chronic anxiety or even moods. If we are always anxious or if we are in a bad mood, does this impact the results of the Yerkes-Dodson work?
Personally I have found that being happy leads to an open mind and the ability to continue to work towards goals. It doesn’t reduce motivation as I once thought. But I still find that in certain moments when anxiety starts to increase, I tend to perform better than I did without any anxiety. In other moments I get so nervous that I can tell I am not performing optimally.
For me it always seemed like a combination of the two, rather than looking at them as an either/or situation.
In How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer, the author references a study that has studied the effect of moods on performance. Lehrer writes, “Mark Jung-Beeman, the scientist who studies the neuroscience of insight, has shown that people in good moods are significantly better at solving hard problems that require insight than people who are cranky and depressed. (Happy people solve nearly 20 percent more word puzzles than unhappy people.) He speculates that this is because the brain areas associated with executive control, such as the prefrontal cortex and the ACC, aren’t as preoccupied with managing the emotional life. In other words, they aren’t worrying about why you’re not happy, which means they are free to solve the problem at hand.”
This is very interesting and shows why it always seemed like if I was happy and in a good mood I was able to solve problems easier than when I was in a rotten mood. The brain was less preoccupied by why I was in a bad mood and was more open to engaging in problem solving.
Regardless of what the research states, it seems obvious that it is a better idea to work at being happy throughout life rather than being miserable all the time. But how can we do this in a way that helps us grow and improve over time and still remain happy?
For me it is easiest to explain by looking at the difference between being complacent and being content. While the words may be used interchangeably at times, I strongly believe there is a difference.
Being complacent is the feeling that there is no use trying because things won’t improve. It is sort of a giving up feeling. It takes away hope.
Being content on the other hand shows that we don’t need anything more in order to be happy. We can be happy now; it isn’t dependent on something in the future. This means that we can continue to improve and grow, but our happiness isn’t determined by the outcome of that growth but by an internal calmness.
In order to remain happy while still working hard to improve and grow, we have to take on the content mindset. We don’t need anything else in order to be happy, but we still keep working and working to improve the future.