Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Wellbeing is shaped by your day's little highlights, not merely its mishaps

Wellbeing research has tended to model work-life as a default state punctuated by negative events such as conflicts, mistakes, or unwelcome change. In this way, it follows the broader model of psychological health research that focuses on harmful interruption to normal functioning , a model that Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi were contesting in 2000 when they launched the Positive Psychology movement. In a new paper, Joyce Bono and colleagues further this tradition by drawing attention to how positive, as well as negative, daily events have a dynamic effect on our wellbeing.

Their study tested its hypotheses using an impressive array of data types collected across 15 consecutive working days. The 61 female participants completed four two-minute surveys each day, 2,4,6 and 8 hours after arriving at work. In each survey, participants recorded whether within the last period they had experienced any positive events such as socialising or receiving recognition, any negative events such as a work setback, or experienced interference with work by thinking about family duties, as well as how stressed they had been.  Unsurprisingly, experiencing a negative event was associated with more stress in that period. Experiencing a positive event led to less stress in that period – as well as in the following period.

The participants also wore blood pressure monitors at various points across the day. Higher systolic pressure - a good indicator of workplace physiological stress and associated in the long-term with heart disease – was more frequent at the end of days containing more negative and family-conflict events. And systolic pressure was lower in the evenings following days with more positive events. This result makes sense: we wouldn't necessarily expect a positive event to lower blood pressure in the moment, as it could bring about elation, laughter, or other arousing states; it's only later that the lowering could reasonably manifest itself.

Half-way through the study, all participants were offered an intervention in the form of a positive reflection exercise to be completed at the end of the working day. This involved reflecting back on three good things that had happened during the day and recording this in a journal.  Blood pressure was unaffected by this intervention, but the second half of the study saw lower incidence of self-reported health and stress symptoms, such as difficulty concentrating or neck pain, which the participants had been asked to record each evening throughout the study. Perhaps more convincingly, days where participants forgot to do the journalling saw more symptoms than those where they adhered to the intervention.

The effect sizes due to the intervention were small, and against hypotheses there were no interactions with the impact of positive or negative effects, meaning its action wasn’t about buffering from bad moments or magnifying great ones. However, it did reduce the impact of family preoccupation upon blood pressure and the evening measurement of mental health symptoms. Bono's team did some further analysis, revealing that almost half of the positive reflections referred to a family member, suggesting that the intervention might have helped participants consider that, whatever responsibilities they may impose, family are something to be grateful for.

This study shows us the importance of both positive and negative events in shaping our work wellbeing. Noting larger negative effect sizes, the authors note that "although the effects of bad may be stronger, the effects of good may be longer, at least with respect to employee perceptions of stress" And positive events can be actively created, such as through the use of the reflection exercise, to moderate and influence longer-term health states.

ResearchBlogging.orgBono, J., Glomb, T., Shen, W., Kim, E., & Koch, A. (2012). Building Positive Resources: Effects of Positive Events and Positive Reflection on Work Stress and Health Academy of Management Journal, 56 (6), 1601-1627 DOI: 10.5465/amj.2011.0272

Further reading:
Seligman, M. E., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. 2000. Positive psychology: An introduction. American Psychologist, 55: 5–14.

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