Are You Floundering or Flourishing?

October 27, 2017

Karen was working 65 hours a week managing an Intensive Care Unit. She was a dedicated leader who was committed to ensuring high quality patient care. Just the person you would want in that position, right? Actually, she was asked to resign. And she readily agreed.

How did such a caring, hard-working person come to realize it was in everyone’s best interest if she resigned? Karen burned out. She made sure patients received great care, but she failed to take care of herself. Working 7 days a week, sometimes for 14 hours a day, depleted her. And left precious little time to replenish herself. Because there was no time for exercise, her stress chemicals built up. High cortisol levels made sleeping difficult.

Tired and stretched to her limits, Karen would over-react to problems – yelling at her staff and colleagues. Many of her staff resigned, and her vacancy rate shot up to near 50%. People with whom she needed to collaborate found her to be so abrasive they didn’t want to deal with her. As her problems mounted and her ability to deal with them declined, Karen became depressed.

Stress can trigger depressive symptoms, but how you respond to negative experiences plays a significant role in determining whether or not you’ll lapse into depression. Depression is associated with the 5-HTTLPR gene, which comes in a long form as well as a short allele. The shorter version leaves people less able to produce the substances that the brain needs to fend off depression.

In a groundbreaking study of infants, the researchers found that about half of the babies they checked were born with the short allele. By age 26, 17% of the people in the study had developed depression, all of whom had the short form of this particular gene. In addition, all of the people in the group who suffered from depression had experienced severe stress.

Significantly, almost 10% of the people studied had both the short allele and had experienced severe stress, but did not develop depression. The researchers found that these individuals had supportive environments and generated numerous positive experiences to counterbalance problem situations.

The researchers concluded that no matter what your genetic predisposition may be, there are things that you can do to prevent depression from taking root if you experience serious stress in your life. Regardless of your “hard wiring” there’s a great deal that you can do to improve your level of well being

People who fail to maintain a good work-life balance will lapse into “languishing” – a state even more prevalent than depression. People who are languishing describe their lives as “hollow” or “empty.” Because their lives lack sufficient positive emotion or close connections, they live in quiet despair.

People who flourish, on the other hand, set daily goals to generate joy. They spend their days giving and receiving help in order to make progress at work. They manage their negative thoughts and feelings by taking action to rectify problems.

My recently released book, PROPEL to Quality Healthcare, is devoted to providing strategies proven to help healthcare providers flourish. Here are 2 quick tips from the book:

Quick Tip #1: Pay attention to how you’re feeling. Ask yourself what thoughts are mulling over in your kind that are generating the particular emotions you’re experiencing. This is important because how you’re thinking can control how you’re feeling. Your emotions, in turn, are what gives you energy for doing.

For example, if you’re feeling powerless (like Karen was), you’ll notice that your thoughts of what will likely happen in the future are bleak. You’re just making up what you believe will happen to you, so try making up a happy ending to the story you’re telling yourself.

Recognizing your negative emotions enables you to replace your pessimistic point of view with pictures of optimistic outcomes. That will energize you to take action to achieve your goal.

Quick Tip #2: Focus on using your strengths more consistently rather than trying to overcome your weaknesses. You get more of what you pay attention to in life. So if you’re looking at what’s wrong with you, you’ll become self-conscious, feel weak, and perform poorly.

By recalling times when you’ve done well, you’ll bring to mind those skills and talents which enabled you to achieve success in the past. That will allow you to find ways of using those assets to do well in dealing with your current challenges.

Quick Tip 3: The final strategy for flourishing is to maintain a balanced lifestyle. To be happy you must have a healthy body, sound mind, positive emotions, and a strong spirit. That requires exercising and eating well, time for relaxation and reflection, great relationships with family and friends, and a strong connection to nature where you’ll experience the presence of the higher power.

Read more about the evidence-based steps for actually accomplishing a balanced lifestyle in Chapter 11 – Refueling Your Internal Engine.


Dr. Tom Muha is the Director of the PROPEL Institute and author of PROPEL to Quality Healthcare: Six Steps to Improve Patient Care, Staff Engagement and the Bottom Line.

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As the science of optimal human functioning has emerged, Dr. Muha has become a leading practitioner of positive psychology. He has been at the forefront in the study of how people involved in healthcare systems can achieve the highest levels of success and satisfaction. The PROPEL Principles empower healthcare professionals to apply six positive psychology principles – Passion, Relationships, Optimism, Proactivity, Energy, and Legacy – to overcome challenges and achieve remarkable results.

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