My mind is full. These days there is so much information coming at us around the clock, from so many sources. Plus, I love to learn and assimilate new research findings, stories, and perspectives into the work we are doing on connection and organizational culture. Being an integrative thinker has its strengths. It’s certainly stimulating (and sometimes exhausting). I recognize that a downside, especially for someone consistently advocating for the importance of connection in our work lives and personal lives, is that my natural bent to be in my head can be a source of disconnection.
My family will tell you I have a rich inner thought life. My family will also tell you that while I may be physically present, I am not always mentally present in the conversation at-hand. This holiday season, I’m going to work on that!
I recently had the privilege of delivering keynote speeches about cultivating cultures of connection to 500 leaders at Leadership Development Institute meetings of CHRISTUS Health in Corpus Christi and San Antonio, Texas. While there, I heard a thoughtful presentation on mindfulness given by Amy Cunningham, Program Manager for Leadership Development at CHRISTUS Health. What Amy shared helped me better understand the link between mindfulness, connection, and contentment. As I listened, it struck me that relating some of the highlights to insights from neuroscience and endocrinology would be a helpful topic for readers of our blog and monthly newsletter.
Connection and mindfulness
Paying attention on purpose, non-judgmentally, with awareness in the present moment is how Amy defined mindfulness. She used an analogy that speaks to our time to describe what we are up against: Like our smartphones, we have “apps” constantly running on autopilot, draining our battery, and distracting us from being present in the moment. They might be questions that pop up in the chatting that goes on inside of our minds, such as “I wonder what I should have for lunch?,” “Is my daughter prepared for her math test today?,” “What should I write about for my next article?”, “Did my elderly mother make it to her doctor’s appointment this morning?, “Will the weather be nice this evening so I can go outside for a walk?,” “Did I pay that bill that was due today?,” or “Is that so-and-so across the room? I need to get his attention and speak with him before he leaves.”
The ability to be mindful when we are in the presence of others will enable us to be better connectors. To disrupt our automatic tendency to constantly think about ourselves, mindfulness would have us slow down, pay attention, and notice something new about another person. As an exercise, Amy had everyone stand up, find an acquaintance or friend, converse with them for a minute, and intentionally notice something new about the person. She made the point that this type of mindfulness is essential for leaders. I agree. Being distracted or conveying indifference is disconnecting; being present and showing interest connects us.
Amy’s presentation resonated with me because mindfulness and being present have not been strengths of mine. Far too often I am thinking about something I need to do or about a problem I’m trying to solve rather than channeling my full attention on what’s going on in the present. If I don’t keep that in check while interacting with others, it’s bound to break connection. Developing the habit of noticing something new is a helpful “hack” that will boost connection during conversations. Amy also mentioned other practices that promote mindfulness, including paying attention to one’s breathing, progressive relaxation, mindful movement, journaling, and small grounding moments (including wiggling one’s toes).
Here’s a simple mindfulness action she recommended that would be appropriate to take on this month: While you are washing your hands, think of things you are grateful for. When I am stressed, pausing to name several things I am grateful for has helped me shift my mood back to the positive and optimistic. The way our brains work, you cannot feel anxious and grateful at the same time. Practicing gratitude has other benefits too. Over the past two decades, studies have consistently found that people who practice gratitude report fewer symptoms of illness (including depression), more optimism and happiness, stronger relationships, and more generous behavior.
Connection, mindfulness, and contentment
There is another reason I believe mindfulness is a useful tool and it has to do with what goes on at the molecular level of our bodies. I’m often thinking about the future things I want to get done. This future orientation increases the neurotransmitter dopamine in our brain. Dopamine is associated with the pleasure and reward pathways, and the positive emotion that makes us desire what we don’t have and motivates us to go after the things we desire. Noticing the present, savoring the good moments, boosts the positive emotion of contentment and calls on the neurotransmitter serotonin.
Both of these natural chemicals have important and different roles to play. When it comes to being an intentional connector, however, dopamine is the one we should keep our eye on. While it is a good and useful thing to have an internal spark to pursue a goal and persevere on your quest to attain it, too much dopamine is a cause for concern.
In their book The Molecule of More: How a Single Chemical in Your Brain Drives Love, Sex, and Creativity—and Will Determine the Fate of the Human Race, authors Daniel Z. Lieberman and Michael E. Long give this interesting insight: “Dopamine has no standard for good, and seeks no finish line. The dopamine circuits in the brain can be stimulated only by the possibility of whatever is shiny and new, never mind how perfect things are at the moment. The dopamine motto is ‘More’”.
Here’s another characteristic to be aware of: Like certain addictive substances, a person needs more dopamine to produce the same positive emotion over time. In organizations, leaders who have dopaminergic personalities are never satisfied. They continuously push people to achieve unrealistic goals in pursuit of boosting their own personal wealth, power, or status. This obsessive pursuit can overwhelm people working for dopaminergic leaders and create high levels of anxiety, incivility, stress, declining employee engagement, and rising burnout (and may push them toward an addiction of their own as they try to cope). Failing to feed the dopamine habit triggers pains of withdrawal. An individual who is overly reliant on dopamine may be headed for a crash.
In addition to drawing on normal levels of dopamine, the most effective leaders benefit from other sources of positive emotion in the brain that make them more stable and in touch with the people they lead. Lieberman and Long contrast the “future-oriented dopamine” with “present-oriented chemicals, a collection of neurotransmitters we call the Here and Now molecules . . . [which] include serotonin and oxytocin, endorphins and endocannabinoids. . . . As opposed to the pleasure of anticipation via dopamine, these chemicals give us pleasure from sensation and emotion.”
Describing the interplay of these neurotransmitters, the authors explain that “though dopamine and [Here and Now] (‘H&N’) circuits can work together, under most circumstances they counter each other. When H&N circuits are activated, we are prompted to experience the real world around us, and dopamine is suppressed; when dopamine circuits are activated, we move into a future of possibilities and H&Ns are suppressed.”
In his book The Hacking of the American Mind: The Science Behind the Corporate Takeover of Our Bodies and Brains, Robert H. Lustig sets out the differences between reward (driven by dopamine) and contentment (driven by serotonin). In the table below, I’ve summarized his observations.
Lustig writes, “Reward, when unchecked, can lead us into misery, like addiction. Too much substance use (food, drugs, nicotine, alcohol) or compulsive behaviors (gambling, shopping, surfing the Internet, sex) will overload the reward pathway and lead not just to dejection, destitution, and disease but not uncommonly death as well”.
Keeping reward-seeking behavior in balance clearly matters to our wellbeing, and that’s where serotonin and the other Here and Now sources of positive emotion play a role. These counter-balancing emotions primarily come from healthy relationships at home and work. That’s good news for people who have an abundance of connection in their lives, and yet another reason why using mindfulness techniques to focus on the present is so important.
Will you join me?
As we approach the holiday season here in the U.S., I’m going to intentionally look for something new in each conversation I have while at work and while interacting with my family and friends. My hope is that this practice will help me develop the habit of being more mindful in conversations and ultimately better connect with others.
Will you consider joining me in trying out this practice? By being truly present we will be giving others and ourselves valuable gifts that cannot be bought: the gifts of connection and contentment.
Portions of this article are excepted from the 2nd edition of Connection Culture.