Will Your Stress Help or Harm You? You Decide

Stress is bad for you. Everyone from executive coaches to doctors, to writers of popular magazine articles, and from the American Psychological Association to the World Health Organization, can tell you that. And if you don’t reduce your stress, it will eventually kill you.

Right? Well… it’s not the whole story.

Shawn Achor studies happiness for a living. He also studies stress. (He’s a former Harvard lecturer on positive psychology, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Happiness Advantage.) While Achor agrees that stress has been proven to be damaging to both mind and body, he says a person’s mindset about stress can make a huge difference. In fact, if you’re prepared with the correct mindset, stress can become enhancing rather than debilitating.

Research including a 2013 study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology has revealed that stress can help your brain use more of its capabilities, improve memory and intelligence, increase productivity, and even speed recovery from surgery. It can create greater mental toughness, heightened awareness, and a deeper appreciation for life.

Achor along with Stanford researcher Alia Crum decided to see how this research would play out in a business setting. They tested 380 UBS managers to find out if changing their mindset at work could turn their “bad” stress into “good” stress. Achor describes in a Harvard Business Review article how two different videos were shown to groups of managers, one which presented stress in a negative light (similar to how it’s portrayed in the popular media), and the other presenting stress in a positive light.

The results showed that when you think about stress as enhancing rather than debilitating at work:

  • You embrace the reality of your current stress level and use it to your advantage
  • Your fight-or-flight response isn’t triggered, so the negative part of your stress (feeling upset) starts to diminish.
  • You feel more productive and energetic. (A productivity assessment on a scale of 1-4 increased from 1.9 to 2.6, a significant shift
  • You experience notably fewer physical symptoms such as headaches, backaches, and fatigue.
  • You experience greater life satisfaction. (In previous studies, life satisfaction scores have been shown to be one of the best predictors of productivity and happiness at work.)

“Stress at work is a reality,” notes Achor. “But when stress happens, thinking of it as enhancing rather than debilitating can lessen the risk to your health and improve your productivity and performance.”

Watch a sample lecture by Shawn Achor on the depression/optimism connection and find out more about his virtual CorpU course Increasing Productivity Through Positive Psychology

Shawn AchorShawn Achor is the New York Times bestselling author of Before Happiness (2013) and The Happiness Advantage (2010). He is the winner of over a dozen distinguished teaching awards at Harvard University where he delivered lectures on positive psychology in the most popular class at Harvard. Achor has become one of the world’s leading experts on the connection between happiness and success.