Managing your business through stress and rough times

Make your point | Being innovative when problem solving is an essential skill

Feeling a little grumpy and stressed these days? Seems it’s been that kind of year so far.

In an age of mental health awareness, it’s no surprise to learn that stress can easily mess with your mental and physical health. Feeling foggy, distracted or listless can ultimately lead to less-than-optimal decisions as your focus is highjacked by real or perceived threats and feelings of powerlessness.

Plus, if you are stressed, your grumpiness can make people avoid you like the plague, thereby compounding your feelings of isolation.

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For better or worse, farmers are known for their grit, perseverance, and super-hero like talent for finding solutions in uncommon situations, so I wondered if it was possible to harness all that stress and those bad moods and use it to our advantage. Can we make a silk purse from a sow’s ear?

Grumpy farmers rejoice: Research has shown that unhappiness can actually make you more creative.

A farmer’s ability to find creative ways to solve problems is invaluable. Creativity and its cousin, innovation, are key players in a business’s productivity, efficiency and success. Finding innovative solutions to everyday hiccups is a critical skill for most farmers. (Think of all the times you jerry-rigged pieces from the scrap metal pile to fix a piece of machinery, or the hundreds of applications you’ve discovered for baler twine.)

The prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain known to be involved in creativity, is also implicated in planning and decision-making so, while analysis is important in the decision-making process, you also need to infuse it with a good dose of visionary inspiration.

In fact, many scientists agree that creativity stems more from persistence and problem-solving skills rather than positivity. Mark Davis, a psychologist in the University of North Texas department of management, says a “good mood doesn’t improve problem-solving, which involves judgments that almost by necessity won’t feel good: i. e. critique and evaluation, experimentation and failure. The stress that arises from problems may be unpleasant, but it also motivates us to complete tasks.”

Psychology professors Jennifer George and Jing Zhou found that when bad moods or feelings are expressed, they signal problems which, in turn, inspire modifications and improvements. In essence, some scientists believe that happiness can make you less creative and that negative emotions can actually add value to the creative process required to increase the scope and quality of problem-solving alternatives.

There is a caveat. (Isn’t there always?) An article titled “‘Stress Hormone’ Cortisol Linked to Early Toll on Thinking Ability” in the January/February issue of Scientific American Mind, cited a study of more than 2,000 people (the majority in their 40s) which found that those with the highest levels of the stress-related hormone cortisol performed worse on tests of memory, organization, visual perception and attention.

As a business owner or manager, you can appreciate the importance of those four elements. The key to maintaining optimal brain function for creativity, according to neuroscientist Amy Arnsten, is mood management, not happiness or purposefully generated stress.

“An important message to myself and others is that when challenges come our way, getting frustrated is very counterproductive — not just to achieving our aims but perhaps to our capacity to be productive,” says Sudha Seshadri, the lead researcher quoted in the Scientific American Mind article.

What’s one way to manage your mood? Make yourself laugh. Laughter has been clinically proven to reduce levels of stress hormones and increase healthful hormones like endorphins, among other physically beneficial health effects.

One of the stats I found while researching this article was that an average four-year-old laughs 300 to 400 times a day while the average 40-year-old only laughs an average of 15 times a day. Yikes!

And contrary to the research cited above, several other studies have shown that people were better at problem solving when they were in a good mood, meaning that something as simple as laughing can make you more productive. When you do something you’re good at and/or enjoy, you’re focused on using your strengths and you’re also more likely to see success from your efforts, generating feelings of contentment and happiness. Success breeds feelings of confidence. The more confident you become, the happier you’ll feel. The happier you feel the more you’ll giggle and guffaw. And thus, the process flows in a continuous circle.

To be clear, I’m not advocating that you purposefully create stress or ignore the physical warning signs that will make you crash and burn. Nor am I encouraging you to be a delightful curmudgeon or to be impossibly, constantly upbeat.

The suggestion that crankiness can generate genius is intriguing, but who wants to be a grumpy pariah or miss out on a business opportunity because your body was too drained from stress? Life is truly too short.

Instead, I suggest taking a five-minute break from broken machinery, stuck tractors, and cantankerous cows to channel your inner four-year-old: watch crazy cat videos and laugh like no one’s watching (to co-opt a popular saying). It might just be the prescription for lowering your stress levels, getting your creative juices flowing, and having a more productive day.

About the author

Contributor

April Stewart is a sixth-generation dairy farmer in Quebec, president of Canadian Young Speakers for Agriculture, and principal of Alba PR, whose latest project is The Farmer’s Survival Guide: How to Connect with 21st Century Consumers.

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