The Moral Molecule

Neuroscience and economic behavior

Harnessing Good Stress

Some stress is good.

Why in the world had I agreed to this?

As the altimeter on my wrist reached 12,500 feet, the back of the hollowed-out plane I was sitting in opened up and people started to step out into the abyss. A graduate student sitting next to me in a white coat kept asking me to add two-digit numbers, but I was able to answer correctly only half the time. I have a fear of heights, you see, and this was my first time skydiving. But then, anything for science.

Stress is not bad. Let me repeat: Stress is not bad—at least not all of it.

Some kinds of stress are bad, and some kinds are good. When organizing a group of individuals to work together to complete a project or reach a goal, the idea is to have a solid dose of “good stress” to optimize performance.

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Let’s start, though, with the bad—what I call this Type I stress. This is the chronic, never-ending, always-hanging-on-your-shoulders stress. It is associated with a lack of control over one’s destiny, and over time it can increase your chances of a heart attack, stroke and diabetes. In the short term, chronic stress is bad for memory and bad for cognition, and it generally impairs performance.

I know firsthand. I took my blood before and after I skydived and found that I had had a 400 percent jump in the stress hormone cortisol.

Type II stress is the good stress. It is time-limited and ends concretely when an objective is met. When I trained to skydive in a seven-story-tall wind tunnel, I knew that this experience would end in 10 minutes. Such stress might more appropriately be called “a challenge.” Type II stress focuses our attention on a goal and improves cognitive performance.

Peter Drucker recognized the power inherent in this kind of test. He wrote that “what motivates knowledge workers is what motivates volunteers...They need above all, a challenge.”

You can use the brain’s marshaling of cognitive resources for challenges by clearly defining when a project will be complete—for example, when the report is written, when the funding expires or when the patent is filed. Goals that may never be reached or are so far in the future as to be only vaguely reachable induce bad stress. These include “when sales increase enough to give you a raise” or “when our company’s valuation exceeds that of our peers.”

When the challenge has been met, don’t forget to recharge the brain’s cognitive system. How? Take a break—and, with your team, celebrate the victory. More on that in my new book The Moral Molecule: The Source of Love and Prosperity

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The originally appeared 10/5/12 in The Dx, from The Drucker Institute.  

Paul J. Zak is a neuroeconomist at Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, CA.  His book The Moral Molecule will be published in 2012.

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