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How to deal best with failure and stress

How do we deal with failure and stress the best?

People cope with failures and stress in life in a variety of ways ranging from distraction to getting social support. But what are the most effective strategies?

New research from the University of Kent has revealed that positive reframing, acceptance and humor are the most effective coping strategies for people dealing with failures.

In a paper published by the international journal Anxiety, Stress & Coping, Dr. Joachim Stoeber and Dr. Dirk Janssen from the University's School of Psychology describe a diary study that found these three strategies to be most effective in dealing with small failures and setbacks, and helping people to keep up their spirits and feel satisfied at the end of the day.

For the study, a sample of 149 students completed daily diary reports for 3 -- 14 days, reporting the most bothersome failure they experienced during the day, what strategies they used to cope with the failure, and how satisfied they felt at the end of the day. Their coping strategies included: using emotional or instrumental support; self-distraction; denial; religion; venting; substance use; self-blame; and behavioral disengagement.

Of these, using social support (both emotional and instrumental), denial, venting, behavioral disengagement, and self-blame coping had negative effects on satisfaction at the end of the day: the more students used these coping strategies in dealing with the day's most bothersome failure, the less satisfied they felt at the end of the day. What's interesting to note is that social support by others was not an effective strategy.

In contrast, positive reframing (i.e. trying to see things in a more positive light, looking for something good in what happened), acceptance and humor coping had positive effects on satisfaction: the more students used these coping strategies in dealing with failures, the more satisfied they felt at the end of the day.

Dr. Stoeber, a leading authority on perfectionism, motivation and performance, believes that the findings of this study will be of significant interest to clinicians, counselors and anyone working on stress research. He said: 'The finding that positive reframing was helpful for students high in perfectionistic concerns is particularly important because it suggests that even people high in perfectionistic concerns, who have a tendency to be dissatisfied no matter what they achieve, are able to experience high levels of satisfaction if they use positive reframing coping when dealing with perceived failures.'

He added that a helpful recommendation for anyone trying to cope would be to try to find positive aspects in the outcomes they regard as 'failures'; and reframe these outcomes in a more positive way; for example, by focusing on what has been achieved, rather than on what has not been achieved. 'It's no use ruminating about small failures and setbacks and drag yourself further down,' he said. 'Instead it is more helpful to try to accept what happened, look for positive aspects and -- if it is a small thing -- have a laugh about it.'

While reframing and acceptance are widely used by practitioners in the helping professions, the study clearly identified humor and laughter as effective coping strategies.

For decades, researchers have explored how humor helps patients relieve stress and heal. Melissa B. Wanzer, EdD, professor of communication studies at Canisius College in Buffalo, N.Y., has taken it one step further, with her research on how humor helps medical professionals cope with their difficult jobs. She also looked at how humor affects the elderly and how it can increase communication in the workplace and in the classroom.

She wondered, how do health care providers care for terminally ill people and manage to come back to work each day? So she asked them, in large-scale studies. Their answer? Humor. Wanzer has found humor to be beneficial in other areas as well.

"If employees view their managers as humor-oriented, they also view them as more effective," notes Wanzer. "Employees also reported higher job satisfaction when they worked for someone who was more humor-oriented and used humor effectively and appropriately." Wanzer and her colleagues found that humor is an effective way to cope with on-the-job stress - again, when used appropriately.

Wanzer also recently collaborated on research that found aging adults who used humor more frequently reported greater coping efficacy, which led to greater life satisfaction. This was the third study she conducted, with three different populations, where the conclusion was the same.

But what if you don't consider yourself to be particularly funny? Wanzer says that while you can't change your personality, you can find ways to integrate humor into your day-to-day life and change your communication patterns.

"Self-disparaging humor, making fun of oneself, is a very effective form of humor communication, as long as it is not done excessively," says Wanzer, who adds that telling jokes is just a small portion of humor communication.

It is commonly believed that kidding around at work isn't a good thing. Well, it is, says a University of Missouri-Columbia researcher, who has examined how workplace humor affects the working environment.

Chris Robert, assistant professor of management at the University of Missouri,'s College of Business, said that humor - particularly joking around about things associated with the job - actually has a positive impact in the workplace. Occasional humor among colleagues, he said, enhances creativity, department cohesiveness and overall performance.

The conclusion was made by examining theories on humor and integrating literature from a wide variety of disciplines that touch on the subject. Several hundred sources were analyzed by Robert and collaborator Wan Yan, a business doctoral student, who have attempted to bring together literature from numerous disciplines to make the case that humor is serious business.

 "Humor has a significant impact in organizations," said Robert, "humor isn't incompatible with goals of the workplace. It's not incompatible with the organization's desire to be competitive. In fact, we argue that humor is pretty important. It's not just clowning around and having fun; it has meaningful impact on cohesiveness in the workplace and communication quality among workers. The ability to appreciate humor, the ability to laugh and make other people laugh actually has physiological effects on the body that cause people to become more bonded."

 "Humor is difficult in cross cultural situations," he said. "It's hard to know what's going to be funny or when to use humor. Some people have suggested that you just avoid it all together; don't be funny, don't try to make jokes. We basically reject that and offer some ground rules for understanding when and what kind of humor might be appropriate."

Laughter can play key roles in group communication and group dynamics -- even when there's nothing funny going on. That's according to new research by Dr. Joann Keyton from North Carolina State University and Dr. Stephenson Beck of North Dakota State University, published in a special issue of Small Group Dynamics, which examined the role of laughter in jury deliberations during a capital murder case.

The researchers learned that laughter could be used as a tool, intentionally and strategically, to control communication and affect group dynamics. The researchers also found that "laughter matters, even when it is a serious group task," Keyton says. "Laughter is natural, but we try to suppress it in formal settings. So, when it happens, it's worth closer examination."

"Laughter is one way of dealing with ambiguity and tension in situations where a group is attempting to make consequential decisions and informal power dynamics are in play," Keyton says. "There are very few opportunities to see group decision making, with major consequences, in a public setting," Keyton explains. "It is usually done in private, such as in corporate board meetings or judicial proceedings. But laughter is something that occurs frequently, and not only because something is funny. 

Failure, serious work and stress is now commonplace in our society. It seems that having a sense of humor and laughter are critical strategies to help us get through, and remain positive and resilient. 

 

Ray Williams is the author of Breaking Bad Habits and The Leadership Edge.

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