An optimally challenging project stimulates positive energy.
I learned this lesson thirty-five plus years ago when my husband and I visited a wise Sufi Muslim mystic who lived in the hills of Pakistan’s NW Frontier Province. Does that location sound familiar? Those are the hills, replete with caves, where Bin Laden used to hide out, hills that have harbored the best as well as the worst of mankind.
We visited our inspiring man of wisdom, who would be called a guru in India or a tzaddik in Jewish tradition, in Qatar Nagar, the lovely rustic mountain retreat where Durrani Sahib, his family, and his followers gathered each summer. During the winters Durrani Sahib lived in Peshawar, a town near the Afghanistan/Pakistan border. Peshawar housed an Engineering College where Durrani Sahib was the Dean.
Trained as an engineer, Durrani Sahib was practical as well as wise. One of his sayings, which intrigued me then as now, was “Cars run best uphill.”
People, like cars, function at their best when faced with a moderate challenge.
I noticed this past week when my grandchildren were visiting that they were likely to get antsy or devolve into teasing each other if left with no organizing project. Yet as soon as someone launched a game, a hut-building challenge, or brought out the Legos, the hum of positive energy prevailed.
I see a similar pattern amongst my post-college clients. While they initially may enjoy some free time after four years of hard studying, their spirits definitely pick up when they shift from idling with minimal focus to having a job to go to each day.
Similar antsy feelings may emerge post-retirement. Retirees who find a project that challenges them fare the best.
Couples too function at their best when they are facing a shared moderately stressful challenge. They are likely to unify and feel most appreciative of each other if they share a sport, are facing eventually surmountable financial difficulties, or have some project such as raising kids or participating in church life that brings them together.
PT blogger Loretta Breuning writes in her blogposts and in her book I, Mammal about the biological basis of this phenomenon. The "happy chemical" dopamine is produced in animals, including in the mammal we call mankind, when we are pursuing a goal. The happiness of "stress" as we try to accomplish whatever we deem desirable is a sign that our body is pumping up our dopamine levels, motivating us to accomplish our goals by making us feel good while we are pursuing the hunt.
Excessive stress by contrast has mostly negative impacts. Excessive stress may come from too much to do in too little time, from work that poses challenges that are too difficult for your skill level, or from unpleasant interpersonal interactions that send too many negative vibes your way. A job with a demeaning boss, a company that has bit off more than it can chew, or couple/marriage problems that you lack the skills to deal with effectively all can create levels of intense stress that few folks enjoy. These kinds of excessively stressful situations raise cortisol levels, which can invite health problems. They also produce negative emotions like irritation, frustration, anxiety and depression. Excessive stress clearly has detrimental impacts on health and happiness.
Yet for sure Durrani Sahib was right. Too little challenge also creates negative emotions, unpleasant feelings such as boredom, diffused focus, anxiety and frustration.
Feeling out of sorts? Better check both sides of the stress equation, too much stress and also too little. Cars run best uphill.
Susan Heitler, Ph.D., a Denver psychologist, is author of multiple books, audios and videos including The Power of Two: Secrets to a Strong & Loving Marriage. Her marriage website PowerOfTwoMarriage.com teaches the skills that convert the stressful aspects of marriage into positive and surmountable challenges.