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The rise of the Internet has made remote work more possible and more desirable. Today, a quarter of Americans work for other people from their home, not an office. Employees seek out remote work for the autonomy and flexibility it provides, while employers offer it to cut costs and attract more talent.
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In other words, remote workers may feel better personally, but their work relationships seem to suffer. As a longtime remote worker myself, I get to sleep later thanks to my nonexistent commute, and my cat is always nearby for comfort when work is challenging. But I always feel a little wistful when I see my office colleagues planning birthday celebrations or happy hours that I can never attend.
If you’re a remote worker—or have some on your team—how can you address this pitfall? Communicating over technology is fundamental to the experience of remote work, and how we communicate may have a big influence on our workplace relationships.
Here are a few research-backed strategies for turning technology into your ally rather than a source of frustration and disconnection.
1. Be mindful of how you communicate
When teams include a mix of office and remote workers, one of the dangers is that they will become divided, creating an “us vs. them” mentality.
A 2013 study showed how these divisions can develop from the way the two groups communicate digitally. Researchers recruited student participants and split them up into teams of 10 people, with five in the same room and five “remote” (working alone in separate rooms). After just over an hour, they found that communication differences had emerged.
The “remote workers” wrote longer messages, with more positive expressions in them: more politeness, humor, friendly chat, tips, and nicknames. They tended to express their identity more, give more reasons for their actions, and talk more about reciprocity, among other differences.
On the other hand, the “office workers” were less likely to read and write messages that weren’t strictly necessary for the task at hand, perhaps due to their challenges juggling in-person and virtual interactions.
The researchers speculate that these differing ways of using technology could serve as a “faultline” between the two groups: a difference that could lead to division and conflict. If an office worker sends a terse message to a remote worker, for example, it could be perceived as rude or dismissive, because there’s no smile in the hallway to supplement it.
How a message is perceived depends on not just the content, but also the medium. In one study, participants imagined receiving the exact same performance feedback by email, on paper, or face to face. While they believed the feedback would be respectful when delivered in person, it was perceived as aloof, cold, and even cowardly over email.
Researchers suggest that explicit policies for communication could help prevent misunderstandings and conflict. In addition, we could all bring a little extra mindfulness to whom we’re communicating with and what their context is.
“Start to become very intentional about how you communicate and why,” advises developer and longtime remote worker Shane Dowling. “You begin to appreciate how excellent the bandwidth of face-to-face conversations is when it’s gone.”
2. Set expectations for technology use
Remote workers are distant from their office, in space and sometimes even in time. The typical advice is to communicate more to close that distance.
But research suggests this inclination might be off-base. Both the bad and the good of being a remote worker—higher satisfaction and lower stress, work-life conflict, and exhaustion—seem to all be directly related to the less frequent communicating they do. A 2012 study found that the more remote workers used instant messaging and email, the more stress they felt from interruptions, and the lower their sense of belonging and attachment to their organization. And, surprisingly, remote workers who exchanged more communication didn’t see it as any more personal, warm, immediate, or interactive.
“Teleworkers feel less identified with the organization when constant connectivity threatens the expected benefits of their work arrangement,” the researchers write.
Those expected benefits include interruption-free afternoons and flexible schedules, the ability to hit the gym over lunch or pick up a child early from school. But as many remote workers discover, their schedule isn’t as flexible as they expect it to be. Some feel like they have to be on-call at all times, ready to respond to timely messages or help with last-minute emergencies.
As a result, researchers have found, remote workers sometimes develop tactics to communicate less rather than more. Some turn off their phone, sign off email, or even disconnect from the Internet in order to carve out those long stretches of focus they once dreamed of. Others take deliberate steps to mislead their coworkers, setting their status to “in a meeting” or turning on an email auto-responder when they need to feed the kids or go grocery shopping.
The phenomenon of bosses wanting more communication and employees wanting less isn’t unique to remote work. The difference is that expectations can be less clear to remote workers—who can’t look around and see what time everyone arrives in the office, how often they leave their desks, how long their lunch breaks are, and what time they clock out. Remote workers may also be hesitant to set boundaries, particularly if (as invisible members of the team) they feel like they constantly have to prove themselves.
The researchers behind a 2017 study suggest that managers and employees should agree on expectations for technology use and availability. For example, one Fortune 500 company implemented ‘‘quiet time,” scheduled times of day when employees couldn’t interrupt each other. If managers aren’t proactive in setting these guidelines, remote workers can ask for more clarity—instead of both sides guessing what the other one expects.
3. Find connection and belonging
A few weeks ago, one of my remote coworkers reached out through email to say she’d had a dream about me, and she asked how I was doing. I shared something that had been preoccupying my mind, and she offered some empathy and a virtual hug. It took all of a few minutes, but it was a meaningful interaction—and research shows that social support like this can help combat disconnection in remote workers.
In a 2016 study of more than 800 remote workers in New Zealand, for example, those who felt more socially isolated—left out of activities and meetings, and missing face-to-face contact—were also less satisfied with their jobs and more stressed.
But their isolation went down the more their supervisors and peers offered social support. Supported employees said that they received more information, advice, and feedback; felt like help was available when they had problems; and believed the organization really cared about their well-being. Other research suggests that people who get more social support at work feel less exhausted.
These findings point to the need for casual, informal interactions among remote workers and other employees, which can be facilitated by technology—a kind of virtual water cooler.
“Teleworkers are constrained in their freedom to ‘shoot the breeze’ with co-located peers,” write Martha J. Fay and Susan L. Kline in a 2012 paper. But satisfying, informal interactions with coworkers could go a long way toward remote workers feeling a greater sense of belonging and commitment to the organization, they add.
For example, my partner’s company uses the Slack app to communicate digitally—and coworkers can join channels where they chat about everything from puppies to plants, anime to hip hop, board games to Beyonce. It helps when leaders encourage this kind of interaction, which might be seen as unproductive but is actually a cornerstone of work relationships.
Technology is a fact of life for many office workers today, but it’s the water that remote workers swim in. “It’s almost as if in the remote world needs are amplified,” writes management coach Victor Lipman for Forbes. “Sound practices that are important when working in proximity become absolutely vital from a distance.”
The truth is that we could all use a little more mindfulness, clarity, and connection at work. And the good news is that we can use technology to facilitate these goals rather than their opposites.
A forty-three-year-old husband and father of two came to see me in therapy. He’d been married for almost fifteen years, but said he and his wife had had problems even when they were dating. “I’ve always had to play by her rules,” he said. “She doesn’t accept me for who I am. I need to figure out what I want for a change.”
Whenever I hear a story like that, it gives me pause. How is this person rewriting his story in hindsight? Why does he feel compelled to represent himself as her victim? More generally, I wonder, Is this narrator reliable?
“To tell a story is inescapably to take a moral stance,” wrote the psychologist Jerome Bruner. Every story we tell, of marriage or life, involves judgments about salient facts, the details to amplify, the impression we wish to leave. No doubt this husband—like so many of the clients in my therapy practice—is telling a story that is skewed in some way, obscuring a fuller truth of his relationship and making it harder for him to move forward.
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In my new book, The Rough Patch, I show how the stories we tell about our love relationships have enormous power, and how changing your story can have a transformative impact on your relationship. Why is storytelling so important? Because we humans simply can’t help telling stories about ourselves and our lives—it’s how we understand who we are and figure out what to do next.
Many of the challenges people face in their relationships—fights over money, extramarital affairs, addiction, children leaving home—become crises when couples lack the emotional and relational skills needed to move through them. The ability to reflect on their stories and how those stories shape emotions is one of the key skills that can help couples right their relationship, or at least choose to part for the right reasons.
The importance of early attachments in our stories
Over the course of our lives, we choose which elements of our story to emphasize and which to obscure. The same is true in our love relationships. As the emotional centerpiece of many adult lives, love relationships are one place we look to determine whether our lives “make sense,” and whether we are moving forward or stuck.
It helps to realize that the story we are telling about our intimate relationship isn’t simply about what’s happening now, but also draws upon our early life experience of relationships, particularly early attachments. Babies are wired for attachment, and our parents’ responses to our attachment seeking molded our behavior, forming the basis for our expectations in intimate relationships. If that attachment was loving and attentive, we grow up feeling that we’re safe in our relationships, and we can be free to reflect on, review, and explore situations and thoughts that arise. If not, we may feel less safe or free in our partnerships.
All of us emerge from childhood with master narratives about whom we can be in a relationship with and what to expect from others. Yet, despite their powerful influence on us, these central narratives can change. Research findings on attachment, emotion regulation, metacognition, and mindfulness all demonstrate that learning to narrate our inner experience helps us to organize our emotions and calm them. And self-reflection is one of the most effective ways to change how we feel.
Seeing how earlier patterns with parents or caregivers contribute to your current behavior can help you review tendencies you have that once helped you to survive, but now create barriers. With self-awareness, you might notice, for example, that whenever you feel needy and dependent, you quickly become vigilant or defensive—perhaps because neediness was ignored or punished in your childhood. Understanding the roots of your current reactions, you might overcome your fears of being dismissed or discounted and risk seeking more closeness.
Even observing others’ behavior might teach you to tell a different story. Suppose you visit a friend and witness her being gentle and kind with her child when her child misbehaves. Just witnessing that might spark some new ideas about how to treat others when they are upset—something different than what you experienced as a child or what you’ve done in a similar situation. This awareness—and its accompanying emotions—can be food for thought in creating your relationship narrative.
Rewriting our stories through caring conversations
In a loving relationship, we can reevaluate our own stories and create new ones. Couples who feel most connected and hopeful together are those who can tell a story of their relationship—what therapists call a “we story”—that emphasizes loving elements such as empathy, respect, pleasure, and acceptance. The question is how do people do it? What is involved from moving toward a shared narrative that can serve as an inspirational vision of their relationship, even while going through a rough patch?
Most importantly, a couple has to figure out how to have a fulfilling conversation. A conversation—as opposed to a parallel monologue—involves two different people, each with a valid point of view, who are making an effort to understand each other. To navigate a couple conversation successfully, it helps to think in terms of three steps:
Ask your partner, “Is this a good time to talk?” This question is deceptively simple but useful because we routinely broach complicated topics on the fly, while our partner is headed out the door to work, or puzzling out the income taxes, or trying to go to sleep. (Then we may start to weave a story about how they “never” listen.)
Partners take turns exploring and describing their feelings, free of unsolicited commentary and interruption. Not everyone finds it easy to open up, which is why a patient, curious attitude in a listener is so important. It also helps to remember there’s always more than one “true story,” and your partner’s reality doesn’t cancel out yours. You can invite your partner to consider your perspective by using phrases like, “I sometimes feel” or “I don’t know if you think this too, but…” In that way, you leave open the possibility that your partner may have another perspective, while still communicating what is true for you.
After feelings have been shared on both sides, think together about how to address the issue at hand. Partners may find that fully articulating their feelings has revealed more overlap in their viewpoints than expected. If not, at least they now have more understanding of each other’s perspectives and the compromises they’ll need to make to move forward. Even if the conversation is messy, painful, or inconclusive, partners leave it feeling that their “we story” has been strengthened.
When you are speaking with a partner and want to increase both authenticity and intimacy, these kinds of conversations can help rewrite your relationship story. Of course, it’s not always easy. Some couples may refuse to explore possible alternative meanings and will insist their partner’s meanings are unambiguous…and often bad. They have difficulty observing their own biases, using language to win their argument rather than telling their story. They argue about facts, rather than exploring intentions. They have trouble listening, but say they don’t feel heard.
A signature element of growth in marriage is telling your story in a way that shifts away from blaming your spouse for the state of your world to bearing responsibility for the impact of your own conflicted and destructive feelings. If you are able to see that you are unfairly casting stones, it helps you to stop doing it and to reinstate your partner as a good person whom you love. Even if you’re ending the relationship, bearing responsibility for your own feelings is a huge part of being an adult.
It’s extraordinary to witness the impact when couples recognize that their feelings are the product of their own minds rather than the behavior of their partners. It’s instantly soothing to the other partner, giving him or her space to consider rather than react. It can open the door to more fruitful communication that can bring you closer together and help you rewrite your story in a more positive light.
That’s what ended up happening for the unhappily married father of two who sought my help. He began to see how invested he was in feeling like the innocent victim of his wife’s control, and where that theme came from in his own past. He then could see the ways he subtly co-created the very dynamic he consciously sought to escape. It didn’t make his marriage easy, but self-reflecting on his own contribution gave him a greater sense of emotional space, choice, and autonomy. He increasingly felt like the author of his own story, rather than a character in someone else’s.
We all have the opportunity and the responsibility to be curious about what kind of narrator we are and how that shapes the story we tell. Even in those moments when marriage feels painful and conflict-ridden, or boring and predictable, we can still be interested in understanding the story we are telling about it. And, as it turns out, that can make all of the difference.
I’ve been told that I’m calm under pressure, but that’s only on the outside.
To prepare for my first TV news show appearance, I put on berry-red lipstick and started breathing into my belly, an alleged relaxation technique that never seems to work. In the background of the video feed, my turquoise-blue couch stood out against white walls, where I had hung Cambodian fans and other colorful souvenirs from my travels.
The topic of discussion that day? Loneliness among young people.
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Our new series of essays by people trying to apply the science of a meaningful life to their daily lives.
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Initially, I had assumed the network wanted me to share some of my expertise as a science reporter—including the extensive research on loneliness, social connection, and well-being. But after a few emails, it became clear that I wasn’t the expert guest on the show. Instead, I was the human-interest story—the example of a lonely young person, exhibit A of the isolated millennial.
As I waited for the show to begin, my public-speaking nerves churned around in my stomach alongside the sinking realization that I was about to talk about some of my most vulnerable feelings in front of thousands of people.
How did I get here?
For four years, I had been a “digital nomad,” traveling the world and living for months at a time in places like Bali, Rome, Beijing, and more. Along with my partner, I had stood in awe of golden Thai temples, hiked the white cliffs of Dover, and slept fitfully on bumpy overnight trains in Vietnam.
Travel can be glamorous, but it’s also solitary. When you move every few months, making awkward small talk with strangers in the hopes of forming a friendship that probably won’t last seems futile—particularly for an introvert like me. So, to be honest, I didn’t really try to meet people.
But I can’t put all the blame for my loneliness on travel. In fact, the seeds had been planted much earlier. I grew up valuing self-reliance to the extreme, and I would have to learn the hard way how much I needed people.
Productivity above all
When I started high school, my violin was my best friend. At least that’s what I told myself when the girls around me paired up into twosomes. One summer, I practiced violin for four hours a day, perched in front of a fan to stay cool. I counted the minutes with a timer that I would pause when I stopped for a water break. Afterward, I’d note in a pink felt journal how much I’d practiced: “July 7, 2004: 3 hours, 50 minutes.”
That was also the year I enrolled in a prestigious Saturday music program in New York City. Sometimes I’d attend a Friday-night sleepover—I did have some friends—and then wake up at the crack of dawn, emerging from a warm sleeping bag into the chill morning fog. During the one-hour commute into the city, I’d doze in the backseat of the car and think about my friends lazily waking up and eating pancakes together, without me. In my memory, Kelly Clarkson is always playing on the radio, singing “Breakaway”: “I’ll take a risk / Take a chance / Make a change / And breakaway.”
But I couldn’t break away yet. Thanks to a bit of early reinforcement, my identity was set: I was the smart one, the good student, the valedictorian. I was the type of person who valued achievement, not the type of person who valued love and friendship. Four hours of daily violin practice eventually morphed into studying from nine in the morning to nine at night, including on weekends.
In college, I learned that you can feel lonely even when you’re surrounded by people. One of my first nights there, I went to a Montreal bar with a group of friends and acquaintances who (far braver than me) danced to hip hop music, arms up and clothes flowing. I sat back and watched, sipping a strawberry margarita—the first full drink of my life.
A friend kept checking on me, as if a few ounces of alcohol were going to make me pass out. “I’m fine,” I kept saying, waving her away.
That night, I lay in the darkness and stared up at the ceiling, feeling far away from home. All I could think was, “These aren’t my people.” I didn’t love to party or drink like all my peers seemed to, and so I turned back to my books.
Back then, I believed achievement was the source of happiness. I thought that needing others in order to be happy was a form of dependence—one I wanted to avoid. No, I was independent. My perfume was Femme Individuelle (no joke). When my partner and I started dating, school was my top priority; we routinely haggled over what time I’d finally quit studying and meet him for dinner. In my mind, we were two separate people with separate, busy lives—and I liked it that way.
After college, when I had the chance to travel the world and write—a fantastic career opportunity—I didn’t really consider how it might affect my social network.
But research (and common sense) could have predicted how it would all turn out. Constantly moving, I was cutting myself off from the benefits of settling in a single place, of living close to family and volunteering in my community. Indeed, research suggests that frequent travel often leaves people “searching for more enduring relationships.” When someone remarked on how difficult it must be on the road, though, I had no idea what she was talking about.
Oddly enough, I hadn’t felt lonely during most of my travels. But that was about to change.
The opposite of wanderlust
During a six-month stay in Toronto, Canada, I started a meetup that met monthly to discuss happiness. I told myself it was a smart career move, a way to build credibility in the psychology world—but deep down, some part of me probably just wanted to be part of a group. Among the frequent attendees was my partner’s sister, who (in my mind) didn’t fall into the category of “people I’ll never see again who thus aren’t worth getting to know.”
She and a good friend of hers—who would become my friend, too—were there at the first meeting when I sat, latte in hand, eager to see if anyone would show up. They jumped in when the conversation lagged and congratulated me afterward.
They were all there at the last meeting that summer, on a boiling August day just a week before I left Toronto. A dozen of us convened on the back patio of a cafe to discuss self-esteem over iced teas and coffees. As people started to leave, they asked me where I was headed next—and I smiled and talked about Oktoberfest in Germany, about Italy and Greece. Inside, I was sad that I wouldn’t be seeing everyone in September.
Back on the road, some of my enthusiasm for travel was gone. I had gotten a glimpse of connection and community, and I wanted more. I was relieved and excited when my plane touched down in Toronto the following year. My four-year, 17-country world tour was over.
Suddenly, there were no more shiny objects to pursue—no Korean signs to decipher, no Parisian cafes to discover, no Berlin history to learn. And I was hit with a deep and chilling sense of loneliness.
How to win friends
When I went on TV, the host assumed I had already “crossed the threshold” and gotten over my pangs of loneliness. She asked when it had happened, and I confessed that it hadn’t. “I’m still on the journey,” I said, seven months after signing a long-term lease.
One of the other guests on the show was the founder of Hey! VINA, an app for women to make female friends that I decided to try. (Yet another guest was running a platonic cuddling service, but that seemed like a bit much for me.) Hey! VINA is basically like Tinder or Bumble—you create a profile, swipe through other people’s profiles, and get matched up when there’s mutual interest.
I matched with a native Torontonian who seemed to share my love of cats, optimism, and shyness. We eventually met for a nighttime walk, and the blocks passed unseen as we chatted about psychology, fitness, and the city that was now my home. My conversation felt halting and inelegant; in nomadic life, I had gotten out of practice talking about myself and telling my life story. But on the subway ride home, I couldn’t stop smiling.
The benefit of this digital friend-making approach, in my mind, was that everyone was just as desperate as me.
The downside was that it’s almost exactly like online dating. After each “date,” I’d ponder all the things I had said: Was I interesting? Did I offend her? Then there was the question of whether—and when—to suggest another hangout. Should I play it cool and wait a few days? What if she agrees just because she feels sorry for me?
My first VINA friend disappeared for a few weeks, and I lamented to my brother. “She was so cool, I liked her so much,” I said. “Why doesn’t she like me?”
After some merciless brotherly teasing, he told me not to put all my eggs in one basket.
A change of heart
Luckily, I did have eggs in other baskets. At the time, my personal loneliness-busting initiative amounted to something like, “Go meet people, at least once a week.” I kept “dating” other prospective new friends; I went to meetups, book clubs, and dinners hosted by my neighbors. I attended weekly blues dances, whether my partner decided to come that night or not.
This was a change for me. A decade ago, I defined myself by my work ethic, my intelligence, and my productivity—all brains and no heart. On some level, that became a self-fulfilling prophecy: I didn’t see myself as the type of person who had friends and community, and so I didn’t seek them out.
As my behaviors changed, though, my view of myself started to change, too. Someone said I had a “kind and gentle presence,” a far cry from the cold, logical intellectual I once fancied myself to be. I’ve become more warm and emotional than before. Shockingly, I seem to have joined the ranks of people who believe, in some fundamental sense, that love is the answer.
I no longer think that needing connection makes me pathologically dependent. I believe we all need the support, empathy, and joy that other people bring; we’ve evolved to need it. I think relationships are worthy of time, energy, and money. I recognize that connection is a big pillar—maybe the core—of my well-being. Is that what they call interdependence?
My old self would call me touchy-feely or weak, but I’m realizing the ways that connection requires strength. To cultivate the kind of relationships I want, I have to speak up and set boundaries, and be honest when I’m hurt. I have to tell other people things that I’m ashamed of, my biggest fears and insecurities. I have to forgive people when they hurt me, because, ultimately, I still want them in my life.
These changes didn’t happen overnight, and I’m still grappling with them. Old habits die hard. I still get uneasy when my personal life interferes with my to-do list, and I still have to battle the impulse to prioritize work above everything else, even my partner. When he tries to talk to me during the workday or convince me to leave work early, I feel a surge of annoyance, a little alarm bell signaling a threat to my productivity.
In those moments of internal conflict, I’ve learned to soften a little. I take a deep breath. I try to remember what’s important—that loving, connecting with, and supporting others are not frivolous, but some of the most meaningful things I can do.
Where you belong
I’ve celebrated my birthday in many exotic ways: with a Segway tour in Paris, with open-air dining and a massage in Bali. But my 29th birthday was different. Last year, it was a dinner party and game night at home.
My partner suggested a potluck, where everyone would bring some food. “We can’t make people supply the food for my birthday party!” I protested, uncomfortable about the imposition. “Sure we can,” he said. “Don’t worry about it.”
That night, the table was set for 12, not two. I kept hearing knocks at the door, and someone else would appear—the couple who had reached out to us, wanting to make new friends after many of theirs had moved away, sporting an elaborate fruit tart. A fellow newcomer to Canada, who had attended my meetups and brought her homemade cornbread. A blues dancer, handing me a cat-shaped bottle of wine. My phone pinged with a message from my VINA friend, who had liked me after all but was working that night.
All the friends and community I had ever wanted were now sprawled across my turquoise couch, eating cupcakes and chatting. They looked like they were having fun, and all I could feel was a little surreal. Were they all here for me?
My head couldn’t grasp it, but some corner of my heart did.
In the months leading up to birth, a pregnant woman begins to read about childrearing, including a book called Attachment Parenting by pediatrician William Sears and registered nurse Martha Sears. They advocate for a collection of seven practices they call the Baby Bs: “birth bonding, breastfeeding, baby-wearing, bedding close to the baby, belief in the baby’s cry, balance and boundaries, and beware of baby trainers.”
The pregnant woman finds their ideas compelling, and so decides to embrace this style of “attachment parenting.” But nothing goes according to plan. She begins delivery at home with a midwife, but when the labor doesn’t proceed, she’s taken to the hospital and given a Caesarean section. Influenced by Attachment Parenting, she worries that she has missed a critical bonding experience with her baby. Six weeks later, the mother develops a severe breast infection and reluctantly switches to formula. “Make sure you find some other way to bond with your baby,” her pediatrician cautions, adding to her distress. At night, the mother pulls the baby from his crib into her bed—even though it makes the baby cry.
Pretty soon, no one is happy—and the new mother wonders if her child is on the road to insecurity and anxiety.
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All of these experiences are real; they’ve happened to mothers I know. And as a developmental psychologist, I know this tension between the ideal and the reality is based on a misunderstanding. Home birth, breastfeeding, and co-sleeping all have benefits—but none of them is related to a baby’s secure attachment with her caregiver, nor are they predictive of a baby’s future mental health and development. Simply put, a secure attachment—which does lead to positive child outcomes—is not the same thing as the philosophy called attachment parenting.
What is the scientific view of attachment?
The term attachment parenting was coined by Sears and Sears to refer to a parenting approach that emphasizes responding sensitively to the needs of babies and children. Many of their ideas come from parenting their own eight children, as well as from their pediatric practice; some are from anthropologists’ observations of indigenous childrearing practices (thought to be more “natural”); and some (like emotional responsiveness) are consistent with research findings.
Many parents, myself included, have welcomed the Sears’ guidance for creating warm, loving relationships, especially in contrast to earlier parenting approaches that were more strict, cold, or distant.
The implication, though—liberally strewn throughout the Sears’ writing and the precepts of the related international attachment parenting movement—is that the Baby Bs lead to a secure attachment, which is a specific psychological concept based on 60 years of research. Here we come to the problem: their use of the word attachment and the confusion it creates with the scientific notion of attachment theory.
Attachment theory has its roots in the work of an English psychiatrist, John Bowlby, who in the 1930s worked with children with emotional problems. He noticed that the troubled children in his care were deprived of affection and had disturbed or nonexistent caregiving. He came to believe that a primary caregiver served as a kind of “psychic organizer” to the child, and that the child needed this warm, intimate influence to develop successfully.
According to Bowlby, babies form a “small hierarchy of attachments”: The number has to be small for the baby to learn relevant emotional information, but multiples offer the safety of backups. And it’s a hierarchy for safety, too—in danger, there’s no time to think, so the baby can automatically turn to the person already determined to be the reliable comfort.
In the 1950s, Mary Ainsworth joined Bowlby in England. A decade later, back in the United States, she began to diagnose different kinds of relationship patterns between children and their mothers in the second year of life, based on how babies respond to separations and reunions. When babies have a secure attachment, they play and explore freely from the “secure base” of their mother’s presence. When the mother leaves, the baby often becomes distressed, especially when a stranger is nearby. When the mother returns, the baby expresses joy, sometimes from a distance and sometimes reaching to be picked up and held. (Babies vary, depending on their personality and temperament, even within a secure attachment).
Though early researchers studied mothers, current research shows that fathers, co-parents, grandparents, babysitters, and even older siblings can be significant attachment figures. Caregivers who foster a secure attachment are responsive, warm, loving, and emotionally available, and as a result babies grow to be confident in the caregiver’s ability to handle feelings. The babies feel free to express their positive and negative feelings openly and don’t develop defenses against the unpleasant ones.
Why the confusion about a secure attachment?
The Sears’ idea of attachment parenting is not well defined—and certainly has not been scientifically linked to a secure attachment outcome. And this confusion can sow guilt, worry, and misdirection in parents, who (understandably) are not aware of the distinction.
“Attachment [in the scientific sense] is a relationship in the service of a baby’s emotion regulation and exploration,” explains Alan Sroufe, a developmental psychologist at the Institute for Child Development at the University of Minnesota, where he and his colleagues have studied the attachment relationship for over 40 years. “It is the deep, abiding confidence a baby has in the availability and responsiveness of the caregiver.”
A secure attachment has at least three functions:
Provides a sense of safety and security
Regulates emotions by soothing distress, creating joy, and supporting calm
Offers a secure base from which to explore
“Attachment is not a set of tricks,” continues Sroufe. “These [attachment parenting principles] are all fine things, but they’re not the essential things. There is no evidence that they are predictive of a secure attachment.”
Take breastfeeding, for example, touted as key to attachment parenting. Mechanical and insensitive breastfeeding could actually contribute to an insecure attachment, while warm, sensitive, interactive bottle-feeding could help create a secure attachment. It’s not the method of feeding but the quality of the interaction that matters for attachment, says Sroufe.
Constant contact, too, can be misunderstood. Certainly, skin-to-skin contact, close physical touch, holding, and carrying are good for infants and can even reduce crying. But again, what matters for attachment is the caregiver’s attunement. Are they stressed or calm? Checked out or engaged? Are they reading the baby’s signals?
Attachment parenting advises emotional responsiveness, and this practice aligns best with scientific attachment theory. Babies grow best when their feelings are taken seriously. But well-meaning parents can overdo it, believing they need to meet the child’s every request, which can be exhausting and counterproductive. In contrast, research on secure attachments shows that, in the flow of everyday life, misattunements happen about 70 percent of the time!
What is important, researchers say, is that the baby develops a generalized trust that their caregiver will respond and meet their needs, or that when mismatches occur, the caregiver will repair them. This flow of attunements, mismatches, and repairs offers the optimal amount of connection and stress for a baby to develop both confidence and coping skills.
“There’s a difference between a ‘tight’ connection and a secure attachment,” Sroufe explains. “A tight attachment—together all the time—might actually be an anxious attachment.”
The neurobiology of attachment
“Attachment theory is essentially a theory of regulation,” explains Allan Schore, a developmental neuroscientist in the Department of Psychiatry at the UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine.
The areas of the brain that process emotional and social information begin to differentiate in the last trimester in-utero (whereas the more “intellectual” regions pick up in the second year of life). By birth, the amygdala, hypothalamus, insula, cingulate cortex, and orbitofrontal cortex—regions important for emotion processing—are present, but the connections among these areas develop in specific patterns over the first years of life. That’s where input from the primary relationship is crucial, organizing the hierarchical circuitry that will process, communicate, and regulate social and emotional information. Synaptic connections are pruned, and epigenetic processes modify the expression of genes that regulate stress, depending on input from the environment.
Parents use their own empathy, perspective taking, inference, and intuition to discern the needs of the baby. And the behaviors that parents are inclined to do naturally, like eye contact and face-to-face interaction, baby-talking and holding, are exactly the ones shown to grow the neural regions in the baby that influence emotional life. It is through a “right-brain-to-right-brain” reading of each other that the parent and child synchronize their energy, emotions, and communication.
“What a primary caregiver is doing, in being with the child,” explains Schore, “is allowing the child to feel and identify in his own body these different emotional states. By having a caregiver simply ‘be with’ him while he feels emotions and has experiences, the baby learns how to be,” Schore says.
And it’s not just about regulating stress. Supporting positive emotional states is equally important to creating a “background state of well-being.” If the caregiver’s emotions are too high, the stimulation could be intrusive to the baby, Schore explains. Too low, and the baby’s “background state” settles at a low or possibly depressive emotional baseline. Just right, from the baby’s point of view, is best.
Even then, there’s a lot of leeway. As Schore says:
Insecure attachments aren’t created just by a caregiver’s inattention or missteps. They also come from a failure to repair ruptures. Maybe the caregiver is coming in too fast and needs to back off, or maybe the caregiver hasn’t responded and needs to show the baby that she’s there. Either way, repair is possible, and it works. Stress is a part of life, and what we’re trying to do here is to set up a system by which the baby can learn how to cope with stress.
How important is attachment?
“Nothing is more important than the attachment relationship,” says Sroufe, who, together with colleagues, ran a series of landmark studies to discover the long-term impact of a secure attachment.
Over a 35-year period, the Minnesota Longitudinal Study of Risk and Adaptation (MLSRA) revealed that the quality of the early attachment reverberated well into later childhood, adolescence, and adulthood, even when temperament and social class were accounted for.
One of the most important (and paradoxical) findings was that a secure attachment early in life led to greater independence later, whereas an insecure attachment led children to be more dependent later in life.
The MLSRA studies showed that children with a secure attachment history were more likely to develop:
A greater sense of self-agency
Better emotional regulation
Better coping under stress
Closer friendships in middle childhood
Better coordination of friendships and social groups in adolescence
More trusting and positive romantic relationships in adulthood
Greater social competence
More leadership qualities
Happier and better relationships with parents and siblings
But attachment is not destiny; it depends on what else comes along. A poor start in life, for example, can be repaired in a subsequent relationship with a good mentor, a healthy romance, or constructive therapy.
As for my new-mother friends, they’re bonding successfully with their babies, welcoming and enjoying the moments when connection happens. And if you’re concerned about bonding with your own baby, rest assured that you’ll have some help—from your baby. Because regardless of their individual personalities—whether they cry a lot or sleep very little, whether they’re breastfed or bottle-fed—babies invite adults in with their wide-open gaze, their milky scent, and their tiny fingers that curl around your big ones. They let you know what they need.
Before you know it, they are lighting you up with their full-body smiles and pulling you close with their plump, soft arms. And the sweet elixir of attachment is underway.
Research Shows A Simple Way to Increase Your Engagement at Work
This article was originally published on HBR.org.
Juj Winn/Getty Images
It is no secret that many employees face work environments that are not very engaging. A 2016 poll by the Gallup Organization shows that only 13% of employees worldwide are engaged at work. And when it comes to enhancing employees’ engagement (i.e., energy, enthusiasm, and focus), much of the popular narrative has focused on organizational factors such as job design, leadership, or culture. But these factors are often outside of an employee’s control. As a result, beyond trying to find the right fit professionally, the overall picture seems to suggest that employees are at the mercy of their organizations and bosses when it comes to how engaged they will be at work.
In a research article in The Journal of Applied Psychology, we and our colleagues (Andrew Brodsky at The University of Texas at Austin, Subrahmaniam Tangirala at the University of Maryland, and Sanford DeVoe at the University of California Los Angeles) investigated how employees can take back more control over their work engagement through better self-management. We found that increasing your engagement and productivity at work could be as simple as making a plan for the day. But these positive effects depended on what type of plan employees used and how many interruptions or disruptions they faced in their day-to-day work.
We investigated two types of daily planning and how they influence employee engagement in dynamic work environments. The first type is commonly known as time-management planning, which involves making to-do lists, prioritizing and scheduling tasks, and ultimately managing one’s time. Despite its popularity and acclaimed benefits, little research has actually investigated this type of planning in real work contexts.
The second type of planning is referred to as “contingent planning,” in which people consider the possible disruptions or interruptions they may face in their work day and devise a plan to address them if they occur. Contingent planning is less commonly used than time-management planning because individuals frequently make plans that overestimate how much they will get done and underestimate (or fail altogether) to account for how their work will be disrupted.
In theory, both types of planning should enhance employee engagement because they involve setting more specific goals for the day, which should help employees focus their time and attention, as well increase their sense of progress as they more clearly see the accomplishment of their tasks (see “The Power of Small Wins” by Teresa Amabile).
However, we expected that the benefits of time-management planning would become reduced and thwarted under high levels of interruptions, because employees would become upset and feel as though they were not making progress on their planned to-do lists. In contrast, we proposed that contingent planning would be helpful on days where employees faced many interruptions, as it would help them adapt seamlessly without being bogged down or frustrated by all the interruptions and distractions.
Our findings We tracked 187 employees from a diverse set of industries in an experience-sampling study where we captured their behaviors and experiences over two full work weeks. We found that employees’ use of time-management planning had strong positive effects on their daily engagement and daily productivity. In addition, we found that these strong effects mostly occurred when employees faced limited interruptions. Daily time management was significantly less beneficial when employees had days filled with many interruptions. In fact, on days where interruptions were very high (about 20% of the time in our sample), daily time management was completely ineffective at improving engagement and productivity.
As for daily contingent planning, this type of planning also helped employees enhance their engagement and productivity. Interestingly, these positive effects remained, regardless of how many interruptions employees faced in their workdays. In other words, daily contingent planning seemed to provide benefits even when employees faced interruptions in their days. This means that while the benefits of time-management planning are less effective when interruptions occur, contingent planning continued to be beneficial regardless of the level of interruptions employees faced.
Putting your daily plans to work Our research uncovered that a large percentage of employees’ daily planning (about 30%) differs across work days, which means most people do not consistently employ planning each day. In addition, if employees use time management on a particular day, then they do not necessarily use contingent planning (and vice versa). Furthermore, about 40% of the time, employees will face a different amount of interruptions across their workdays.
As a result, our findings suggest that employees need to better understand these two critical types of planning and when to utilize them in their day-to-day work lives. To help, we wanted to provide a step-by-step guide:
Before you start your work day (e.g., the night before or morning of), set aside a few minutes to plan your upcoming day.
Consider what type of day you anticipate and whether you expect to be interrupted and how frequently. What can you do to create boundaries around your time and have fewer interruptions? Based on past experience, how much do you think you will actually be interrupted?
If you anticipate few to no interruptions, then engage in time-management planning by setting an ambitious to-do list in which you prioritize your tasks and allocate your time and energy to them based on their priority (see also “You May Hate Planning, But You Should Do It Anyway”). For example, plan to accomplish difficult or creative tasks when you have the most time or energy. Plan more mundane tasks for when you require less mental energy. Such planning, when you have limited interruptions, helps fuel greater engagement and focus and allows you to get more done.
If you expect to be interrupted frequently, then engage in contingent planning where you outline a realistic number of tasks you can complete that day while also taking time to consider how you might be interrupted, and what you will do if such interruptions occur (see also “What to Do When You’re Feeling Distracted at Work”). This planning can help you better adapt to interruptions by allowing you to stay engaged and focused and to not get frustrated or dragged down by unanticipated disruptions or delays.
Based on current technological trends, employees will continue to be increasingly bombarded with interruptions and information. Which means your engagement at work will be constantly under attack from disruptions and distractions that prevent you from making progress on meaningful work. However, you can take back greater control of your engagement. And it starts with some simple tweaks to your daily plans.