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Work versus wellness

Against the idea of “study now, play later”

Let’s say that it’s a weekday and you’ve spent the whole morning and afternoon trying to stay productive in the middle of a stressful period of your life overloaded with work. The circumstances may vary; maybe midterm season is approaching, or it is the end of the semester, or you have a report to finish at work. Perhaps your boss has been putting too much pressure on you to complete a project you have been working on for a couple of months. However, the main issue remains the same: you need to get things done and, in order to do this, you must deny yourself any activity that does not directly contribute to your productivity. Do not leave the office until the work is done, do not leave the library until you finish studying, do not move from where you are until you accomplish your goal, you think.

Logically, this should make sense; you focus all your attention on your goal until, suddenly, there you are: you have succeeded, and thus you will feel happy and free. But the truth is that things do not necessarily happen in this order. After a 12-hour rush in which you force yourself to sit down and do some work, you realize that your strategy was flawed. Stressed and overwhelmed, you find yourself absolutely deprived of ideas, despite your best efforts to dedicate yourself to the given task. Instead of helping you to become more concentrated and mentally sharp, denying yourself pleasure may actually be detrimental for your productivity and motivation.

Several studies have reported on the importance of well-being and happiness to remain motivated, and thus achieve everyday duties. One study published recently in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine reported that it would be possible for an organization to increase workplace productivity by almost 50 per cent if it addressed certain mental-health related issues, such as unnoticed depression among coworkers. Many books have been written on the strategies, habits, and tools that enable people to work harder and better. However, many of them cannot answer a fundamental question that can be assessed through neuroscience: what exactly is motivation in biological terms? What generates this disposition to do things in terms of the brain, and what mechanisms does it imply?

Our brains have developed a system that adjusts our actions according to biological needs, and this is what orchestrates our behaviour. This system, which consists of an ensemble of neural centers that respond mainly to two neurotransmitters – dopamine and serotonin – is known as the “brain-reward system.” Connected to areas that control memory and behaviour, this complex neural circuitry assesses the potential benefit of every future behaviour, obtaining those that anticipate rewards.

The main goal of the system is to detect rewarding stimuli, which have also been called “reinforcements.” From an evolutionary perspective, this system helps organisms to evaluate different plans of action to guide the body toward those that will give them “primary reinforcements” – for example, food, water, or sex – that will help them survive. By releasing dopamine – which is associated with feelings of pleasure – the system will strengthen the neural connections needed first to activate the behaviours that procure such rewards, and, second, to establish memories of which activities gave us such reinforcements.

Under this view, the reward systems is responsible for goal selection by weighing anticipated risks, costs, and benefits. In other words, motivational states will arise from an anticipation of pleasure.

How does this apply to our everyday productivity? In an ideal situation, the work we have to do would be rewarding enough to keep us motivated and productive. However, this may not always be the case. External pressure, such as a heavy workload or difficult tasks may generate stress, another physiological reaction that our brains identify with aversive stimuli, that threaten our integrity, and thus, should be avoided. Taking this into account, feeling motivated to do something that does not reward us and makes us feel stressed might almost constitute a biological contradiction. Through reinforcements, the brain associates certain behaviours with positive outcomes, and in their absence, our brain won’t do anything to ensure that we will repeat those behaviours in the future. It is illogical that we expect to accomplish our tasks in an efficient way if we force ourselves to avoid pleasure for the sake of the completion of a job and render our only motivation the reward that remains out of reach until the work is done.

Instead of doing this, we could try to take advantage of this neural system that guides our brains toward evolution. Intercalating moments of pleasure into our work schedules could boost our dopamine release levels and activate our reward system, taking us out of the automated state in which we enter as a result of exhaustion, and benefiting our productivity. Some techniques suggest that we take breaks after sprints of productivity – for example, the Pomodoro technique suggests five minutes of rest after every 25 minutes of uninterrupted hard work. When it comes to organization, building a schedule that implies both work periods and leisure time may help to keep our minds sharp during the time we dedicate to our duties, instead of forcing ourselves on them until we have no energy left.

These days, especially in a university setting, the prevalent mentality tells us that success and proactivity must take priority over one’s own pleasure and happiness. At the same time, we pertain to a generation that is used to immediate reward, a phenomenon that has been potentiated by technological devices that give us tangible results right away. While the idea of success over self-care can lead us to believe that we need success and results in order to be happy, our expectation of immediate rewards will lead to inevitable frustration and lack of motivation after long periods of working without positive reinforcements. Maybe we should change our minds and stop seeing pleasure as mere distraction, and instead start seeing it as fuel that will boost our way into success.