Ready to Find Your Groove at Home and Work?

By Radha Marcum
Senior Editor

When I ordered happiness expert Dr. Christine Carter’s latest book, The Sweet Spot (Ballantine, 2015), on “how to find your groove at home and work,” I was hopeful—and skeptical. Over the last five years we’ve had books that encouraged us to “lean in”—or drop out and parent like a tiger—but the message has been the same: Whatever you choose, do it perfectly! But in these pages I found a refreshing voice guiding readers to something clearly outside of perfection: balance.

Carter is a senior fellow at the UC Berkeley Greater Good Science Center, which takes an interdisciplinary approach to the latest science of mind—on happiness, resilience, and emotional intelligence. The GGSC aims to make the emerging science accessible and actionable for nonscientific folks, such as myself. Despite her immersion in happiness research, Carter admits, she “used to struggle to walk the talk.”

Five years ago, I was a single mother holding down three demanding part-time jobs, and my life was a blur. Yes, our family did find a way to eat dinner together most nights, and we talked about what we were grateful for. In some ways, I practiced what I preached. But in other ways, I was caught up in the busyness of modern life—winded, running on a hamster wheel, afraid to slow down. I’d lost my groove.

We lose our groove in many ways, says Carter, pigeonholed in careers that don’t suit our temperaments, or packing more into crammed schedules that demand too much of us. In Carter’s case, she loved her work, but the day-to-day logistics became overwhelming. Exhausted but unable to stop, at her low point she became constantly ill, “catching every virus on every plane.” She ended up in the ER with a high fever and kidney infection. “I found myself hoping that the doctor would insist I stay the night in the hospital. I was having my first ‘hospital fantasy,’ something I’d heard other women had.”

I knew in no uncertain terms that I would have to stop living in a constant state of flight or fight. I read, analyzed, tried out, refined, and tried out again all of the scientific research, empirically tested strategies, and experts’ secrets. My goal was to create a “sweet spot equation”—a simple formula to taste both strength and ease more often. This book is the real-person application of that equation.

For myself, having to plan my family’s summer schedule—a dreaded task that puts my stress response on red alert every year—I could really use that equation, I thought to myself. How does one stay balanced in the face of uncertain finance, changing kids’ wishes, and feeling suffocated by seemingly infinite choices? “It’s not terribly complicated in the end,” Carter says. It is, “Take Recess + Switch Autopilot On + Unshackle Yourself + Cultivate Relationships + Tolerate Some Discomfort = The Sweet Spot.” OK, this may sound a bit complicated, but if you take the time to read the chapters on each of these, it becomes quickly clear how easy achieving the sweet spot is.

“The sweet spot is that point of optimum impact that athletes strike on a bat or racket or club, that place where an athlete has both the greatest power and the greatest ease,” she explains; and yet we often go about finding the sweet spot blindly—or backwards. To locate power and ease requires going against the grain, dropping habits like multitasking and working through discomfort—habits that increase stress and actually make us less productive and intelligent. “We find our sweet spot by understanding the architecture of our minds and the biology of ease,” says Carter.

Ultimately, finding our own personal sweet spot is often more about undoing than it is about stamping new rules into your psyche. Carter is a proponent of making the smallest changes necessary to move the well-being needle:

Our lives are like a set of interlocking gears of varying sizes. Often we try to improve our lives by moving the large gears: by getting divorced, or married, or moving out of the city, or quitting our job. And sometimes it is very necessary to rotate these big gears. But these big ones are always difficult to move. The Sweet Spot is about shifting the small gears, the ones that rotate relatively easily. And because all the gears are interlocking, when we tweak a small gear, large gears start to move—effortlessly—as well.

Grounded in research, each chapter contains dozens of practical ways to make small changes that can have measurable impact. Rather than try to do it all, Carter encourages readers to select the tips and techniques that fit best and are the easiest changes to make.

For example, in one “Take Recess” chapter, Carter cites research on brain-wave patterns. These cycle every hour and a half to two hours, after which we experience an “ultradian dip” when energy naturally drops. “When we work through these dips—relying on caffeine, adrenaline, and stress hormones to keep us alert instead of letting our bodies and brains rest,” she explains, “we become anxious and jittery, and our performance falters.”

Instead, productivity actually increases when we take breaks, especially when we do nothing of traditional “value” but small things that bring us joy, such as tending to seedlings, reading a small passage of poetry, taking a quick walk, or taking in a view. After several weeks of regularly taking this kind of break I can say that, although I don’t always speed through tasks I’d like to speed through, on average it has taken me less time to create articles and reports, the bulk of my most important work. Because, ultimately, life is about so much more than work:

In our materially rich but spiritually bereft culture, we often forget that how much we enjoy our lives really matters. How much meaning we find in this one lifetime actually counts.

Bottom Line

Some of Carter’s methods to reduce the madness may sound familiar—from gratitude practice and meditation to learning to gracefully say no—and yet it’s Carter’s emphasis on science, on the simplest and most sustainable methods, that makes all the difference. The Sweet Spot is a highly practical handbook for living well in modern times.

“Buddha once said that ‘just as we can know the ocean because it always tastes of salt, we can recognize enlightenment because it always tastes of freedom,’” recalls Carter. “Our sweet spot always tastes of freedom and strength.”

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