Like many kids of my generation, my water bottle is covered in stickers that give some at-a-glance insight into who I am. One of the first ones I put on there is a symbol that would be familiar to most Michigan students, but you couldn’t guess what it means just by looking. It’s a beautiful jewel-toned flower whose 8 petals represent the University’s 8-dimensional framework for wellbeing.
When talking about positive organizational scholarship, some of the dimensions of wellbeing come up often, especially occupational, social, and intellectual wellbeing. Financial and emotional wellbeing are regulars to the conversation too. And while they sometimes come up, physical, spiritual, and environmental wellbeing don’t take center stage as much when we’re talking about work.
I first learned about this wellbeing framework when I went to wellness coaching my freshman year. After burning out in high school, I made the decision to approach my college years with the intention to take better care of myself and seek balance. In my sessions, we talked about strategies for resilience, including what my coach called a “joyful attention to nature.”
There’s plenty of research out there attesting to the positive effects of being in nature: “Scientists are beginning to find evidence that being in nature has a profound impact on our brains and our behavior, helping us to reduce anxiety, brooding, and stress, and increase our attention capacity, creativity, and our ability to connect with other people.”
While sometimes I make it out to the arboretum on the other side of town or I step off the sidewalk to observe the lives of the campus squirrels, I’ve found that I can experience “joyful attention” to plenty of things in daily life, not just the natural. I walk almost everywhere since I don’t have a car in Ann Arbor, and I usually try to let my walks be exercises in mindfulness. Some of my favorite things to notice are the graffiti and stickers that pop up in new places around town.
I also enjoy turning my attention to the people around me. At the last conference I attended, I felt myself getting overwhelmed. I gave myself the grace to shift my attention from the presentations to noticing the things around me. In my notepad, I started sketching the people around me, putting my full attention into their gestures, the way their hair parted around their masks, the design of their dress shirts. When you engage in mindfulness practices like these, you build up some of “the tools you need to weather life’s ups and downs,” as is so important to emotional wellbeing.
When the mindful attention is mutual, people can form deep connections. In her TED talk “The Art of Paying Attention,” artist Wendy MacNaughton starts off by encouraging the audience to do a drawing exercise where they are instructed to draw the face of the person next to them, but they can’t lift the pencil or look down at the paper. With these guidelines, people can’t rely on the “visual shorthand” of the typical smiley face drawing that lets us get away without giving our full attention and really looking. Visually, “we have so much information coming at us all the time, that our brains literally can’t process it, and we fill in the world with patterns. Much of what we see is our own expectations.” But in this exercise, something else happens:
“You just made intimate eye-to-eye, face-to-face contact with someone without shying away for almost a minute. Through drawing, you slowed down, you paid attention, you looked closely at someone and you let them look closely at you. Good job. I have found that drawing like this creates an immediate connection like nothing else.”
MacNaughton uses drawing to channel people’s attention, but connecting in this way works just by simply holding eye contact for an extended period of time as well. Inspired by his time at a meditation retreat where pairs of strangers held eye contact for 10 minutes, Chris Murchison adapted the practice for his team, as he writes about in his article “Viewing Each Other as Works of Art”. He also found “a profound connection” surface between pairs, and that it created “a palpable joyful and loving energy in the room.”
By fully immersing yourself in your surroundings and approaching the world around you with openness and curiosity, you allow yourself to replenish your reserves and build deeper connections. When you attend to your wellbeing, you and the organizations you’re a part of take a step towards flourishing.
Alicia Haun is a content marketing intern at Riverbank Consulting Group. Alicia is a senior at the University of Michigan, where she also works with the Center for Positive Organizations at the Ross School of Business. Alicia is passionate about the field of positive organizational psychology and looks forward to helping work become a place of flourishing.