Brian Draper - 23/09/2017

We seem in the West to have concocted a recipe for happiness, which goes like this: if I work hard, I’ll be successful; and when I’m successful, I’ll be happy.

The trouble is, of course, that when we achieve any kind of success, the goalposts tend to shift, and we can feel as if we have to prove ourselves again... and again. Hit your monthly sales target, and your boss may well choose to up it, instead of celebrating your achievement! And thus, all the while we keep happiness ‘over there’ on the far side of success, it can seem painfully and perpetually out of reach.

It was fascinating to hear, then, this week, that the celebrated French chef Sebastien Bras has asked to be stripped of his three Michelin stars. He’s said that he no longer wants to keep working with the constant anxiety of knowing that the next meal he makes could be judged by the dreaded inspectors who call anonymously throughout the year. He wants, instead, to recover a free spirit, and to work “in serenity” - a word you might not always associate with a top-level chef.

And funnily enough, he may well be onto something. For when our work is fear-driven, it’s not just the stress we have to cope with; neuroscience now suggests that our brains don’t function nearly so well when we are anxiously striving. In fact, one expert, Shawn Achor, argues that we are up to 30-per-cent more productive and creative when we make contentment our starting point, instead of our destination.

The question is, how do we do that? And this is where the neuroscience overlaps with what spiritual practitioners have been telling us patiently all along. Shawn Achor helps people in organisations to 'rewire' their brains positively by forming simple, soulful habits - such as noticing and giving thanks daily for what we already have; being proactively kind; and learning stillness within the busyness.

The words of a psalm ring true for me here: “Be still... and know that I am God.” Sometimes that’s translated as “Cease your striving.” The Christian faith teaches that we can do nothing to earn divine approval, anyway; the starting point for the spiritual life is not to prove one’s worth through fear but to receive God’s love in grace.

Freely we receive, the Bible says, then, freely we can give - for this doesn’t mean to say that we shouldn’t work well, or hard. But imagine if we strived less for the gold stars, and were freed, in the process, to serve the world creatively through the gifts we’ve been given. To taste not stress but serenity, and to follow where it leads.

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