The decisions you make in life are draining, and that's one of the reasons most of us struggle with life choices so often. Do you get married young or wait? Should you take that job in Orlando or stay put in hopes your boss will notice you are so gifted? Stress happens before, during, and after these decisions--and I haven't even mentioned the fact that we make hundreds of small (but stressful) decisions each day--even about lunch.
Now, new research conducted by Moran Cerf, a neuroscientist at Northwestern University, suggests that one of the best ways to reduce stress and feel happier is to spend time with people who make better decisions. According to Cerf, our brains align with others when we spend time with them, and decision-making becomes easier. It's the wisdom of the crowd from a personal happiness perspective, and I've seen how it works firsthand.
Mentoring college students over the past year has made a big impact on my thought process. It's not just that I understand Gen Z and Millennials better now. It's that decisions have become less stressful as I've trained others on how to best run social media campaigns and other marketing activities. We think the same way. It's awesome.
Imagine being in a room by yourself trying to come up with a way to engage with users on Instagram. Not fun. Now imagine being in a room with a bunch of 20-somethings who know how to take photos, shoot video, and write witty captions? Suddenly, the stress seems to leave the room. It really helps to know there are neurological reasons our brains align and that decisions are easier when we are around like-minded people.
Let's take an extreme example, one that is about as controversial as it gets: Which operating system you use. (I'm serious, people get really adamant about this.) When you put a bunch of Mac users in the same room as Windows users, there's tension. The two groups are not on the same wavelength, they butt heads. It makes decisions harder and more stressful, and in the end you are not as productive or happy. Now take a group of Mac faithful. They seem to have the same aesthetic, a similar outlook on life. They tend to make decisions in the same way, at least when it comes to things like which browser to use or which apps to install. They are a bit more artsy, willing to live on the fringes of society apart from the status quo--they buck the system. They like Arcade Fire and coffee.
Here's the question for you to ask: If you think a certain way, are you around a bunch of people who think differently? (If you caught that pun, pat yourself on the back.) Are you a Mac user living among Windows loyalists? Are you an entrepreneur surrounded by corporate types? Are you a free-thinking PR master who spends a lot of time with bean-counters who like to wear ties and formal dresses? That sounds stressful. If you think about your colleagues, your friends, your work situation, where you live, and even what you do for fun--are you aligned or misaligned?
I wonder about this for myself. Back to my college mentoring example--I'm drawn to the enthusiasm and bright thinking of Gen Z students and Millennials. They like to take risks. They are open to ideas. When I'm around them, I feel less stressed because I'm the same way. When we make decisions as a group, I feel less annoyed because we're aligned mentally and emotionally. The decisions just resonate with me; they just feel right.
Sadly, I am not an academic type. I don't like pouring over every fine detail and setting up a rigorous schedule to follow in Microsoft Excel. (If anything, I like avoiding all schedule-making and I kind of hate Excel.) If I had to work in a setting where it was all about following a strict set of rules, I'd make terrible decisions and feel unhappy. We know from Cerf's research that there are scientific reasons why this is a bad situation. Every decision will seem like the wrong one. Every meeting will feel like nails on a chalkboard.
Another example: I moved to an area that is a little off the beaten path recently. I like reading books and, judging by the fact that I've now written 1,400 articles for this column, I like writing about creative ideas. I'm overly cerebral to a fault. This area? Not so much. My small town doesn't even have a library. My wife loves to discuss ideas. This area--not so much. The sad truth is, we don't belong here. I know that it has added more stress because we're so misaligned with our neighbors. It hasn't worked out.
What about you? Are you stressed or happy? Is it time to make a change?
Here's where you might have to make the toughest decision of your life. If you are misaligned with people who don't really "get" how you think, it's adding stress. To regain happiness, you might need to figure out how to align with a different group of people. That might take some work, but look around. If there are like-minded people at a company or a place where you know you will fit in, your decisions will get easier. Happiness awaits.