The (neuro)science of happiness

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Q: Anonymous, Chef, 26:

“I’m in the Caribbean, we’ve got time off coming up and I know I should feel lucky, but I’m completely miserable. The crew on my boat leave me out of everything, even after we drop off guests they just go off without me. Maybe it’s because I had a big argument with the stew a while ago when I first joined the boat but really I don’t think I that was my fault. I’ve just spent my first Christmas away from my family and I’ve not even met my new niece – my sister just had her first baby and I’ve missed that as well. I am really really horribly lonely. I know it sounds like I’m just winging but I’m so miserable, and I don’t understand why the other crew aren’t more friendly to me. They never even say thank you for any of the food I make for them. I spend most of my free time in my cabin wondering what I’ve done wrong. Are there other crew out there that feel this way? It’s my first boat so I don’t know if this is the way yachting is for lots of people.”

A: The Crew Coach:

I’m sorry to hear things aren’t going well for you. Many crew get a bit down over Christmas and at this time of the season when there can sometimes be a bit of a lull and people can feel a bit lost and disconnected – particularly if they’re having issues with the other crew, so you’re certainly not alone there. As you said you have some time off coming up, this could be a great opportunity for you to have a chat with your fellow crew and find out what the problem is. Tackling the issue head on will show them that you’re keen to get along, whereas sitting in your cabin fretting about things is not really doing any good at all (and in fact your brain is probably conjuring up even worse things than the reality!)

Even more problematically, it’s extremely unlikely that you’re behaving as your natural, best self when you’re under such strain, so you’ll need to clear the air in order for the crew to realise how great you are when you’re not arguing with people or hiding in your cabin. Maybe they don’t even know you want to socialise with them!

I’ve written about a similar situation before, so check that article too as you might find it helpful. Since I wrote this however, I’ve learnt some pretty cool new stuff about how we can apply neuroscience to understand a little more about human happiness. I think some of it might be very useful for your situation, and for a lot of other crew too!

You’re feeling miserable at being left out for a very good reason.

Humans are tribal creatures, and we’re hard-wired to feel any sign of rejection from the ‘tribe’ as a threat to our very life – being cast out of the clan as a cave-person could actually mean death. In fact, it’s been proven through MRI scans that social exclusion is actually felt in the brain’s pain centres in the same way that you’d react to physical pain! So it’s not surprising you’re feeling pretty down, as your brain is responding to the social exclusion from your crew like you’ve been physically injured. Your brain won’t listen to reason on this, so you’re going to have to get to the root of the problem by facing it and talking with the crew.

Get out and socialise with others more.

You’re locking yourself away in your cabin without taking advantage of the beauty and opportunity around you. Yachting is a really social industry, so even if your crew isn’t playing along right now, you can go out and chat to other crew, and you should definitely be making the most of being in the Caribbean, even if you need to hire a moped and hit the beaches on your own. If you’re feeling really down, book yourself in for a relaxation massage, as massage has been shown to boost serotonin by 30%, and fulfils the human need for touch that we sometimes forget about in busy and stressful times. It’s hard not to feel better after a day reading a book on the beach, getting a massage, and then having a cocktail and chatting with new friends at a bar! Creating memories out in paradise is a much better use of your time than watching Netflix in the empty crew mess. Speaking of which, sunlight raises your serotonin levels, so get outside!

Use your support networks

You may not be able to physically get off the boat when you’re on charter, but it’s important to keep your support networks close, so Skype or call friends and family regularly. Facebook and texting are options too, but typing is not as effective in dissipating stress as talking. In fact, a recent study showed that when participants were deliberately exposed to stressors, then allowed to text their loved ones to ‘talk’ about it, their stress levels didn’t drop at all. However, when they were allowed to talk to their loved ones either face to face or over the phone, their stress levels dropped rapidly.

Start focussing on the good things

Things are rough right now, but no doubt there are good things happening in your life too, if you focus on them. Perhaps the guests love your food, or you’ve just paid off your debts thanks to your well-paid job. If you can’t find big things to be happy about, start seeking out the small things. Write down at least three things each day that you’re grateful for or happy about. They can be anything- a sunrise, a perfectly cooked soufflé, a compliment. And this isn’t just an airy-fairy exercise; it’s been proven that people who write down things they’re grateful for every day are happier in the long-term, as their brain rewires to seek out the positive in their daily lives.

I hope that some of these strategies help you to turn things around and have a fantastic Caribbean season with your crew. If anyone else has any other suggestions to add, please feel free to add your comments below!

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Alison Rentoul

Alison Rentoul

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