Have a ‘Yes!’ Mind-set (and Change your Life)
If you’re a busy woman, you’ve heard the advice to scale back, take a breather, go slow. But a) that’s not exactly realistic and b) it doesn’t always help anyway. Turns out there are real and amazing benefits to saying yes to things – if you do it right.
Open yourself up to a happier, healthier and more productive life
As a time-strapped mom of two, Jessica Downey said no a lot, and not just to her children. ‘When you’re in the thick of raising kids, feeling like everyone always needs something from you, “no” is another way of saying “I’m at my max,”’ says the mom of Elliot, 10, and Gabe, 6. As helpful as it could be, it also made her world smaller. ‘Before kids, I was pretty adventurous and up for new experiences. But when you have kids, their needs take priority – as they should – and that part of me was pushed to the back burner,’ she says.
So just over a year ago, Jessica made a resolution to start saying yes more often. When a girlfriend invited her to join a dragon-boat rowing team, she agreed to the weekly training sessions and weekend races even though she barely had time to make it to the gym. When another friend asked if she wanted to head to the countryside for a long weekend, she spent an evening worrying about how her husband, Sean, would handle school drop-off and pick-up, guitar lessons and bedtime alone – then they figured it out and she booked her slot. Jessica was even all in on smaller things, like going to a party where she didn’t know anyone, joining a documentary club and taking her kids to a movie on a school night. She enjoyed each of them (the movie more than the party, she admits).
Being willing to take on whatever the world has to offer has its high-profile advocates – in 2015, Shonda Rhimes came out with a book about her Year Of Yes (Simon & Schuster) – but it tends to sound doable only for people with plenty of money and control over their time. For the rest of us, saying yes
left and right seems, frankly, nuts. But that’s your ‘no’ mind-set talking, experts say, and it’s crucial for all of us to get out of it. We’ll be not just happier, but healthier and more productive too. These days, we get (and give!) constant reminders that it’s okay to turn down requests and invitations, all in the name of taking better care of ourselves. That’s important, but you can set boundaries and still benefit from a ‘yes’ mind-set. If you want to make the most of the one life you’ve got – without dismantling everything you’ve built so far – this is how you do it.
The power of yes
Declining an invite or passing on a request triggers the brain’s reactive state, explains Dr Daniel Siegel, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine and founding codirector of the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center, both in the US. That’s similar to what happens when you’re facing a threat. The tigers our ancestors were fighting or fleeing have been replaced by things that make us feel guilty or worried about rejection.
That might mean a mother-in-law who wants to take over our whole Saturdays or school fundraising committees that need home-made vegan cupcakes for the bake sale. We respond by saying no to them – and then stay in this reactive state long after that, Siegel explains. Your brain doesn’t just shut off after a stressor; it can stay in that state of sensitivity even as you are discussing dinner with your husband or trying to be patient with a toddler. (Yep, that’s part of why those things can be so frustrating.) ‘Even though we know that being in a receptive “yes” brain state feels better, there’s a lot of evolutionary history that says, “I’d rather be reactive than receptive,”’ says Siegel.
Being in that reactive state can also fatigue your muscles and even make you feel like you’ve got flu, according to research by Dr Stephen Porges, a psychiatry professor. Start being a yes and you’ll have more energy for the things you must do and those you want to do. Jessica found this to be true. ‘Even though it meant I started juggling a bit more, I was so invigorated by the new experiences that I actually felt less stressed out,’ she says.
Saying yes relaxes your muscles and turns on what’s called your ‘social engagement system’, says Siegel; it prompts you to lean on others for support and even engage with yourself more mindfully. ‘A “yes” mindset makes you feel more playful, creative and able to see what’s possible; a “no” mind-set makes you focus on all of the roadblocks in your way,’ says family and relationship coach Alyson Schwabe Lanier. For Jessica, that meant that ‘all of the practical reasons I used to rattle off for not being able to do something felt easy to overcome’. Siegel explains why: ‘Research shows that a “yes brain” increases the capacity of the prefrontal cortex to take in signals from the outside world, pause before you act and then choose the best course of action.’ In other words, it’s helping you get more done – better.
Striking the right balance
To get the benefits of a ‘yes’ mind-set without having 10 000 commitments take over your life:
SAY YES TO STUFF THAT’LL SERVE YOU. ‘The point isn’t to just say yes to anything,’ says Lanier. It helps to ask yourself if a yes will get you closer to a goal or support something you value. Jessica, for instance, says yes to travel with friends and meeting new people. Her suggestion: ‘Think about the things that make you you that you’re missing right now. Those are the things to say yes to.’
DO A GUT CHECK BEFORE RESPONDING. A kneejerk yes or no isn’t serving you. So take the time – a moment, a day – to think about what you really feel. ‘Becoming aware of your internal world develops your insula, the area of your brain that’s responsible for social emotions, moral intuition and empathy,’ says Siegel – all qualities that can help you decide if you’re a true yes or a no to whatever new request has popped up.
Try this trick from Courtenay Hameister, author of the book Okay Fine Whatever (Little, Brown and Company), about her own yearlong quest to say yes more often: ‘I picture myself doing something and pay attention to what happens in my body,’ she says. ‘If I get such increased anxiety that it doesn’t feel healthy, I’m probably a no. If I get a twinge of anxiety but mostly feel excited, I’m probably a yes.’
KNOW WHEN YOU NEED TO BE A YES TO YOUR NO. Having a day where you feel like the only things you want to say yes to are a big glass of rosé and an episode of The Bachelor? Honour that, says Lanier. ‘You’ve got to know where you are, and if where you are is so tired that you just want some peace and quiet on the couch, then be a yes to that,’ she says. What’s happening here is that you are in control of the shape of your evening – and your life. That’s a big responsibility we sometimes forget we even have. ‘You can create the life you want,’ reminds Lanier. ‘Be a yes to figuring out what that is.’