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A Stanford scientist says our culture breeds workaholism -- and it's making us sick

Working lateHero Images/Getty ImagesWorkaholism is encouraged by our friends, colleagues, and employers.

In her new book, “The Happiness Track,” Emma Seppala explains why happiness often paves the way for professional success.

Unfortunately, she says, many workers have it backwards, thinking they need to be successful before they can ever be happy.

That logic results in what she calls a fruitless “chase” for one achievement after another, thinking that the next one will finally make them happy.

Call it workaholism or “successaholism” — Seppala, who is the science director for Stanford University’s Center for Altruism and Compassion Research and Education, says it’s a problematic cycle because it eventually leads to burnout and to worse job performance.

Yet these behaviours are unlikely to disappear anytime soon because they’re encouraged by our friends, colleagues, and employers.

Seppala writes:

“Work addiction — unlike addictions involving alcohol or other substances — is rewarded by our culture (with promotions, bonuses, praise, awards, and so on) and therefore considered a good thing despite its long-term negative impact on well-being.”

It doesn’t help that we’re biologically wired to get a thrill from any kind of accomplishment. That thrill comes in the form of the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is associated with pleasure.

Seppala cites research that found people who work hard release greater amounts of dopamine in the brain’s reward areas. She writes: “Overachievers live off the fleeting high that comes from responding to that one extra email, getting that additional project out of the way, or checking one last thing off the to-do list.”

What’s more, Seppala says, “the ‘chase’ mentality is pervasive in our culture because we are arguably facing the most difficult time in human history to resist external stimuli.” Our phones buzz with emails from the boss and requests from coworkers, and it takes a lot of willpower not to check them.

At some point, this constant need to do one more thing can lead to a number of mental and physical health consequences, including emotional exhaustion, cynicism, and decreased relationship quality. At work, the increased stress may cause our productivity and attention span to decrease.

So how can we put a stop to the workaholic chase?

Seppala says change happens on an individual level, and it’s all about being present. Instead of multitasking, she recommends getting absorbed in one task at a time — a strategy that leads to greater productivity and happiness in the long run.

Small tweaks that can help you stay present in your tasks include putting your cell phone on silent, using digital tools that block social media, and setting a timer to make sure you stay focused on the current task until a designated time.

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