Staying Sane, Cavemen-Style

gorilla_laptopMankind is a smart bunch. We´ve learned how to put a man on the moon, how to build skyscrapers as high as mountains, and we have access to all the knowledge in the world via small devices in our pockets made of plastic, metal, and some microchips. We can travel back and forth between the continents in a matter of hours. We´ve developed sophisticated treatments for all kinds of human ailments, helping us to become as old as some of the trees. That´s impressive and utterly admirable.

Yet, all these upsides of modern life seem to take a toll on our bodies and minds. In most Western societies, the level of obese people is growing steadily, as is the pervasiveness of psychological disorders such as depression and anxiety-related conditions. Is this the price society has to pay for the comforts of the modern life? And more importantly:

Could we reverse these effects by turning to a more “primitive” lifestyle?

Here´s the thing: I´m sure, on the whole, we´re a lot smarter than our Neanderthalian ancestors. But being smart does not automatically lead to making smarter decisions. Let´s look at their way of life for a moment. Born in 1978, I´m not a contemporary witness – yet I´m an avid reader and watch a lot of documentaries. Here´s how I imagine life must have been for them:

  • They lived in tribes of several larger families with close bonds between the members of their group.
  • They had to toil hard in order to survive, but when their work was done (having enough food to sustain the tribe), they relaxed, played, created art, and made love.
  • The men hunted in small groups, sometimes for several days in a row. When doing so, they walked or even ran a double-digit mileage per day.
  • While chasing prey, they didn’t talk much. Instead, they focused on their immediate surroundings, the animals´ smells, sounds, and their tracks.
  • When the hunt was successful, they returned home, shared their game with everybody, and also shared their hunting lore by the fireside.
  • The women also walked long distances several time per week while searching for fruits and nuts. Some of them stayed home to take care of the tribe´s offspring. When not searching for food, they created tools, pottery, and clothing.
  • Whenever possible, they all slept long, especially in winter. They also took several naps over the course of the day whenever the environment was save.

Now let’s take this narration and transfer into more modern terms. What we have here are people who…

  • spend a lot of time with their friends and the ones they love (here´s some science on the psychological upsides of bonding);
  • finish the equivalent of a half-marathon three or four times a week (here´s some science on the psychological upsides of intense physical exercise);
  • spend most of their time in natural green environments (here´s some science on the psychological upsides of biophilia)…
  • …and practice an intuitive form of mindfulness while doing so (here´s some science on the psychological upsides of staying in the present moment).

Additionally, they…

Depression and anxiety as the body´s warning signs?

Compare this to what most Westerners are doing:

  • We eat too much food that we don´t have to struggle for.
  • We sit too much and walk too little.
  • We work insane hours, yet don´t sleep and play enough.
  • We spend too much time alone or among people we don´t really care about.
  • We get lost in cyberspace instead of staying with what´s at hand.
  • We focus too much on promoting ourselves instead of promoting the common good.

Put in simple terms, I think this is what our bodies are trying to tell us:

Hey man, you’re doing this wrong. You’re spending your time doing the wrong things, and I don’t feel safe and sound in these places you’re taking me. And where are the familiar faces that I love? But hey, I can’t explain this to you in a straight way, I don’t have words. That’s why I make you feel anxious and miserable. This is my wake-up call.

Let me close by saying that I don’t argue we should all return to an aboriginal lifestyle. I’m a city-boy all the way through. I like my work at the office, I love going out for dinner, and having a grocery store and a hospital in close proximity. But I also try to take care of myself and my body, I try to create meaning by helping people live more significant lives (e.g., via this blog…) – and ever since being married and having kids, I stay home a lot.

I guess, as ever so often, it comes down to finding the right balance.

33 ½ Science-backed Methods to Boost Your Mood and Be Happier | Part I

Want to lead a happier life in 2016 (and beyond)?

This list includes valuable tips, exercises and “hacks” to be happier and lead a more meaningful life. All of these recommendations are backed by psychological science. In case you are interested to learn more, I´ve included links to some research articles that have examined the corresponding topic. No. 12 – 22 can be found here, No. 23 – 33 ½ will be published shortly. The pieces of advice are ordered (roughly) by difficulty/level of effort etc. Share and enjoy!

1) Smile, Baby

Conventional wisdom holds that people tend to smile because they are happy. And while that is certainly true, it turns out that the other way around makes sense as well. We get happier because we smile. This is called facial feedback hypothesis and it has been shown to hold true over many studies. Accordingly, one way to better our mood is to make ourselves smile – even if we don´t feel like it in that particular moment. A popular method in order to achieve this is to hold a pencil between your teeth for a minute or so.

2) Eat (dark) Chocolate

Consuming moderate amounts of chocolate, especially the darker, less sugary type, has been shown to improve peoples´ mood. Whether this is just a consequence of the pleasurable eating experience, or caused by specific psycho-active ingredients in the cocoa, is still under debate. It works, anyway. But don´t overdo it. You know what I mean…

3) Please don’t stop the Music

Listening to happy and/or you favorite music is associated with elevated mood. It seems that there´s music that has a general happiness-inducing quality (e.g., Happy by Pharrell Williams) but otherwise, it´s more important that you really, really like what you´re listening to. By way of example, I´m really into heavy metal – a type of music that was once seen as fostering aggression and antisocial behavior. In the meantime, it became clear, that the emotional consequences of listening to music should be attributed to the fit between music and listener.

Nico - Family - Mappalicious4) Catch the Sun

Low levels of Vitamin D seem to be associated with depressive disorders, especially S.A.D. (seasonal affective disorder a.k.a. winter blues) – and it´s comparably difficult to generate enough intake just from food. Our body is able generate this vitamin, but we need exposure to sunlight in order to pull off that stunt. That´s why we need to go out regularly, even when the weather is not all that great. You don’t need to take an actual sunbath – just being outside is enough (even when it´s cloudy), especially around noon-time. Sitting in the sunlight inside of the house does not help. What´s more, sunscreen seems to inhibit the process that generates the vitamin. For more advice, please see this article on Psychology Today.

5) Go green

Paying heed to No. 4 will additionally help you with this one: the so-called biophilia hypothesis states (among other things) that spending time in green environments (parks, forests etc.) helps to fight off stress and boosts our mood. Basically, the equation goes: the greener, the better, so you´ll profit more from a stroll in a nearby forest than a walk in the park. Long-term studies have found that moving from an inner-city area (lots of concrete, few greens spots) to a more rural area is greatly beneficial for several aspects of our psychological and physiological health.

6) Shake that Booty

Now, I´m perfectly aware of the fact that dancing may not be the most favorite subject among lots of my fellow men. Actually, psychologists have described a specific facet of our personality by the name of dance confidence – and that tends to be a bit lower with the not-so-fair sex. Nevertheless, regular dancing – even when you do it on your own in your living room – has tons of positive side effects, e.g., lifting your mood, boosting your immune system, and fighting stress by decreasing the concentration of cortisol in your blood.

7) Hit the Pillow

It is known that people need different amounts of sleep, and that the need for sleep changes over our lifetime (generally becoming less the older we get). And yes, there are people out there that claim to get along with just four hours of sleep per night. But the truth is: those folks are probably killing themselves very slowly. Most “normal” adults need at least seven to eight hours of good rest per night. Anything below that level for prolonged periods of time will very likely lead to performance problems (e.g., concentration disorders) – and yes: bad moods.

Nico - Workout - Mappalicious8) Move your Ass

Most people start exercise regimens at the onset of a new year to lose some pounds in order to look better in their Speedos once summer comes along. As less known fact: regular physical activity, especially endurance exercises like jogging, swimming etc. at medium intensity might just be one of the strongest anti-depressants out there.

9) Put down that Smartphone

Now, I certainly don´t belong to the type of people that engage in simple-minded smartphone (and social media) bashing – but: there are more and more studies that show detrimental effects of too much smartphone use. Especially among heavy users, there seem to be several adverse effects such as concentrations disorders – and also, a kind of separation anxiety when not having access to one´s favorite toy, e.g. due to low battery. Bottom line: the tool is fine, but don’t get attached to it.

10) Don’t be a Hater, stop the Gossip

Research shows the more meaningful conversations you have (as opposed to small talk and gossip), the happier you will be. Additionally, certain types of expressions on social media, such as swearing and verbalizing aggression, seem to be associated with bad moods and even adverse health conditions, e.g., a higher risk rate for cardio-vascular diseases. So, watch your language, young ladies and gentlemen.

11) Practice Gratitude

Cultivating gratitude seems to be the Swiss Army knife of Positive Psychology. It´s one of the most thoroughly researched positive interventions. Mostly, it comes in the form of keeping a gratitude (or: www for “what went well”) journal; please see this post on Greater Good Science Center´s website for more detail). The power of gratitude lies in its ability to counter the effect of what psychologist like to call the hedonic treadmill. We get used to almost all circumstances and things in our lives, whether they be desirable or undesirable. That´s why it´s helpful to actively focus our attention on all the good things in our lives once in a while. Also, it doesn’t cost thing.

Please note

Science shows that you do not have to practice all of these things (at once) to be happier. Rather, you should find out which of these activities best fit your personality and current way of life – so you´ll find it easy to sustain them. Please refer to: To each his own well-being boosting intervention: using preference to guide selection.

On the Intersection of Cat Content and Positive Psychology…

Samu & NellySometimes, the world seems to be divided into two different kinds of human species: by way of example, those who love cats – and those who love to hate them. I mean, I rarely meet people who say something like “You know…I mean…cats are…Ok”. Either we are totally infatuated with our feline friends – or we´ve come to believe they´re the devil´s brood – for whatever reason.

Now, I happen to be a cat lover. Therefore, I´d like to introduce you to Nelly (brown) and Samu (blotched), two British Shorthair kitten that live in our home since January 17. The reasons: first, I know that cat content is the most important type of internet content right after porn, so my secret hope is that you´re going to share this post like crazy. But I´d never admit that of course…

Second and more important, I´d like to convince you of the notion that there is a substantial correlation between Positive Psychology and having a cat (or several, for that matter). The argument goes as follows:

1) Cats do really cute things. I mean, they sleep about 90% of the day. And another 9% are reserved for eating. But in the 15 minutes that remain, they really do very cute things – like licking themselves, falling off the couch, or trying to fit in holes that are far too small.

2) Watching really cute things makes us happy. And being happy is one element of PERMA, Martin Seligman´s concept of flourishing. Quod erat demonstrandum.

But joking aside: there is some scientific research on why it could be healthy to have a pet (at least one that can be petted…): 

First, there the Biophilia hypothesis. Basically, this means there is considerable empirical evidence that humans profit from getting in touch with nature, be it a green forest – or animals.

And second, we need to touch and to be touched (warmly). A caress (be it on the giving or receiving end) is as good as medicine (without the side effects). It can lower our blood pressure and reduce stress hormones like cortisol – among other things.

So, if you still believe that cats are evil creatures, please watch this video:

A huge Meow! to that.

Biophilia: If you feel Blue, touch Green!

PP_Pioneer_AwardOne of the speakers at this year´s MAPP Summit has been Charlie Scudamore. He´s Vice Principal of Geelong Grammar School (GGS) in Australia. For several years now, this school has implemented the principles of Positive Psychology in its curriculum, or, for that matter, in the way the school managed on the general level. Therefore, Martin Seligman awarded Charlie with the ‘Pioneer Award’ for the application of Positive Psychology – he is now considered as one of the founding fathers of Positive Education. If you are interested in the way that Positive Psychology is implemented at GGS please click here.

In his talk, Scudamore also touched the aspect of Biophilia. The ‘Biophilia Hypothesis’ draws on evolutionary psychology to support the idea that there is an instinctive bond between human beings and other living systems. By way of example, there´s considerable evidence that spending time in the woods, or just adding plants to a room, can have a mood-boosting effect and alleviate depressive symptoms. That´s why spending time outside, especially in the ‘wilderness’, plays an important part at GGS. Charlie´s summary of this issue: “If you feel blue, touch green!”

Blue_Green