Our friends at Action for Happiness have published a new calendar with action items focusing on building relationships. You can download a version in high-quality resolution for printing out here.
Mankind 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:
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:
Now let’s take this narration and transfer into more modern terms. What we have here are people who…
Compare this to what most Westerners are doing:
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.
there won’t be any updates on Mappalicious for a couple of days. The reason is simple and very beautiful. Today, my wife has given birth to a very special kind of update to this world.
The Little Guru is a big brother now. Please say hello to Emma Elaria Rose…
This certainly is a strong proposition. It was coined by Prof. Dr. Eva Walther from the University of Trier as part of lecture on “Money & Love” during the first Conference of the German Association for Research in Positive Psychology. Yet, it may grounded in solid research. Here´s the story:
First, there´s some research that both social support and money can act as a buffer for pain – or the anticipation of pain. So, when people expect to experience painful life events, they will draw on social support (= their friends and loved ones) to guard themselves against or alleviate this unpleasant emotion. Yet, while social capital is the more natural (primary) defense mechanism, money is seen as a secondary one that mainly comes into play when the primary one doesn’t work. Here´s a quote from the Zhou/Gao article listed below:
First, anticipation of pain heightens the desire for social support as well as the desire for money. Second, both social support and money reminders alleviate pain, whereas social exclusion and monetary loss result in an upsurge of pain awareness. In our view, social support is the primary defense against pain and the reliance on money may result from the failure of social support to accomplish its pain-buffering goal.
In short, and a bit overgeneralized: When people cannot lean on social support to fulfill their emotional needs, they will turn to money to do the job.
Second, research finds that money-seeking may be linked to having an avoidant attachment orientation (using the Bowlby typology). This finding lends some credibility to the idea that money acts as a substitute for human bonding – as people with an avoidant attachment style may find it harder to attain all the emotional comfort they need in stressful situations.
So, just in case you´re striving for that first million $: It could very well be you´re just looking for a friend…
One of the central tenets of Positive Psychology is Other People Matter, coined by the late Prof. Christopher Peterson. If you want to learn just how much they matter to your happiness and your health, you might want to watch this TED talk by Prof. John Cacioppo from University of Chicago.
Now, I perfectly know from my own life what Prof. Cacioppo is talking about. When I was 16, I went to the USA for a year to attend high school and improve my English skills. I left my family and friends behind – platforms such as Skype and Facebook weren’t available (in fact, Mark Zuckerberg probably was entering middle school at that time). I agreed to have a phone call with my parents only every other Sunday – in order not to abet homesickness. Bad idea, most likely…
For reasons which are to complex and difficult to explain (if it can be explained at all – because every person will have a very different vantage point…), this was by far the loneliest year of my life. I found it hard to connect to my guest families and the larger part of my schoolmates.* For most of the time, m closest social connections consisted of other exchange students (during school hours) and the folks I encountered during basketball pick-up games (in the afternoon). Other than that, for most of the year, I felt utterly alone and devoid of warm social connections, let alone love.
I am now perfectly aware what a situation like this does to your body and your soul. When I came to the U.S., I was a healthy and (ordinarily) happy teenager. By the time I went home, I had developed allergy-based asthma, suffered from recurring panic attacks, and was – according to what I´ve learned during my psychology studies later in life – more than mildly depressed (including, at times, suicidal thoughts). It took me several years to shake all of this off – but I did.
To end this post on a high note (or rather: two high notes), I have to add that even though this was probably the worst year of my life, that doesn´t mean it hasn’t been a valuable experience. On the one hand, it´s a classic case of “What doesn´t kill me makes me stronger“. On the other hand – and that may be a strangely wonderful twist of fate – this year gave my life a whole new direction. The high school I attended offered psychology as an elective course. These two hours or so every week always were among the regular lights at the end of my tunnel. And I think my psychology teacher is the reason why I chose to pursue that profession later on in my life.
And then, there´s this other – equally beautiful and strange – twist of fate. Mappalicious exists as a blog because I was part of the ninth cohort of the Master of Applied Positive Psychology program at the University of Pennsylvania – it started as a kind of diary. So, 19 years after what I´ve described above, I spent another year in the U.S. (more precisely, several days per months as travelled back and forth between Germany and Philly). Actually, it all happened only about a hundred miles from where I went to school.
And boy, what a difference it has been. It´s been a year full of human bonding, a time of joy, and caring, and yes: love. And, in the light of my past, it´s been a year of healing. Full circle.
* I´m not blaming anybody, because it´s actually nobody´s fault. Let´s just say that U.S. high schools can be a pretty tough environment when you´re not exactly part of the in-crowd…
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 are listed here, No. 23 – 33 ½ will be published soon. The pieces of advice are ordered (roughly) by difficulty/level of effort etc. Share and enjoy!
Just like dancing, singing seems to be a natural anti-depressant. Singing is enjoyable and a very healthy kind of physical activity. It doesn´t matter if you sing in the shower, the car, or for an audience. And it surely doesn’t matter if your singing is good or bad. An especially beneficial way seems to be joining a choir. In doing so, people additional profit from the social support such an environment entails.
Good things that have happened in the past can be a powerful mood (and meaning) booster for the present. It could be our fondest childhood memories, our wedding day, or that beautiful sunset from our last vacation: Actively remembering these events can turn today into a brighter day. Accordingly, it´s helpful to create what positive psychologists like to call a positive portfolio. This is a box or a folder (these days, probably a digital one) where you keep especially uplifting memories, such as the wedding video, the first photo of your kid, your favorite piece of music etc.
Conventional wisdom holds that money cannot buy happiness. And while the best things in life are really (more or less free), most things do cost some money. Now, a sizeable body of research shows that investing our money in experiences such as concerts and vacations will be more beneficial for our long-term happiness than buying “stuff”. First, those events are typically shared experiences, second they can be re-lived in memory (see No.13), and third, especially memorable experiences seem to become parts of our selves, an integral part of “our story” – whereas the “stuff” will mostly be gone at some point in the future.
If you´re neither into concerts nor vacations (see No. 14), and you don´t like to buy stuff, it could be a great idea to spend your dough on other people. There´s abundant empirical evidence for the notion that giving money to others (e.g., via charity) can be a veritable happiness booster. Some studies find that spending your bucks on others is much more beneficial for our emotional wellbeing than keeping it for ourselves. If you don´t know where to start: Mashable provides a great overview of online funding sites.
Truth is: the world is a much better place than we think it is. Our senses and our brains are gauged to pay attention to and process negative information much more thoroughly than positive stimuli (see this post for more info). News editors are well aware of this fact and select their stories accordingly. When these two mechanisms join forces, our perspective on the state of the world can become pretty gloomy and depressive. At this point, it could be helpful to practice what Positive Psychologists like to call realistic optimism. It´s not based on seeing everything through rose-colored glasses, but rather on thorough investigation of facts and probabilities. A good way to start this is to learn how to fight off unwarranted negative thoughts. For information on how to do this, please visit this post on Positive Psychology News Daily.
Flow (as described by eminent Positive Psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi) is a state in which a person is fully immersed in a feeling of focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of pursuing a specific activity. It´s a surefire way to satisfaction and personal growth. The experience of Flow is dependent on a set of internal and external conditions, among them, focusing on a single goal and shutting of any distractions (see Wikipedia for an overview). There´s a great article on Fast Company about companies that try to enable better conditions for Flow at work.
One of the hallmarks of Positive Psychology is a taxonomy of 24 character strengths. You can find out what your top attributes are (so-called signature strengths) for free when visiting the website of the VIA Institute on Character (mine are: curiosity, zest, and love of leaning). There, you´ll also find tons of information on how to use that knowledge in order to lead a more satisfying life. Generally speaking, the more we use our most pronounced strengths (e.g., in our occupation), the happier we are.
Recommendation No. 15 already touched the beneficial effects of pro-social spending for our own happiness. The same can be said pertaining to pro-social behavior, e.g., volunteering and committing random acts of kindness. There seem to be positive short-term consequences for our mood (so-called helpers high) but also long-term effects. When we help others, our life becomes more meaningful – and that´s a source of happiness in its own right.
Writing is one of the most potent methods for “getting a grip” on life. It can help us to focus our attention on the goods things (see No. 11) or, alternatively, to come to terms with bad events, especially as a way of creating mental and emotional distance. If you´re not sure how to start, you’ll find advice in this article on Psychology Today.
It has been shown that humans have lived together with domesticated animals for at least 500.000 years. Pets can be a valuable source of comfort, amusement, and distraction. As such, research shows that living with pets has several beneficial long-term effects for our psychological and physiological health, especially for children. Just a word of advice: Before you bring Lassie home, please make sure that you and your family are prepared and willing to take on the responsibility of owning a pet (hint: cats are much more low-maintenance than dogs).
Typically, our social network (the non-virtual one, a.k.a. family and friends) is one of the most important sources of comfort and satisfaction in our lives. Now, the interesting thing is: almost everything can spread through these networks by means of social contagion. E.g., if of most of your friends are fitness freaks, your risk for obesity is considerably lower than when most of them are a little on the chubby side. The same goes for things like smoking, and even activities such as getting married. And this mechanism also holds true for emotions such as happiness (as well as depression). Bottom line: if your posse is a really cheerful bunch of people, this will positively influence your own emotional wellbeing in the long run (at least statistically). Conversely, this also means it could be beneficial to rid yourself of some “forms of energy” in your life.
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.
Robert Waldinger is a Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and the current Director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development (part of that is the so-called Harvard Grant Study; see this post for prior coverage on Mappalicious). It is a 75-year longitudinal study of 268 physically- and mentally-healthy Harvard college sophomores from the classes of 1939–1944. It has run in tandem with second study called The Glueck Study, which included another cohort of 456 disadvantaged inner-city youths from Boston.
In his TEDx talk, Waldinger shares his most important takeaways from that study on what keeps people happy and healthy – and it shouldn´t surprise you all that much:
This presentation will also be posted as No. 46 on my topical list of Positive Psychology-infused TED talks.