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.

Infographic: Building Blocks of the Good Life (PERMA-V)

This is the second artwork (well…) in my self-imposed learning journey on the way to producing decent infographics. This time, I chose Martin Seligman´s PERMA framework, which, by many people, is considered to be the most comprehensive framework of “the good life”, the foundation of Positive Psychology in science and practice.

Since PERMA is not exactly hot from the presses, I added a little twist: For a couple of years now, Marty challenges his students in the Penn Master of Positive Psychology program to propose meaningful additions to the original PERMA outline (Positive Emotions | Engagement | Relationships | Meaning | Achievement). Over time, it became clear that the original framework may be somewhat “neck-up”, thereby omitting aspects such as sports, sex, sustenance, and sleep.

PERMA-V: Positive Psychology, neck-up and neck-down

Therefore, students kept asking for the letter “S” to be added – which ultimately would result in the acronym PERMAS (doesn´t sound too funky…) or SPERMA (uh-uh, not a proper name for a scientific term…). Meanwhile, there seems to be a growing mutual consent to choose the letter “V” for Vitality – and to put it at the end with a hyphen.

What do you think?

PERMA_V_Good_Life

Share and enjoy!

The brand new, 2,400-years-old Science of fighting Depression

A couple of days a go, I stumbled upon two TEDx talks by clinical neuroscientist Stephen Ilardi (University of Kansas). He shares how we can “naturally” (without taking antidepressants) fight depression. The talks are instructive and entertaining, yet pretty similar to each other – so if you´re short on time, it´s probably sufficient to watch only one of them. Here´s the summary:

We were never designed for the sedentary, indoor, sleep-deprived, socially-isolated, fast-food-laden, frenetic pace of modern life.

Accordingly, among the most potent remedies for depression are:

  • going outside (daylight);
  • moderate exercise;
  • eating healthy food;
  • getting enough sleep;
  • and spending time with the people you love.

And while I´m happy and impressed that these recommendations are now being backed by “hard science”, I guess we should have known all along. Here are some quotes by Greek physician and “father of Western medicine” Hippocrates (460 – 370 BC).

If you are in a bad mood go for a walk.

To do nothing is also a good remedy.

Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.

What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. (Ecclesiastes 1:9)

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.

9 Reasons Dancing (even when nobody’s looking!) can save your Day

Yesterday, Fulfillment Daily, a website featuring science-backed information on the good life (a.k.a. Positive Psychology) was launched. I´m going to be a regular contributor. Here, you´ll find my first piece on the psychological upsides of dancing…

Fulfillment Daily - Rose - Dancing

 

Got Grit? How “Youth Mentoring Partnership” helps Kids to Strive

Part of the requirements for the 2. semester of the MAPP program has been a 4-month service-learning project. To this effect, my beautiful “cohort” members Patricia De La Torre, Charles Cycon, Harold Hanul Lee, Guang Zeng, and my humble self had the great pleasure to work with Philly-based NFP Youth Mentoring Partnership (YMP) and their truly inspiring Director Chris Major.

YMP is committed to “helping kids overcome formidable challenges to be successful today and in the future”.  YMP programs have five main components: mentoring, intense physical fitness, focused goal-setting and achievement, earned recognition, and positive feedback. The organization’s signature intervention is the Friend Fitness Program (FFP). Offered year-round in select locations, the FFP is free of charge to students in grades 6 – 12.

Got_GritThe FFP aims to instill beneficial traits in its students by designing a challenging mix of intense strengths-training workouts, super-slow manual resistance routines, and cardio exercises. Upon entering the program, students are matched with a personal mentor that gives them undivided attention, guides them through strength training exercises, monitors their progress, helps set and track their goals, celebrates their achievements, acts as a positive role model, and becomes a supportive caring friend. Over the course of a year, students learn to take care of their bodies, set goals and achieve them, take responsibility for their actions, develop resiliency in the face of adversity, value effort and perseverance, and to ultimately develop Grit – which is defined “perseverance and passion for long-term goals” and has been shown to be associated with a variety of desirable outcomes such as a high GPA in college (beyond the explanatory power of general intelligence).

The “secret sauce” of FFP is creating regular “moments of choice” which basically means giving the kids a (physical) adversity to overcome and thereby the opportunity to grow by choosing to persevere in the face of that challenge – aided by the support from the personal mentor. The general idea is that those experiences of success via being gritty will then spill over to other domains of life, such as school work. Below, you’ll see a photo displaying Chris leading Harold through one of the super-slow resistance routines (and the rest cheering for them) as part of our final project presentation.

Moment of Choice

In short, we helped YMP by enhancing their onboarding process for new mentors. Among others things, we´ve created the outline and a demo for an online course and several infographics on relevant Positive Psychology concepts such as active-constructive responding.

Active-Constructive Responding

And this is also where you, gentle reader, may come into play:

If you love kids, sports, and fun (plus: doing “good”), YMP might be the place for you (even outside of Philly – they´d really like to expand…). If your are thinking about volunteering, donating, or helping YMP in any way you see fit, please go to their website and contact Chris.

P.S.

Chris – you´re an awesome individual!

Walk – Sleep – Walk again: Positive Psychology and the Quantified Self

Those of you that visit Mappalicious on a regular basis know that I´ve started tracking certain behaviors of mine a while ago (see: Are you short on Willpower and Self-Regulation? These Apps can help You). But until now, it was more or less about keeping a journal and a (sophisticated) to-do list.

FitBitFlexNow, I´m taking things a step further: At the beginning of the year, I decided to lose some weight. I´ve already lost about 18 pounds – but if things go my way, I will get rid of an additional 15 to 20 or so. Part of that has to do with controlling my diet – but I´m not going to talk about that here.

The other part is about burning enough calories per day, and regularly getting a sufficient amount of sleep. Both tend to be problematic issues when you´ve got a management job, a family, and several part-time “jobs” (e.g., blogging). Doesn´t sound like Positive Psychology at first glance, but I think physiological well-being plays a big role in psychological well-being – so it definitly belongs on the menu.

To support me on my misson, I´ve bought the FitBit Flex a couple of days ago.* It´s a wristband that is – among other things – able to track your steps and your sleep pattern. It´s connects to a smartphone app via Bluetooth and is really easy to use. It comes in different colors, it´s waterproof and also pretty shock-resitant, so you can wear it pretty much all the time. One of my goals is to walk at least 10,000 steps each day. The Flex tracks your progress and (upon request…) gives feedback via five tiny LEDs – each LED amounts to roughly 20% goal fulfillment.

The first thing I found out: a regular day at the office (screenshot right; including walking to get on the bus and train etc., running around at the office) is far from enough to reach that goal. When I came home in the evening, there were still at least 4,000 steps missing. I compensated that by walking around in our living room reading on the Kindle but that drove my wife nuts – so I guess I have to find another way to get moving over the day. On the other hand, going for a one-hour walk almost nails it for the day (screenshot left).

FitBit Walk

You can also have a closer look at your progress over the day. Below, you´ll find the details from the regular office day. Basically, what you see is me getting to work in the morning, going to the canteen for lunch, getting a coffee at the cafeteria in the afternoon, and getting home in the evening. Finally, the outburst around 10 p.m. is the abovementioned reading vs. walking spree.

Walk_Profile

Now what about the sleeping part? Via klicking on that little display for about two seconds, the Flex can be switched to sleep tracking mode after going to bed. Once again, it bascially measures your movements, which does not 100% exactly mirror your sleeping pattern – but it´s a good estimate nevertheless. A graph will show you when you´ve been asleep, awake (e.g., running around) or restless (moving a lot while lying down). Below, you can see my sleep pattern from last night and the one before:

Sleep

The first night, Little Guru slept  – well… – like a baby (should). The second night, he deciced to be a fully-grown pain in the ass – resulting in having to get up a couple of times during the night. To give it a positive twist: Isn´t it nice to recognize those micro-moments of love in a simple diagram? 🙂

 

* Other options would have been the Nike Fuel or Jawbone Up, but after reading some reviews on Amazon and consulting with some friends, I went for the FitBit Flex…