BY ANA VECIANA-SUAREZ
Are you happy? That question seems to be everywhere these days.
An entire industry — check out the self-help section at the bookstore — has sprouted around the idea that we deserve to be, at the very least, content. We write about happiness, quantify it in bar graphs, rank it by state, even set up support groups to promote it. We are, in one word, a society obsessed. We take the pursuit of happiness very seriously.
Truthfully, it’s been a good long while since I’ve pondered my state of happiness. Don’t seem to have the time or the inclination. But this I do know: Some days I slog around as if I were dragging a wagonload of bricks. Other days … well, other days I soar, a kite without string. Most of the time, however, I regress to the mean, steady, even-keeled.
That smooth ride must be a sign of maturity, or perhaps a surrender to the inevitable. The younger members of my family, on the other hand, lurch from elation to despondency then back again with whiplash speed.
“I am NOT happy!” shrieked one of my twin granddaughters the other day, just minutes after a happy trot around the block. Then just as quickly she forgot all about whatever was bothering her. And that, in the end, may be its own lesson. Sometimes you just have to wait out (and wade through) the sadness or the anger.
I got to thinking about happiness after reading that Alaska is the happiest state in America. It has placed in the top 10 four times in the past seven years. Next up in the most recent Gallup-Healthways Well-Being index were Hawaii, South Dakota, Wyoming and Montana. Florida muscled in at 26. My reaction, having lived in Miami for most of my life, was predictable: Go figure. Then again, this may be proof that happiness is more about our outlook and less about our surroundings (endless snow, brutal cold and long, long nights.)
The Gallup-Healthways index is, by no means, the only attempt to measure our collective state of bliss. There’s also the Gross National Happiness (GNH) index. Both attempt to do the same thing, compute the answer to what is surely a very complex equation. For example, the 2014 Gallup list, released last week, was based on more than 176,000 phone interviews. It rated each state on five elements of well-being, including motivation to achieve goals, having positive relationships, economic satisfaction, feeling pride in your community and taking care of your health. The GNH uses nine broad domains.
Can we truly gauge a feeling that is both varied and volatile? I’ve not thought of happiness as something you can appraise, like a house, or as a goal unto itself, like losing five pounds. For me it’s been more of a byproduct of doing what I like and hanging out with the people I love. Besides, happiness is a prickly thing. Like pain, so much of happiness, how we process it, is in our heads. And like success, it can prove elusive even as we chase it down doing all the wrong things. Some of the happiest people I’ve met are the ones you would least expect to be. They’re happy in spite of, not because. Which may explain all that frigid Alaskan joy.
So maybe we’re asking the wrong question. Forget Are you happy? Ask instead: How happy have you chosen to be?
These simple strategies will lift your mood, get you outdoors, and help you spend more time doing what you love.
By: Erin Beresini
Our same old routines and out-of-control smartphone addictions aren't doing much for our quality of life. So we experimented with simple lifestyle changes that max out fitness and health, and are guaranteed to leave you with a permagrin.
The Problem: You're Easily Distracted
The Fix: Learn how to be bored.
“Boredom is an interesting emotion that’s much more complicated than previously assessed,” says Thomas Goetz, one of the world’s leading researchers on the subject. Scientists have found that the bored brain is highly active, particularly in the prefrontal cortex, a region thought to play a role in memory consolidation and retrieval, decision making, and emotional processing. Boredom may allow two traditionally opposed brain networks to work together—the default network, or what your brain does when you’re not engaged in a task, and the executive, task-focused network. The result: “Boredom can foster creativity,” Goetz says, making us seek new social, cognitive, and emotional experiences that we otherwise would’ve missed. In other words, boredom is a beneficial mental state that you should indulge in—if you do it right.
Do: Learn which types of boredom are good for you. Researchers have identified five of them, three of which can have positive effects: “Indifferent boredom—like when you’re tired at night or in a lecture that’s tedious and your thoughts wander—can lead to creative ideas,” says Goetz. Calibrated boredom, which occurs when we want to do something but aren’t sure what, can make us open to new things. And searching boredom, when we’re restless and actively looking for something to do, leads to new discoveries.
Don’t: Indulge in the two types of toxic boredom. So-called reactant boredom can occur when you’re forced to stay in a situation—like watching a terrible movie—and you get irritable and want to do something else. And apathetic boredom is a feeling of learned helplessness similar to depression, when you have no motivation to do anything.
The Problem: Hedonic Adaptation (You’re in a Rut)
The Fix: Override your brain.
Just like unvaried workout routines lead to fitness plateaus, happiness has its own mood plateaus. Psychologists call it hedonic adaptation. “It’s the term for, ‘It was great at first, but now I’m used to it,’” says Kennon Sheldon, a psychology professor at the University of Missouri whose research centers on what it takes to boost happiness and keep it elevated. Luckily, Sheldon has found a simple way to override the brain’s tendency to adapt: variety. Novelty activates the reward area of the brain, which in turn stimulates the amygdala (the brain’s emotional processor) and the hippocampus (the memory center). The result: greater happiness and enhanced learning. “Fresh experiences are what we need to stay up at the top end of our happiness range,” Sheldon says.
Do: Make small tweaks to your everyday routine. You can stimulate neural circuits by driving home by a different route or running your favorite loop in the other direction. “Get engaged in it so it’s different every time in some little way,” Sheldon says. For a double whammy of happy, try picking up a new sport: you’ll get the benefits of novelty and the exercise-induced endorphin release associated with feelings of euphoria.
Don’t: Feel like you must constantly try new things. Simply thinking about your routine in a different way can boost happiness level. “If you’re paying attention to details—like, Ah, that flower opened up an inch since yesterday,” Sheldon says, “that can give you the stimulus you need."
The Problem: Work Is Your Life
The Fix: Road Trip!
Americans suck at vacations. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, nearly a quarter of private-sector workers don’t get paid time off. And those who do use only 51 percent of it, a recent survey for the careers website Glassdoor found. The net result is the opposite of what we’re trying to achieve by staying punched in: a fat drop in productivity. “Vacations give us new perspective on life, on circumstances, on relationship issues”—even on work projects, says Francine Lederer, a Los Angeles–based clinical psychologist.
Do: Head out of town. Research suggests that exposure to new places, especially foreign cultures, makes us more creative. Seeing life through other peoples’ eyes can improve our ability to problem solve and help us overcome what psychologists call functional fixedness, or our tendency to see things only how we’re used to seeing them.
Don’t: Worry if you can’t get away. Staycations are also beneficial—if you’re relaxed. Part of a vacation’s revitalizing magic is its ability to counteract stress, which researchers believe may shrink dendrites—branch-like projections that transmit information between brain cells, including those in the medial prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain associated with decision making and long-term memory. Alpha waves, the brain’s most relaxed state of mind, are most likely to kick in when you’re stress-free. “The higher the productivity of alpha waves, the more likely you’ll feel creative and have a better mindset,” Lederer says.
The Problem: You're a Low-Level Hoarder
The Fix: Purge.
Visual noise—like the gear piles in your garage—can overload the brain’s limited processing capacity, making it difficult for the brain to choose goals (I need to do my taxes!) over stimuli (Look at all those crampons!). Princeton University neuroscientists recently linked clutter to frustration, distraction, low productivity, and a hampered ability to process information—and that’s just for the junk you can see. Luckily, the cure is straightforward: get rid of the extra stuff. Bonus: researchers at the University of Maryland also found that purging possessions can lead to weight loss.
Do: Focus on the feeling you want from your gear closet. “It sounds counterintuitive, but if you target the stuff itself, you’ll never get organized,” says Peter Walsh, an expert in organizational design. Do you want to feel like what you have supports the activities you do? Then get rid of that climbing gear you haven’t used in 20 years. “If you open the closet and feel overwhelmed,” Walsh says, “that stuff shouldn’t be there.” Once you’ve made your parting pile, give the rejects to a friend or charity for an extra happiness boost.
Don’t: Ditch everything. Researchers at Yale found that we activate the same part of our brain that feels pain when getting rid of things we’re emotionally attached to. “The way to avoid the pain of letting go,” Walsh says, “is to find one or two treasures and treat them with honor and respect by displaying them in your home.” Try mounting the handlebars from your first mountain bike like moose antlers, for example. “You’ll find the fear disappears,” Walsh says, “and it won’t be as hard to let go.”
The Problem: Vitamin Z Deficiency
The Fix: Sleep smarter.
Everything from muscle growth to tissue repair to memory consolidation happens when we’re snoozing. And anyone who’s pulled an all-nighter knows that lack of sleep can tank your mood, making you irritable and even hostile. Yet nearly a third of Americans—105 million people—aren’t getting the recommended seven hours of sleep per night. Sleep deprivation is such a problem that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers it a public-health epidemic. Here’s how to up your Z’s.
Do: Nap. Find a dark space with temps in the low seventies and conk out, preferably between 1 and 4 p.m. That’s when your circadian rhythm dips but it’s still early enough to avoid interfering with nighttime sleep.
Don’t: Constantly change the hour you go to bed. It’s well documented that hitting the sack at a consistent time is essential to healthy sleep. What’s harder is actually doing so. That’s why author Gretchen Rubin suggests creating a reminder, like setting an alarm on your phone. “It lets you know you’re up past your bedtime.”
The Problem: You're Sick of Happiness Advice
The Fix: Get in a fight! (Plus: four other surprising solutions.)
Some of the everyday stuff we do without thinking—or think is bad—jacks up our happiness, too. Here are a few surprising paths to enlightenment.
Ride the subway. Researchers from Sweden’s Karlstad University found that using public transportation can increase satisfaction because we don’t have to worry about traffic.
Watch sad movies. Ohio State University researchers found that tear-jerkers make us happier because they prompt us to think about our good relationships.
Fight back. Researchers at Vanderbilt University believe that aggression makes our brains release dopamine. For the sanctity of your police record, we recommend a boxing class or pickup football.
Don’t: Be afraid to throw out the rules and do whatever you want.
JEANINE CELESTE PANG
The hotly debated theory that money can't buy happiness is getting another shakedown, courtesy of a new Salary vs. Happiness Chart, which shows chasing that green doesn't always beget smiles and sunshine.
No surprise there, but some findings the graph illustrates are pretty remarkable.
U.K.-based job recruitment company Michael Page tapped into the Cabinet Office's 2014 Wellbeing and Policy Report to create a scatterplot around The Happiness Curve — pitting yearly salaries against life satisfaction for 35- to 50-year-old people working in over 260 occupations.
Plenty of outliers fall both above and below the curve, but you'll never guess how the most obvious "happy outliers" compare to their counterparts near the bottom of the happiness scale. Fitness instructors, who take home an average of £10,378 per year, are happier than lawyers; dental hygienists are happier than dentists; and school secretaries are happier than actuaries. In these instances, a disparity in incomes of over £40K doesn't matter — it's all about how people feel when they clock out at the end of the day.
A near-spiritual finding? Members of the clergy are the happiest of all, with an average income of £20K and a life-satisfaction ranking of 8.291 out of 10.
Of course, some statistics seem perhaps a bit more obvious. Sticking close to the curve are "CEOs & Senior Officials," earning a hefty £111K and ranking a 7.9 on the happiness scale. We're thinking these include the Sheryl Sandbergs and Marissa Meyers of the world.
So, what's the takeaway? A plush job doesn't always translate into bliss, which is why we stick to the ol' standby: "Do what you love and the money will follow." Oh, and apparently, working out does both the body and the mind good. Now, where did we put those trainers...
Can you judge a man by his fingers? Link between relative lengths of index and ring fingers in men and behavior towards women
Men with short index fingers and long ring fingers are on average nicer towards women. This phenomenon stems from their fetal life, and the hormones these men have been exposed to in their mother's womb. The findings might help explain why these men have more children.
Maybe you should take a good look at your partner's fingers before putting a ring on one. Men with short index fingers and long ring fingers are on average nicer towards women, and this unexpected phenomenon stems from the hormones these men have been exposed to in their mother's womb, according to a new study by researchers at McGill University. The findings might help explain why these men tend to have more children. The study, showing a link between a biological event in fetal life and adult behaviour, was published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences.
Men's index fingers are generally shorter than their ring fingers. The difference is less pronounced in women. Previous research has found that digit ratio -- defined as the second digit length divided by the fourth digit length -- is an indication of the amount of male hormones, chiefly testosterone, someone has been exposed to as a fetus: the smaller the ratio, the more male hormones. The McGill study suggests that this has an impact on how adult men behave, especially with women.
"It is fascinating to see that moderate variations of hormones before birth can actually influence adult behaviour in a selective way," says Simon Young, a McGill Emeritus Professor in Psychiatry and coauthor of the study.
Smiles and compliments
Several studies have been conducted previously to try to assess the impact of digit ratio on adult behaviour. This one is the first to highlight how finger lengths affect behaviour differently depending on the sex of the person you are interacting with. "When with women, men with smaller ratios were more likely to listen attentively, smile and laugh, compromise or compliment the other person," says Debbie Moskowitz, lead author and Professor of Psychology at McGill. They acted that way in sexual relationships, but also with female friends or colleagues. These men were also less quarrelsome with women than with men, whereas the men with larger ratios were equally quarrelsome with both. For women though, digit ratio variation did not seem to predict how they behaved, the researchers report.
Digit ratio and children For 20 days, 155 participants in the study filled out forms for every social interaction that lasted 5 minutes or more, and checked off a list of behaviours they engaged in. Based on prior work, the scientists classified the behaviours as agreeable or quarrelsome. Men with small digit ratios reported approximately a third more agreeable behaviours and approximately a third fewer quarrelsome behaviours than men with large digit ratios.
A previous study had found that men with smaller digit ratios have more children. "Our research suggests they have more harmonious relationships with women; these behaviors support the formation and maintenance of relationships with women," Moskowitz says. "This might explain why they have more children on average."
The researchers were surprised to find no statistically relevant link between dominant behaviours and digit ratios. They suggest future research could study specific situations where male dominance varies -- such as competitive situations with other men -- to see whether a correlation can be established.
This study was funded by a grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council -- Canada.
The above story is based on materials provided by McGill University. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.
1. D.S. Moskowitz, Rachel Sutton, David C. Zuroff, Simon N. Young. Fetal exposure to androgens, as indicated by digit ratios (2D:4D), increases men’s agreeableness with women. Personality and Individual Differences, 2015; 75: 97 DOI: 10.1016/j.paid.2014.11.008
Does your mind wander when performing monotonous, repetitive tasks? Of course! But daydreaming involves more than just beating back boredom. In fact, according to a new study, a wandering mind can impart a distinct cognitive advantage.
Does your mind wander when performing monotonous, repetitive tasks? Of course! But daydreaming involves more than just beating back boredom. In fact, according to a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a wandering mind can impart a distinct cognitive advantage.
Scientists at Bar-Ilan University are the first to demonstrate how an external stimulus of low-level electricity can literally change the way we think, producing a measurable up-tick in the rate at which daydreams -- or spontaneous, self-directed thoughts and associations -- occur. Along the way, they made another surprising discovery: that while daydreams offer a welcome "mental escape" from boring tasks, they also have a positive, simultaneous effect on task performance.
The new study was carried out in Bar-Ilan's Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory supervised by Prof. Moshe Bar, part of the University's Gonda (Goldschmied) Multidisciplinary Brain Research Center which Prof. Bar also directs.
What Makes a Mind Wander?
While a far cry from the diabolical manipulation of dream content envisioned in "Inception" -- the science-fiction thriller starring Leonardo DiCaprio -- the Bar-Ilan University study is the first to prove that a generic external stimulus, unrelated to sensory perception, triggers a specific type of cognitive activity.
In the experiment -- designed and executed by Prof. Bar's post-doctoral researcher Dr. Vadim Axelrod -- participants were treated with transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), a non-invasive and painless procedure that uses low-level electricity to stimulate specific brain regions. During treatment, the participants were asked to track and respond to numerals flashed on a computer screen. They were also periodically asked to respond to an on-screen "thought probe" in which they reported -- on a scale of one to four -- the extent to which they were experiencing spontaneous thoughts unrelated to the numeric task they had been given.
The Brain-Daydream Connection
According to Prof. Bar -- a long-time faculty member at Harvard Medical School who has authored several studies exploring the link between associative thinking, memory and predictive ability -- the specific brain area targeted for stimulation in this study was anything but random.
"We focused tDCS stimulation on the frontal lobes because this brain region has been previously implicated in mind wandering, and also because is a central locus of the executive control network that allows us to organize and plan for the future," Bar explains, adding that he suspected that there might be a connection between the two.
As a point of comparison and in separate experiments, the researchers used tDCS to stimulate the occipital cortex -- the visual processing center in the back of the brain. They also conducted control studies where no tDCS was used.
While the self-reported incidence of mind wandering was unchanged in the case of occipital and sham stimulation, it rose considerably when this stimulation was applied to the frontal lobes. "Our results go beyond what was achieved in earlier, fMRI-based studies," Bar states. "They demonstrate that the frontal lobes play a causal role in the production of mind wandering behavior."
Improved "Cognitive Capacity" of the Wandering Mind
In an unanticipated finding, the present study demonstrated how the increased mind wandering behavior produced by external stimulation not only does not harm subjects' ability to succeed at an appointed task, it actually helps. Bar believes that this surprising result might stem from the convergence, within a single brain region, of both the "thought controlling" mechanisms of executive function and the "thought freeing" activity of spontaneous, self-directed daydreams.
"Over the last 15 or 20 years, scientists have shown that -- unlike the localized neural activity associated with specific tasks -- mind wandering involves the activation of a gigantic default network involving many parts of the brain," Bar says. "This cross-brain involvement may be involved in behavioral outcomes such as creativity and mood, and may also contribute to the ability to stay successfully on-task while the mind goes off on its merry mental way."
While it is commonly assumed that people have a finite cognitive capacity for paying attention, Bar says that the present study suggests that the truth may be more complicated.
"Interestingly, while our study's external stimulation increased the incidence of mind wandering, rather than reducing the subjects' ability to complete the task, it caused task performance to become slightly improved. The external stimulation actually enhanced the subjects' cognitive capacity."
Toward A Less-Mysterious Mind
Bar says that, in the future, he would be interested in studying how external stimulation might affect other cognitive behaviors, such as the ability to focus or perform multiple tasks in parallel. And while any therapeutic application of this technique is speculative at best, he believes that it might someday help neuroscientists understand the behavior of people suffering from low or abnormal neural activity.
In the meantime, Bar's team at the BIU Lab for Cognitive Neuroscience is pleased to note that in their work on mind wandering -- probably the most omnipresent internal cognitive function -- they have made the human brain just a little less mysterious
The above story is based on materials provided by Bar-Ilan University. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.
1. Vadim Axelrod, Geraint Rees, Michal Lavidor, Moshe Bar. Increasing propensity to mind-wander with transcranial direct current stimulation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2015; 201421435 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1421435112
University of Sydney
The risk of a heart attack is 8.5 times higher in the two hours following a burst of intense anger, researchers have found after investigating the link between acute emotional triggers and high risk of severe cardiac episodes. High levels of anxiety were associated with a 9.5 fold increased risk of triggering a heart attack in the two hours after an anxiety episode.
University of Sydney research reveals that the risk of a heart attack is 8.5 times higher in the two hours following a burst of intense anger.
Published in European Heart Journal: Acute Cardiovascular Care, this is the first Australian study to investigate the link between acute emotional triggers and high risk of severe cardiac episodes.
"Our findings confirm what has been suggested in prior studies and anecdotal evidence, even in films -- that episodes of intense anger can act as a trigger for a heart attack," said lead author Dr Thomas Buckley, Sydney Nursing School, University of Sydney, and researcher at Royal North Shore Hospital.
"The data shows that the higher risk of a heart attack isn't necessarily just while you're angry -- it lasts for two hours after the outburst.
In the study, 'anger' was qualified as 5 and above on a 1-7 scale, referring to 'very angry, body tense, clenching fists or teeth, ready to burst', up to 'enraged, out of control, throwing objects'. Anger below this level was not associated with increased risk.
"The triggers for these burst of intense anger were associated with arguments with family members (29 per cent), argument with others (42 per cent), work anger (14 per cent) and driving anger (14 per cent)," said Dr Buckley.
"The data also revealed that episodes of anxiety can also make you more likely to have heart attack.
"High levels of anxiety were associated with a 9.5 fold increased risk of triggering a heart attack in the two hours after the anxiety episode.
"Increased risk following intense anger or anxiety is most likely due to increased heart rate, blood pressure, tightening of blood vessels and increased clotting, all associated with triggering heart attacks," he said.
The study was an investigation of consecutive patients suspected of heart attack and confirmed by angiography reports at Royal North Shore hospital. Patients confirmed with acute coronary blockage were admitted, interviewed about their activities in the 48 hours before the onset of symptoms, and usual frequencies of activities were recorded for comparison.
"Although the incidence of anger-triggered heart attacks is around 2%, of the sample, those people were 8.5 times more likely to have a heart attack within two hours of the emotional episode. So while the absolute risk of any one episode triggering a heart attack is low, this data demonstrates that the danger is very present.
"Our findings highlight the need to consider strategies to protect individuals most at risk during times of acute anger.
Senior author Professor Geoffrey Tofler, Preventive Cardiology, University of Sydney said "Potential preventive approaches may be stress reduction training to reduce the frequency and intensity of episodes of anger, or avoiding activities that usually prompt such intense reactions, for instance, avoiding an angry confrontation or activity that provokes intense anxiety.
"Additionally, improving general health by minimising other risk factors, such as hypertension, high cholesterol or smoking would also lower risk.
"For those at high risk, it is possible that medication such as beta-blockers and aspirin taken at the time of a trigger may interrupt the link between the stressor and the heart attack. We are currently recruiting subjects for a study examining this option.
"Our research suggests that when managing a person with heart disease or in preventing heart disease in others, a person's frequency of anger and anxiety should also be assessed and be part of helping individuals to take care of themselves.
"Our message to people is they need to be aware that a burst of severe anger or anxiety could lead to a coronary event, so consider preventative strategies where possible," Dr Tofler said.
The above story is based on materials provided by University of Sydney. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.
1. Geoffrey H Tofler et al. Triggering of acute coronary occlusion by episodes of anger. European Heart Journal: Acute Cardiovascular Care, February 2015 DOI: 10.1177/2048872615568969