Former Associate editor Margret Aldrich on the hunt for happiness, community, and how humans thrive
Thursday, November 17, 2011 3:37 PM
I’m sure my stomach knows best. Give me a bad day, and my gut tells me to griddle up a grilled cheese sandwich made with whatever is in the fridge: cheddar, provolone, mozzarella—I’ll even take American singles, as long as they’re melted between slices of thick-cut buttered bread. The more the cheese oozes, the better I feel.
Now, in an emerging field dubbed neurogastroenterology, scientists are finding that the stomach knows more than we give it credit for. “The gut can work independently of any control by the brain in your head—it’s functioning as a second brain,” Michael Gershon, professor of pathology and cell biology at Columbia University tells Dan Hurley in Psychology Today. The brain in your gut, called the enteric nervous system (ENS), is made up of 100 million neurons and can work on its own, without any direction from the brain. And it does more than control itself; it can control your mood, Hurley reports.
It relies on, and in many cases manufactures, more than 30 neurotransmitters, including serotonin, that are identical to those in the brain. What’s more, tinkering with the second brain in our gut has lately been shown to be a potent tool for achieving relief from major depression. Even autism, studies suggest, may be wrapped up in the neurobiology of the brain down under.
Certain foods can have a particularly strong effect on emotions, according to researchers in Belgium. So what comfort food works best to bolster our moods? Mashed potatoes? Macaroni and cheese? Mainlined ice cream sundaes? Any of these can work, as long as they contain one key ingredient: fat.
After participants in the Belgian study were fed either a saline solution or an infusion of fatty acids and then listened to neutral or melancholy music, they were interviewed and given MRI scans. Researchers found that the fatty acids activated the brain regions that regulate emotions and reduced feelings of sadness by about half.
“It’s an important demonstration that in a nonconscious way, without knowing whether you are getting the fat or the salt-water, something you put in your stomach can change your mood,” Giovanni Cizza of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases tells Hurley.
So go on and take a little solace in comfort food. As it turns out, those cravings aren’t all in your head.
Source: Psychology Today
Image by Chefdruck, licensed under Creative Commons.
Friday, October 28, 2011 10:43 AM
When someone you love dies, an avalanche of tasks customarily follows: You must meet with the funeral director, select a casket or urn, fret over final attire, write an obituary, choose service music, greet relatives, and assure everyone that, yes, you’ll be all right. But still, somewhere under the crush, there’s time for grief.
Increasingly, though, deep mourning is being suppressed or pushed aside, whether by prescribed medication or by the trend to choose upbeat celebrations over traditional cry-your-eyes-out funerals. Understandably, the bereaved want to save money (the Federal Trade Commission estimates the average funeral costs over $10,000), they want to honor the deceased, and they want to feel better faster. But in The United Church Observer, associate minister Kenneth Bagnell writes that we should give old-fashioned grief a chance.
Diminished funeral customs are admittedly less expensive. But some grief specialists warn we may be eroding helpful rituals of bereavement, the loss of which we may not notice at first.
Such specialists often question the trend to replace words like “funeral” and “memorial service” with “celebration of life.” They see it as a subtle attempt to avoid the reality of death, which we ought to recognize even when painful. Their skepticism…strikes me as understandable, especially in regard to some funerals I’ve conducted and can never forget: the young child who died of cancer, the 20-year-old who hanged himself, the actor stabbed to death in his home. In such tragic circumstances, the word “celebration” has, to me, an inappropriate, even offensive ring.
According to Bagnell, dismissing traditional rituals, such as viewing the body before the funeral, is harmful to our grieving process, our acknowledgment of death’s verity, and our profound need for closure. “In my own life,” he writes, “I’ve lost friends but (for reasons I’ll never fully understand) have had no chance to pay my respects.”
Two were friends whose obituaries mentioned a celebration of life at a place and date to be announced. I watched. There was no announcement—certainly none I could find. What I missed, apart from the theology of it all, was the chance to say goodbye.
Source: The United Church Observer
Image by jpockele, licensed under Creative Commons.
Wednesday, October 19, 2011 4:49 PM
You may have tried buying your way to happiness with new shoes and elaborate getaways; tickets to the big game and a sweet rebuilt guitar; the more-than-twelve-dollar bottle of wine and anything from MartinPatrick3. But recent studies suggest a different method: Give away money and get happy.
Researchers find that donating money to a deserving cause or financially helping a friend or family member in need raises the happiness level of the giver, writes Linda Wasmer Andrews in Psychology Today. She lists several reasons for the uptick:
First, it may foster a sense of social connectedness. One theory posits that the more modest your means, the more you and your close family and friends may need to rely on one another to get by; hence, the greater focus on generosity.
Second, donating money gives you a sense of making a difference. That’s a welcome antidote to the feeling of helplessness that can come from watching wild stock market gyrations and wildly frustrating budget stalemates.
Interestingly, there’s a negative physical response to being closefisted with your cash:
[S]haring even a little money may reduce your body’s stress response. [Psychologist] Elizabeth Dunn…led another recent study that looked at how monetary stinginess affects cortisol, a stress hormone. In the study, college students played an economic game, for which they were paid $10. Students had the option of donating some of this payment to another player. Those who kept more of the money for themselves reported feeling more shame. And greater shame, in turn, predicted higher levels of postgame cortisol.
In these times of economic disparity and the 99 percent vs. the 1, doling out money to achieve happiness can seem futile, but Andrews suggests there’s power in the giving. “A case can be made that giving away a few bucks is good not only for your soul, but also for your mind and body,” she writes. “No matter the amount, reminding yourself that you still have the wherewithal to share could be just what you need.”
Source: Psychology Today
Image by josey4628, licensed under Creative Commons.
Wednesday, October 12, 2011 4:51 PM
We can learn how to cook like the French. We can learn how to speak Mandarin and Swahili and Portuguese. Can we also uncover the secrets of happiness around the world and learn how to find our bliss?
What, exactly, makes people happy is difficult to discern, but psychologists Ed Diener and his son Robert Biswas-Diener have conducted dozens of international studies to dig up clues. “The researchers’ questions were part of a bigger project to measure happiness across the globe,” reports Suzann Pileggi Pawelski in Scientific American Mind. “The Gallup World Poll, which includes a psychological assessment of people in 155 countries, shows that nations vary enormously in how happy their citizens are.”
The Dieners, and other scientists like them, detect several basic building blocks to happiness, including “social capital” (which includes the amount of trust citizens have for each other), strong ties with family and friends, a sense of belonging, pride in your country, and a lack of materialism.
But, surveying a country’s happiness level can be tricky: There are multiple perceptions of happiness, and the questions researchers ask make a difference. When polled on “life satisfaction” (an overall appraisal of life, including work, income, and relationships), the rankings look like this:
Highest levels of happiness:
Lowest levels of happiness:
1. Sierra Leone
When polled on “positive feelings” (enjoyment, smiling, and laughing), the results changed:
Highest levels of happiness:
1. Costa Rica
Lowest levels of happiness:
4. Sierra Leone
The Diener father-son team and other happiness researchers still have more evidence to unearth before finding the formula for joy. For now, perhaps we should hedge our bets and live like Canadians….
Source: Scientific American Mind(excerpt only available online)
Image by J E Theriot, licensed under Creative Commons.
Friday, September 30, 2011 4:12 PM
If you’re feeling saddled by heartache, work stress, a heavy secret, or an unknown future, take heart (and get out your earbuds): The website Emotional Bag Check will lighten your load.
How the site works is simple, reports GOOD, even if your problem isn’t: Click the “Check It” button, type in whatever emotional baggage is weighing you down, and send it into the internet ether. Soon, you’ll receive an email with a stranger’s recommendation for the perfect song to lift your spirits.
Good talks with the woman behind Emotional Bag Check:
“I’ve always liked the metaphor of emotional baggage,” says website creator Robyn Overstreet, a freelance web developer and programming teacher based in New York City who launched the site in February. “Being a literal person, I couldn’t help but think of it literally, as something that you pack up physically and have to carry around with you.” Or, in the case of her site, cast it off onto others.
In the mood to play music therapist rather than patient? Click the “Carry It” button, read the problems of another user, and send an anonymous song recommendation to them, pulling from the massive GrooveShark catalog.
Today I responded to a woman who had just ended a long-term relationship with her girlfriend but still dreamed of raising kids and home-cooking meals with her ex. After some careful consideration, I passed along the bittersweet pop medicine of the Girls’ tune “Laura,” a break-up tale that offers the promise of friendship. What would you prescribe?
Image by kthread, licensed under Creative Commons.
Tuesday, September 20, 2011 4:37 PM
Your therapist’s happiness level rises when you visit her couch. Firefighters are delighted to help you get Kitty out of a tree. Sins to confess to your priest or minister? He’s tickled to hear them.
Psychologist, firefighter, and clergy are included in the list of the “10 happiest jobs” based on data collected via the General Social Survey of the National Organization for Research at the University of Chicago, reports the Christian Science Monitor. “Since experts say that social interaction drives job satisfaction, it makes sense that clergy are happiest of all,” Christian Science Monitor writes. “Social interaction and helping people [is a] combination that’s tough to beat for job happiness.”
This formula explains why teachers and physical therapists are on the list, but also included are autonomous, creative professions like author and artist, and labor-intensive jobs like operating engineer. “Operating engineers get to play with giant toys like bulldozers, front-end loaders, backhoes, scrapers, motor graders, shovels, derricks, large pumps, and air compressors,” says the Monitor. And, “with more jobs for operating engineers than qualified applicants, no wonder they are happy.” The full list follows:
3. Physical therapists
5. Special education teachers
9. Financial services sales agents
10. Operating engineers
Interestingly, many of the occupations that fall at the bottom of the job-satisfaction list involve information technology, which can create isolating work, notes Forbes:
1. Director of information technology
2. Director of sales and marketing
3. Product manager
4. Senior web developer
5. Technical specialist
6. Electronics technician
7. Law clerk
8. Technical support analyst
9. CNC machinist
10. Marketing manager
Where does your job fall on the happiness scale? Are you bolstered by the helping hand you extend to others or satisfied by what you create—or should you pack it all in and learn to drive a bulldozer?
Sources: Christian Science Monitor, Forbes
Image by velvettangerine, licensed under Creative Commons.
Friday, September 09, 2011 4:39 PM
Economic equality equals happiness. So suggests a new study to be published in a forthcoming issue of Psychological Science. In order for Americans to be truly blissed out, it finds, we need to close the gap between our wealthiest and poorest citizens.
“In 1980, the average American CEO’s income was 40 times higher than that of the average worker. Today, it is well over 300 times higher,” writes Carmen Sobczak in YES! Magazine. “Over the past four decades, according to the study, the American people have been the least happy in years when there was the widest gap between rich and poor.”
The study, lead by Shigehiro Oishi of the University of Virginia, took into account economic and psychological factors when examining data taken from 50,000 individuals between 1972 and 2008. Not surprisingly it was the lower-income participants—those in the bottom 40 percent of the U.S. population—who expressed reduced happiness during periods of greater economic disparity, but their reasons for dissatisfaction were unexpected. Expains Sobczak:
People weren’t unhappy just because their income was lower. Instead, the authors’ analysis revealed that greater inequality was linked to reductions in trust and perceived fairness—and it was drops in those attitudes that made people feel less happy.... Oishi and his colleagues argue that their results may explain why economic growth has not been accompanied by increases in happiness in the United States, unlike in other developed nations. The problem, they suggest, is that gains in national wealth in the U.S. haven’t been distributed equally, and this inequality has caused Americans’ happiness to suffer.
Oishi offers this lucent formula to fix our happiness dilemma: “If the ultimate goal of society is to make its citizens happy, then it is desirable to consider policies that produce more income equality, fairness, and general trust.”
Sources: YES! Magazine
Image by Amber de Bruin, licensed under Creative Commons.
Tuesday, August 23, 2011 3:23 PM
Introverts, stand proud. Even in our world of ever-increasing extraversion and oversharing, there are advantages to keeping life close to the vest.
“We don’t all have to be extraverts to be happy,” writes Susan Krauss Whitbourne, author of The Search for Fulfillment, for Psychology Today. “Recognizing and appreciating the complexity of introversion can allow you to accept yourself for who you are, one facet at a time.”
Whitbourne, in fact, lists six facets of the introversion-extraversion scale—warmth, gregariousness, activity level, assertiveness, excitement seeking, and positive emotion—and explains how introversion in these areas can be beneficial to our relationships, personal fulfillment, and general well-being. For example, she says:
You may not be the first person someone meets when they go to a party, but you may be the most interesting once someone gets to know you.
When forced to be alone, gregarious people can easily go stir crazy. People low on gregariousness instead are just fine being by themselves and involving themselves in quiet contemplation.
Because [introverts] react slowly to situations as they develop, they’re unlikely to commit the kind of social gaffes that people who have a higher reactance can make. Not only that, but being thoughtful and low key can make you an easier companion than someone who always needs to be on the go.
Curious to know if you’re a certified introvert? Take the Big 5 Personality Test, a simplified version of the NEO Personality Inventory (NEO-PI-R), and discover where you rank on the five fundamental dimensions of personality—including introversion vs. extraversion. I’d tell you my scores but, in true introvert fashion, I don’t want to reveal too much.
Source: Psychology Today
Image by gill.holgate, licensed under Creative Commons.
Tuesday, June 21, 2011 5:33 PM
Where does the story begin? Perhaps in the delivery room, when the doctor hands the newborn baby, still slick with blood and mucus, to the ecstatic parents but isn’t able to say definitively, “It’s a boy” or “It’s a girl.” Or it could start earlier, in the womb, when the cells are dividing like mad to create the many complicated and wondrous parts of a new human being. Perhaps the story really gets going later, when the surgeon slices into the baby’s phallus—considered either a micro-penis or an overlarge clitoris—in the first of many treatments to cosmetically assign a crystal-clear gender. Or maybe the heart of the story is the slow cultivation of shame that comes from the years of secrecy and misinformation that follow infant gender reassignment.
By far the happiest place to dive in, for this particular rendition of the story, is when Jim met Alice Dreger a few months ago and told her: “You saved my life.”
Jim is a 50-year-old man who was born with a disorder of sex development (DSD), formerly known as intersex, formerly known as pseudo-hermaphrodism. Alice is a bioethics professor and advocate of the basic human rights of DSD patients: the right to grow up without devastating cosmetic surgeries that take away sexual sensation or, in some instances, the ability to experience orgasm; the right to know one’s own medical history; the right to make one’s own medical choices.
Alice tells Jim’s story in Bioethics Forum (02/14/2011):
[Jim] was born with ambiguous genitalia—with hypospadias (where the opening of the urethra is on the underside of the penis), with a smaller-than-average penis, and a herniated testicle. Against doctors’ advice, his parents raised him as a boy. The docs of course had recommended sex reassignment, as was standard. His parents did not resist because they were radical; they resisted because they were terrified and young and I’ll bet they didn’t understand why you would take a baby with testicles and make him a girl.
Of the 2,600-some babies born with ambiguous genitals each year in the United States, Jim is among the rare few from his generation who escaped having his sex organs resculpted to look like a vagina. And because of social activists such as Alice and others with Accord Alliance (previously the Intersex Society of North America), he eventually learned that he was not alone—a priceless gift.
Today Jim has some really beautiful things in his life: A wife. A daughter. A doctor who listens to his concerns and helps him make the right choices for his body. And he had the honor of meeting Alice and telling her his story:
He said that he knew, from my Web site, that some people had objected to the move from talking about “intersex” to talking about “disorders of sex development.” But, he said, “I love the new term, DSD.” He said it captured his experience—that what he has is a medical condition. He doesn’t have double sex, or double gender, as people seem to think when they hear the term “intersex.” He has a DSD.
Source: Bioethics Forum
Image by clevercupcakes,
licensed under Creative Commons.
Monday, November 15, 2010 2:20 PM
It seems that extraverts increasingly rule the world: People tell all on reality shows, long to be the next American Idol, and rush to share everything about their lives via phone, e-mail, and the Internet. But psychotherapist and Introvert Power author Laurie Helgoe reminds us in Psychology Today that introverts haven’t gone away. We’re just quietly dealing with the demands of living in a loud, in-your-face society that doesn’t understand us—even in its insistence that it just wants us to be happy:
Scientists now know that, while introverts have no special advantage in intelligence, they do seem to process more information than others in any given situation. To digest it, they do best in quiet environments, interacting one on one. Further, their brains are less dependent on external stimuli and rewards to feel good.
As a result, introverts are not driven to seek big hits of positive emotional arousal—they’d rather find meaning than bliss—making them relatively immune to the search for happiness that permeates contemporary American culture. In fact, the cultural emphasis on happiness may actually threaten their mental health. As American life becomes increasingly competitive and aggressive, to say nothing of blindingly fast, the pressures to produce on demand, be a team player, and make snap decisions cut introverts off from their inner power source, leaving them stressed and depleted. Introverts today face one overarching challenge—not to feel like misfits in their own culture.
If you’re saying “Right on!” then you too are probably an introvert, whose ranks compose a full half of the populace but whose behavior still seems suspect to many—including mental health professionals, apparently. The World Health Organization still pathologizes introversion, and the American Psychiatric Association is “considering a proposal to include introversion in the next edition of its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5),” Helgoe wrote with Nancy Ancowitz on the Psychology Today website:
In the United States giddy and garrulous are good, and quiet and contemplative are suspect. The WHO’s definition and APA’s proposed definition of introversion align with that rigid Western bias.
It seems that things haven’t gotten a whole lot better for introverts since Jonathan Rauch wrote his short essay “Caring for Your Introvert” for The Atlantic in 2003, a deftly written manifesto that was widely circulated.
Helpfully, Psychology Today drops a few tips on what not to say to introverts:
• “Why don’t you like parties? Don’t you like people?”
• “Surprise, we’ve decided to bring the family and stay with you for the weekend.”
• Above all, says one life and leadership coach, “We hate people telling us how we can be more extraverted, as if that’s the desired state.”
Sources: Psychology Today, The Atlantic
Wednesday, March 18, 2009 11:54 AM
Musicians are able to identify emotions more quickly and accurately than non-musicians, according to research reported in LiveScience. For the experiment, participants watched a subtitled nature film and listened to a 250 millisecond clip of a baby crying. Using brain scans, the researchers found that musicians were more sensitive to the emotional content than non-musicians.
The test samples were quite small—only 30 people—but scientists hope the information could lead to innovative treatments for people with dyslexia or autism, who often have trouble processing the emotional content in sounds. Neuroscientist Nina Kraus told LiveScience, “It would not be a leap to suggest that children with language processing disorders may benefit from musical experience.”
Other brain scan tests have revealed that musicians’ brains actually sync up when they play music together, according to Science a GoGo. Researchers from the Max Plank Institute recorded the electrical activity in the brains of pairs of guitarists, and found that the brainwave patterns synchronized when the musicians played together. The tests aren’t done yet, however. The results don’t show whether the synchronization happens from watching and listening to the other person play music, or if the brainwaves sync first, and then facilitate the coordinated action.
Image by Tom Marcello, licensed under Creative Commons.
Sources: LiveScience, Science a GoGo
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