Thursday, April 07, 2011 4:53 PM
Finding time for meditation is tricky, but I steal a few moments for it whenever I can: while reclined in the dentist’s chair, waiting for the hygienist; while riding the pleasantly rumbling bus on a morning commute; and, on increasingly rare occasions, while sitting on my bedroom floor in half lotus position. At this woefully meager rate, however, enlightenment—or any of meditation’s benefits—seems miles away.
For devout meditators (some with more than 10,000 meditation hours under their belts), meditation provides clear rewards. Scientists have indicated that meditation can alter experienced meditators’ brains, changing their gray matter to improve concentration and mental health. Now, even the time-crunched masses can enjoy the positive results of meditation, reports Jason Marsh in Greater Good. A study published in the journal Psychiatry Research: Neuroimagingreveals that “meditating for just 30 minutes a day for eight weeks can increase the density of gray matter in brain regions associated with memory, stress, and empathy,” Marsh writes.
Researchers studied 16 participants in the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center. None of them were master meditators, yet their brains were changed by 30-minute meditation sessions.
“When their brains were scanned at the end of the program, their gray matter was significantly thicker in several regions than it was before,” writes Marsh. He continues:
One of those regions was the hippocampus, which prior research has found to be involved in learning, memory, and the regulation of our emotions. The gray matter of the hippocampus is often reduced in people who suffer from depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
The researchers also found denser gray matter in the temporo-perietal junction and the posterior cingulated cortex of the meditators’ brains—regions involved in empathy and taking the perspective of someone else—and in the cerebellum, which has been linked to emotion regulation.
Carving out even 30 minutes a day for meditation can feel daunting, but Marsh points out that every little bit counts:
The upshot of all this research seems to be: Small steps matter. Many of us can bring about positive effects on our brains and overall well-being—without an Olympic effort.
Source: Greater Good
Image by titanium22, licensed under Creative Commons.
Tuesday, July 07, 2009 1:58 PM
Last spring, Utne Reader scrutinized the rise of obligatory office fun, a trendy corporate core value that the Weekly Standard’s Matt Labash dubbed a “condescending infantilization” of the workplace. Whether the intentions were noble or purely monetary (happy is good; happy employees are also more productive), it was clear that top-down injections of joviality into the workplace weren’t panning out. We were left to wonder: When did our jobs become jokes?
Fast forward to just over a year later. Unemployment is projected to continue rising throughout the next year and to remain elevated for 5 years, reports the Washington Post. Those of us who do have jobs feel the strain of keeping them, and/or having nowhere else to turn. What was tacky—funsultants, gleetivities—has become downright distasteful.
Somber as the mood might be, this isn’t the time to abandon the pursuit of happiness in the workplace, say the editors of Greater Good. On the contrary: It is precisely in this climate that we should be thinking about what “employers and employees alike [can] do to make their workplaces happier, more satisfying places to be.”
To that end, the online-only magazine, a publication of Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, has devoted its July 2009 web exclusives to the question of happiness in the workplace. Journalist Alex Frankel shares a few lessons he researching his book about workplace culture, Punching In. Frankel’s first piece of advice, especially for hourly employees, is to “go for flow.”
“Most hourly jobs treat time as monochronic,” Frankel writes, meaning work is viewed as a linear progression of tasks, each happening without overlap. This mindset drives employees toward clock-watching, which is problematic, since “perceptions of time . . . are closely linked to the employees’ feeling of freedom: The more constrained the environment, the slower things moved, and the less happy employees were.”
Frankel experienced the alternative while working at a computer retail store: “At Apple, the polychronic view of time prevailed, so that we could do several things simultaneously, manage our own tasks, and feel pride in accomplishing things, as opposed to just waiting out the hours.”
Greater Good also taps an Australian positive psychologist, Timothy Sharp, for his two cents. Sharp’s advice is geared more toward the organizational level, practices that wise managers might take note of to nurture employee morale in unhappy times. Sharp asked 50 people to name the top “keys” to happiness in the workplace. The responses, which he characterizes as “remarkably consistent,” included providing leadership and values, communicating effectively, giving thanks, focusing on strengths, and—wouldn’t you know—having fun. Just hold the gleetivities.
Sources: Weekly Standard, Washington Post, Greater Good
Image by joshuahoffmanphoto, licensed under Creative Commons.
Wednesday, May 06, 2009 3:07 PM
Writing for the online magazine Greater Good, Dacher Keltner explores the evolutionary roots of embarrassment and explains how our pink cheeks can actually help us. Keltner, a psychologist who studies positive emotions, writes: “We may feel alienated, flawed, alone, and exposed when embarrassed, but our display of this complex emotion is a wellspring of forgiveness and reconciliation.”
The simple elements of the embarrassment display I have documented and traced back to other species' appeasement and reconciliation processes—the gaze aversion, downward head movements, awkward smiles, and face touches—are a language of cooperation, they are the unspoken ethic of modesty. With these fleeting displays of deference, we navigate conflict-laden situations—watch how regularly people display embarrassment when in close physical spaces, when negotiating the turn-taking of everyday conversations, or when sharing food. We express gratitude and appreciation. And, with deflections of attention or face-saving parodies of the mishap, we quickly extricate embarrassed souls from their momentary predicaments.
Studying embarrassment does seem sort of fun—at least, for the researchers who are charged with inducing said embarrassment. “In perhaps the most mortifying experiment,” Keltner writes, “participants had to sing Barry Manilow's song ‘Feelings’ using dramatic hand gestures—and then had to watch a video of their performance surrounded by other students.”
(Congrats to Greater Good on their 2009 Utne Independent Press Award nomination for social/cultural coverage!)
Source: Greater Good
Image by Symic, licensed under Creative Commons.
Wednesday, April 01, 2009 9:14 AM
Alt Wire is a morning digest of links and information collected and explained by a different guest blogger every weekday. Today's guest is Jason Marsh of Greater Good magazine
. We asked him for five links. Here's what happened:
Over here at Greater Good magazine, we spend our days reporting on “the science of a meaningful life.” What makes people do good? What makes them happy? What makes them get along well with others?
Of course, we can’t help but ask these same questions of ourselves—and wonder how we stack up against the rest of humanity. Fortunately, the web is home to several scientific tests—well, at least tests designed or inspired by scientists—that can help us (and you) determine just how good we are. They’re short (most take just a few minutes), fun, and illuminating. Here are five we like best.
How moral are you? University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt and colleagues are the brains behind YourMorals.org. Questionnaires on the site provide a window into your morals and where they come from. Check out their “Moral Foundations Questionnaire,” which reveals your core moral beliefs and how they inform your political views.
How prejudiced? Researchers at Project Implicit have created a series of fascinating tests that help you detect your unconscious biases (along the lines of race, religion, sexual orientation, and much more). They’ve found, for example, that most Americans have an automatic, unconscious bias for white faces over black ones. Do you?
How empathic? Autism researcher Simon Baron-Cohen has devised the “Mind in the Eyes” test to measure how well people can decipher the emotional states of others, just by looking at their eyes.
How socially intelligent? This experiment created by the BBC, based on the work of legendary psychologist Paul Ekman, tests how well you can tell the difference between a fake smile and a real one.
How compassionate? This test, developed by sociologist Sue Sprecher and psychologist Beverly Fehr, measures how much “compassionate love” you feel for others, including strangers and even all of humankind. To take it, you’ve got to register through the University of Pennsylvania’s “Authentic Happiness” program, which features lots of other questionnaires you can take to gauge your levels of happiness, gratitude, and more.
BIO: Jason Marsh is the editor in chief of Greater Good magazine and an editor of The Compassionate Instinct: The Science of Human Goodness, an anthology of Greater Good articles forthcoming from W.W. Norton & Co. His article on why sadness makes us want to buy things appears in the March/April issue of Utne Reader.
Previous Alt Wire Guests: David LaBounty, Jen Angel, Will Braun, Regan Hofmann, Josh Breitbart, Andrew Lam, Jessica Valenti, Jessica Hoffmann, Noah Scalin, Rinku Sen, Paddy Johnson, Melissa Mcewan, Fatemeh Fakhraie , Joe Biel , Anne Elizabeth Moore
Friday, March 27, 2009 4:49 PM
An activity as solitary as reading a work of fiction may actually help us become better at connecting with others, writes psychologist and novelist Keith Oatley in Greater Good.
Oatley says fiction is about “possible selves in possible worlds,” and can aid interpersonal skills in two ways: by helping readers develop “theory of mind”—imagining what others are thinking and feeling—as well as showing how people interact with one another.
Readers of fiction were found to have higher social ability than those who preferred non-fiction. The reason?
“Fiction is principally about the difficulties of selves navigating the social world. Non-fiction is about, well, whatever it is about: selfish genes, or how to make Mediterranean food, or whether climate changes will harm our planet. So with fiction we tend to become more expert at empathizing and socializing. By contrast, readers of non-fiction are likely to become more expert at genetics, or cookery, or environmental studies, or whatever they spend their time reading and thinking about.”
Source: Greater Good Magazine
Friday, March 13, 2009 3:13 PM
Art is dwindling in public schools, thanks partly to the No Child Left Behind act passed in 2002. Greater Good examines the importance of the arts in today’s schools and society. More than just a treatise on why art is good, this article “Arts and Smarts” goes beyond the typical art-matters debate and hones in on why we really need art in kids’ lives today.
Source: Greater Good
Image by Korean Resource Center licensed under Creative Commons
Wednesday, March 04, 2009 2:40 PM
Utne Reader librarian Danielle Maestretti shares the highlights (and occasional lowlights) of what's landing in our library each week. Utne's library is abuzz with a steady flow of 1,300 magazines, journals,weeklies, zines, and other dispatches from the independent press.
Featured in this week’s episode:
- "Why we make art," from Greater Good
- The Progressive on toxic computer-recycling programs at federal prisons (not yet available online)
- Dambisa Moyo, outspoken critic of aid to Africa, in the conservative British magazine Standpoint
- Pretty birds in Botswana, courtesy of Living Bird (not yet available online)
Sources: Greater Good, The Progressive, Standpoint, Living Bird
Wednesday, August 13, 2008 11:02 AM
In a commencement address at Harvard this spring, excerpted in Greater Good, Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling spoke about the unique power of human imagination to change the world. Rowling said that when she worked for the human rights organization Amnesty International in her early 20s, she shared office space with former political prisoners and read the testimonies of torture victims. The experience made her realize that imagination is what allows us to empathize with people who have suffered horribly and to act on their behalf. The danger of inaction, Rowlings said, comes from people who “prefer not to exercise their imaginations at all”:
They choose to remain comfortably within the bounds of their own experience, never troubling to wonder how it would feel to have been born other than they are. They can refuse to hear screams or to peer inside cages. They can close their minds and hearts to any suffering that does not touch them personally.
Rowling urged the Harvard graduates to “retain the ability to imagine yourself into the lives of those who do not have your advantages.” To change the world, she said, all that we need is “the power to imagine better.”
To read more about the need for imagination, see the creativity package in the July/August issue of Utne Reader.
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