Archives for August, 2011
Are you happy? How happy? On a scale of 1-5, are you a 5? Does that mean you’re happier than the person next to you, who put his happiness at 4? Are you sure? How do you know? What if you have just come out of a major depression and are feeling pretty damn 5 about life for a change? Are you as happy as the woman who dances her way into every party, hands in the air, shouting woooooo? Where does her happiness fall on that 1-5 scale? How can we measure happiness?
Here’s comforting news: When crappy things happen to us, it appears there’s a something deep inside us—so deep it’s beneath our consciousness—that says, “Cheer up, little soldier. Things aren’t that bad.” An article in the journal Emotion details nine experiments conducted by a team of six researchers, including a couple who have caught my attention before: Roy Baumeister, who taught me how to put down a torch, and Jean Twenge, who writes about narcissism. The article is titled “Automatic Emotion Regulation After Social Exclusion: Tuning to Positivity.” The researchers used social exclusion to test their theories because they know that social exclusion has a lot of power to make us feel bad. They write: ...The need to belong is the most basic human need...social exclusion is such a potent threat that it activates mechanisms designed for the detection and regulation of physical pain … Prolonged social exclusion makes people feel really, really bad. Nobody doubts that. But research on “acute exclusion experiences” (i..e. not being invited to go to lunch with the gang one day) is less definitive. It seems acute exclusion experiences are more likely to be met with a shrug, or “emotional detachment.” These researchers propose and find evidence that when we experience acute exclusion, emotions beneath our consciousness accentuate the positive, presumably to help us bear up.
My newspaper this morning contained a terrible story about a local man who drowned two of his children. As usual, it appears he was getting revenge on a woman who was trying to extricate herself from an abusive relationship. She was trying…but not hard. It seems she still wasn't sure. The man has a history of family violence. He has drug problems, though he had just completed rehab and been declared ready to be a "pro-social and productive member of society." He has violated his probation. In one incident, he choked the woman, dragged her by her hair, and threatened to get a gun. He then dragged her back to the car where he held her for three hours, threatening to kill her. Police intervened but she refused to cooperate with them. And in July 2010, when the man (and I use the term loosely) was picked up for probation violation, the woman blamed authorities, posting on her Facebook page, “Im <sic> upset because my family has been forcefully broken. Its just the MAN trying to keep us down.” Wow. Just yesterday I read about research out of Ohio State University in which recorded jailhouse phone calls were analyzed in order to try and understand why women recant on felony charges of domestic violence. (Washington state routinely records inmates' phone calls, and these may be released for research.)
I’ve noticed that one way to get a lot of hits on a blog post is to write about weight loss. It’s not a bad way to sell books either. The week of August 8, three of the top ten books on the Publisher’s Weekly hardcover bestsellers list address weight loss. Magazine racks are a flesh market: Fitness, Shape, Men’s Health, Health, Men’s Fitness, Women’s Health, all screaming A BIKINI BODY NOW!...FLATTER BELLY, THINNER THIGHS…and MELT 1,200 CALORIES TODAY. We can’t get enough of the stuff. A lot of what we read is the same information rearranged over and over. Eat less, exercise more. Fruits and vegetables good, saturated fats bad. And yet we keep reading and watching and fretting, as if one day we will open one of these magazines and find the magical formula that will keep us trim, taut, and healthy with minimal effort. Not only that, but my morning paper today included two items about female celebrities and their weight: Jennifer Hudson said she’s prouder or her weight loss than her Oscar, and that, “I didn’t even know I was considered plus-sized until I came to Hollywood.” And Anne Hathaway said that to maintain a newly toned and taut bod, “I’m living on kale and dust.” What is with us? Why is that interesting? Why are we so coo-coo about weight? And we turn to the same people that convinced us we’re all fat, to tell us how to not be fat. Coo-coo. And now research suggests that women might be likely to believe the media over loved ones when assessing their own bodies.
New research from Penn State and the Benjamin Rose Institute on Aging finds that caregivers of people with dementia are not listening to what the people they care for want. The researchers interviewed 256 pairs of people. In each pair, one person had mild to moderate dementia, the other was the caregiver. From a press release from Penn State: The researchers interviewed members of the pairs separately, asking questions related to how much value they place on five core values: autonomy, burden, control, family and safety. For example, one question focused on the level of importance a dementia patient gave to the ability to spend his or her own money in the way he or she wants. "Our results demonstrate that adult children underestimate the importance that their relatives with dementia placed on all five core values," said [lead researcher Steven] Zarit. "For example, the person with dementia might think it is very important to continue to be part of family celebrations, but his or her caregiver might not." So the caregivers/decision makers aren't taking into account what the person with dementia values. That's really sad.
Before I could even enroll in community college, at age 41, I had to take a couple of summer semesters of “developmental algebra”—which was called “remedial” back when nobody cared about self-esteem. Yes, I anticipated it with as much horror as you might imagine. Not only that, but it was a 7:30 a.m. class. Every morning, all summer. I figured if I could make it through that, college would be a snap. My grasp of numbers is terrible. Calculators can only help so much when you can’t recognize an incorrect answer. I have to do the same equation over and over and get the same answer four out of five times before I’ll trust it. Surprisingly, I did not stink up the joint in that algebra class. It moved slowly, I worked my ass off and made “A”s. Even hung one of my tests on the refrigerator--it had “Nice work” written across the top in red. Then I enrolled in college algebra, where everything sped up and went to hell. Setting up algebraic equations was easy. They are, essentially, sentences, and that’s my stock-in-trade. But then the arithmetic would get me. I'd set up a good, solid equation, and somewhere in the execution, I’d take a wrong turn, putting a negative instead of a positive, transposing numbers, adding wrong. Stupid stuff that made me pound my head on my desk. And then, quadratic equations pretty much did me in. I could barely set up the equations, much less solve them. If basic equations were simple sentences, quadratic equations were James Joyce. My brain hurts just thinking about them. Why am I such a fumbler with numbers? New research suggests math agility is an innate skill.
This article about “Happiness Hangovers” --about the letdown we often feel after good times-- sparked a little discussion on my Facebook page about the tick-tick-tick of the clock on the TV show 60 Minutes. The sound is, several of us agreed, a Pavlovian stimulus that triggers the here-comes-Monday blues. Do you think the producers know how bummed that sound makes us? The damn happiness hangover. I start worrying about happiness hangovers while I should still be happy. Even as I’m having a good time, I’m imagining the end of it. I can easily spoil a lovely time for myself just by thinking about how sad I’ll be when it’s over. I remember this about Christmas when I was a little girl. (Yes, I’m Jewish. Long story.) Even as we were unwrapping presents and eating coffee cake, I felt loss. It was a day bathed in warmth and magic that I knew could never be recaptured once it was over. It was the saddest happiest day of the year. My birthday came a close second. Now, when I’m laughing with friends or raking leaves or romping with the dog or sitting quietly with my husband, I sometimes think “These are the good old days,” and feel sad because I know that someday I’m going to miss these good old days. This is anticipatory anxiety: Feeling anxious about something that is going to happen.
According to research that will be published in the Journal of Consumer Behavior, women are more likely to buy clothes and make-up their teenage daughters like than the other way around. A press release explains: The study, conducted through questionnaires, sampled 343 mother-daughter pairs, with an average age of 44 for the mothers and 16 for the daughters. The researchers found that if a mother is young at heart, has high fashion consciousness and views her daughter as a style expert, she will tend to doppelgang her daughter’s consumption behavior. Heavens to Betsy. I can no more imagine my mother "doppelganging" (way to verbify a noun, guys) me when I was a teenager than I could imagine her robbing a bank. The thought makes me giggle. My mother was very stylish—she made her living designing dresses for little girls—and favored classic lines, elegant pumps, and discreet gold jewelry. I, on the other hand, passed through fashion phases from hippie chick to disco queen to punk rocker, none of which my mother would ever have dreamed of trying, even on a lark My mother hated the way I ringed my eyes with dark makeup. (“It makes you look tired.”) She was always pushing my hair out of my face. (“You have such a pretty face.”) She thought my disco platforms were Frankenstein shoes. (“Ick.")
It’s roughly 147,000 degrees here in Texas and it’s been that way for the past month, so if you’re looking for deep thoughts, you’re going to have to look elsewhere. My brain is poached. The best I can do is coherent, and sometimes not even that. Mostly I’m thinking about how much I need a vacation. My friend K is in the throes of packing for her vacation in Los Angeles, the hometown she left couple of decades ago and returns to infrequently. She’s looking forward to the trip, but she’s all stressed about packing, and I can relate. When I’m not writing about psychology, I write about travel, and yet I still get in a dither about packing. I am not a casual packer. I start packing days before a trip, and the process includes a lot of putting things into the suitcase and taking them out again, lists and more lists, and at least one run to Target. At least. I recently stumbled on an article in the Annals of Tourism Research that explains packing stress thus: We’re not just traveling. We’re performing as tourists.