Archives for Well Being
The more I read and think about New Year's Resolutions, the less I think they accomplish a dingdang thing. I've made a lot of resolutions that have led me absolutely nowhere. Mostly, they make me feel bad because I tend not to follow-up. Oh sure, I'll get back on my eating/exercise program as soon as the holiday minefield of homemade pound cake and mint M&Ms is behind us, but that's more about returning to...
Last night, my yoga and meditation teacher mentioned her surprise at how much easier meditation gets over time. She no longer has to work nearly as hard as she once did, she said, to reach a meditative state. And, she said, it's much easier than it once was to keep intrusive thoughts and daydreams at bay while she meditated. “I don’t know why,” she concluded, with some wonder in her voice. Coincidentally, I’d just spent much of the day reading about this very thing, in order to write this post. People who study the brain talk about something called the default-mode network (DMN), which is where our brain tends to go when we’re not making it do something else. The DMN correlates with the parts of the brain that activate when we’re thinking about ourselves—the medial prefrontal and posterior cingulate cortices, if you want to get technical about it. And our DMN does not always have our best interests at heart.
Unearned praise may be just as much of a bummer as undeserved criticism. New research finds that over-praising ourselves is as counterproductive as beating ourselves up. Or, as the title of the article puts it, "Both Self-Effacement and Self-Enhancement Can Lead to Dejection." The aha moment for me in this article is Study 4, when participants did a task (unscrambling anagrams) and, without knowing their actual score, randomly received either positive or negative performance feedback. (A control group received no feedback.) Then they completed a survey about the experiment that had buried in it questions used to measure dejection. Everyone who was told they did poorly felt dejected, but people who in reality performed well but got negative feedback were more bummed than those who performed poorly and were told the truth. Not surprising. But I was a little surprised that people who were told they did well even though they didn't were more dejected than people who did poorly and were told they did poorly. This research is part of the push back against the self-esteem movement, in which everybody gets a trophy just for showing up. For a long time, we believed that there’s no such thing as too much praise. Now we’re learning that unearned praise has its own burdens and pitfalls. In other words, reality is good for us.
Woody Allen’s most recent film, Midnight in Paris is a perfect story. Not the romance stuff so much. All that’s OK. As always, the Woody Allen character (played by Owen Wilson) is found irresistible by young and beautiful women. Ho hum. Right. It's his movie, he can do whatever he wants with that. But the way Allen handled the premise of longing for the past dazzled me. Yes, of course. That’s exactly how it is. Nostalgia is seductive. We yearn and yearn for bygone days, when life was simpler, or more creative, or more exciting, or more…whatever. Whatever we need at the moment. Are those good old days really that much better, or is it just easier to imagine they are because we can “remember” only what we choose to?
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.
The first step to regaining a healthy weight is loving your body as it is. Research says so: Researchers in Portugal compared a control group of women trying to lose weight with diet and exercise advice only, with a group who also received an intervention focused on body image. The scientists took various psychological and physical measurements for a baseline, and again a year later. What they found was that women who had received the intervention had better body image after a year, and had lost more weight. Body image was measured a few ways: self-perception (what you think you look like compared to an ideal), and dysfunctional investment (worrying about your appearance too much). Dysfunctional investment breaks down again into body shape concerns (my thighs are enormous) and social physique anxiety (I’m the fattest girl here). And in the end, dysfunctional investment appears to be the real enemy here. It seems the less we fret over our (perceived or real) fat, the more likely we are to lose it.
Here it comes, the avalanche of brain-training books, following the leaps and bounds made in research in recent decades. As we learn about the brain, the self-help industry is following the neurons to a happier, healthier you. Also with a better memory. A book called Train Your Brain to Get Happy crossed my path recently, so I picked it up. (Actually, I got a press release and requested a review copy from the publisher.) It’s not bad. It seems designed to appeal to people who like tinkering under the hood. It starts by presenting theories and research on neurological feats of wonder, such as how memories come together; and the brain under the influence of anxiety and happiness. (Take the quizzes for your own enlightenment but the assessments basically tell you that however happy you are, it’s not enough.) Then it has you pull out the wrenches and start tinkering, with tools such as basic cognitive-behavioral techniques, mindfulness techniques, ways to derail repetitive unhelpful thoughts, various brain-centric prescriptions for things that enhance happiness: fun, sex, food, sleep.
It’s been a very long week, and not in a good way. Righteous anger is a bitch. Trying to fit another thought into my overheated brain has been difficult and I've struggled to settle on something to write about. I didn’t want to write more about institutionalized sexism in the media. (Actually I did, but y'all have probably had enough.) Casting around for something to get traction in my brain, I thought about ancillary issues that might be interesting to me, and started searching the database for earnest topics, like “response to moralistic breaches.” And then a paper from the Journal of Consumer Psychology popped up and all dark thoughts dissipated. Who cares about anything when there are serious research papers out there saying things like: Embarrassment can arise in a variety of consumer situations, including purchase (e.g., buying personal lubricant or The National Enquirer), usage (e.g., using hemorrhoid medication and watching The View), and disposition situations (e.g., donating Milli Vinilli<cq> records to Goodwill and failing to recycle).
A friend was recently robbed at gunpoint on a dark street. She’s a little bruised from being pushed around, but she's generally OK. However, she says, she can’t stop thinking about it and wishes she could. Not unusual. In the psychological literature, that’s called repetitive thought, and it can be a bad thing except when it’s a good thing. As you probably already know, trying to suppress a thought is pointless—that old “don’t think about a white bear” parlor game. In fact, studies indicate that the more you try to suppress a thought, the more you will have it. So if you can’t stop a repetitive thought, what do you do with it? I found a fascinating article titled “Constructive and Unconstructive Repetitive Thought”, and it’s a 2008 literature review of different sorts of repetitive thoughts. I never thought about how many types there are. The article discusses…
Autonomy is good for us. The researchers in this recent study on the connection between autonomy vs. money in individuals’ well being were interested in the equation on a large scale. They want to figure out whether nations can improve the general sense of well being among their citizens by trying to increase wealth, or by trying to provide a way for people to have greater control over their lives. What they found was that as long people have enough money to meet basic needs, autonomy has: ...overall a larger and more consistent effect on well-being than money does. Money leads to autonomy... but it does not add to well-being or happiness.