Tuesday, December 13, 2011

A Secret to Happiness: Einstein

It seems like an increasing phenomenon that a number of individuals are finding themselves with a psychic emptiness at some point in life. There is some kind of dissatisfaction, an uncertainty as to why they feel so unhappy and what will help them feel more complete. This runs rampant with people who have acquired some kind of success in life and find their minds saying, now what?
Some people call this a mid-life crisis, but it can happen at all different times of life. What’s missing?
Albert Einstein once said:
“Try not to become a man of success but rather a man of value.”
Today we’re driving our kids more than ever to be “successful.” But what does this really mean? Somewhere along the line we’ve become confused as a culture and lost sight of what really matters. The test is simple, what makes us feel good? Not in a hedonistic way, but more in line with the Greek term eudaimonia. This can be translated more as a meaningful happiness.
So what’s missing? An understanding of personal values. The key question is: What do you believe is important in life? Is it helping other people, being honest, working hard, being compassionate, spending time with family or people in your community, or maybe being mindful?
This isn’t just a cursory question, it’s one to take seriously and then take an inventory of your life seeing where it lives and where it’s missing.
What would your life look like if you were actually living in accordance with what you valued? Visualize this and let it be your guide toward a happier life.
Sometimes life can truly be that simple.
Sometimes you’re living your values and not even taking a moment to be mindful of it. Think about where in your day to day you are actually living in the way you think is most important.
Right now, stop what you’re doing and take a minute to look forward toward the rest of the day. Where are you living your values? Where is an opportunity to stop in line with them more?
Take this moment to live as if it mattered.
By Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

A Dirty Lesson

One day a farmer's donkey fell down into a well. The animal cried piteously for hours as the farmer tried to figure out what to do. Finally, he decided the animal was old, and the well needed to be covered up anyway; it just wasn't worth it to retrieve the donkey.
He invited all his neighbors to come over and help him. They all grabbed a shovel and began to shovel dirt into the well. At first, the donkey realized what was happening and cried horribly. Then, to everyone's amazement he quieted down.
A few shovel loads later, the farmer finally looked down the well. He was astonished at what he saw. With each shovel of dirt that hit his back, the donkey was doing something amazing. He would shake it off and take a step up.
As the farmer's neighbors continued to shovel dirt on top of the animal, he would shake it off and take a step up. Pretty soon, everyone was amazed as the donkey stepped up over the edge of the well and happily trotted off!

Life is going to shovel dirt on you, all kinds of dirt. The trick to getting out of the well is to shake it off and take a step up. Each of our troubles is a steppingstone. We can get out of the deepest wells just by not stopping, never giving up! Shake it off and take a step up.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Learning While You Dream

Why do we dream? It’s a question dream analysts and sleep researchers have been studying for years. Now new research suggests that some dreams may actually result from the brain’s effort to keep learning, even as we sleep.
In a study led by researchers at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, 99 volunteers trained for an hour on a virtual maze, trying to find their way through the complicated, three-dimensional puzzle as quickly as possible. Then half the volunteers were allowed to sleep for 90 minutes. The other half stayed awake, reading or relaxing. During the resting period, the subjects were interrupted or awakened and asked to describe their thoughts or dreams.
After the resting period, the participants were asked to again tackle the maze. Those who hadn’t napped showed no improvement or did even worse after the break. Nappers who were rested but didn’t report any maze-related dreams did better but showed only marginal improvement.
However, four nappers who reported dreaming about the maze showed a startling improvement, cutting their completion time in half. The difference in scores before and after sleeping was 10 times higher for the maze dreamers than those who hadn’t dreamed about the task, according to the findings published Thursday in the journal Current Biology.
Even though the number of dreamers was small, the researchers noted that the gap in learning between the dreamers and nondreamers was so wide that the finding was highly statistically significant.
Notably, the dreamers had all performed poorly on the test prior to dreaming about it. That suggests that struggling with a task might be the trigger that prompts the sleeping brain to focus on the subject and work on getting better, explained the lead author, Robert Stickgold, a cognitive neuroscientist at Harvard Medical School.
“It’s almost as if your brain is rummaging through everything that happened today and deciding that you’re not done with it,” Dr. Stickgold said. “The things that really grip you, the ones you decide at an emotional level are really important, those are the ones you dream about. The things you’re obsessed with are the ones that your brain forces you to continue to process.”
The study subjects who dreamed about the maze didn’t dream about trying to complete it over and over. Instead, they simply dreamed about it in a variety of ways. One person said he dreamed about the music that played along with the task. Another dreamed about seeing people along checkpoints in the maze and remembering a bat cave he had once toured. Another dreamed of searching for something in a maze. The lesson may be that dreams don’t necessarily have to make sense or be obvious to the awake mind in order to have a learning benefit.
“It might be that sleep is the time when the brain is tuned to find those types of association you wouldn’t notice during waking,” Dr. Stickgold said. “It does this by focusing on weak associations. If that’s the case, the dreams you have in REM sleep might be so bizarre for exactly the same reasons. It’s not that the dreams make no sense. They make wacky sense.”
More study is needed to fully understand the power of dreams in learning. The researchers are planning a new study that “spiffs up” the maze tests using colors and images in a way that most likely will trigger an increase in dreaming among the study participants.
Whether someone can ultimately harness the power of dreaming to improve learning is an open question, but Dr. Stickgold does have a suggestion for students or others trying to master a task or study subject.
“If you’re a student and you want to do better on the test, you might need to dream about it,” Dr. Stickgold said. “The question is, ‘How do I get myself to dream about it?’ The answer is to get excited about it. That seems to be what you dream about.”


Sunday, September 18, 2011

The Hundredth Monkey

The Japanese monkey, Macaca fuscata, had been observed in the wild for a period of over 30 years.
In 1952, on the island of Koshima, scientists were providing monkeys with sweet potatoes dropped in the sand. The monkeys liked the taste of the raw sweet potatoes, but they found the dirt unpleasant.
An 18-month-old female named Imo found she could solve the problem by washing the potatoes in a nearby stream. She taught this trick to her mother. Her playmates also learned this new way and they taught their mothers too.
This cultural innovation was gradually picked up by various monkeys before the eyes of the scientists.
Between 1952 and 1958 all the young monkeys learned to wash the sandy sweet potatoes to make them more palatable.
Only the adults who imitated their children learned this social improvement. Other adults kept eating the dirty sweet potatoes.
Then something startling took place. In the autumn of 1958, a certain number of Koshima monkeys were washing sweet potatoes -- the exact number is not known.
Let us suppose that when the sun rose one morning there were 99 monkeys on Koshima Island who had learned to wash their sweet potatoes.
Let's further suppose that later that morning, the hundredth monkey learned to wash potatoes.
By that evening almost everyone in the tribe was washing sweet potatoes before eating them.
The added energy of this hundredth monkey somehow created an ideological breakthrough!
But notice.
A most surprising thing observed by these scientists was that the habit of washing sweet potatoes then jumped over the sea --
Colonies of monkeys on other islands and the mainland troop of monkeys at Takasakiyama began washing their sweet potatoes.
Thus, when a certain critical number achieves an awareness, this new awareness may be communicated from mind to mind.
Although the exact number may vary, this Hundredth Monkey Phenomenon means that when only a limited number of people know of a new way, it may remain the conscious property of these people.
But there is a point at which if only one more person tunes-in to a new awareness, a field is strengthened so that this awareness is picked up by almost everyone!

by Ken Keyes

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Volunteering To Help Others Could Lead To Better Health

People who volunteer may live longer than those who don't, as long as their reasons for volunteering are to help others rather than themselves, suggests new research published by the American Psychological Association.

This was the first time research has shown volunteers' motives can have a significant impact on life span. Volunteers lived longer than people who didn't volunteer if they reported altruistic values or a desire for social connections as the main reasons for wanting to volunteer, according to the study, published online in the APA journal Health Psychology. People who said they volunteered for their own personal satisfaction had the same mortality rate four years later as people who did not volunteer at all, according to the study.

"This could mean that people who volunteer with other people as their main motivation may be buffered from potential stressors associated with volunteering, such as time constraints and lack of pay," said the study's lead author, Sara Konrath, PhD, of the University of Michigan.

Researchers examined data from the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study, which has followed a random sample of 10,317 Wisconsin high school students from their graduation in 1957 until the present. The sample is 51.6 percent female, with an average age of 69.16 years in 2008.

In 2004, respondents reported whether they had volunteered within the past 10 years and how regularly. They reported their reasons for volunteering (or the reasons they would volunteer, for those who had not done so) by answering 10 questions. Some motives were more oriented toward others (e.g., "I feel it is important to help others," or "Volunteering is an important activity to the people I know best") and some that were more self-oriented (e.g., "Volunteering is a good escape from my own troubles," or "Volunteering makes me feel better about myself").

The researchers also considered the respondents' physical health, socioeconomic status, marital status, health risk factors (i.e., smoking, body mass index and alcohol use), mental health and social support. Much of this information was collected in 1992, 12 years before the respondents were asked about their volunteering experience. The researchers then determined how many of the respondents were still alive in 2008.

Overall, 4.3 percent of 2,384 non-volunteers were deceased four years later, which was similar to the proportion of deceased volunteers who reported more self-oriented motives for volunteering (4 percent). However, only 1.6 percent of those volunteers whose motivations were more focused on others were dead four years later. This effect remained significant even when controlling for all the variables. Additionally, respondents who listed social connection or altruistic values as their predominant motive were more likely to be alive compared with non-volunteers.

"It is reasonable for people to volunteer in part because of benefits to the self; however, our research implies that, ironically, should these benefits to the self become the main motive for volunteering, they may not see those benefits," said the paper's co-author, Andrea Fuhrel-Forbis, MA.

Source: American Psychological Association (APA)

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Are You A Member of the Rat Race or the Human Race?

Years ago, while working as a psychologist on a busy psychiatric hospital ward, I was jolted into reality by one of my schizophrenic patients. I can picture him as clear as day, casually leaning against the wall in the hallway, watching me run from therapy appointment to staff meeting and back again. Wearing a wry grin on his face, he said to me, "Are you a member of the rat race or the human race?"
Sometimes my patients just hit the nail on the head! His question woke me up to an awareness of my overly busy pace. Like so many people in the modern age, I had gotten swept up in a kind of manic pressure to take care of everything, to be all things to all people, to make sure I got it all right.
I wasn't so much a human "being" as I was a human "doing."
Because we are so busy, we don't often stop to think why we are so busy. Underneath the wish to check off all the items on our to-do list, what are we really looking for? From a psychoanalytic perspective, we might wonder if we are looking for a sense of being important, or competent, or needed. Deeper still, I think, is our wish to feel that we matter. We chase one accomplishment after another, trying to convince ourselves that we are good, capable, helpful people.
By and large, we feel a pressure to prove our worth, over and over again, because we really don't feel very worthy inside.
We human beings tend to have a distorted picture of what it means to be good, capable, and valuable. We think it means that we must be perfect. Awareness of our limitations, our flaws, and even our own need leads us to feel ashamed and guilty. And we do not want to be in contact with such painful feelings.
But, ironically, the avoidance of the reality of our limitations puts us into immediate contact with the reality of our limitations. The overly busy person never feels like she can get it all done. The hyper-driven person is never satisfied. Our pursuit of perfection frustrates us with the awareness that we can never get it just right. As I often say to my patients, we cannot escape the fact that we are all incomplete.
It takes a lot of psychological work to make peace with this reality. But that is where a real sense of our own goodness can be found. If we can slow down and get in touch with our inner thoughts and deepest feelings about ourselves—even the painful ones—we can develop a more realistic view of our whole selves. We are all a mix of good and bad, strengths and weaknesses, love and hate. If we are out of touch with ourselves, we are out of touch with it all—including the good stuff. If we are more in touch with our true selves, at least we have something to work with.
Busyness depletes us. Mindfulness fills us up. And balance is one of the keys to mental health.

Jennifer Kunst, Ph.D.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Lessons in Mediterranean

My wife and I had the wonderful opportunity to vacation on the Mediterranean for 3 weeks, traveling throughout Italy, Sicily, Spain, Palma, the south of France and Tunisia. With all the wonderful sights and places I experienced, it was the people I met along the way that made the most impression on me. It’s interesting that the real connection we make in our lives is always with people. As I walked through the streets of Barcelona Spain one beautiful sunny morning, a toothless women who was begging in the streets holding a used Starbucks cup came up to me and asked for money. She had a kind face and shared with me her smile while gesturing for money. As I reached in my pocket and put in her cup a 2 Euro coin, she stopped and blew me kisses of gratitude and thanks as I walked away. As I turned around as I moved forward, I saw that she was still blowing kisses my way and I found myself blowing a kiss back to her. I was moved by her sincerity and was also taken back by the emotion I was feeling with this brief encounter with this toothless beggar in the streets of Barcelona. What was this all about? Why was I moved? I realized that there is no connection like the connection between two people, no matter how brief or even seeming insignificant, nothing could match this. Throughout our trip, it was the people I met along the way that became embedded in my memory; the conversations about our lives, our differences and of course our similarities. From the toothless beggar in Barcelona to the generous merchant in Tunisia, who offered to arrange a home, and transportation at my next visit to his magical country, the connection two people can make is the real life changing episodes in our lives. It makes one realize that we don’t need to travel half way around the world to have these kinds of experiences, only the willingness to be open with each other and accepting of each other for who we are. That is the true nature of our being, the connectedness we all share. It shows itself in the most unusual places as reminders of who we really are.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Income Disparity Makes People Unhappy

Many economists and sociologists have warned of the social dangers of a wide gap between the richest and everyone else. Now, a new study, which will be published in an upcoming issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, adds a psychological reason to narrow the disparity - it makes people unhappy.

Over the last 40 years, "we've seen that people seem to be happier when there is more equality," says University of Virginia psychologist Shigehiro Oishi, who conducted the study with Virginia colleague Selin Kesebir and Ed Diener of the University of Illinois. "Income disparity has grown a lot in the U.S., especially since the 1980s. With that, we've seen a marked drop in life satisfaction and happiness." The findings hold true for about 60 percent of Americans-people in the lower and moderate income brackets.

But why? To find out, the researchers looked at a portion of the data gathered by the General Social Survey from 1972 to 2008, a poll of 1,500 to 2,000 people randomly selected from the U.S. population every other year (it used to be every year). In all, the study sample included more than 48,000 respondents over 37 years.

The psychologists examined the relationships among the answers to one question rating happiness on a three-point scale and two indicating the respondents' sense of how fair and trustworthy their fellow Americans were. These answers were analyzed alongside the individual's income and a globally recognized instrument measuring national income equality in each survey year.

The conclusions: That grim mood cannot be attributed to thinner pocketbooks during periods of greater inequality-though those pocketbooks were thinner. Rather, the gap between people's own fortunes and those of people who are better off is correlated with feelings that other people are less fair and less trustworthy, and this results in a diminished sense of wellbeing in general.

Interestingly, the psychologists found, the inequality blues did not afflict Americans at the top.. For instance, the richest 20 percent, income disparity or its absence did not affect their feelings about fairness and trust-or their happiness-one way or the other.

Before this analysis, says Oishi, most studies measuring life satisfaction and income disparity have looked at the differences between nations or states. The results have been mixed; some studies found equal nations and states are happier than unequal ones, while other studies did not find any relation. "People were puzzled." "In addition, it was hard to interpret the previous findings as Brazil is different from Sweden, and Mississippi is different from Minnesota not only in income inequality but in many other factors" he notes.

But this study eliminates the variables of geographic and cultural difference by looking at the same nation over a long period of time. For the first time, psychologists can see a link between a major socio-economic factor and the quality of people's individual lives.

The researchers caution that they show only correlations and not causation; and that other dynamics may be been at play in the respondents' changing wellbeing.

Still, says Oishi, "the implications are clear: If we care about the happiness of most people, we need to do something about income inequality." One way to accomplish that end, he says, is with more progressive taxation.

Association for Psychological Science

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Joy of Journaling

The act of writing things down somewhere (where doesn’t really matter) — has many benefits. Here’s an important one:
“It’s not in the rereading that one finds solace but in the writing itself. It’s like crying—you don’t know why, but you feel so much better afterward. Everything pours, streams, flows, out of you aimlessly,” writes Samara O’Shea in her beautifully written book Note to Self: On Keeping A Journal And Other Dangerous Pursuits.
Here’s another: Journaling is a profound — and simple — way to get to know yourself better. To figure out what makes you tick. What makes you happy. What makes you defensive. What makes you giggle or grateful or grieve. What makes you who you are.
Quite simply, it’s a great tool to help you grow.
Throughout Note to Self, O’Shea shares excerpts from her journals, along with journal entries from others, including Anne Frank, Sylvia Plath and Tennessee Williams. She also shares how to get started. These are a few of her tips:
• “Say anything.” There are no shoulds, only woulds, she writes. Don’t think about what a journal should be.“Write the good, bad, mad, angry, boring, and ugly.”
• Don’t lose faith if you don’t feel better instantly. As O’Shea writes, “Sometimes, a writing session will be the fast-acting mental medicine needed to release pent-up emotions, and other times, it will just be the beginning of getting to know yourself or dealing with a problem.” She says to focus on the long term. Over time, you’ll be able to witness “your emotional evolution.”
• Just start. Remember that your journal will develop on its own. Still got nothing? Try a few prompts, such as answering questions or describing your life. Several of the questions she suggests:
How am I feeling?
How do I want to be feeling?
What do I want to learn about myself?
What do I want to change about myself?
What would I never change about myself?
Describe the room.
Describe the people in your life.
Describe yourself.
Describe the aspects of your life that you’re pleased with and those areas you’re displeased with.
Stream of Consciousness Journaling
Stream of consciousness writing is very freeing — and perfect for journaling! It gives you permission to just start and let it all hang out. O’Shea writes:
“Stream-of-consciousness writing is mental anarchy and spring-cleaning all in one. It’s like going into the basement, turning the tables over, breaking the records in half, cutting the stuffed animals open with a sharp pair of scissors (and feeling much better afterward), then putting it all out just in time for the garbage man to collect.”
I love that there’s no pressure to write things “right,” to transcribe a certain event with precision or create some powerful poem. You just open up your mind — and heart — to write the messy stuff.
To get started, O’Shea suggests beginning with any word (which will inevitably lead you somewhere); picking an emotion that’s been overwhelming you lately or one that you haven’t felt in a long time; or asking yourself a question.
Need more inspiration?
Borrow from others! O’Shea suggests writing down lines from a poem that inspires you, transcribing song lyrics or copying quotes. Each of her journals includes one quote that represents the theme of that journal, along with a slew of quotes throughout.

Written by: Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Cleansing The Soul By Hurting The Flesh: The Guilt-Reducing Effect Of Pain

Lent in the Christian tradition is a time of sacrifice and penance. It also is a period of purification and enlightenment. Pain purifies. It atones for sin and cleanses the soul. Or at least that's the idea. Theological questions aside, can self-inflicted pain really alleviate the guilt associated with immoral acts? A new study published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, explores the psychological consequences of experiencing bodily pain.

Psychological scientist Brock Bastian of the University of Queensland, Australia and his colleagues recruited a group of young men and women under the guise they were part of a study of mental and physical acuity. Under this pretense, they asked them to write short essays about a time in their lives when they had ostracized someone; this memory of being unkind was intended to prime their personal sense of immorality-and make them feel guilty. A control group merely wrote about a routine event in their lives.

Afterward, the scientists told some of the volunteers-both "immoral" volunteers and controls-to stick their hand into a bucket of ice water and keep it there as long as they could. Others did the same, only with a soothing bucket of warm water. Finally, all the volunteers rated the pain they had just experienced-if any-and they completed an emotional inventory that included feelings of guilt.

The idea was to see if immoral thinking caused the volunteers to subject themselves to more pain, and if this pain did indeed alleviate their resulting feelings of guilt. And that's exactly what the researchers found. Those who were primed to think of their own unethical nature not only kept their hands in the ice bath longer, they also rated the experience as more painful than did controls. What's more, experiencing pain did reduce these volunteers' feelings of guilt-more than the comparable but painless experience with warm water.

According to the scientists, although we think of pain as purely physical in nature, in fact we imbue the unpleasant sensation with meaning. Humans have been socialized over ages to think of pain in terms of justice. We equate it with punishment, and as the experimental results suggest, the experience has the psychological effect of rebalancing the scales of justice-and therefore resolving guilt.

Source: Association for Psychological Science

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Perceptions Of Masculinity And Femininity

Gender stereotypes suggest that men are usually tough and women are usually tender. A new study published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, finds these stereotypes have some real bodily truth for our brains; when people look at a gender-neutral face, they are more likely to judge it as male if they're touching something hard and as female if they're touching something soft.

Several studies have found recently that we understand many concepts through our bodies. For example, weight conveys importance; just giving someone a heavy clipboard to hold will make them judge something as more important than someone who holds a light clipboard. Michael Slepian, a graduate student at Tufts University, and his colleagues wanted to know if this was also true for how people think about gender.

For one experiment, people were given either a hard or a soft ball to hold, then told to squeeze it continuously while looking at pictures of faces on a computer. Each face had been made to look exactly gender-neutral, so it was neither male nor female. For each face, the volunteer had to categorize it as male or female. People who were squeezing the soft ball were more likely to judge faces as female, while people who handled the hard ball were more likely to categorize them as male.

The same effect was found in a second experiment in which people wrote their answers on a piece of paper with carbon paper underneath; some were told to press hard, to make two copies, and some were told to press lightly, so the carbon paper could be reused. People who were pressing hard were more likely to categorize faces as male, while the soft writers were more likely to choose female.

"We were really surprised," says Slepian, who cowrote the study with Max Weisbuch of the University of Denver, Nicholas O. Rule at the University of Toronto, and Nalini Ambady of Tufts University. "It's remarkable that the feeling of handling something hard or soft can influence how you visually perceive a face." The results show that knowledge about social categories, such as gender, is like other kinds of knowledge - it's partly carried in the body.

Keri Chiodo
Association for Psychological Science