How to be happier 

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Despite what England fans might feel right now football competitions can make you happy. But only in the short-term – and only if you are the host country. And even that doesn’t make you as happy as a good marriage.

Married people are happier than single people (of course it could be that happy people get married more easily).

And the 30% improvement in happiness due to being married even counteracts all the negative affects of unemployment but don’t get divorced (the two worst life events are losing a spouse and unemployment).

There are some differences between the sexes and between age groups. For example women look less happy but angrier than they are, whereas men look less angry and happier than they are. Probably because we have cultural expectations that women should be happier than men and men angrier than women and we notice when people display behaviour counter to that norm.

Older people focus more on positive aspects of goods and services because they focus more on emotional goals than young adults.(See “What makes you Happy”). Optimism is associated with happiness, good physical and mental health and longevity. Conversely when we are stressed it lowers our immune system so we are more likely to become ill. Middle aged people who are happy have fewer physical symptoms of diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease.

Extraverts are happier than Introverts because they spend more time doing enjoyable things. But introverts who are asked to behave as extroverts can be even happier than real extroverts. And we are attracted to happy people because we think we will give good genes to our children.

Happiness IS NOT associated with: wealth (once basic needs are met), education, high IQ, youth (20-24 year olds are more depressed than 65-74 year olds) and watching TV more than 3 hours a day – especially watching soaps.

But it IS associated with: religion (although it may be the community rather than the belief), having lots of friends, and drinking in moderation (compared to teetotallers).

We are not evolved to be happy all the time otherwise we would have nothing to strive for. However 50% of happiness may be due to our genes compared to les than 10% due to our circumstances. We may have a set point or range of happiness to which we return after experiencing ups and downs. So like the football example, winning the lottery may not make us happy forever.

According to Martin Seligman – the inspiration for positive psychology – we can raise our happiness levels by enjoying life’s experiences more eg by savouring sensual experiences, by becoming more engaged with life and by finding ways of making our lives more meaningful.

Sonja Lyubomirsky, author of “The How of Happiness: a practical guide to getting the life you want“, suggests the following programme to raise your levels of happiness:

  • Count your blessings – keep a gratitude journal each week of 3-5 things
  • Practise being kind – both randomly and systematically
  • Savour life’s joys
  • Thank a mentor
  • Learn to forgive
  • Invest time and energy in friends and family – these are more important than work to your happiness.
  • Take care of your body and health
  • Develop strategies for coping with stress and hardship – having a strong belief system helps.

Updated 2 July 2010: Catherine Bennett in the weekend’s Observer (27 June 2010) took a rather cynical view in her piece; “Phew. At last we can ignore the gurus peddling happiness“. Clearly not impressed by the wave of optimism being generated at a time of world-wide problems and austerity at home. She refers to the Movement for Happiness and its founder Lord Layard who said; “… as our society has become richer, our happiness has not risen in step. Despite ever greater affluence, our lives are increasingly stressful. This paradox requires a radical rethink of our lifestyles and our goals”.

Conceding that the strategies proposed by happiness enthusiasts are neither complicated or expensive she also quotes the GREAT approach (advocated by the New Economics Foundation). GREAT stands for: Giving, Relating to others, Exercising the body, Attending to the world around, and Teaching yourself something fresh – but she wonders what good they are to people who have just lost their jobs or never had one.

Well I know that exercise is the best form of anti-depressant, relating to others might help develop networks and reduce self-obsessing, and keeping up-to-date and learning a new skill is a good way to get a new job. Maybe we should just ignore the journalists peddling negativity?


What makes you happy?

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What makes you happy? Just how happy are you with your lot? There is good scientific evidence that if you want to spend money to be happy spend it on experiences not goods. Go out for a meal, to the theatre. learn pole-dancing, take a holiday. Then share it by telling other people about it. And longer term it really is better to give than receive. And if you don’t have the money then carrying out 5 non-financial acts of kindness in a single day (not spread out over ti … Read More

via Mike the Psych’s Blog with permission

Have you got charisma?

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Charisma literally means Christ-like, and although difficult to define there are some key factors to consider if you want to develop or increase it.

Having self confidence is one of them. If you are confident and comfortable with yourself then you will project this outwardly.

If you are not self-confident then think of someone who is and copy their voice patterns, body posture and non-verbal signals (NVC) which you think contribute to their self-confidence.

This may mean for example, walking more slowly/ more briskly, lowering the pitch of your voice, or speaking more slowly/ more quickly.

Socially confident people have good emotional intelligence; not only are they self-aware and know how to control their own emotions, but they can sense others’ moods and know how to deal with them. Your spoken word and body language NVC must be telling the same story. If they don’t there will be leakage and people will sense that you are not being genuine. You should mean what you say but you don’t always have to say what you mean.

Physical presence is the quality that makes people give way for you or listen to what you have to say. This is mainly communicated through body language. Having an assertive posture – standing with feet slightly apart, looking still but alert (a zen-like martial arts readiness posture), maintaining eye contact but not overpowering others, smilingappropriately (and eliciting smiles in return), and being confident with your gestures.

Tall people are considered to have more leadership/command presence, so hold yourself tall (that piece of string through the centre of your head to the ceiling) and no slouching. Wear high heels and flattering clothes that make you look taller.

If you are really keen sign up for a Karate, Aikido, Yoga or Tai Chi class to help improve your self-confidence and develop your inner calm.

For those of you who feel less than charismatic the good news is that researchers have now found ways of measuring charisma and also how to teach it.

So many “friends” yet still lonely?

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So many “friends” yet still lonely?Many people are re-examining their relationship with the social networking site Facebook – the site that keeps on sharing. Or over-sharing according to Time Magazine this month (“Facebook – friends without borders”). Some time this month Facebook will officially log its 500 millionth active citizen – a bigger population than the USA. Not bad for an idea, dreamt up just over 6 years ago by Harvard unde … Read More

via Mike the Psych’s Blog with permission

Sleep – are you getting enough? 

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Sleep. Are you getting enough? Probably not if surveys in the UK and America are anything to go by.

The UK’s Sleep Council survey of over 2,000 adults and found that half of them didn’t know how much sleep their children should be getting viz 12 hours for a 3 year old, 10 hours for a 6-12 year old, and 9 hours for a teenager.

Whilst 80% of parents recognised the importance of sleep in relation to school performance, many didn’t understand exactly why.

Chris Idzikowski, at the Edinburgh Sleep Centre, says that sleep is essential for good physical, mental, and emotional health and is crucial for memory, learning and growth. “Bad sleeping habits in childhood can lead to long-term sleep problems and have been linked to obesity and heart disease”.

The Sleep Council believes that knowledge of the subject should be taught in schools alongside healthy eating and exercise and have published a guide for parents: “The Good Night Guide for Children”.

And it’s not just children who might be sleep deprived. The Harvard Business Review in October 2009 also reported on the problem in the USA. There the National Sleep Foundation reported in their “2008 Sleep in America Poll” that nearly a third of adults who work at least 30 hours a week have either fallen asleep or become extremely drowsy on the job.

Earlier that year a report for the National Academy of Sciences showed that a nap with REM or “dream sleep” improves your ability for creative problem solving and there are several studies that show that sleep boosts memory. For example if you memorise a list of of words then take a nap you will remember more words than if you hadn’t slept.

Robert Stickgold and his colleagues found evidence that important memory processing occurs as you are falling asleep as well as linking ideas and separating the wheat from the chaff. Evidence they say that  napping helps you to be more creative.

And when you are tired your visual discrimination skills fade. You need a 30 minute sleep to stop the burnout and 60 to 90 minutes including REM sleep to improve visual discrimination.

Some organisations have introduced napping periods; Google has sound and light-proof sleep pods. Such companies believe that it fits into their flexible working policies and boost productivity for little cost. Perhaps more seriously in New Zealand air traffic controllers on night shifts were more alert and performed better if they had a 40 minute sleep break.

Even micro-naps of just 6 minutes – not including the time it takes to fall asleep, which is 5 minutes if you are really tired – can make a difference.

Perhaps the siesta loving countries have had the right idea all along. There was a public outcry when the Portuguese government tried to ban them a few years ago to improve productivity.

Updated 2 July 2010: A new book by Tony Shwartz and colleagues: “The way we’re working isn’t working” the 4 forgotten needs that energise great performance” includes a section on taking care of your health including sleep. Some interesting facts include:

  • Melatonin is produced mainly between 1100 and 0300 so working during those times reduces our cognitive ability
  • Research at Stanford University shows that extending sleep improves performance
  • Chronically sleep deprived people are significantly more likely to suffer from heart disease than people who sleep only 6 hours and who in turn are significantly more at risk than people who sleep the necessary 7 hours (General McCrystal allegedly only sleeps 4 hours)
  • Sleeping only 6 hours a night for two weeks  has the same effect as someone who has been sleep-deprived for 48 hours

Updated 10 August 2010: Several newspapers in the last week reported that the holy grail of sleep had been discovered. Not so said the Times “Quack Quack – we debunk the myth behind the headlines“. The research at the University of Pennsylvania showed that the performance of volunteers who were restricted to 4 hours sleep a night for 5 nights slumped but made up some but not all of the difference when they were allowed to sleep for ten hours on the 6th day. Basically lie-ins don’t make up for sleep loss.

Scare stories last year said lie-ins ie more than 8 hours sleep, doubled your chance of dementia. And on the one hand research at the University of California showed that people who sleep longest are 15% more likely to die early whilst on the other research at Portland State University showed that people who sleep 10 hours a night have a better chance of reaching a hundred.

There seems to be no optimum length of sleep – it seems a very individual thing. If you stay alert during the day you are probably getting enough.

Updated 20 September 2010:  But now experts are saying that if babies and pre-school children don’t get 10 hours of sleep a night they are likely to be overweight when they get older.

A lack of sleep may cause an imbalance in appetite controlling hormones making those short of sleep to feel hungrier and crave snacks during the day. Previous research has linked sleep deprivation with obesity in adults and teenagers but this research from the USA, published in the Archives of Paediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, covered 1,00 under-5s. Those with less than 10 hours sleep were twice as likely to be overweight 5 years later.

The researchers concluded; ” Insufficient night-time sleep among infants and pre-school age children appears to be a lasting risk factor for subsequent obesity” and ” these findings suggest a critical window prior to age 5 years when night-time sleep may be important for subsequent obesity status”.

Newspapers picked up this story and reporter Sophie Borland  included some data from other countries to strengthen the case. For example, researchers in China looked at 5,000 children and found that those who were able to catch up on their sleep at the weekend were less likely to put on weight. And in Canada researchers found that people who didn’t get the optimum 7 – 8 hours sleep were two and a half times more at risk of developing Type 2 diabetes.

Updated 4 March 2011: 10% of us are relying on medication to help us sleep. That’s according to a survey of 40,000 families funded by the Economic & Social Research Council.

Apparently 1 in 8 of us now gets less than 6 hours sleep a night and 60% of us take 30 minutes to drop off with 10% of us using medication three times a week to help us do that.

Experts say sleep is as important to our health as diet or exercise and long-term deprivation will have long-term health risks such as diabetes, obesity, and heart problems. This is because hormones controlling your appetite and blood pressure are affected by sleep patterns.

Rather than using medication to give you drug-induced sleep it is better to look at the environmental and life-style factors in busy modern lives to solve the problem.    

Updated 2 May 2011: Finally some firm evidence on how much sleep you really need. Experiments at the Sleep and Chronobiology Laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania divided people into 3 groups. Some slept for 4 hours, some for 6 hours, and some for 8 hours a night over a two-week period.

Every 2 hours during the day the researchers tested their subjects to see how alert they were using the psychomotor vigilance task which requires you to sit in front of a computer screen for 10 minute sessions where you had to press the space bar when randomly timed numbers came up.

The PVT test measures the kind of vigilance needed by pilots, truck drivers and astronauts. and also for staying focussed when reading or attending meetings.

Those who had 8 hours of sleep had hardly any attention lapses over the 14 days of the study. Those who had only 4 or 6 hours got steadily worse as each day passed. By day 6, 25% of the 6 hour sleepers were falling asleep at their computer. By the end of the study the 6 hour sleepers were as impaired as those who had been sleep-deprived for 24 hours.

In real life you have more distractions than in a sleep laboratory: regular coffee, bright lights, interaction with colleagues etc but you will still feel the effects of sleep deprivation after five to seven days.

Some of the people who needed 8 hours felt the impact of a 4 hour sleep immediately while others coped for a few days before deterioration inevitably set in. Some people insist they can manage on 5 hours sleep but the 4 and 6 hour sleepers felt that although they felt sleepy they were unaffected. This wasn’t true but people aren’t good at judging their own sleep needs.

Researchers think that there might be a small percentage of people who, because of their genes, can maintain their performance with  less than 5 hours sleep just as there are people who require 9 hours or more.

Source: New York Times April 15 2011  

Meanwhile scientists at Northumbria University have been studying “short sleepers”. People like Margaret Thatcher, Da Vinci, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, who were too busy to sleep.

These sleepless elite tend to be more ambitious, outgoing, optimistic and energetic than those who would rather have a lie-in. The scientists think that there are perhaps only 3% of the population who can thrive on less than 6 hours sleep and research is being carried out world-wide to try to identify the gene responsible for this.

The short sleepers are both owls and larks as they often go to bed after midnight but get up before dawn.

The UK researchers believe that Britons are already sacrificing 4 hours sleep a week because of stress and work commitments and risk chronic insomnia and in America about 15% of adults report sleeping less than 6 hours a night.

1 Minute Stress Management

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Feeling stressed? Stop what you are doing and stop thinking negative thoughts – or rather replace them with positive ones .

Your brain will focus on what you tell it so it can’t not see that purple elephant I just told you not to think about.

So use positive thoughts like I’m a great Mum, PA, Person, Cook, Manager, Student  .. whatever.

If you are in a private space or can find a cubicle, do an instant rag doll relaxation ie tense yourself up as tight as you can all over your body, hold it for about 10 secs, then let it all hang out. Repeat a couple more times if necessary then stretch slowly and take a deep breath.

If you can visualise easily go to that warm beach or other relaxing get-away NOW. Remember the sun on your face, the sand beneath your feet or the smell of grass.

Finally use all your senses and have anchors which remind you of when you are not stressed. An anchor can be a favourite picture on your wall or in your purse; a favourite smell – vanilla, coffee, hand cream (massaging your palm and fingers can also help relaxation) – some people use bach flower remedies.

So in one minute:

  • STOP negative thoughts,
  • Replace with Positive self-talk.
  • Tense and relax, stretch and breathe.
  • Visualise that special place.
  • Reinforce with anchors you have chosen to reinforce feelings of well-being.

And if you aren’t sure if you are stressed or not read this 10ways-Stressed-SG&A

What doesn’t kill you, makes you?

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Could a little adversity help you to become better adjusted as an adult?

Studies at the University of California have shown that when children respond to hostility or bullying, whether face-to-face or on-line, in kind they are liked more and earn more respect from their classmates and teachers according to a report in The Times.

Whilst not pleasant experiences the children remembered them more vividly than friendly events. Trying to placate your enemy doesn’t seem to pay whereas giving as good as you got earned higher ratings for maturity and social competence.

No-one is saying it is a good thing to have a lot of people hostile to you, and children no-one disliked were the best adjusted, but the research suggests that rather than ignoring bullies or people who dislike you, or trying to placate them, or even being completely unaware of them, it is better to confront them.

Similar results have been found by researchers at Strathclyde University. Children who are good at standing up to bullies, whether for themselves or others, are better at resolving problems without conflict, are more emotionally literate, and better at taking other people’s perspective. In other words they display the emotional intelligence skills of self-awareness, self-control, empathy, and managing relationships.

Emotional Intelligence, self-control, and those marshmallows

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If self-awareness is the first building block in emotional intelligence, self-control and awareness of others’ feelings, or empathy, come next.

And one of the most popular stories now reflecting a cornerstone of emotional intelligence is the experiment carried out by Walter Mischel at Standford University in the 1960s using marshmallows to measure self-control.

David Schenk, a writer on genetics, claims that the case for genetic predisposition is overstated and that if you practise hard enough you can even become a genius. In the same article he cites the marshmallow experiment as an example of how children can learn to develop self-discipline.

Another similar story that caught my eye appeared in the international edition of USA Today (one of the few “English” newspapers you can get on Eastern European airlines). The headline said “The secret of school success. Want your kids to master books? First they need to master themselves. Fortunately new research is finding that self-control can be taught.”

The story was about programmes teaching self-regulation in American schools and at the heart of it was a description of the famous marshmallow experiment run by Walter Mischel in the 1960s. The story also criticises some modern parenting methods as undermining the development of self-regulation.

Then in November 2009 both the Observer and the Sunday Times picked up on the findings of a Demos think-tank report. The Sunday Times headline was “Bad parents kill prospects of working class”. It reported on an increase in social mobility between the end of WW2 and the 1970s followed by a period of stagnation up to 2000.

The report identified three traits that were most important for children to improve their social lot. These were: the ability to concentrate and stick with tasks, self-regulation – whether someone can control emotions and bounce back from disappointment, and empathy – the ability to be sensitive to other people.

The report went on to say that the best form of parenting to inculcate these characteristics was “tough love” ie setting clear rules and boundaries, instilled by discussion and affection. And the marshmallow experiment was cited as a predictor of success in life. The report also described disengaged and emotionally callous children and also suggested expanding the role of Health Visitors to provide supportive parenting.

The Observer took a similar tack with “Tough love breeds smart children”. This article contained a number of statistics and found that among the 9,000 families it tracked for the survey only 13% used a tough love approach combining discipline and warmth.

Although the research found that it was the style of parenting, rather than income or social background that developed the 3 character traits referred to above, this approach was more common in wealthy families and where parents were married. The parents’ level of education was also an important factor as was breastfeeding until 6 months.

The report also claimed that these soft skills, or character capabilities, had become increasingly important in life and were now 33 times more important in determining income for those who turned 30 in 2000 than for those 12 years older.

And in advance of a report from the think tank Demos the Times published a piece about the importance of self-control and empathy in children and included a description of Mischel’s now famous marshmallow test.

Mischel has been monitoring the lives of dozens of his subjects since he started the marshmallow experiments at a nursery on the campus of Stanford University, California, in the 1960s. His findings have proved so compelling that 40 of his original subjects, now in their forties, are preparing to undergo scans in the hope of answering a perplexing human question: why are some of us better than others at resisting temptation?

“Brain imaging provides a very exciting and important new tool,” said Mischel, who now works at Columbia University in New York. According to the article in the Times he believes  that by examining the differences between the brains of subjects who turned out to be good at controlling their impulses and those who wolfed down the marshmallow the moment it was offered, researchers hope to come up with new ways of teaching the benefits of delayed gratification.