optimism

My most read posts in 2014

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Screen Shot 2012-10-05 at 22.49.07My output on this blog was pretty paltry last year as I was busy writing elsewhere and tweeting (probably too much!)

However the number of countries in which my lists were read more than doubled to 85 countries, mainly the USA, the UK, and Brazil but also in Suriname, Belize, Lebanon, Qatar, Algeria, Sri Lanka, the Faroe Islands and China. So thank you for such an international interest.

For what it’s worth the most read posts on this blog in 2014 were:

  1. Thinking outside the box – literally
  2. MBTI typies – for the believers
  3. Empathetic introverts make the best carers
  4. Learning to become an optimist
  5. Using social media impacts on academic performance
  6. Mentally challenging jobs are good for you
  7. Can scientists really change your memories
  8. Were the Victorians really smarter than us?
  9. Your partner’s personality adds value
  10. End of the road for Positive Psychology at work? jointly with Gender differences in responding to stress

Learning to become an Optimist

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glass_half_full_empty_1600_wht_5473Do you see the glass as half-empty or half-full? Are you a born optimist?

Or do you always see the down-side? And can you do anything about it if you do?

Michael Mosley is presenting a BBC2 Horizon programme this week, 10 July at 21.00: “the Truth about Personality” 

He was suffering from insomnia, and worrying all the time so he decided he would investigate the latest ideas on personality and see whether or not he could become more optimistic.

A psychologist and neuroscientist at Oxford University, Professor Elaine Fox, believes that our basic drives are reflected in our patterns of brain activity which determine how we see the world.

She tested Mosley’s brain activity levels and found that he had more activity on the right side of the frontal cortex than the left, which has been found in other studies to be associated with higher levels of pessimism, neuroticism, and anxiety. She then got him to take a test to show whether he had an unconscious bias towards happy or angry faces by responding to flashing dots behind the faces. The results confirmed his bias towards pessimism.

The question was could he do anything about it? Twin studies show that there is a degree of heritability in personality  of  up to 50%. The rest is down to random factors or the environment  including whether or not the genes are switched on in response to life events and the environment (what is called epigenetics). Serious life events can not only trigger depression and anxiety but can alter genes to make people more vulnerable later in life.

He did two things: first he practised mindfulness every day for 20 minutes; secondly he used Cognitive Bias Modification using a computer programme which presented 15 blank or angry faces with 1 happy face. He had to practise finding the happy face to train his body to look for positive images.

put_on_a_happy_face_500_wht_5883After several weeks he found his mood lifting and he was sleeping better. He also performed differently on the two tests he had undergone earlier – in a positive direction.

Previous research in America involving over 1,000 people showed that optimistic people lived on average 7.5 years longer than pessimists.

Mental attitude was more important than any other factor according to the researchers at Yale. So this is clearly something we should take seriously.

 

Making friends as healthy as regular exercise and your five a day.

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stick_figure_drawing_people_leader_1600_wht_5133Making a new friend is as good for you as regular exercise.

People with a sunny outlook are more popular and have better health.

That’s according to a study reported last week in the Daily Telegraph.

It showed that optimistic people experience more positive emotions because they make more social connections which in turn improves physical health.

So positive emotions could be as important for your health as exercise and your regular fruit and vegetables.

The study, published in the journal Psychology Science, was led by positive psychology pioneer Prof Barbara Frederickson, at the University of North Carolina, and Dr Bethany Kok from the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Germany.

They observed the physical effects of positive emotions  by studying participants’ vagal tone – the body’s control over the vagus nerve which helps to regulate heart rate among other things.

People with a high vagal tone ie more control over the vagus nerve, tend to be better at regulating their emotions. It was hypothesised that those with higher vagal tone experienced more positive emotions. The optimism arising from that should improve social connections, further increasing vagal control and thereby improving physical health in an upward spiral.

The researchers wanted to know if participants could cultivate optimism and thereby improve their chances of better health. So participants were randomly assigned to either a 6-week loving-kindness meditation (LKM) course or left on a waiting list for the course. All of them had their vagal tones assessed at the start and end of the study.

Those on the course learned how to cultivate positive feelings of love, compassion and goodwill towards themselves and others.

The results showed that those with higher vagal tone in the LKM group showed steeper emotions over the course of the study. As their positive emotions increased so did their reported social connections  which in turn led to an increase in their vagal tone. Those on the waiting list showed no change in vagal tone over the course of the study.

Prof Frederickson was reported to have said that “positive emotions may be an essential psychological nutrient that builds health, just like getting enough exercise and eating your fruit and vegetables”.

The ability to manage your emotions is an important aspect of emotional intelligence which has been posted elsewhere on this blog.

It appears that this study was carried out in a scientific way unlike an earlier report from Germany about alternatives to going to the gym  which turned out to be an urban myth.

EI good – Impulsivity bad? Not always

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Most people will think that being emotionally intelligent is a good thing and being impulsive is not.

A study reported last year from Illinois State University found almost the opposite.

Impulsivity was linked to more  examples of organisational citizenship behaviour (OCB), discretionary acts that promote the organisation, across a range of industries. Impulsive colleagues are more likely to help out colleagues even at the expense of their own work assignments than more cautious diligent employees.

This reflected what the researchers called a “can do” attitude. In this study they didn’t find any evidence that impulsivity led to more deviant behaviours. Other studies have shown that impulsivity but also optimism and cognitive ability can predict deviant behaviours so recruiters beware!

A far as emotional intelligence (EI) is concerned they didn’t find it linked to OCBs but more linked to deviant behaviours. People with high EI can easily figure out how to influence others and get away with self-interested behaviour such as fiddling receipts (does this remind you of the dark side?).

Other recent research at the University of Leuven in Belgium found that self-serving leaders could still be effective even if they weren’t emotionally intelligent? (It was assume that the more narcissistic self-serving leaders would have lower levels of EI).

It seems it depends on the level of distributive justice (e.g. are employees getting what they deserve?)

When distributive justice was perceived as low, then self-serving leaders were seen in a negative light. But when these  leaders keep their staff happy e.g. by promotions and other rewards, the staff saw them in a more favourable light (perhaps unsurprisingly).

If anything this kind of research shows that we need to be careful not to make broad assumptions about the positive value of these personal attributes. Don’t forget narcissists and psychopaths can be charming (and manipulative).

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?