What are the best life savouring strategies?

Posted September 28th, 2011 in Articles, Blogs by admin

We can increase our positive emotions and life satisfaction by using the right mix of savouring strategies.

What was the last good, positive thing that happened to you? Perhaps it made you smile or dance around the room or maybe even want to shout it from the rooftops.

We all want to feel good, both in the moment and about our lives in general. And most of us do this automatically by using strategies to help savour those precious happy times.

But research suggests we don’t always use the best strategies to feel good. In fact some strategies heighten good feelings and overall satisfaction, while others can reduce them. Quoidbach et al. (2010) call these savouring and dampening strategies. They carried out some research to see which were most effective and how they affect both our thoughts and feelings.

Here are the standard four savouring strategies that we tend to use. Each is paired with the corresponding dampening strategy:

1. Showing you’re happy

Savour: If you’re happy and you know it…then smile! Our physical actions feed back into how we feel and displaying happiness makes us feel even happier. This is known as embodied cognition: check out this article on 10 Postures That Boost Performance.

Dampen: But sometimes people don’t like to show they’re happy. Whether it’s because of fear, shyness or modesty, people do hide their positive emotions. Whatever the reason, it’s likely to make us less happy if we suppress our positive emotions.

2. Being present

Savour: Our minds naturally wander, even when we’re busy. But if we can keep focused on what we’re doing now we’ll feel better.

Dampen: Distraction is the enemy of savouring. Instead of enjoying what’s happening now, our minds wander off. Unfortunately we quite often wander off to our worries. This dampens down the positive emotion we feel.

3. Celebrating

Savour: If something good happens then make sure you celebrate it by telling others. By capitalizing on our success (or luck) when it comes along, we increase our positive emotions. So, throw a party!

Dampen: Instead of celebrating, though, sometimes people look for faults. Yes, they say to themselves, this was good, but it could have been better. This tends to reduce life satisfaction, optimism, self-esteem and happiness. Avoiding nit picking will lead to more enjoyment.

4. Using positive mental time travel

Savour: Although our minds often wander to depressing subjects, they can also wander to good things. We can remember good times and anticipate upcoming events. I’ve often thought that one of the secrets of life is to try and always have something to look forward to, no matter how small it is.

Dampen: The other side of the coin is that our minds can just as easily take us back to past embarrassments or forward to imagined future irritations. The more we can resist this, clearly the happier we’ll be.

What works best?

All of these are very familiar but which savouring strategies work best and which dampening strategies are the most detrimental?

Quoidbach et al. found that positive mental time travel and being present were most strongly associated with heightened pleasure. The interesting thing is that these are opposite strategies: one involves focusing on the here and now while the other involves drifting off somewhere else.

The fact that both work is probably because most people feel happy enough the majority of the time and, if they don’t, they can wander off in their mind somewhere else fun.

So that’s our feelings in the moment, but what about our thoughts, our evaluations of how we’re doing: our life satisfaction? The best savouring strategy for increasing our life satisfaction was capitalising. According to this research there’s nothing better than celebrating our wins for helping us feel our lives are going well.

On the other hand faultfinding and letting the mind wander to negative events are most likely to reduce our satisfaction with life.

Overall this study found that there was no one silver bullet to maximising your positive emotions and life satisfaction. Some strategies were better than others, but overall the people who were happiest were those who were flexible with which strategy they used.

So if you want to feel better for more of the time then try out all of these strategies at different times and in different situations. The more you can adaptively boost (and avoid dampening) good feelings, the better you’ll feel.

How to trick your brain and be happy

Posted September 27th, 2011 in Articles, Blogs by admin

I came across this great article, written by Dr. Rick Hanson author of Buddha’s Brain.

How to Trick Your Brain for Happiness

There’s this great line by Ani Tenzin Palmo, an English woman who spent 12 years in a cave in Tibet: “We do not know what a thought is, yet we’re thinking them all the time.”

It’s true. The amount of knowledge we have about the brain has doubled in the last 20 years. Yet there’s still a lot we don’t know.

In recent years, though, we have started to better understand the neural bases of states like happiness, gratitude, resilience, love, compassion, and so forth. And better understanding them means we can skillfully stimulate the neural substrates of those states—which, in turn, means we can strengthen them. Because as the famous saying by the Canadian scientist Donald Hebb goes, “Neurons that fire together, wire together.”

Ultimately, what this can mean is that with proper practice, we can increasingly trick our neural machinery to cultivate positive states of mind. But in order to understand how, you need to understand three important facts about the brain.

Fact one: As the brain changes, the mind changes, for better or worse.

For example, more activation in the left prefrontal cortex is associated with more positive emotions. So as there is greater activation in the left, front portion of your brain relative to the right, there is also greater well-being. That’s probably in large part because the left prefrontal cortex is a major part of the brain for controlling negative emotion. So if you put the breaks on the negative, you get more of the positive.

On the other hand, people who routinely experience chronic stress—particularly acute, even traumatic stress—release the hormone cortisol, which literally eats away, almost like an acid bath, at the hippocampus, which is a part of the brain that’s very engaged in visual-spatial memory as well as memory for context and setting. For example, adults who have had that history of stress and have lost up to 25 percent of the volume of this critically important part of the brain are less able to form new memories.

So we can see that as the brain changes, the mind changes. And that takes us to the second fact, which is where things really start getting interesting.

Fact two: As the mind changes, the brain changes.

These changes happen in temporary and in lasting ways. In terms of temporary changes, the flow of different neurochemicals in the brain will vary at different times. For instance, when people consciously practice gratitude, they are likely getting higher flows of reward-related neurotransmitters, like dopamine. Research suggests that when people practice gratitude, they experience a general alerting and brightening of the mind, and that’s probably correlated with more of the neurotransmitter norepinephrine.

Here’s another example of how changes in mental activity can produce changes in neural activity: When college students deeply in love are shown a picture of their sweetheart, their brains become more active in the caudate nucleus, a reward center of the brain. As the mind changes—that rush of love, that deep feeling of happiness and reward—correlates with activation of a particular part of the brain. When they stop looking at that picture of their sweetheart, the reward center goes back to sleep.

Now the mind also can change the brain in lasting ways. In other words, what flows through the mind sculpts the brain. I define the mind as the flow of immaterial information through the nervous system—all the signals being sent, most of which are happening forever outside of consciousness. As the mind flows through the brain, as neurons fire together in particularly patterned ways based on the information they are representing, those patterns of neural activity change neural structure.

So busy regions of the brain start stitching new connections with each other. Existing synapses—the connections between neurons that are very busy—get stronger, they get more sensitive, they start building out more receptors. New synapses form as well.

One of my favorite studies of this involved taxi cab drivers in London. To get a taxi license there, you’ve got to memorize the spaghetti-like streets of London. Well, at the end of the drivers’ training, the hippocampus of their brain—a part very involved in visual-spatial memory—is measurably thicker. In other words, neurons that fire together wire together, even to the point of being observably thicker.

This has also been found among meditators: People who maintain some kind of regular meditative practice actually have measurably thicker brains in certain key regions. One of those regions is the insula, which is involved in what’s called “interoception”—tuning into the state of your body, as well as your deep feelings. This should be no surprise: A lot of what they’re doing is practicing mindfulness of breathing, staying really present with what’s going on inside themselves; no wonder they’re using, and therefore building, the insula.

Another region is the frontal regions of the prefrontal cortex—areas involved in controlling attention. Again, this should be no surprise: They’re focusing their attention in their meditation, so they’re getting more control over it, and they’re strengthening its neural basis.

What’s more, research has also shown that it’s possible to slow the loss of our brain cells. Normally, we lose about 10,000 brain cells a day. That may sound horrible, but we were born with 1.1 trillion. We also have several thousand born each day, mainly in the hippocampus, in what’s called neurogenesis. So losing 10,000 a day isn’t that big a deal, but the net bottom line is that a typical 80 year old will have lost about 4 percent of his or her brain mass—it’s called “cortical thinning with aging.” It’s a normal process.

But in one study, researchers compared meditators and non-meditators. In the graph to the left, the meditators are the blue circles and the non-meditators are the red squares, comparing people of the same age. The non-meditators experienced normal cortical thinning in those two brain regions I mentioned above, along with a third, the somatosensory cortex. However, the people who routinely meditated and “worked” their brain did not experience cortical thinning in those regions. That has a big implication for an aging population: Use it or lose it, which applies to the brain as well as to other aspects of life.

That highlights an important point that I think is a major takeaway in this territory: Experience really matters. It doesn’t matter only in our moment-to-moment well-being—how it feels to be me—but it really matters in the lasting residues that it leaves behind, woven into our very being.

Which takes us to the third fact, which is the one with the most practical import.

Fact three: You can use the mind to change the brain to change the mind for the better. This is known as “self-directed neuroplasticity.” Neuroplasticity refers to the malleable nature of the brain, and it’s constant, ongoing. Self-directed neuroplasticity means doing it with clarity and skillfulness and intention.

The key to it is a controlled use of attention. Attention is like a spotlight, to be sure, shining on things within our awareness. But it’s also like vacuum cleaner, sucking whatever it rests upon into the brain, for better or worse. For example, if we rest our attention routinely on what we resent or regret—our hassles, our lousy roommate, what Jean-Paul Sartre called “hell” (other people)—then we’re going to build out the neural substrates of those thoughts and feelings.

On the other hand, if we rest our attention on the things for which we’re grateful, the blessings in our life—the wholesome qualities in ourselves and the world around us; the things we get done, most of which are fairly small yet they’re accomplishments nonetheless—then we build up very different neural substrates. I think that’s why, more than 100 years ago, before there were things like MRIs, William James. the father of psychology in America, said. “The education of attention would be an education par excellence.”

The problem, of course, is that most people don’t have very good control over their attention. Part of this is due to human nature, shaped by evolution: Our forbearers who just focused on the reflection of sunlight in the water—they got chomped by predators. But those who were constantly vigilant—they lived.

And today we are constantly bombarded with stimuli that the brain has not evolved to handle. So gaining more control over attention one way or another is really crucial, whether it’s through the practice of mindfulness, for instance, or through gratitude practices, where we count our blessings. Those are great ways to gain control over your attention because there you are, for 30 seconds or 30 minutes, coming back to focus on an object of awareness.

Taking in the good. This brings me to one of my favorite methods for deliberately using the mind to change the brain over time for the better: taking in the good. Just having positive experiences is not enough to promote last well-being. If a person feels grateful for a few seconds, that’s nice. That’s better than feeling resentful or bitter for a few seconds. But in order to really suck that experience into the brain, we need to stay with those experiences for a longer duration of time—we need to take steps, consciously, to keep that spotlight of attention on the positive.

So, how do we actually do this? These are the three steps I recommend for taking in the good. I should note that I did not invent these steps. They are embedded in many good therapies and life practices. But I’ve tried to tease them apart and embed them in an evolutionary understanding of how the brain works.

1. Let a good fact become a good experience. Often we go through life and some good thing happens—a little thing, like we checked off an item on our To Do list, we survived another day at work, the flowers are blooming, and so forth. Hey, this is an opportunity to feel good. Don’t leave money lying on the table: Recognize that this is an opportunity to let yourself truly feel good.

2. Really savor this positive experience. Practice what any school teacher knows: If you want to help people learn something, make it as intense as possible—in this case, as felt in the body as possible—for as long as possible.

3. Finally, as you sink into this experience, sense your intent that this experience is sinking into you. Sometimes people do this through visualization, like by perceiving a golden light coming into themselves or a soothing balm inside themselves. You might imagine a jewel going into the treasure chest in your heart—or just know that this experience is sinking into you, becoming a resource you can take with you wherever you go.

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How brain science can help us make better decisions

Posted September 26th, 2011 in Articles, Blogs by admin

Do our leaders—or for that matter do any of us—trust our brains and rational thinking when making important decisions? Or do we make better decisions based on gut instinct and emotions? Recent research on the process of decision-making has brought to light surprising conclusions that contradict conventional wisdom.

Research by Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist and Nobel Prize winner in economics, and Gary Klein, a senior scientist at MacroCognition, discussed the power of intuition to support decision-making in high pressure situations. When asked, “when should you trust your gut?” Klein responded, “never,’ arguing that leaders need to consciously and deliberately evaluate their gut feelings. Kahneman argues that when leaders are under time pressure to make a decision, they need to follow their intuition, but adding that overconfidence in intuition can be a powerful source of illusions. Klein argues that intuition is more reliable in structured stable conditions but may be unreliable in turbulent conditions, using the example of a broker choosing stocks. Kahneman cautions leaders to be wary of “experts’ intuition,” unless those experts have dealt with many similar situations in the past, citing the example of surgeons.

In the publication, Science,  researchers Ap Kigksterhuis, Maarten Bos, Loran Nordgen and Rick van Baaren, argue that effective, conscious decision-making requires cognitive resources, and because increasingly complex decisions place increasing strain on these sources, the quality of our decisions declines as the complexity of decisions increases. In short, complex decisions overrun our cognitive powers.

On the other hand, the researchers argue, unconscious decision-making–or intuition or gut instinct–requires no cognitive resources, so task complexity doesn’t degrade its effectiveness. This seemingly counter-intuitive conclusion is that although simple decisions are enhanced by conscious thought, the opposite holds true for complex thinking.

Two pertinent questions are: What accounts for a complex decision and what accounts for a good outcome to that decision? Psychologist Tom Tyler’s studies of the criminal justice system show that people value less the legal system’s outcomes, as much as the opportunity to see justice done. So the outcome is a matter of perspective.

While Kaheman, Klein, and Dijksterhuis and his colleagues disagree on the best way to make complex or strategic decisions, they bring to light for leaders the importance of both rational, logical thinking and unconscious intuitive or gut thinking.

New research by psychologists at the University of Warwick suggests gender plays a role in decision-making. They argue that because men and women perceive the world differently, they make decisions differently. The researchers say that because men organize their world into “black of white” distinct categories, women see things as more conditional and in shades of gray. Traditionally, cultures have rewarded males for being decisive and proactive, whereas females are socialized to be more thoughtful and receptive to others’ views.

Research conducted by neuroscientists Daeyeol Lee of Yale University, Daniel Salzman of Columbia University and Xiao-Jing Wang of Yale University has reached the following conclusions regarding decision-making:

  • Our emotions affects all our decisions
  • Most decisions involved some kind of reward we receive as a result
  • Poor decision-making can be a result of dysfunctional brain activity or the impact of negative emotional states such as extreme anxiety.

Contrary to what most of us would like to believe, decision-making may be a process handled to a large extent by unconscious mental activity. A team of scientists has unraveled how the brain actually unconsciously prepares our decisions.  Even several seconds before we consciously make a decision its outcome can be predicted from unconscious activity in the brain.

This is shown in a study by scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, in collaboration with the Charité University Hospital and the Bernstein Center for Computational Neuroscience in Berlin. The researchers from the group of Professor John-Dylan Haynes used a brain scanner to investigate what happens in the human brain just before a decision is made. “Many processes in the brain occur automatically and without involvement of our consciousness. This prevents our mind from being overloaded by simple routine tasks. But when it comes to decisions we tend to assume they are made by our conscious mind. This is questioned by our current findings.”

Alex Pouget, associate professor of brain and cognitive sciences at the University of Rochester, has shown that people do indeed make optimal decisions—but only when their unconscious brain makes the choice. “A lot of the early work in this field was on conscious decision making, but most of the decisions you make aren’t based on conscious reasoning,” says Pouget. “You don’t consciously decide to stop at a red light or steer around an obstacle in the road. Once we started looking at the decisions our brains make without our knowledge, we found that they almost always reach the right decision, given the information they had to work with.”

A study by Joseph Mikels, Sam Maglio, Andrew Reed and Lee Kaplowitz published in the journal, Emotion, supports the power of gut instincts for quick decisions. They gave subjects a series of complex decisions of various types, with the instruction of whether to go with gut instinct or reason it out with information. Overall, they found that compared with trying to work out the details, using their emotions led to much better outcomes.

Neuroscientist Jonah Lehrer, author of How We Decide, points out that people who  experience damage to the emotional centers of their brain are unable to make decisions. Lehrer argues that there is a sweet spot between logic and emotion that makes for good decisions.

Roy F. Baumeister, a social psychologist at Florida State University and author of the book, Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, argues that willpower plays a part in all our decisions and that willpower fluctuates. Ask people to name their greatest strengths and they’ll often cite things as honesty, kindness, humor, courage or other virtues. Surprisingly, self-control or willpower came dead last among virtues being studied by research with over 1 million people.

The most successful people, Baumeister contends, don’t have super-strong willpower when making decisions. Rather, they conserve their willpower by developing habits and routines, so they reduce the amount of stress in their lives. He says these people use their self-control or willpower not to get through crises, but avoid them. They make important decisions early before fatigue sets in. Steven Pinker, and a world-renowned cognitive scientist at Harvard, contends, in an article in The New York Times, reviewing Baumeister’s work,  “together with intelligence, self-control turns out to be the best predictor of a successful and satisfying life.”

Angelika Dimoka, Director of The Center for Neural Decision-Making at Temple University, conducted studies to see what happens when people’s decision-making abilities are overtaxed. She found rational and logical prefrontal cortex functioning declined when it become overloaded with information and as a result, subjects in her experiments began to make stupid mistakes and bad choices. “With too much information,” says Dimoka, “people’s decisions make less and less sense.”

So much for the idea of making well-0informed decisions, We are steeped in the belief of due diligence and today’s flood of information in the Internet and social media sites can surely overload our cognitive functions. Sheena Iyengar of Columbia University and author of The Art of Choosing, studied the impact of more information for people making investment decisions. She argues that although we say we prefer more information, in fact, more can be “debilitating.”

“There is a powerful recency effect in decision-making,” says behavioral economist Geroge Loewenstein of Carnegie Mellon University, “we pay a lot of attention to the most recent information, discounting what came earlier. We are often fooled by immediacy and quantity and think it’s quality.”

So how should we make good decisions, whether we are CEOs or not?

Science writer Sharon Begley, writing in Newsweek, says that experts advise, “dealing with emails and texts in batches, rather than in real time; that should let your unconscious decision making system kick in. Avoid the trap of thinking that a decision requiring you to assess a lot of complex information is best made methodically and consciously. You will do better, and regret less, if you let your unconscious turn it over by removing yourself from the info flux.”  In other words, learn to switch off the information flow. Second, learn how to use your emotions productively in making your decisions. In a sense, your brain won’t allow you to do otherwise.

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Good looks will get you ahead in your career

Posted September 4th, 2011 in Articles, Blogs by admin

Despite the sophisticated HR advances in hiring and compensation practices, it appears your appearance, and particularly good looks, still matter.

In fact, one expert even suggests that professional women should use their “erotic capital” — beauty, sex appeal, charm, dress sense, liveliness, and fitness — to get ahead at work. Catherine Hakim a professor of sociology at the London School of Economics, and author of the book, Erotic Capital: The Power of Attraction in the Boardroom and the Bedroom. Hakim is an expert on women’s employment and theories of female position in society. According to Hakim, the ”beauty premium” is an important economic factor in our careers, citing a U.S. survey that found good-looking lawyers earn between 10 and 12 per cent more than less good-looking colleagues. Moreover, she says, an attractive person is more likely to land a job in the first place, and then be promoted. “Meritocracies are supposed to champion intelligence, qualifications, and experience. But physical and social attractiveness deliver substantial benefits in all social interaction — making a person more persuasive, able to secure the co-operation of colleagues, attract customers and sell products,” she writes in a column for a London newspaper.

Other research has shown that individuals tend to find attractive people more intelligent, friendly and competent than less attractive people. A University of British Columbia study found that people identify the personality traits of people who are physically attractive more accurately than others during short encounters. The study conducted by Jeremy Biesanz, Lauren Human and Genevieve Lorenzo, showed a positive bias toward attractive people. “If people think Jane is beautiful, and she is very organized and somewhat generous, people will see her as more organized and generous than she really is,” says Biesanz. The researchers say this is because people hare motivated to pay closer attention to beautiful people.

A second study by Duke University researchers John Graham, Campbell Harvey and Manju Puri found CEOs are more likely than non-CEOs to be rated as competent looking. The team found that CEOs rated competent just by their appearance tended to have higher incomes.

A Tufts University study by psychologists Nicholas Rule and Nalini Ambady found a random sample of people could rte the competence, dominance, likeability, maturity and trustworthiness just be examining the facial photographs of CEOs.

Finally, researchers Elaine Wong at the University of Wisconsin and her colleagues at The London Business School examined the faces of CEOs and determined that CEOs with wider faces had better performing companies than CEOs with narrow faces.

So it seems that physical appearance is a significant factor in the hiring, compensation, competence and performance of CEOs, as much as we would like to think it doesn’t.

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Does keeping a busy life make you happier?

Posted September 2nd, 2011 in Articles, Blogs by admin
People dread being bored and will do almost anything to keep busy, but does keeping busy really make us happy?

Much of modern civilisation can be credited to our very human habit of keeping busy. Science, art, philosophy, technology, commerce and all the rest: it’s not just necessity that’s the mother of invention, it’s also boredom. But there is a tension in us between our desire for activity and inactivity. Given a choice we’ll remain idle—whether happily or otherwise—but at the same time we take almost any excuse to be busy. And let’s be honest, some of these excuses are pretty flimsy (how else can you explain train-spotting, shoe shopping or golf?). This tension is very nicely demonstrated in a recent study by Hsee et al. (2010). When given the choice, participants preferred to do nothing, unless given the tiniest possible reason to do something: a piece of candy. Then they sprang into action.

Not only did people only need the smallest inducement to keep busy, they were also happier when doing something rather than nothing. It’s as if people understand that being busy will keep them happier, but they need an excuse of some kind.

A wandering mind

So the secret to a happy life is to keep busy, right? Well not quite. Unfortunately just being busy isn’t enough. That’s because our minds can wander just as easily when we’re busy as when we’re idle. Even when busy we’re often elsewhere in our minds.

We know this because Killingsworth and Gilbert (2010) sampled the experience of 2,250 US adults at random intervals. Each time participants reported, through their smartphone, how they were feeling and what they were doing. Almost half the time people were asked, at that moment their minds were wandering from whatever they were doing—43% to pleasant topics, 27% to unpleasant topics and the rest to neutral topics. The only time their minds weren’t wandering was when they were having sex. The interesting thing was that both neutral and unpleasant topics, which comprised 57% of mind wandering, made people considerably less happy than their current activity, whatever it was. And even when thinking happy thoughts, they were no happier than when fully engaged with their current activity. As Killingsworth and Gilbert conclude:

“…a human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind. The ability to think about what is not happening is a cognitive achievement that comes at an emotional cost.”

Overall this study found that what people were thinking was a better predictor of how happy they felt than what they were doing.

This all serves to back up the idea that being mindful is a good thing. Paying attention to whatever you are doing right now is likely to make you happier than letting your mind wander off. Similarly, finding a reason to be active and engaged in whatever it is, is also likely to make us feel better than sitting around idle, even though our natural tendency is towards idleness. So being busy does make us happier, as long as we can stop our minds wandering.