Sunday, November 25, 2012

Why Gratitude Isn’t Just for Thanksgiving

http://healthland.time.com/2012/11/22/why-gratitude-isnt-just-for-thanksgiving/?iid=hl-main-lead


Being thankful is strongly linked with both mental and physical health— and can help to relieve stress, depression and addictions, among other conditions.
But what is gratitude? Psychologists view it as being able to maintain a world view that appreciates the positive.  That may sound like optimism, but unlike simply expecting the good, “appreciation” requires recognizing that happy outcomes are not just the result of your own hard work or moral uprightness, but depend on the efforts of others and, for the more spiritually-minded, on divine providence as well.
MORE: We Gather Together
This makes it a fundamentally social emotion:  you are grateful either to other people or to some sort of higher power with whom you can communicate. And if you do not behave graciously, ingratitude can cause relational problems, which could deny you the type of social support that is needed to protect against stress and depression.
Numerous studies now link counting one’s blessings to health.  A recent analysis published in Personality and Individual Differences included nearly 1,000 Swiss adults, ranging from teenagers to people in their 80s.  It found that physical health was strongly linked with gratitude, basically because it improved psychological health.  Better psychological health meant that people were more likely to engage in health-promoting activities and to seek medical help when it was needed.  Not surprisingly, this kept people in better mental and physical condition than if they engaged in self-destructive behaviors and avoided necessary medical care.
Among those who are more spiritual, religious thankfulness, or gratitude toward God, can predict susceptibility to mental illness. In a 2003 study involving 2600 adults, those who were most spiritually thankful had a lower risk of depression, generalized anxiety disorder, phobias, bulimia and addictions including alcohol, nicotine and illegal drugs.
Of course, it’s possible that mentally healthier people feel that they have more to be grateful for, which may explain some of their extra thankfulness.  However, because interventions aimed at improving gratitude seem to help with many of health conditions, it’s clear that whatever the reason, being thankful seems to have a strong relationship with health.  Studies show, for example, that interventions to increase gratitude improve impaired body image by 76% and can help treat generalized anxiety disorder in similarly dramatic fashion.
So how does gratitude improve health?  On one level, it helps people to sleep better.  Since disturbed sleep is linked to almost all mental illnesses, factors that improve sleep tend to alleviate some of these disorders.  A 2009 study of 401 people— 40% of whom had clinical sleep disorders— found that the most grateful people had better sleep quality, normalized sleep duration (not too long or too short), were able to fall asleep faster at night and also had less daytime tiredness compared to those who weren’t as thankful.
The key to reaping gratitude’s benefits seemed to involve what people thought about as they tried to fall asleep:  while grateful folks accentuated the positive, the others were consumed by worries and fears.  So mentally counting blessings before drifting off can help fight anxiety and depression, not just by replacing depressive and anxious thoughts but by making refreshing sleep easier to attain.
The most common ways to improve gratitude— making “gratitude lists” or keeping a daily diary focused on the things you are grateful for — build on this positive-focused thinking and are often a critical part of 12-step programs for addictions.
And they are effective, as a study tracking feelings of thanks and school satisfaction among a group of sixth and seventh graders showed. In the study, 221 children were assigned to write either a daily list of five things they were most grateful for, or of the hassles they experienced, or no list at all. The gratitude group reported greater satisfaction with school three weeks later compared to the other kids, especially those who focused on hassles.  That’s a potentially significant benefit since contentment at school is linked to academic performance and dissatisfaction is correlated with antisocial behavior like drinking and drug use. The authors write, “[T]hese findings suggest that gratitude has both immediate and long-term effects on positive psychological functioning.”
And those effects may be self-sustaining to a certain extent as well. One study found that compared to those who didn’t experience extensive thankfulness, grateful people saw the help they received from others as being more costly to the giver and more valuable to themselves. In addition, they also interpreted deeper expressions of kindness and caring from these acts.  These perceptions are likely to make people behave more gratefully towards others — since if you perceive the help you receive as being of little worth and primarily the result of self interest, you are less likely to be appreciative.
That may explain why gratefulness is a desirable trait in friends and colleagues, and why attempts to become more grateful can be an important part of improving many relationships.
So while it’s easy to focus on grievances during the hectic holiday season, try introducing a little gratefulness instead. Sure, there may be a bit of selfishness in that, since you may be motivated primarily to improve your own health, but it turns out that gratitude can change your perspective — in a contagious way that may ultimately help more than just you alone


Read more: http://healthland.time.com/2012/11/22/why-gratitude-isnt-just-for-thanksgiving/#ixzz2DIS1pqnd
Being thankful is strongly linked with both mental and physical health— and can help to relieve stress, depression and addictions, among other conditions.
But what is gratitude? Psychologists view it as being able to maintain a world view that appreciates the positive.  That may sound like optimism, but unlike simply expecting the good, “appreciation” requires recognizing that happy outcomes are not just the result of your own hard work or moral uprightness, but depend on the efforts of others and, for the more spiritually-minded, on divine providence as well.
MORE: We Gather Together
This makes it a fundamentally social emotion:  you are grateful either to other people or to some sort of higher power with whom you can communicate. And if you do not behave graciously, ingratitude can cause relational problems, which could deny you the type of social support that is needed to protect against stress and depression.
Numerous studies now link counting one’s blessings to health.  A recent analysis published in Personality and Individual Differences included nearly 1,000 Swiss adults, ranging from teenagers to people in their 80s.  It found that physical health was strongly linked with gratitude, basically because it improved psychological health.  Better psychological health meant that people were more likely to engage in health-promoting activities and to seek medical help when it was needed.  Not surprisingly, this kept people in better mental and physical condition than if they engaged in self-destructive behaviors and avoided necessary medical care.
Among those who are more spiritual, religious thankfulness, or gratitude toward God, can predict susceptibility to mental illness. In a 2003 study involving 2600 adults, those who were most spiritually thankful had a lower risk of depression, generalized anxiety disorder, phobias, bulimia and addictions including alcohol, nicotine and illegal drugs.
Of course, it’s possible that mentally healthier people feel that they have more to be grateful for, which may explain some of their extra thankfulness.  However, because interventions aimed at improving gratitude seem to help with many of health conditions, it’s clear that whatever the reason, being thankful seems to have a strong relationship with health.  Studies show, for example, that interventions to increase gratitude improve impaired body image by 76% and can help treat generalized anxiety disorder in similarly dramatic fashion.
So how does gratitude improve health?  On one level, it helps people to sleep better.  Since disturbed sleep is linked to almost all mental illnesses, factors that improve sleep tend to alleviate some of these disorders.  A 2009 study of 401 people— 40% of whom had clinical sleep disorders— found that the most grateful people had better sleep quality, normalized sleep duration (not too long or too short), were able to fall asleep faster at night and also had less daytime tiredness compared to those who weren’t as thankful.
The key to reaping gratitude’s benefits seemed to involve what people thought about as they tried to fall asleep:  while grateful folks accentuated the positive, the others were consumed by worries and fears.  So mentally counting blessings before drifting off can help fight anxiety and depression, not just by replacing depressive and anxious thoughts but by making refreshing sleep easier to attain.
The most common ways to improve gratitude— making “gratitude lists” or keeping a daily diary focused on the things you are grateful for — build on this positive-focused thinking and are often a critical part of 12-step programs for addictions.
And they are effective, as a study tracking feelings of thanks and school satisfaction among a group of sixth and seventh graders showed. In the study, 221 children were assigned to write either a daily list of five things they were most grateful for, or of the hassles they experienced, or no list at all. The gratitude group reported greater satisfaction with school three weeks later compared to the other kids, especially those who focused on hassles.  That’s a potentially significant benefit since contentment at school is linked to academic performance and dissatisfaction is correlated with antisocial behavior like drinking and drug use. The authors write, “[T]hese findings suggest that gratitude has both immediate and long-term effects on positive psychological functioning.”
And those effects may be self-sustaining to a certain extent as well. One study found that compared to those who didn’t experience extensive thankfulness, grateful people saw the help they received from others as being more costly to the giver and more valuable to themselves. In addition, they also interpreted deeper expressions of kindness and caring from these acts.  These perceptions are likely to make people behave more gratefully towards others — since if you perceive the help you receive as being of little worth and primarily the result of self interest, you are less likely to be appreciative.
That may explain why gratefulness is a desirable trait in friends and colleagues, and why attempts to become more grateful can be an important part of improving many relationships.
So while it’s easy to focus on grievances during the hectic holiday season, try introducing a little gratefulness instead. Sure, there may be a bit of selfishness in that, since you may be motivated primarily to improve your own health, but it turns out that gratitude can change your perspective — in a contagious way that may ultimately help more than just you alone


Read more: http://healthland.time.com/2012/11/22/why-gratitude-isnt-just-for-thanksgiving/#ixzz2DIS1pqnd

Friday, November 9, 2012

The Neuroscience of Looking on the Bright Side

Source: http://www.livescience.com/17848-neuroscience-optimism-human-brain.html 
 

The Neuroscience of Looking on the Bright Side

Date: 10 January 2012 Time: 06:26 PM ET
Cooperation-sa
happy kids smiling
Scientists are figuring out the neural processes involved in our rose-colored views of the future in the face of reality.
CREDIT: Dmitriy Shironosov | shutterstock
Ask a bride before walking down the aisle "How likely are you to get divorced?" and most will respond "Not a chance!" Tell her that the average divorce rate is close to 50 percent, and ask again. Would she change her mind? Unlikely. Even law students who have learned everything about the legal aspects of divorce, including its likelihood, state that their own chances of getting divorced are basically nil. How can we explain this?
Psychologists have documented human optimism for decades. They have learned that people generally overestimate their likelihood of experiencing positive events, such as winning the lottery, and underestimate their likelihood of experiencing negative events, such as being involved in an accident or suffering from cancer. Informing people about their statistical likelihood of experiencing negative events, such as divorce, is surprisingly ineffective at altering their optimistic predictions, and highlighting previously unknown risk factors for diseases fails to engender realistic perceptions of medical vulnerability. How can people maintain their rose-colored views of the future in the face of reality? Which neural processes are involved in people's optimistic predictions?
To answer these questions we have investigated optimism by using a recent, burgeoning approach in neuroscience: Describing neural activity related to complex behavior with the simple concept of "prediction errors." Prediction errors are the brain’s way of keeping track of how well it is doing at predicting what is going to happen in the future.

The concept of prediction errors was initially put forward in research on artificial intelligence. By now, scientists have used the basic concept of prediction errors in several domains and have come up with various ways of describing prediction errors in mathematical equations. Let me give you the basics without any mathematics: Imagine your granny tells you that she will give you some money next time she visits. You estimate how much money she will give you, maybe 10, maybe 100 dollars depending on how rich (and generous) your granny is. When she gives you the money you will not only be happy about the money but you will also see how much your prediction differed from what you actually got; in other words, you calculate a prediction error. Knowing this prediction error will help you to estimate how much money you will get the next time your granny comes along. It’s an essential part of learning, and the brain is doing it all the time.
How have neuroscientists employed the idea of prediction errors to study brain activity? In dozens of studies, researchers have looked for and identified brain regions that are related to the calculation of prediction errors. They do this in various ways, but the typical experiment consists of having participants gamble for money on computerized versions of slot machines. At the same time, participants’ brains are monitored in functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanners.
Interestingly, similar patterns of brain activity seem to be at play when participants gamble for money and when they engage in complex social interactions. For example, in our everyday life, we often have to track how good or bad the advice of another person is. Timothy Behrens and colleagues from Oxford University used prediction errors to model how humans incorporate advice from social partners into their decisions. Participants repeatedly had to choose which one of two options would yield a higher reward. Before they made their decision, they saw which option another person would advise them to choose. So participants had to form prediction errors for two types of information: non-social (how rewarding are the two options) and social (how good is the other person’s advice). The two kinds of prediction errors were processed in a similar fashion, suggesting conceptual links between processing social and non-social information.
Prediction errors also appear to be involved in another common human social behavior, when we find out whether another person likes us or not. In a recent study by Rebecca Jones and colleagues from Cornell University, participants learned how often unknown peers wanted to interact with them by seeing how often these peers sent them "Facebook-like" notes. Prediction errors captured the difference between participants' expectation of receiving a note and actually getting one. Similar to the Behrens study above, prediction error signals were related to brain activity commonly involved in learning about how likely non-social outcomes such as money are to be experienced.
How can prediction errors help us to understand optimism? Tali Sharot, Ray Dolan and I conducted a study at University College London to investigate how people maintain their optimistic predictions. Participants estimated their likelihood of experiencing 80 negative events including various diseases and criminal acts. They then saw the statistical likelihoods of these events happening to an average person of their age. We then measured how much participants updated their predictions by having them re-estimate their personal likelihoods of experiencing these 80 adverse life events. When given good news -- i.e., a bad outcome is not as likely as you thought -- people responded strongly. But given bad news, they tended to change their prediction only a little bit.  Importantly, distinct brain regions seemed to be related to prediction errors for good and bad news about the future. Interestingly, the more optimistic a participant was the less efficiently one of these regions coded for undesirable information. Thus, the bias in how errors are processed in the brain can account for the tendency to maintain rose-colored views.
Still, a word of caution to avoid being too optimistic is warranted. Neuroscience won’t tell us anytime soon everything that's going on in the mind of a bride walking down the aisle.
Christoph W. Korn is a third year PhD student at the Freie Universit├Ąt Berlin and the Berlin School of Mind and Brain. He studies how the human brain integrates information that is relevant in social settings.
Are you a scientist who specializes in neuroscience, cognitive science, or psychology? And have you read a recent peer-reviewed paper that you would like to write about? Please send suggestions to Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist at the Boston Globe. He can be reached at garethideas AT gmail.com or Twitter @garethideas.
This article was first published on Scientific American. © 2011 ScientificAmerican.com. All rights reserved. Follow Scientific American on Twitter @SciAm and @SciamBlogs. Visit ScientificAmerican.com for the latest in science, health and technology news.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Puppy Love: Pet Owners Are Happier, Healthier (livescience)

http://www.livescience.com/14983-cat-dog-mental-health.html
 

Puppy Love: Pet Owners Are Happier, Healthier

Date: 11 July 2011 Time: 01:40 PM ET
dog, pet, puppy

CREDIT: Caroline Kjall/stock.xchng
Pets are good sources of social and emotional support for everyone, not just people facing health challenges, new research suggests.
"We observed evidence that pet owners fared better, both in terms of well-being outcomes and individual differences, than nonowners on several dimensions,” study researcher Allen McConnell, of Miami University in Ohio, said in a statement. “Specifically, pet owners had greater self-esteem, were more physically fit, tended to be less lonely, were more conscientious, were more extroverted, tended to be less fearful and tended to be less preoccupied than nonowners.” [America's Favorite Pets]
Pet ownership has been on the rise the last few decades. A study in 2006 by the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association determined that about two-thirds of American households (71.1 million) have at least one pet. In comparison, 56 percent of households had a pet in 1988, the first year the survey was conducted.

McConnell's group conducted several studies of pet owners.
First they surveyed 217 people, determining differences between pet owners and nonowners in terms of well-being, personality type and attachment style. They found that pet owners were happier, healthier and better adjusted than were nonowners.
The researchers then studied 56 dog owners, finding that pet owners who thought their dogs increased their feelings of belonging, self-esteem and meaningful existence had greater well-being than those who didn't perceive that their pet fulfilled their social needs.
They then asked 96 pet owners who were undergraduates to remember and write about a time they were excluded. They were then asked to either write about their favorite pet, their favorite friend or to draw a map of their college campus. Both writing about a pet or a friend reduced the feelings of rejection brought forth by thinking about being excluded. Surprisingly, both pets and friends staved off the feelings of rejection equally.
All in all, the researchers found that even healthy people benefit from pets. Pet owners are just as close to key people in their lives as to their animals, which serve as important sources of social and emotional support.
“The present work presents considerable evidence that pets benefit the lives of their owners, both psychologically and physically, by serving as an important source of social support,” the researchers wrote in the paper, published online by the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. “Whereas past work has focused primarily on pet owners facing significant health challenges … the present study establishes that there are many positive consequences for everyday people.”
You can follow LiveScience staff writer Jennifer Welsh on Twitter @microbelover. Follow LiveScience for the latest in science news and discoveries on Twitter @livescience and on Facebook.

For the Pet Lovers Out There

Instant pick me up:

http://theoatmeal.com/comics/dog_paradox

The Happinizing © Factors

Today I start my happinizing © journal! I am convinced (as per my research) that happiness is a skill- and thus needs conscious, purposeful, and concerted effort. I have looked at the studies, countless articles, and am still working out the details of my happinizing © equation- but here are some of the factors that I have worked out so far. November being the month of gratitude, this would be a great project for you to start for yourself as well! The great thing is that this is so easy! You will literally be reshaping your brain, to make a you an overall happier person, and you will also literally be adding years to your life and be an overall happier + healthier person!

So, here's *my equation:

H (D/W) = E^2, C, M + 3Gs ©

Here's what each of the factors mean-

H (D/W) = happiness/happinizing steps you must purposefully take on a daily or weekly basis.

E^2 = the two Es, Exercise (3 times a week min, 30mins of cardio each time) and Eat well (healthy balanced diet with lots of omega 3s). Also, there are countless studies, all which talk about how bad sitting is for you- thus, I recommend that we start using standing desks more, or at the very least, take  a walking break every hour after you've been sitting behind your desk. Really, this will add years to your life.

CAK = Conscious Acts of Kindness. Go out, volunteer, write one nice email to a friend or coworker a day, do something nice for someone else for a change! It will release some dopamine into your brain and make you (and them) feel happier!

M = Meditate! I was shocked at all the studies that are out there that speak wonders about the power of meditation. Among the types of meditating you can do, I would recommend working on empathy and kindness meditation. This literally activates different parts of your brain, and makes you better at empathizing and being a compassionate human being. Also, as we read above in CAK, helping others releases dopamine, thus making you feel all warm and fuzzy inside.

+ = Be positive!! Again, this sort of goes along with the 3Gs, but here write down three positive things that happened during your day. It will make much better at focusing on the rosier parts of life, regardless of how bad life may be at the moment.

3Gs = Always, before going to sleep, think of 3 things that happened that specific day that you are thankful for. Jot them down in your happinizing/gratitude journal, and really think about why you are grateful for them. Try to focus on intrinsic, and not extrinsic happiness factors, as intrinsic ones give you more bang for your buck.
*****
Now, there are also H factors that are more of reminders to keep in mind as we go through life. There's 3 factors to remember here: SPY

1)  S = foster/maintain your Social networks. Do NOT neglect your loved ones, whether this means friends, family, significant others, etc. You need to have a social network for when the going gets rough, and also people who will be there to celebrate life's big and small victories with you!

2) P = PLAY! Remember that we live in a tiny little planet that is part of this huge universe. We have about 70-100 years to live in it, don't be one of those people that when their time was up, and they looked back, they realized they had spent their whole lives working, and never focusing on the things that really made them happy. So yes, make a concerted effort to make play time part of your daily or weekly routine!

3) Y = be you!! Don't spend your life focusing on what others want you to do. This is your privileged time to be on earth, so use it as YOU want. Say no to peer/social pressure, and do the things that you want to do.

Happinize on my friends, and thrive!

*and yes, this is my intellectual property since I have been working on bringing all these factors together to make happinizing as easy as possible- so no, you can't go out and publish a book on it...already on it ;)