Monday, October 27, 2014

One Simple Change to Your Morning Commute Will Make You a Happier Person

Source: John Minchillo/AP

According to their findings, talking to other people during your daily commute actually makes you happier.

The science

Researchers split groups of participating mass transit commuters into two groups: one that was instructed to communicate with people and one that was instructed to stay isolated.

The researchers noted the results were the opposite of what the commuters expected. The group asked to be talkative expected to enjoy their commute less and the group asked to be silent and distant expected to enjoy their commute more.

According to the study, this is most likely explained by the predilection toward solitude "stem[ming] partly from underestimating others' interest in connecting, which in turn keeps people from learning the actual consequences of social interaction."

So basically, we want to connect with other people, but we're afraid that nobody else wants to. This prevents us from reaching out and learning how enriching conversation and emotional connections can be. 

As the study notes, "human beings are social animals. Those who misunderstand the consequences of social interactions may not, in at least some contexts, be social enough for their own well-being." 

The takeaway 

Americans took 10.7 billion trips on public transportation last year, the highest number in over half a century. It's not hard to believe most of those trips were silent, isolated journeys with people packed into subway cars or buses, idly staring at the floor instead of talking to one another. 

In a society where depression and other mood disorders are constantly on the rise, talking to another person even for just a few minutes could be a ray of light in an otherwise drab day. Take your headphones off. Put the book away. Talk to someone.

Matt Saccaro

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Why Our Happiness and Satisfaction Should Replace GDP in Policy-Making

English: Happiness Gate in Weihai,Shandong,China.
Happiness Gate in Weihai, Shandong,China (Wikipedia)
by Richard A. Easterlin, University of Southern California

Since 1990, GDP per person in China has doubled and then redoubled.

With average incomes multiplying fourfold in little more than two decades, one might expect many of the Chinese people to be dancing in the streets.

Yet, when asked about their satisfaction with life, they are, if anything, less satisfied than in 1990.

The disparity indicated by these two measures of human progress, Gross Domestic Product and Subjective Well Being (SWB), makes pretty plain the issue at hand. GDP, the well-being indicator commonly used in policy circles, signals an outstanding advance in China.

SWB, as indicated by self-reports of overall satisfaction with life, suggests, if anything, a worsening of people’s lives. Which measure is a more meaningful index of well-being? Which is a better guide for public policy?

A few decades ago, economists - the most influential social scientists shaping public policy - would have said that the SWB result for China demonstrates the meaninglessness of self-reports of well-being. Economic historian Deirdre McCloskey, writing in 1983, aptly put the typical attitude of economists this way:
Unlike other social scientists, economists are extremely hostile towards questionnaires and other self-descriptions … one can literally get an audience of economists to laugh out loud by proposing ironically to send out a questionnaire on some disputed economic point. Economists … are unthinkingly committed to the notion that only the externally observable behaviour of actors is admissible evidence in arguments concerning economics.
Culture clash

Walking the walk. Sarko opened the door to SWB. Number 10, CC BY-ND

But times have changed. A commission established by the then French president, Nicolas Sarkozy in 2008 and charged with recommending alternatives to GDP as a measure of progress, stated bluntly (my emphasis):
Research has shown that it is possible to collect meaningful and reliable data on subjective as well as objective well-being … the types of questions that have proved their value within small-scale and unofficial surveys should be included in larger-scale surveys undertaken by official statistical offices.
This 25-member commission was comprised almost entirely of economists, five of whom had won the Nobel Prize in economics. Two of the five co-chaired the commission.

These days the tendency with new measures of our well-being - such as life satisfaction and happiness - is to propose that they be used as a complement to GDP.

But what is one to do when confronted with such a stark difference between SWB and GDP, as in China? What should one say? People in China are better off than ever before, people are no better off than before, or “it depends”?


To decide this issue, we need to delve deeper into what has happened in China. When we do that, the superiority of SWB becomes apparent: it can capture the multiple dimensions of people’s lives. GDP, in contrast, focuses exclusively on the output of material goods.

People everywhere in the world spend most of their time trying to earn a living and raise a healthy family. The easier it is for them to do this, the happier they are.

This is the lesson of a 1965 classic, The Pattern of Human Concerns, by public opinion survey specialist Hadley Cantril.

In the 12 countries - rich and poor, communist and non-communist - that Cantril surveyed, the same highly personal concerns dominated determinants of happiness: standard of living, family, health and work. Broad social issues such as inequality, discrimination and international relations, were rarely mentioned.

Going against the grain. Andres Rodriguez, CC BY

Urban China in 1990 was essentially a mini-welfare state. Workers had what has been called an “iron rice bowl” - they were assured of jobs, housing, medical services, pensions, childcare and jobs for their grown children.

With the coming of capitalism, and “restructuring” of state enterprises, the iron rice bowl was smashed and these assurances went out the window. Unemployment soared and the social safety net disappeared. The security that workers had enjoyed was gone and the result was that life satisfaction plummeted, especially among the less-educated, lower-income segments of the population.

Although working conditions have improved somewhat in the past decade, the shortfall from the security enjoyed in 1990 remains substantial. The positive effect on well-being of rising incomes has been negated by rapidly rising material aspirations and the emergence of urgent concerns about income and job security, family, and health.

The case to replace

Examples of the disparity between SWB and GDP as measures of well-being could easily be multiplied. Since the early 1970s real GDP per capita in the US has doubled, but SWB has, if anything, declined.

In international comparisons, Costa Rica’s per capita GDP is a quarter of that in the US, but Costa Ricans are as happy or happier than Americans when we look at SWB data. Clearly there is more to people’s well-being that the output of goods.

There are some simple, yet powerful arguments to say that we should use SWB in preference to GDP, not just as a complement. For a start, those SWB measures like happiness or life satisfaction are more comprehensive than GDP. They take into account the effect on well-being not just of material living conditions, but of the wide range of concerns in our lives.

It is also key that with SWB, the judgement of well-being is made by the individuals affected. GDP’s reliance on outside statistical “experts” to make inferences based on a measure they themselves construct looks deeply flawed when viewed in comparison.

These judgements by outsiders also lie behind the growing number of multiple-item measures being put forth these days. An example is the United Nations’ Human Development Index (HDI) which attempts to combine data on GDP with indexes of education and life expectancy.

But people do not identify with measures like HDI (or GDP, of course) to anywhere near the extent that they do with straightforward questions of happiness and satisfaction with life. And crucially, these SWB measures offer each adult a vote and only one vote, whether they are rich or poor, sick or well, native or foreign-born.

This is not to say that, as measures of well-being go, SWB is the last word, but clearly it comes closer to capturing what is actually happening to people’s lives than GDP ever will. The question is whether policy makers actually want to know.

This article is part of an ongoing series called Beyond GDP. You can also read:

How to shape economic policy when we move beyond GDP
The Conversation

Richard A. Easterlin does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

A Radical’s Guide to Long-Term Reputation Management

2. It follows that you will eventually offend a significant swathe of the population, but be sure that you explicitly signal those in whose name you claim to speak. In other words, strategically polarize the audience to your advantage.
3. But be sure that over time you adapt your message to attitude change, so that you continue to polarize in just the right way. This invariably involves massaging the original meanings of crucial terms in your message to create just the right level of dissatisfaction with the status quo, as the occasion demands.
4. It helps to write a lot so as to present this shift as seamlessly as possible. A diary is especially good at portraying self-consistency and a sense of purpose across the vicissitudes of events, over which one has no substantial control.
Paradigm case? 
UK Labour politician, Tony Benn. Over a political career that spanned more than a half-century, he was always just ‘radical’ enough to keep self-affirmed radicals of the time engaged but never too radical that he dropped off the political radar entirely. The presence of a continuous self-narrative throughout created the appearance of a ‘man of principle’.
Others may wish to reach other judgements about this life strategy, but in Benn’s case it resulted in a soft landing at death, so that the obituaries waxed nostalgic about what might have been rather than focusing on what in retrospect look like a bull-headed refusal to see the political possibilities that were opened up by admitting error.
And that’s the point of my calling this post a ‘radical’s guide to long-term reputation management’. Benn was dead wrong on so many things, yet his reputation survives.
(I am writing this partly because the ‘Blue Labour’ people who track UKIP’s ‘Little England’ policies with inordinate interest may be tempted to revive the spectre of Tony Benn).

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Age of Loneliness is Killing Us

by The Guardian:

Man sitting on a bench under a tree
‘Social isolation is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Loneliness is twice as deadly as obesity.’ Photograph: Feri Lukas/Rex

What do we call this time? It’s not the information age: the collapse of popular education movements left a void filled by marketing and conspiracy theories. Like the stone age, iron age and space age, the digital age says plenty about our artefacts but little about society.

The anthropocene, in which humans exert a major impact on the biosphere, fails to distinguish this century from the previous 20. What clear social change marks out our time from those that precede it? To me it’s obvious. This is the Age of Loneliness.

When Thomas Hobbes claimed that in the state of nature, before authority arose to keep us in check, we were engaged in a war “of every man against every man”, he could not have been more wrong. We were social creatures from the start, mammalian bees, who depended entirely on each other.

The hominins of east Africa could not have survived one night alone. We are shaped, to a greater extent than almost any other species, by contact with others. The age we are entering, in which we exist apart, is unlike any that has gone before.

Three months ago we read that loneliness has become an epidemic among young adults. Now we learn that it is just as great an affliction of older people. A study by Independent Age shows that severe loneliness in England blights the lives of 700,000 men and 1.1m women over 50, and is rising with astonishing speed.

Ebola is unlikely ever to kill as many people as this disease strikes down. Social isolation is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day; loneliness, research suggests, is twice as deadly as obesity.

Dementia, high blood pressure, alcoholism and accidents - all these, like depression, paranoia, anxiety and suicide, become more prevalent when connections are cut. We cannot cope alone.

Yes, factories have closed, people travel by car instead of buses, use YouTube rather than the cinema. But these shifts alone fail to explain the speed of our social collapse.

These structural changes have been accompanied by a life-denying ideology, which enforces and celebrates our social isolation. The war of every man against every man - competition and individualism, in other words - is the religion of our time, justified by a mythology of lone rangers, sole traders, self-starters, self-made men and women, going it alone.

For the most social of creatures, who cannot prosper without love, there is no such thing as society, only heroic individualism. What counts is to win. The rest is collateral damage.

British children no longer aspire to be train drivers or nurses - more than a fifth say they “just want to be rich”: wealth and fame are the sole ambitions of 40% of those surveyed.

A government study in June revealed that Britain is the loneliness capital of Europe. We are less likely than other Europeans to have close friends or to know our neighbours. Who can be surprised, when everywhere we are urged to fight like stray dogs over a dustbin?

We have changed our language to reflect this shift. Our most cutting insult is loser. We no longer talk about people. Now we call them individuals. So pervasive has this alienating, atomising term become that even the charities fighting loneliness use it to describe the bipedal entities formerly known as human beings.

We can scarcely complete a sentence without getting personal. Personally speaking (to distinguish myself from a ventriloquist’s dummy), I prefer personal friends to the impersonal variety and personal belongings to the kind that don’t belong to me. Though that’s just my personal preference, otherwise known as my preference.

One of the tragic outcomes of loneliness is that people turn to their televisions for consolation: two-fifths of older people report that the one-eyed god is their principal company. This self-medication aggravates the disease.

Research by economists at the University of Milan suggests that television helps to drive competitive aspiration. It strongly reinforces the income-happiness paradox: the fact that, as national incomes rise, happiness does not rise with them.

Aspiration, which increases with income, ensures that the point of arrival, of sustained satisfaction, retreats before us. The researchers found that those who watch a lot of TV derive less satisfaction from a given level of income than those who watch only a little.

TV speeds up the hedonic treadmill, forcing us to strive even harder to sustain the same level of satisfaction. You have only to think of the wall-to-wall auctions on daytime TV, Dragon’s Den, the Apprentice and the myriad forms of career-making competition the medium celebrates, the generalised obsession with fame and wealth, the pervasive sense, in watching it, that life is somewhere other than where you are, to see why this might be.

So what’s the point? What do we gain from this war of all against all? Competition drives growth, but growth no longer makes us wealthier.

Figures published this week show that, while the income of company directors has risen by more than a fifth, wages for the workforce as a whole have fallen in real terms over the past year. The bosses earn - sorry, I mean take - 120 times more than the average full-time worker (in 2000, it was 47 times).

And even if competition did make us richer, it would make us no happier, as the satisfaction derived from a rise in income would be undermined by the aspirational impacts of competition.

The top 1% own 48% of global wealth, but even they aren’t happy. A survey by Boston College of people with an average net worth of $78m found that they too were assailed by anxiety, dissatisfaction and loneliness.

Many of them reported feeling financially insecure: to reach safe ground, they believed, they would need, on average, about 25% more money (and if they got it? They’d doubtless need another 25%). One respondent said he wouldn’t get there until he had $1bn in the bank.

For this, we have ripped the natural world apart, degraded our conditions of life, surrendered our freedoms and prospects of contentment to a compulsive, atomising, joyless hedonism, in which, having consumed all else, we start to prey upon ourselves. For this, we have destroyed the essence of humanity: our connectedness.

Yes, there are palliatives, clever and delightful schemes like Men in Sheds and Walking Football developed by charities for isolated older people. But if we are to break this cycle and come together once more, we must confront the world-eating, flesh-eating system into which we have been forced.

Hobbes’s pre-social condition was a myth. But we are entering a post-social condition our ancestors would have believed impossible. Our lives are becoming nasty, brutish and long.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Children Need to Play Outdoors, but We're Not Letting Them

English: Play Park It's eight o'clock in the m...
Play Park (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
by Shelby Gull Laird and Laura McFarland-Piazza

Earlier this year, an American mother was arrested for allowing her nine year old daughter to play unsupervised in a park while she finished her shift at work. Even though this story got a lot of press, it is not a standalone event.

Recently, there has been a rash of cases reported where parents have been arrested for allowing children to play in the park alone, walk to the park alone, and even just play unsupervised right outside their own home.

There’s growing evidence that unsupervised outdoor play is vital for children’s development and connection to nature. There’s also evidence that children today spend much less time outdoors than their parents did.

So, if we’re arresting parents rather than encouraging them to let their children play unsupervised, what does this mean for our kids?

Our mothers all should have been arrested

Although many of these cases come from the United States, the practice of police intervention in unsupervised time for children is not unheard of in Australia, with police around Sydney threatening to report parents of children seen walking alone.

Most of these “crimes” involve another parent or adult complaining about a lack of supervision. These “crimes” all involve allowing children do something that was commonplace only a generation ago - going outside on their own.

Although these headlines causes many of us to scratch our heads, a recent poll from the US indicates that many parents do think that allowing children to play outside alone should be a crime.

Where did this thinking come from? Don’t most of us have memories from our own childhood of playing outside and exploring without an army of helicopter parents watching over us? If allowing children to freely play outside unsupervised was considered a crime when we were children, wouldn’t most of our parents be in jail?

Back in the good old days …

According to Richard Louv, children today do not get enough free play outdoors, resulting in “nature-deficit disorder”, where people lose a connection with the natural world. Why do many of us have fond memories of climbing trees and walking to the pond to fish for yabbies (without an adult in sight), whereas children today seem to be lacking in such experiences?

Distances children are allowed to roam have shrunk over several generations. A report in 2007 out of the UK illustrates this point through mapping the distances travelled at age 8 over four generations. Children are indeed spending more sedentary time indoors engaged with technology.

Reasons for this include a loss of open outdoor space, families' busy schedules, an emphasis on structured team sports, over-reliance on electronic media for entertainment, and a “culture of fear”, in which people are afraid to go outside. Often this fear is due to heavy media coverage of violent events involving children.

Our own research published this week, which includes a small sample of parents and early childhood educators, shows that even though unsupervised play outdoors was a fond memory for many parents, it is something they do not list as an opportunity they provide for their own children. Why not?

Even though some parents understand the value of outdoor play, they can still be wary of “stranger-danger” and other perceived risks.

Data on kidnapping risk, particularly in Australia is hard to find. We estimate from 2013 ABS data that the risk of a child under 14 being kidnapped (by anyone, including relatives and people known to the child) is about 1 out of 22890.

The risks of accidents or kidnapping are no higher today that they were 30 years ago in the US and it is likely this would hold true in Australia as well if data were available.

Although media often hype up the idea of “stranger danger”, children are actually more likely to have a heart attack than they are to be kidnapped by a stranger.

Free the children

There are many benefits to unsupervised outdoor play and experiences in nature, including a reduction in obesity and the symptoms of anxiety, depression and ADHD. Research has shown that children learn self-control over their own actions and decisions in this time alone without their parents.

Without time unsupervised, children may not develop a sense of self-control or an ability to judge and manage risk on their own. By keeping our children locked up inside, we’re basically conducting a large uncontrolled experiment on our own kids where the consequences are unclear.

More research is needed on the benefits of unsupervised outdoor play. Certainly the answer is not to arrest mothers for letting their children play outside. Arresting parents is sure to be traumatic for children and families and has more negative consequences than letting a child play alone in a park. Shouldn’t children have a right to participate in free play outdoors?

One move in the right direction could be to develop a greater sense of community in our neighbourhoods. By knowing our neighbours and interacting positively with those around us (before calling the police), we can create a better and safer environment in which our children can thrive.
The Conversation

The authors do not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article. They also have no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Mindfulness: How to Be in the Moment ... Right Here, Right Now

Cover of "In the Moment"
Cover of In the Moment
by Maarten Immink, University of South Australia
Remember then: there is only one time that is important - now! It is the most important time because it is the only time when we have any power.
This quote by Leo Tolstoy in What Men Live By and Other Tales is valuable wisdom and a fitting prompt for us to take this moment to intentionally direct our attention to what is actually happening now.

You might begin to notice the variety of sights and sounds in your environment. Within your space you can then become aware of your body, its posture and all of its sensations such as those coming from skin, muscles, organs and so on.

Take this moment to tune into your breath, noticing the natural process of breathing in and out. Notice the sensations and movements associated with breathing - in your lungs, chest and abdomen, for example.

Keep breathing naturally as you now observe your current feelings or the quality of your emotions. You can also take notice of your thoughts, accepting them as they are, rather than dismissing or altering them.

Right now you have an opportunity to just be. Pause and grant yourself a short break. Gently close your eyes, if appropriate, and for a few quiet minutes be still. Follow the above suggestions to openly explore your body, breath, feelings and thoughts at this moment. Begin now and then read on when you are done.

Well done! You have just completed a short mindfulness exercise. For those who declined the invitation, there is still time to go back and have that experience.

What is mindfulness?

Mindfulness is commonly defined as paying purposeful attention to one’s moment-to-moment experience in a non-judgemental and accepting way.

Mindfulness can be considered to be a natural capacity of the human mind. But because we typically shape our mind to wander and be distracted, mindfulness must be cultivated by regularly engaging in techniques that explicitly promote paying attention to the moment.

Increasing mindfulness has a number of benefits including improved psychological well-being and reduced symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Mindfulness techniques can be applied to day-to-day routines. Basilievich/Flickr, CC BY

Accordingly, there has recently been a dramatic uptake of mindfulness training by individuals seeking to improve their health and well-being or to improve their performance in education, sport or corporate settings.

But as promising as the benefits of mindfulness seem to be, the research evidence supporting its efficacy is not conclusive. We don’t yet understand how exactly it works.

One line of thought is based on the capacity of the practices to change the brain in ways that lead to increased attention and cognitive abilities. These changes arise because the techniques of mindfulness emphasise the use of regions of the brain responsible for attentiveness, discernment and behaviour control.

By strengthening these faculties, the brain is better able to regulate emotions and stress. It also becomes better at higher-order processes like divergent thinking, which is an element of creativity. Researchers are exploring other potential benefits. This year, for example, my colleagues and I published research on the quality of life and emotional well-being benefits of mindfulness development for stroke survivors.

One common debilitating consequence of stroke and other neurological conditions, such as multiple sclerosis, is fatigue. My research review provides preliminary evidence that mindfulness-based interventions may reduce the symptoms of fatigue in those living neurological conditions.

Other researchers are investigating the benefits of mindfulness interventions for chronic fatigue syndrome, cancer-related fatigue and management of chronic pain. More broadly, research is exploring how mindfulness can support lifestyle changes as part of treatment of medical conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease.

Getting started

Although mindfulness is considered to be relatively safe, before starting out, those with an existing physical or mental health condition should first talk to a health professional. Mindfulness practices should not replace or delay conventional health care.

A variety of techniques can be used to cultivate mindfulness. Some involve purposeful movements such as yoga asana or tai chi, while others are meditation-based. No conclusive evidence indicates that one technique is superior to another.

The technique must emphasise mindfulness development at a level appropriate to one’s experience and preference. Beyond that, participation and outcomes are determined by intention, motivation, expectations and attitudes.

It’s important to get regular practice. Mitchell Joyce/Flickr, CC BY-NC

It is common for people to learn a mindfulness technique by completing a mindfulness course. They then integrate the technique into their daily routine. Regularity of practice is important, even if it is for just a few minutes each day.

As with any skill, learning mindfulness can be quite frustrating. For many, this is the significant barrier to their practice. Working with frustration, or boredom, often provides the initial important lessons of mindfulness.

A well-trained and experienced instructor will ensure the novice is well supported and receives adequate feedback on their progress. And the rapport between instructor and trainee is increasingly being recognised as another important factor developing mindfulness.

In summary, the best way to learn about mindfulness is to practise it. As Albert Einstein said:
Learning is experience. Everything else is just information.
The Conversation
Maarten A. Immink is an accredited yoga and meditation instructor. He has received research funding from the National Stroke Foundation and the Medical Advances Without Animals Trust.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.