Friday, August 29, 2014

5 Simple Exercises to Break your Patterns

English: Albert Einstein, official 1921 Nobel ...
Albert Einstein, 1921 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
by Influencer, Speaker innovation. Founder FORTH innovation method, Linked In: https://www.linkedin.com/today/post/article/20140827123437-206580-5-simple-exercises-to-break-your-patterns

It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.

This wonderful quote of Leon C. Megginson is still so relevant in our fast changing world. That's why it's important for you to break your routines once in a while and be innovative at work. In practice however we're pretty much stuck in our habits.

Why is it so difficult to break our routines? It's hard because our brain is programmed to recognize patterns and to respond automatically. That's why you don't think anymore on 'how to drive a car', 'which route to take to the office' or 'how to log in to your computer'.

The Indian business tycoon, Azim Premji once said: "When the rate of change outside is more than what is inside, be sure that the end is near." So learning to break your patterns is essential in leading your organization to change.

First of all, I like to suggest 5 simple practical exercises to help you become aware of your pattern:

1. Try to write with your other hand, just for one minute. Do you notice how strange and difficult this actually is?
2. Take a different daily route to work. You will be amazed what you discover on your way.
3. Wear your watch on your other hand for a day. It will feel strange, which is a great reminder for you to be more flexible.
4. Go to your favorite restaurant. Now really look around and observe. You will see things you really never noticed before.
5. Reach out to one new person per day at work during a week. Pick once person a day, you never talked to before, reach out to him or her and ask them what's on their mind.

Of course these exercises only make you aware of how strong your habits are. Once you became aware of them and your mind is open for change, you might take it a step further.

You have similar habits in your work: in the way you design your products/services, the way you deliver them to (internal) customers and the way you work together with your colleagues.

Start to stimulate breakthrough thinking at work, by asking yourself (or your team) questions like:
  • What would we do if we were a new start-up company?
  • What would we do if we had unlimited access to money and resources?
  • Or if we had on the other hand no access to money or resources at all?
  • What would Google do?
  • What would we do if the law would forbid our present products/services?
Be sure to defer your judgment and to elaborate on the ideas that emerge instead of killing them right away. “If at first the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it” [Albert Einstein].

The Extraordinary Benefits of Learning Music

Deutsch: Carlos Santana am 21. Januar 2000 in ...
Carlos Santana (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
by , Life Hack: http://www.lifehack.org/articles/communication/the-extraordinary-benefits-learning-music.html

Music has a language of its own; it defies all boundaries and soothes jagged nerves.

Unfortunately, music education has been losing steam over the years with technology taking center-stage.

Did you know that you can condition your brain more effectively for discipline and active engagement by learning music? Did you also know that learning music can make you better at math?

It’s been observed that the students who learn music at an early age are more likely to excel in other extracurricular activities. They are also three times more likely to earn a bachelor’s degree.

This infographic by Music Education paints a clear picture of what you can achieve when you take up a comprehensive music education. Music doesn’t just enrich your soul, it also sharpens your mind!
 Music education


Thursday, August 28, 2014

Warwickshire Man Nose-Pushes Brussels Sprout Up Mount Snowdon

Stuart Kettell pushing a sprout up a hill
Stuart Kettell completed his challenge at about 13:30 BST on Saturday
by BBC News: http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-coventry-warwickshire-28621775

A man has completed his challenge to push a Brussels Sprout up Snowdon using his nose.

Stuart Kettell, from Balsall Common in the West Midlands, started out on Wednesday and reached the 1,085m (3,560ft) summit in three days.

The 49-year-old trained for his charity mission by pushing a sprout around his garden with his nose. Mr Kettell said he selected a large sprout so it would not fall down a crevice in the rock.

His aim was to collect at least £5,000 in sponsorship for Macmillan Cancer Support, but does not yet know how much he has raised. "People definitely think I'm mad, and I'm beginning to think it myself," he said.

Mr Kettell, who has previously raised money by staying inside a box for a week, said this latest challenge was the most uncomfortable yet. "It hurt my arms, my legs, my feet, my knees and my neck," he said.

Stuart Kettell with a guard on his face Stuart Kettell wore a special faceguard to protect as much of his skin as possible

The Road to Failure is Paved With Good Intentions: Here's How to Turn Them into Action

Sign up some mates, run by Shutterstock
by Derek Koehler, University of Waterloo

Take a moment to think of a task you wish to accomplish in the next three months.

It should be something specific like clearing out your backyard, or completing an online course, so that you could judge, definitively, if and when it has been completed. As you think about it right now, how likely would you say it is that you will finish the task by the end of autumn?

Chances are, your prediction is too optimistic: you are less likely to finish the task than you think you are.

My colleagues and I conducted a telephone survey in which respondents were asked to nominate either a household task (painting the living room) or a leisure activity (taking a weekend getaway) they wished to complete within the next three months. When asked about their likelihood of success, on average respondents gave themselves a two-thirds chance.

Had their predictions been accurate, when we contacted them again three months later we should have found that two-thirds of respondents had completed the task or activity, but in fact fewer than one third (31%) had done so. We found similar results when we interviewed shoppers exiting a hardware store: they overestimated the likelihood that the project they were shopping for would be completed within the next month.

Our research suggests that self-predictions tend to be too optimistic because people base them on their current intentions without considering how readily those current intentions can be translated into future behaviour.

So if you’ve been brooding about your lack of physical fitness, you may find yourself in the urgent grip of an intention to get more exercise. The mental leap from a currently-experienced intention to a prediction of your future behaviour is subtle and effortless: “what else can I use to predict my future behaviour other than my current intentions?”

Extenuating circumstances

Social psychologists have documented how situational factors can narrow or widen the gap between intentions and action. For instance, you may be more successful in following through on your intention to exercise if you join a health club with ample parking in a location that you drive by every day, or if you book a regular time to work out with a friend.

From getting a vaccination, or contributing to a savings plan, to voting, research has shown that whether or not people act on their good intentions can be highly dependent on circumstantial factors. It helps greatly if your employer enrols you by default in a retirement savings plan (or books you a flu shot appointment), if you are sent a reminder of your savings goal, or if you are encouraged to plan exactly when and where you will vote.

In short, your circumstances and surroundings affect how readily you act on your intentions. But when predicting your future behaviour, you may fail to anticipate the impact of these important situational factors, and instead assume that your current intentions alone will reliably bring about the behaviour.

Set some reminders

In another of our studies, for instance, university students were invited to participate in an online survey that would begin two weeks later. When asked to predict how likely they were to complete the survey, the students focused mainly on how important their participation was to the researcher.

So those who were told that their participation was desperately needed so that the researcher could complete her dissertation predicted they were more likely to complete the survey than were those told merely that their participation would be helpful.

In fact, there was no difference in survey completion rates between the two groups. What did matter, however, was whether the students were sent an email reminder on the day the online survey began. Although they had been told whether they would receive the reminder, the students failed to anticipate its impact on what they later did.

Managing optimism

What’s wrong with being overly optimistic that our future behaviour will coincide with our current intentions?

At a stretch - one jog is better than none. Stretching by Shutterstock

Sometimes, a little optimism can be helpful. If, for example, you purchase a treadmill thinking you will use it every day, and only end up using it every other day, you still might be better off than had you made a more realistic prediction and not purchased the treadmill as a result. The same goes for underused gym memberships.

In other circumstances, though, optimism can be costly. Credit card users who are overly optimistic about their ability to pay their bill in full each month can make a mistake in ignoring interest rates when choosing a card because they believe (erroneously) they will not carry an outstanding balance. Likewise, a former smoker may place themselves in irresistibly tempting circumstances that lead to a relapse because they thinks their current abstemious intentions will hold sway.

And optimism can be particularly costly when it leads you to ignore steps you could take to make it easier to behave in accord with your intentions. My colleagues and I developed a programme that helped university students save money during time away from campus working. A key component was the completion of bi-weekly reports indicating how much progress they had made toward their savings goals.

Compared to a no-report control group, the students who completed the progress reports were more successful in reaching their goal. When asked at the outset about their chances of reaching their savings goal, however, both groups gave identical (and overly optimistic) predictions. They both failed to recognise how making regular assessments could help them translate their intentions into action.

Do the math

Students in a second study were given an opportunity to purchase a subscription to the savings programme, but although it substantially increased their likelihood of achieving their savings goal (which averaged around US$5,000), the typical student was unwilling to pay more than a dollar to subscribe.

It is easy to think that having a strong intention is all that’s needed for eventual action. But because a strong intention can foster optimism that you will definitely carry out the task, it can blind you to ways of shaping your environment to nudge you toward actually doing it.

For example, moving that treadmill from the cold, dark basement to a more pleasant location in the house (or exercising while indulging in otherwise guilt-inducing pleasures such as reading a trashy novel) could lead to you use it more often, but only if you are willing to acknowledge that your good intentions alone may not be enough.
The Conversation

Derek Koehler receives funding from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada and from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada

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

Friday, August 22, 2014

This Could Explain Why Older Adults Have Trouble Sleeping

'Motel Insomnia' painted on a brick wallby , University of Toronto, Futurity: http://www.futurity.org/neurons-older-adults-insomnia-750332/

A loss of neurons in a part of the brain that serves as an on/off switch for sleep may explain why so many older adults suffer from insomnia.
“In many older people with insomnia and other patterns of sleep disruption, the underlying cause is unknown,” says Andrew Lim, assistant professor of neurology at University of Toronto. 

“We provide evidence that loss of neurons in a particular region of the brain that controls sleep may be an important contributor to insomnia in many older individuals.”


man working on computer late at night
(Credit: Miguel Pires da Rosa/Flickr)
The new findings demonstrate for the first time that a group of inhibitory neurons are substantially diminished among the elderly and individuals with Alzheimer’s disease.

“On average, a person in his 70s has about one hour less sleep per night than a person in his 20s,” says Clifford B. Saper, professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School and coauthor of the study published in the journal Brain.

“Sleep loss and sleep fragmentation is associated with a number of health issues, including cognitive dysfunction, increased blood pressure, and vascular disease, and a tendency to develop type 2 diabetes. It now appears that loss of these neurons may be contributing to these various disorders as people age.”

Profound insomnia

In 1996, the Saper lab first discovered that the ventrolateral preoptic nucleus, a key cell group of inhibitory neurons, was functioning as a “sleep switch” in rats, turning off the brain’s arousal systems to enable animals to fall asleep.

“Our experiments in animals showed that loss of these neurons produced profound insomnia, with animals sleeping only about 50 percent as much as normal and their remaining sleep being fragmented and disrupted,” he says.

A group of cells in the human brain, the intermediate nucleus, is located in a similar location and has the same inhibitory neurotransmitter, galanin, as the vetrolateral preoptic nucleus in rats.

Researchers hypothesized that if the intermediate nucleus was important for human sleep and was homologous to the animal’s ventrolateral preoptic nucleus, then it may also similarly regulate humans’ sleep-wake cycles.

Movement monitor

In order to test this hypothesis, the investigators analyzed data from the Rush Memory and Aging Project, a community-based study of aging and dementia which began in 1997 and has been following a group of almost 1,000 people who entered the study as healthy 65-year-olds and are followed until their deaths, at which point their brains are donated for research.

“Since 2005, most of the subjects in the Memory and Aging Project have been undergoing actigraphic recording every two years. This consists of their wearing a small wristwatch-type device on their non-dominant arm for seven to 10 days,” says Lim, a former member of the Saper lab.

The actigraphy device, which is waterproof, is worn 24 hours a day and monitors all movements, large and small, divided into 15-second intervals. “Our previous work had determined that actigraphic readings indicating absence of movement for five minutes or longer correlated with sleep intervals,” Lim says.

The authors examined the brains of 45 study subjects (median age at death, 89.2), identifying ventrolateral preoptic neurons by staining the brains for the neurotransmitter galanin. They then correlated the actigraphic rest-activity behavior of the 45 individuals in the year prior to their deaths with the number of remaining ventrolateral preoptic neurons at autopsy.

Fragmented sleep

“We found that in the older patients who did not have Alzheimer’s disease, the number of ventrolateral preoptic neurons correlated inversely with the amount of sleep fragmentation,” Saper says. “The fewer the neurons, the more fragmented the sleep became.”

The subjects with the largest amount of neurons (greater than 6,000) spent 50 percent or more of the sleep time in prolonged periods of non-movement while subjects with the fewest ventrolateral preoptic neurons (less than 3,000) spent less than 40 percent of their nights in extended periods of sleep.

The results further showed that among Alzheimer’s patients, most sleep impairment seemed to be related to the number of ventrolateral preoptic neurons that had been lost.

“These findings may one day lead to novel treatments for insomnia and other patterns of sleep disruption in old age, thereby improving quality of life,” says Lim.

“And given recent evidence that sleep disruption may predispose to or potentiate the development of Alzheimer’s disease, perhaps even prevent or slow the progression of Alzheimer’s disease.”

Source: University of Toronto

Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Dangers of Workaholism For You and Your Employer

Relax-graligia
Time for a break (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
by Mark Griffiths, Nottingham Trent University

The term “workaholism” has been around since the 1971 publication of Wayne Oates’ book Confessions of a Workaholic. But, despite increasing research into the idea, there is still no single concept of this phenomenon.

This is problematic for tackling the issue which, if classified as an addiction, should be treated as such.

I’ve found that definitions used by other researchers do not really conceptualise workaholism as an addiction. Or, if they do, the criteria is different to those used when examining other behavioural addictions such as gambling, sex addiction and addictions to exercise or video games.

Various researchers differentiate between positive and negative forms of workaholism. For instance, some view workaholism as a negative and complex process that eventually affects the person’s ability to function properly. Obviously this is bad for business.

Others highlight the workaholics who are totally achievement oriented and have perfectionist and compulsive-dependent traits. This too isn’t necessarily good for the company in the long run and certainly not healthy for the individual.

In fact, researchers have found that workaholism can be deadly and dangerous. It may start with being busy with work all the time, but then progress to loss of productivity and relationship breakdowns, then result in workers being hospitalised from the severe stress caused, even causing premature death from heart attacks.

Psychological research into the issue has given us insights into who is more likely to be affected by workaholism. It has shown links between workaholism and certain personality types such as those with “Type A” characteristics (competitive, achievement-oriented individuals) and those with obsessive-compulsive traits.

The condition is generally characterised by the number of hours spent working and the inability to detach psychologically from work.

Reliable statistics on the prevalence of workaholism are hard to come by, but a major review of studies up to 2011 shows that about 10% of people in the countries studied suffer from workaholism.

Whether or not workaholism is a bona fide addiction all depends on the operational definition that is used. The only way to determine whether non-chemical, behavioural addictions are addictive is to compare them against clinical criteria for other established drug-driven addictions.

In practice, addictive behaviour is any behaviour that features what I believe are the certain core components of addiction: when it becomes the most important activity in your life, when it controls your mood, when you get withdrawal symptoms from not doing/having it, when you choose it above all other activities and when you keep returning to this state of behaviour.

New work addiction scale

Using these components, some Norwegian colleagues and I have developed a new “work addiction scale”. Using this scale to assess the level of workaholism in Norway, we found that 8% of our participants were addicted to work using this new instrument.

Addictions always result from an interaction and interplay between many factors. These include a person’s biological and genetic makeup, their state of mind, their social environment and the nature of the activity itself.

For instance, the nature of work can include things like the type of work you do, how familiar it is, the number of hours you spend doing it per day or week, the flexibility of how work fits into your daily or weekly routine, and the financial rewards it gives.

A work place’s social environment is also very important. It can include the organisation’s overarching work ethos, the relationship dynamics and collegiality that exists between colleagues.

Sociability is also influential, with working alone or with others important. So too are the aesthetics of the working environment and the physical comfort of the workspace. If inappropriate, these factors can contribute to and facilitate excessive working that in some individuals may lead to a genuine addiction.

While employers may like (and in some instances actively encourage) workaholism, in the long run it is not good for business. Ultimately, workaholics are more likely to burn out, have heart attacks and be hospitalised.

While all employers will value highly productive individuals, the short-term benefits of having employees who are workaholics will likely be outweighed if they can no longer function due to health problems, exacerbated by excessive working.
The Conversation

Dr. Mark Griffiths has received research funding from a wide range of organizations including the Economic and Social Research Council, the British Academy and the Responsibility in Gambling Trust. He has also carried out consultancy for numerous gaming companies in the area of social responsibility and responsible gaming.

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

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

9 Things Successful People Won't Do

Cover of "Emotional Intelligence 2.0"
Cover of Emotional Intelligence 2.0
by President at TalentSmart & Co-Author Emotional Intelligence 2.0, Linked In: https://www.linkedin.com/today/post/article/20140818190427-50578967-9-things-successful-people-won-t-do

My last post, How Successful People Stay Calm, really struck a nerve (it's already approaching 1.5 million reads here on LinkedIn). The trick is that managing your emotions is as much about what you won’t do as it is about what you will do.

TalentSmart has tested more than a million people and found that the upper echelons of top performance are filled with people who are high in emotional intelligence (90% of top performers, to be exact).

So, I went back to the data to uncover the kinds of things that emotionally intelligent people are careful to avoid in order to keep themselves calm, content, and in control. They consciously avoid these behaviors because they are tempting and easy to fall into if one isn’t careful.

While the list that follows isn’t exhaustive, it presents nine key things that you can avoid in order to increase your emotional intelligence and performance.

They Won’t Let Anyone Limit Their Joy

When your sense of pleasure and satisfaction are derived from comparing yourself to others, you are no longer the master of your own happiness. When emotionally intelligent people feel good about something that they’ve done, they won’t let anyone’s opinions or accomplishments take that away from them. While it’s impossible to turn off your reactions to what others think of you, you don’t have to compare yourself to others, and you can always take people’s opinions with a grain of salt. That way, no matter what other people are thinking or doing, your self-worth comes from within. Regardless of what people think of you at any particular moment, one thing is certain - you’re never as good or bad as they say you are.

They Won’t Forget

Emotionally intelligent people are quick to forgive, but that doesn’t mean that they forget. Forgiveness requires letting go of what’s happened so that you can move on. It doesn’t mean you’ll give a wrongdoer another chance. Emotionally intelligent people are unwilling to be bogged down unnecessarily by others’ mistakes, so they let them go quickly and are assertive in protecting themselves from future harm. 

They Won’t Die in the Fight

Emotionally intelligent people know how important it is to live to fight another day. In conflict, unchecked emotion makes you dig your heels in and fight the kind of battle that can leave you severely damaged. When you read and respond to your emotions, you’re able to choose your battles wisely and only stand your ground when the time is right. 

They Won’t Prioritize Perfection

Emotionally intelligent people won’t set perfection as their target because they know it doesn’t exist. Human beings, by our very nature, are fallible. When perfection is your goal, you’re always left with a nagging sense of failure, and you end up spending your time lamenting what you failed to accomplish and what you should have done differently instead of enjoying what you were able to achieve. 

They Won’t Live in the Past

Failure can erode your self-confidence and make it hard to believe you’ll achieve a better outcome in the future. Most of the time, failure results from taking risks and trying to achieve something that isn’t easy. Emotionally intelligent people know that success lies in their ability to rise in the face of failure, and they can’t do this when they’re living in the past. Anything worth achieving is going to require you to take some risks, and you can’t allow failure to stop you from believing in your ability to succeed. When you live in the past, that is exactly what happens, and your past becomes your present, preventing you from moving forward. 

They Won’t Dwell on Problems

Where you focus your attention determines your emotional state. When you fixate on the problems that you’re facing, you create and prolong negative emotions and stress, which hinders performance. When you focus on actions to better yourself and your circumstances, you create a sense of personal efficacy that produces positive emotions and improves performance. Emotionally intelligent people won’t dwell on problems because they know they’re most effective when they focus on solutions. 

They Won’t Hang Around Negative People

Complainers are bad news because they wallow in their problems and fail to focus on solutions. They want people to join their pity party so that they can feel better about themselves. People often feel pressure to listen to complainers because they don’t want to be seen as callous or rude, but there’s a fine line between lending a sympathetic ear and getting sucked into their negative emotional spiral. You can avoid getting drawn in only by setting limits and distancing yourself when necessary. Think of it this way: if a person were smoking, would you sit there all afternoon inhaling the second-hand smoke? You’d distance yourself, and you should do the same with complainers. A great way to set limits is to ask complainers how they intend to fix a problem. The complainer will then either quiet down or redirect the conversation in a productive direction. 

They Won’t Hold Grudges

The negative emotions that come with holding onto a grudge are actually a stress response. Just thinking about the event involved sends your body into fight-or-flight mode. When a threat is imminent, this reaction is essential to your survival, but when a threat is ancient history, holding onto that stress wreaks havoc on your body and can have devastating health consequences over time. In fact, researchers at Emory University have shown that holding onto stress contributes to high blood pressure and heart disease. Holding onto a grudge means you’re holding onto stress, and emotionally intelligent people know to avoid this at all costs. Learning to let go of a grudge will not only make you feel better now but can also improve your health. 

They Won’t Say Yes Unless They Really Want To

Research conducted at the University of California in San Francisco shows that the more difficulty that you have saying no, the more likely you are to experience stress, burnout, and even depression. Saying no is indeed a major challenge for most people. “No” is a powerful word that you should not be afraid to wield. When it’s time to say no, emotionally intelligent people avoid phrases like “I don’t think I can” or “I’m not certain.” Saying no to a new commitment honors your existing commitments and gives you the opportunity to successfully fulfill them. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Travis Bradberry, Ph.D.

Dr. Travis Bradberry is the award-winning co-author of the #1 bestselling book, Emotional Intelligence 2.0, and the cofounder of TalentSmart, the world's leading provider of emotional intelligence tests, emotional intelligence training, and emotional intelligence certification, serving more than 75% of Fortune 500 companies. His bestselling books have been translated into 25 languages and are available in more than 150 countries.

Dr. Bradberry has written for, or been covered by, Newsweek, BusinessWeek, Fortune, Forbes, Fast Company, Inc., USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and The Harvard Business Review.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Hit the Reset Button in Your Brain

Photo: Matthieu Bourel
New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/10/opinion/sunday/hit-the-reset-button-in-your-brain.html

THIS month, many Americans will take time off from work to go on vacation, catch up on household projects and simply be with family and friends. 

And many of us will feel guilty for doing so. We will worry about all of the emails piling up at work, and in many cases continue to compulsively check email during our precious time off.

But beware the false break. Make sure you have a real one. 

The summer vacation is more than a quaint tradition. Along with family time, mealtime and weekends, it is an important way that we can make the most of our beautiful brains.

Every day we’re assaulted with facts, pseudofacts, news feeds and jibber-jabber, coming from all directions. 

According to a 2011 study, on a typical day, we take in the equivalent of about 174 newspapers’ worth of information, five times as much as we did in 1986. 

As the world’s 21,274 television stations produce some 85,000 hours of original programming every day (by 2003 figures), we watch an average of five hours of television per day. For every hour of YouTube video you watch, there are 5,999 hours of new video just posted!

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, there’s a reason: The processing capacity of the conscious mind is limited. This is a result of how the brain’s attentional system evolved. 

Our brains have two dominant modes of attention: the task-positive network and the task-negative network (they’re called networks because they comprise distributed networks of neurons, like electrical circuits within the brain). 

The task-positive network is active when you’re actively engaged in a task, focused on it, and undistracted; neuroscientists have taken to calling it the central executive. The task-negative network is active when your mind is wandering; this is the daydreaming mode. These two attentional networks operate like a seesaw in the brain: when one is active the other is not.

This two-part attentional system is one of the crowning achievements of the human brain, and the focus it enables allowed us to harness fire, build the pyramids, discover penicillin and decode the entire human genome. Those projects required some plain old-fashioned stick-to-itiveness.

But the insight that led to them probably came from the daydreaming mode. This brain state, marked by the flow of connections among disparate ideas and thoughts, is responsible for our moments of greatest creativity and insight, when we’re able to solve problems that previously seemed unsolvable. 

You might be going for a walk or grocery shopping or doing something that doesn’t require sustained attention and suddenly - boom - the answer to a problem that had been vexing you suddenly appears. This is the mind-wandering mode, making connections among things that we didn’t previously see as connected.

A third component of the attentional system, the attentional filter, helps to orient our attention, to tell us what to pay attention to and what we can safely ignore. This undoubtedly evolved to alert us to predators and other dangerous situations. 

The constant flow of information from Twitter, Facebook, Vine, Instagram, text messages and the like engages that system, and we find ourselves not sustaining attention on any one thing for very long - the curse of the information age.

My collaborator Vinod Menon, a professor of neuroscience at Stanford, and I showed that the switch between daydreaming and attention is controlled in a part of the brain called the insula, an important structure about an inch or so beneath the surface of the top of your skull. 

Switching between two external objects involves the temporal-parietal junction. If the relationship between the central executive system and the mind-wandering system is like a seesaw, then the insula - the attentional switch - is like an adult holding one side down so that the other stays up in the air. 

The efficacy of this switch varies from person to person, in some functioning smoothly, in others rather rusty. But switch it does, and if it is called upon to switch too often, we feel tired and a bit dizzy, as though we were seesawing too rapidly.

Every status update you read on Facebook, every tweet or text message you get from a friend, is competing for resources in your brain with important things like whether to put your savings in stocks or bonds, where you left your passport or how best to reconcile with a close friend you just had an argument with.

If you want to be more productive and creative, and to have more energy, the science dictates that you should partition your day into project periods. Your social networking should be done during a designated time, not as constant interruptions to your day.

Email, too, should be done at designated times. An email that you know is sitting there, unread, may sap attentional resources as your brain keeps thinking about it, distracting you from what you’re doing. What might be in it? Who’s it from? Is it good news or bad news? It’s better to leave your email program off than to hear that constant ping and know that you’re ignoring messages.

Increasing creativity will happen naturally as we tame the multitasking and immerse ourselves in a single task for sustained periods of, say, 30 to 50 minutes. Several studies have shown that a walk in nature or listening to music can trigger the mind-wandering mode. This acts as a neural reset button, and provides much needed perspective on what you’re doing.

Daydreaming leads to creativity, and creative activities teach us agency, the ability to change the world, to mold it to our liking, to have a positive effect on our environment. Music, for example, turns out to be an effective method for improving attention, building up self-confidence, social skills and a sense of engagement.

This radical idea - that problem solving might take some time and doesn’t always have to be accomplished immediately - could have profound effects on decision making and even on our economy. 

Consider this: by some estimates, preventable medical error is the third leading cause of death in the United States, accounting for hundreds of thousands of deaths each year. You want your diagnostician to give the right answer, not always the quickest one. 

Zoning out is not always bad. You don’t want your airline pilot or air traffic controller to do it while they’re on the job, but you do want them to have opportunities to reset - this is why air traffic control and other high-attention jobs typically require frequent breaks. Several studies have shown that people who work overtime reach a point of diminishing returns.

Taking breaks is biologically restorative. Naps are even better. In several studies, a nap of even 10 minutes improved cognitive function and vigor, and decreased sleepiness and fatigue. 

If we can train ourselves to take regular vacations - true vacations without work - and to set aside time for naps and contemplation, we will be in a more powerful position to start solving some of the world’s big problems. And to be happier and well rested while we’re doing it.

Daniel J. Levitin is the director of the Laboratory for Music, Cognition and Expertise at McGill University and the author of “The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload.”

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

In the Wake of Robin Williams' Death, Will We Finally Start Taking Depression Seriously?

Cover of "Dead Poets Society"
Cover of Dead Poets Society
 
Rebecca Raber is a regular contributor to TakePart. She has written for Pitchfork, MTV Hive, The Village Voice, Spin, CMJ, and other publications. full bio
 
Robin Williams, who was found dead yesterday in his Tiburon, Calif., home, will be remembered for his rapid-fire delivery, his explosive, improvisational talent, and his surprising ability - showcased in his Oscar-winning turn in Good Will Hunting - to play character actor roles that had quieter, more introspective moments. 
 
But perhaps his death, which the county coroner suspects was “suicide due to asphyxia,” though no official ruling has been made yet, will also draw attention to the silent killer of depression.

Williams had been open about his struggles with substance abuse, and as mental health professionals often warn, addiction and depression are often partners in crime.

According to an article in Psychology Today, the strongest predictor of suicide is alcoholism, and those with substance use disorders are about six times more likely to commit suicide than the general population.

An alcoholic and a cocaine addict, Williams quit both vices after the death of his friend John Belushi in 1982 and remained sober for 20 years. But as he told Good Morning America in 2006, he relapsed back into alcohol abuse in 2003, and it took him three years to seek help.

Just last month, Williams once again checked himself into the Hazelden Addiction Treatment Center in Center City, Minn.

Looking back at Williams’ career, it is hard not to see glimpses of the pain hidden in the actor’s manic energy.

His first major role was as Mork from Ork on the sitcom Mork & Mindy, which ran from 1978 to 1982. On that show he played an alien far from home, an outsider, and this would be a theme all through his lengthy résumé.

From Russian defector Vladimir Ivonoff in Moscow on the Hudson to Parry, a homeless man tormented by his wife’s murder in The Fisher King, to Lance Clayton, the unpopular teacher who covers up his son’s autoerotic asphyxiation death in World’s Best Dad, Williams often played people who were marginalized or defined by their “otherness.”

Look behind even the frenzied vocal pyrotechnics of his performance as Genie in Disney’s animated Aladdin, and you’ll see the heart of a man who isn’t free, who is slave to the lamp and others' wishes.

When he wasn’t giving sympathetic voice to outsiders, he was butting heads with power, playing iconoclasts who inspire, heal, or entertain with unorthodox methods.

It’s easy to imagine roles such as Dead Poets Society’s rousing teacher John Keating and Good Morning Vietnam’s irreverent DJ Adrian Cronaur as appealing to a part of Williams that embraced mischief but also knew what it was like to be embattled.

In 1998’s mawkish Patch Adams, he played another rebel, a former mental patient who wants to become a doctor, though he rubs the medical establishment the wrong way with his humorous, humanist treatment style. In a parallel to real life, that character even contemplates killing himself in one scene.

The “sad clown” trope is one that is as old as theater. Perhaps we should no longer be surprised that those who bring us the most joy and are celebrated for their relentless mirth are often hiding real-life sadness and depression.

The list of funny people who have taken their own lives (either by accidental overdose or on purpose) is long, from Richard Jeni and Freddy Prinze to Chris Farley and Williams’ old friend Belushi.

Being funny obviously doesn’t protect one from anguish, or as fellow comedian Paul F. Tompkins wrote in his remembrance of Williams, “It’s a colossal shame that being a meaningful presence in the lives of many people, family, friends and strangers alike, isn't an impenetrable bulwark against despair.”

Comedians aren’t alone. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 100 people kill themselves every day in the United States, where suicide is the tenth leading cause of death.

Williams' untimely end is another statistic to add to the pile, though perhaps because of his talent, which touched so many, his loss will help shine a light on mental health issues that are too often kept in the dark.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-TALK.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Leadership in the Age of Complexity

English: This is a visual, organizational map ...
Organizational map of complex systems (Wikipedia)
by Margaret Wheatley and Deborah Frieze, 2010, First published in Resurgence Magazine, The Berkana Institute: http://berkana.org/berkana_articles/leadership-in-the-age-of-complexity/

For too long, too many of us have been entranced by heroes. Perhaps it’s our desire to be saved, to not have to do the hard work, to rely on someone else to figure things out.

Constantly we are barraged by politicians presenting themselves as heroes, the ones who will fix everything and make our problems go away. It’s a seductive image, an enticing promise. And we keep believing it.

Somewhere there’s someone who will make it all better. Somewhere, there’s someone who’s visionary, inspiring, brilliant, trustworthy, and we’ll all happily follow him or her. Somewhere …

Well, it is time for all the heroes to go home, as the poet William Stafford wrote. It is time for us to give up these hopes and expectations that only breed dependency and passivity, and that do not give us solutions to the challenges we face.

It is time to stop waiting for someone to save us. It is time to face the truth of our situation - that we’re all in this together, that we all have a voice - and figure out how to mobilize the hearts and minds of everyone in our workplaces and communities.

Why do we continue to hope for heroes? It seems we assume certain things:
  • Leaders have the answers. They know what to do.
  • People do what they’re told. They just have to be given good plans and instructions.
  • High risk requires high control. As situations grow more complex and challenging, power needs to shift to the top (with the leaders who know what to do).
These beliefs give rise to the models of command and control revered in organizations and governments world-wide.

Those at the bottom of the hierarchy submit to the greater vision and expertise of those above. Leaders promise to get us out of this mess; we willingly surrender individual autonomy in exchange for security.

The only predictable consequence of leaders’ attempts to wrest control of a complex, even chaotic situation, is that they create more chaos.

They go into isolation with just a few key advisors, and attempt to find a simple solution (quickly) to a complex problem. And people pressure them to do just that. Everyone wants the problem to disappear; cries of “fix it!” arise from the public. Leaders scramble to look like they’ve taken charge and have everything in hand.

But the causes of today’s problems are complex and interconnected. There are no simple answers, and no one individual can possibly know what to do. We seem unable to acknowledge these complex realities.

Instead, when the leader fails to resolve the crisis, we fire him or her, and immediately begin searching for the next (more perfect) one. We don’t question our expectations of leaders, we don’t question our desire for heroes.

The Illusion of Control

Heroic leadership rests on the illusion that someone can be in control. Yet we live in a world of complex systems whose very existence means they are inherently uncontrollable. No one is in charge of our food systems. No one is in charge of our schools. No one is in charge of the environment. No one is in charge of national security. No one is in charge!

These systems are emergent phenomena - the result of thousands of small, local actions that converged to create powerful systems with properties that may bear little or no resemblance to the smaller actions that gave rise to them.

These are the systems that now dominate our lives; they cannot be changed by working backwards, focusing on only a few simple causes. And certainly they cannot be changed by the boldest visions of our most heroic leaders.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Shakespeare Plays Key Role in Teaching Children to Take Creative Leaps

Sir John Gilbert's 1849 painting: The Plays of...
Sir John Gilbert's 1849 painting: The Plays of William Shakespeare, containing scenes and characters from several of William Shakespeare's plays. Since the artist died in 1897, this work is now in the public domain. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
by Jennifer Kitchen, University of Warwick

Somewhere, in the depths of your memory, you can probably still recall a quote or two from Shakespeare. Everybody in the UK studies the Bard at school - whether they go on to love him or hate him.

As leading lights in Shakespeare scholarship gather to discuss the finer nuances of his work it’s clear that, 450 years after his birth, Shakespeare’s plays and poetry play a unique role in English education.

Now new ways of teaching Shakespeare are encouraging children to take creative leaps with his language and meaning - and helping them learn in the process.

The new English curriculum continues to insist that all students should study Shakespeare, covering at least two of his plays between the ages of 11 and 14 years old. But since public education began, there have been debates on if and how Shakespeare should be taught.

The Victorians introduced the idea of reading Shakespearean literature to “improve” young minds. In the late 20th century this translated into a reductive, desk-based approach with examinations requiring students to analyse individual scenes in detail, often with little or no understanding of the play as a dramatic whole.

But the publication of Cambridge academic Rex Gibson’s Teaching Shakespeare in 1998 has led to a focus on bringing the plays alive as theatrical performances. Gibson argued that if we treat Shakespeare’s plays as scripts to be performed, then students are able to actively interpret a text in ways that are relevant to them.

It is the very complexity of Shakespeare’s language which makes his work so suited to creative approaches led by students. The difficult language, complex plots and distant settings of the plays demand new ways of thinking from children. And when they study the plays by performing them, it allows them to take creative risks, giving children a sense of confidence and ownership over the text.

Today, Gibson’s philosophy and practical exercises, alongside other ideas such as those around the use of the voice and language by voice coach Cicely Berry, have created a more unified approach to the way children learn Shakespeare.

Although companies such as the Royal Shakespeare Company, Shakespeare’s Globe, and the Shakespeare’s School Festival have their own particular take on educating children about Shakespeare, they share a commitment to ensemble, rehearsal-room exercises. Ultimately, children and teachers alike are now increasingly being invited to play with Shakespeare.

Playing with language

Drama education scholar Joe Winston has studied this playful approach to Shakespeare in the RSC’s work with some of its youngest students. He has used games and exercises to explore the story of The Tempest with four and five-year-olds.

My own ongoing research with the Shakespeare Schools' Festival has looked at how teachers are encouraged to explore the vocal possibilities of the language with their students, to enjoy playing with the curious words.

One teacher, introducing her class of nine and ten-year-olds to the language of Richard III, encouraged them to: “enjoy the strange words, taste them like sweets”. The children delight in this, and begin their rehearsals feeling this language is “theirs”.

The benefits of beginning with a playful approach like this which avoids the need for torturous explanations of Shakespeare’s language is increasingly backed up with linguistic research. Linguist Guy Cook suggests young children will learn language just as readily through playing with “form” as with “content”.

Can we do this miss? Yui Mok/PA Wire

Another key to this approach to teaching Shakespeare is the ensemble: a theatrical model of collaborative creativity. The principle is that working together creates a safe space which is never a comfort zone.

This removes pressure (there is no right or wrong answer) without lowering the stakes (members of the group are still accountable to each other, the demands of the text and, if performing, the audience). “Star turns” by one child are discouraged and the teacher becomes an informed facilitator, rather than the unchallengeable authority.

In practice, the ensemble approach may see parts shared between the whole cast: picture a primary school class filling the Globe stage during a performance of The Tempest. In the scene where Ariel begs his freedom and Prospero denies him, one student stands centrally as Prospero, while 25 children weave around him as the fairy-like Ariel, calling their responses in chorus.

In a lesson or rehearsal, students can also explore a scene together in small groups through freeze frames and modern improvisations. Teachers can intervene to prompt discussion, inviting the group to return to their scripts for reference, to think of other versions of the play they have seen, or to make links with their own interests.

Take, for example, a group of GCSE children I observed rehearsing Titus Andronicus who were delighted by its dark content, and themes of loyalty and betrayal. Only two actors will be on stage in the final performance, but the whole class contributed to shaping the scene.

Taking creative risks

This is an approach based on games, exercises, experiments and improvisations built by the teacher, but in which students must take a creative leap. Working on Shakespeare in this way takes time, risks and mutual trust.

The artistic and educational outcomes are not precisely predictable in terms of educational levels and grade boundaries. Yet national evaluation carried out by Shakespeare’s Schools Festival and research commissioned by the RSC has indicated that when students are able to play with Shakespeare and construct meanings true to both the texts and their own lived experience, they grow in confidence and academic engagement.
The Conversation

Jennifer Kitchen receives funding from The Economic and Social Research Council

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

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Resilience on the Home Front: Creating a Farm

Picking green beans last week in our nearly-half-acre garden
Photo: Alex Wilson
by , Resilient Design Institute: http://www.resilientdesign.org/resilience-on-the-home-front-creating-a-farm/

Two years ago, when I launched the Resilient Design Institute, was a time of transition.

I was pulling back from BuildingGreen, the company that I had started in 1985, and my wife, Jerelyn, and I had just bought an old Vermont farm a third of a mile down the road from where we had lived for 30 years.

We were beginning what would be a long process of figuring out what to do with the house and property.

Indeed, the house planning, design, and reconstruction was a major undertaking. After having written about energy efficiency, renewable energy, and green building for more than 35 years, there were countless ideas, materials, and innovative products I wanted to try out.

This would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to create a model of sustainability, accessible design (where we can age in place), and resilience.

Renovating (really rebuilding) the house cost a lot more than we had anticipated and took a lot longer than expected - a nearly universal complaints of those involved with such projects - but we are very happy with the outcome.

We moved in around the first of January, 2014, just in time to give the superinsulated house a real test in what would turn out to be one of the coldest Vermont winters in decades.

We found that, indeed, the single, 18,000 Btu/hour, air-source heat pump was able to keep the house comfortable; we only used our back-up wood stove eight or nine times to supplement the point-source heat pump or provide the ambiance that only a wood fire can provide.

View of our barn and lower garden from above—from a helicopter ride I happened to get a few weeks ago!
View of our barn and lower garden from above - from a helicopter ride I 
happened to get a few weeks ago! Photo: Alex Wilson

This ability of a house to maintain reasonably comfortable (safe) conditions on the coldest winter nights - even if power is lost - is a key tenet of resilient design, and I was very pleased that our house did so well.

Though we hope the house to be net-zero-energy in its operation - with space heating, water heating, cooking, and almost everything else, powered by a 12 kW solar-electric system - we can heat the place just fine with our small wood stove if we need to. 

Moving our focus outdoors

As the cold of winter gradually ceded control to the sunshine of spring, I was only too ready to turn my attention to the out-of-doors.

I had been thinking a lot about resilience and what exactly that meant for a rural landowner. We had done a good job with the house, and we are planning how to provide water during power outages - likely using a modern hand pump of the type I’ve written about - but resilience is also about food.

Ten pounds of beans in our last picking—lots in the freezer.
Ten pounds of beans in our last picking - lots in the freezer. Photo: Alex Wilson

I wanted to create a homestead with the capacity to become close to self-sufficient in food production should circumstances call for such a need - for example, if a long-term drought in the West and Midwest with no snow pack in the Rockies and Sierras curtails agricultural production in the grain belt and California’s Central Valley.

In such a scenario, the supply-line of grains, vegetables, and meats from points west becomes compromised - not a likely scenario, but a possible one. How could our land at Leonard Farm provide some level of food self-sufficiency?

Creating an orchard

With snow still on the ground, I began planning a fruit and nut orchard. Our property has three open fields: two at an acre to an acre-and-a-half each and one that’s 7-8 acres. One of the smaller fields, on a rise just west of the house on an east-facing slope, would make a great orchard, I decided.

Mulching fruit trees with wood chips this past May
Mulching fruit trees with wood chips this past May. Photo: Jerelyn Wilson

After having spent parts of two years pushing the encroaching woods back, I spent weeks this spring pouring through catalogs and deciding on trees to put in.

I created a design for the field showing how I could fit in several dozen fruit trees, a chestnut grove of a dozen trees, and an extensive berry patch for blueberries, raspberries, black currents, and gooseberries - all that could be fenced in to protect it against our ubiquitous deer.

It was a very late spring, and I didn’t plant the trees until late-May. Fortunately, I had a huge pile of wood chips to mulch the trees, though I haven’t gotten fencing up yet. This year I planted a dozen fruit trees and ten Chinese chestnuts; next year I hope to put in a dozen or so more trees plus berries. I’m hoping to get fencing in this fall.

Planting the lower field

While I knew I wasn’t going to have a lot of time for gardening this summer - as we prepare for our daughter’s wedding on the farm at the end of August - I did want to get something into the ground to begin improving the soil.

Figuring that pumpkins and winter squash, once they spread out, would shade the ground and control weed growth, I opted for that.

I learned that a local beer brewer who has just moved to the area (Hermit Thrush Brewery) was looking for several varieties of heirloom pumpkins (White Cushaw, Musque de Provence, Jarrahdale, and Galeux D’Eysines), which I planted, along with a row of New England Pie Pumpkins and two rows of winter squash (four varieties).

Pumpkins_2972_MedRes
New England Pie pumpkins coming right along. Photo: Alex Wilson

These rows are nearly 200 feet long, so if all goes well we should have lots of pumpkins and squash - probably way more than the brewery can use, so I’ll be looking for other markets for weird-looking pumpkins that no one has ever heard of! Let me know if you’re looking for organically grown squash and pumpkins this fall!

We also planted lots of sunflowers and zinnias for the wedding and some more typical vegetables for home consumption: tomatoes, peppers, broccoli, cabbage, green beans, basil, etc. We didn’t plant greens or root vegetables, as those are higher maintenance, and I thought they would require better soil that will take a while to build up.

While my initial plan was for low-maintenance farming, the garden has been a fair amount of work! I’m using an old Troy-Bilt rototiller I’ve had for 30 years for some of the cultivating, but mostly I’ve been using a European wheel hoe that I bought close to 30 years ago when Green River Tools was going out of business and selling their tool inventory.

I find the wheel hoe works really well (with its oscillating stirrup-hoe blade that cuts pushing and pulling) if I keep after the weeds - cutting them off before they get too large (I tilled the garden initially with my Kubota tractor and a PTO-drive rotovator). Yes, I’m sore, but working the soil and transforming it from turf this year has been very satisfying.

Three-quarters of our lower garden is now covered with pumpkin and winter squash vines. In the foreground are butternut squash.
Three-quarters of our lower garden is now covered with pumpkin and winter
squash vines. In the foreground are butternut squash. Photo: Alex Wilson

Livestock?

I remember reading a Time magazine interview with Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, in which he was asked what one change he’d like to see in American farming to improve it. He replied: putting livestock back on the farm - for nutrient cycling. We want some animals at Leonard Farm, but we’re not sure just yet what that will look like.

We will probably put in a chicken coop next spring, and down-the-road may put in a pen to raise one or two pigs each year. Goats? A family cow? The fertility from those animals will help the gardens and minimize our need for purchased fertilizer. We’re hoping for brewing waste from the brewery for livestock feed and compost.

Our first sunflowers are blooming.
Our first sunflowers are blooming. Photo: Alex Wilson

Resilience takes time

I’ve been reading Ben Falk’s book, The Resilient Farm and Homestead, and learning what Ben created in the Mad River Valley of Central Vermont. What he has done in bringing back a long-neglected hill farm is impressive, though he has done this with a cadre of interns working with him; I’m not convinced Leonard Farm will ever have such a robust labor force.

I’m curious how far I’ll get in our goal of being able to source 75% of our food from our property. It will be hard work getting there, but a fun challenge. I hope that circumstances will not require us to become largely self-sufficient, but it will be comforting to know that that would be possible if necessary.

Sidebar: Five Steps to Resilience on a Rural Farm

1. Achieve passive survivability with your house

Build or renovate the house so that it will maintain habitable conditions in the event of loss of power or interruptions in heating fuel. This is the concept of passive survivability I’ve long promoted. In a rural area with access to firewood, this should be relatively easy.

2. Provide a resilient water system

This is much easier in a place like Vermont than in the West, where available water may be too deep underground to pump by hand and rainwater harvesting may not be adequate to meet needs. But getting fresh, clean water is still often the biggest challenge in Vermont when power is lost. We will have both gravity-flow water from our pond located about 100 feet in elevation above the house and a hand pump for drawing water from our deep well when we lose electricity.

3. Provide food security

Growing and storing your own produce is the best way to achieve a resilient food system. We have a long way to go here - particularly with storage (food dehydrating, root cellars, canning, etc.).

4. Provide for resilient transportation

Think about how you will get access to critical services and supplies in the event of a gasoline shortage or inability to pump gas. When we looked for a place to buy one of our criteria was bikability to town. With a cargo bike we could easily do a weekly shopping trip into Brattleboro for food and other supplies.

5. Build community

In many respects, the social aspects of resilience are more important than the physical ones. During times or emergency or stress, we need to rely on a larger community for support. Our new farm backs up to West Dummerston Village, which has roughly 30 houses clustered in a tight-knot neighborhood. At one point we were thinking of creating a co-housing community at Leonard Farm, but we have decided to focus instead on helping to build a stronger community as part of the village.

Along with founding the Resilient Design Institute in 2012, Alex is founder of BuildingGreen, Inc. To keep up with his latest articles and musings, you can sign up for his Twitter feed.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Can a Mathematical Equation Really be the Formula for Happiness?

English: Emotions associated with happiness
Emotions associated with happiness (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
by Brock Bastian

What makes people happy?

Finding a definitive answer to this question could certainly make someone very rich (but whether that would in turn make them happy is another matter).

The problem is that happiness is especially slippery.

While we know much about the consequences of happiness - that it can improve our health and well-being and how we get on in the world - much less is known about its causes, let alone how to guarantee its appearance.

Making happiness a goal, for example, often has counter-productive consequences that ultimately lead to less happiness overall. Finding happiness is, for many, akin to divining water: when we do find it we are often at a loss to explain how it happened.

In an attempt to provide insight to the happiness conundrum, a group of researchers from London recently published a mathematical formula in PNAS that predicts people’s subjective ratings of their happiness from moment to moment.

Drawing on models of how we respond to reward, they showed that people feel happy when they experience momentary rewards, and that the influence of such rewards quickly decays over time.

The secret is out. Rutledge et al/PNAS

A decision-making task was given to 26 study participants in which they had to make choices winning or losing a monetary reward while also being asked about their happiness at that moment.

Neural activity in their brains were also monitored using functional MRI from which a computational model linking self-reported happiness to recent rewards and expectations was created.

The researchers then tested this model on more than 18,000 participants in a smartphone app game called “What makes me happy?” and said their equation could be used to accurately predict how happy people would be while playing the game.

A question of expectation

Good or bad? Depends how you see it. Wonderwebby, CC BY-NC-SA

Most interestingly, however, was the finding that rewards alone are not the best predictor of happiness. The most powerful predictor of happiness was whether or not people’s expectations relating to those rewards were exceeded.

As the authors surmise, the findings suggest, “happiness is a state that reflects not how well things are going but instead whether things are going better than expected”.

A room without a roof was good enough for Pharrell.

So what does this tell us about happiness and how to find it? Well, it suggests two things. First it shows that happiness is leveraged from the same basic reward processing capacities that we share with all animals, yet it is our (probably uniquely human) capacity to predict and reflect on rewards that is most important for happiness.

It also shows that relative rewards are most important for happiness - even gaining nothing can be rewarding when the alternative was a potential loss. This concurs with previous work showing that pain itself can be experienced as pleasant when it is provided as an alternative to more intense pain.

Managing our expectations may, therefore, be the best way to promote happiness: if we expect nothing and gain something we will be happier than if we expect what we get, or worse expect more than what we get.

And a failure to live up to it

Colourful, but lots of pressure. Giula Forsythe, CC BY-NC-SA

This is consistent with the sage advice that psychologists have been offering their patients in various forms of psychotherapy for many years. Much of the depression seen by psychologists in their consulting rooms appears to be the result of people’s expectation that they should always be happy.

For these individuals depression is experienced as a failure to be happy and, most importantly, a failure to live up to their expectations of how life should be.

So is this the whole story? Is happiness simply the result of well-managed expectations? Although personal expectation has been consistently shown as a critical factor in determining happiness, I suspect there is more.

We are social creatures, and our emotions are experienced and expressed in social contexts. Whether or not we have the capacity to self-regulate our expectations about happiness, we may still be influenced by the surrounding social context.

Asking people to reduce their expectations about happiness is a tall order when they are surrounded by a culture which places a premium on feeling happy.

From television advertising to self-improvement gurus and even government endorsed national campaigns happiness has become the gold standard of success.

Whatever.

In our own research, my colleagues and I have found that quite apart from people’s own expectations regarding happiness, it is the perceived expectations of others that play a critical role in determining how people respond to their negative emotional experiences.

When we think that others expect us to be happy and not sad we feel bad about ourselves when we do inevitably feel sad, leading to increased depression and lower satisfaction with life.

So can happiness be predicted by a mathematical formula? As with just about anything I am sure it can, and the work of lead author Robb Rutledge and colleagues provides many important insights into the causes of happiness.

Whether people are able improve their own levels of happiness by managing these causes is perhaps a more complex problem; one that is influenced by the ways in which happiness is culturally valued and whether the lack of it is socially accepted.
The Conversation

Brock Bastian receives funding from the Australian Research Council.

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