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Why Does Happiness Inequality Matter?

According to the World Happiness Report 2016 Update, happiness inequality is on the rise.

What is happiness inequality? It’s the psychological parallel to income inequality: how much individuals in a society differ in their self-reported happiness levels—or subjective well-being, as happiness is sometimes called by researchers.

Since 2012, the World Happiness Report has championed the idea that happiness is a better measure of human welfare than standard indicators like wealth, education, health, or good government. And if that’s the case, it has implications for our conversations about equality, privilege, and fairness in the world.

We know that income inequality can be detrimental to happiness: According to a 2011 study, for example, the American population as a whole was less happy over the past several decades in years with greater inequality. The authors of a companion study to the World Happiness Report hypothesized that happiness inequality might show a similar pattern, and that appears to be the case.

In their study, they found that countries with greater inequality of well-being also tend to have lower average well-being, even after controlling for factors like GDP per capita, life expectancy, and individuals’ reports of social support and freedom to make decisions. In other words, the more happiness equality a country has, the happier it tends to be as a whole. Among the world’s happiest countries—Denmark, Switzerland, Iceland, Norway, and Finland—three of them also rank in the top ten for happiness equality (see the ranking below).

On an individual level, the same link exists; in fact, individuals’ happiness levels were more closely tied to the level of happiness equality in their country than to its income equality. Happiness equality was also a stronger predictor of social trust than income equality—and social trust, a belief in the integrity of other people and institutions, is crucial to personal and societal well-being.

“Inequality of well-being provides a better measure of the distribution of welfare than is provided by income and wealth,” assert the World Happiness Report authors, who hail from the University of British Columbia, the London School of Economics, and the Earth Institute.

How much happiness inequality does your country have?
World Happiness Report 2016 UpdateTo do this analysis, the researchers asked a simple question of nearly half a million people worldwide: On a scale of 0-10, representing your worst possible life to your best possible life, where do you stand? The most common answer is 5—but as you can see in the graph on the right, many people rate themselves as less happy than that. If the world had perfect happiness equality, everyone would provide the same answer to this question.

Researchers also assessed the level of happiness inequality in each of 157 countries, taking into account how much people’s happiness ratings deviated from each other.

Topping the rankings for happiness equality is Bhutan, a country whose government policy is based on the goal of increasing Gross National Happiness. Those with the most happiness inequality are the African countries of South Sudan, Sierra Leone, and Liberia.

The US ranks 85th for happiness inequality, meaning that subjective well-being—not just wealth—is spread relatively unevenly throughout our society. We fare worse than New Zealand (#18), our neighbor Canada (#29), Australia (#30), and much of Western Europe. Note that these aren’t the happiest countries; they are simply the places without a huge happiness gap between people. Even so, as described above, happiness equality is associated with greater happiness overall.

Unfortunately, trends in happiness inequality are going in the wrong direction: up. Comparing surveys from 2005-2011 to 2012-2015, the researchers found that well-being inequality has increased worldwide. More than half of the countries surveyed saw spikes in happiness inequality over that period, particularly those in the Middle East, North Africa, and sub-Saharan Africa. Meanwhile, fewer than one in ten countries saw their happiness inequality decrease. Over that time period, happiness inequality in the US has gone up while happiness itself has declined.

The good news is that promoting happiness equality doesn’t require taking happiness from some people and giving it to others. Instead, these findings underscore the importance of building a society and a culture that cares about individual well-being, not just economic growth. Some countries—such as Bhutan, Ecuador, the United Arab Emirates, and Venezuela—have already taken this stance, appointing happiness ministers to work alongside their government officials. As report co-editor and Earth Institute director Jeffrey Sachs writes:

Governments can ensure access to mental health services, early childhood development programs, and safe environments where trust can grow. Education, including moral education and mindfulness training, can play an important role. Human well-being [should be] at the very center of global concerns and policy choices in the coming years.

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Three Lessons from Zootopia to Discuss with Kids

I braved opening day of Zootopia with four kids. I had seen the previews and thought it would be a sweet, funny Disney movie about “becoming who we want to be no matter what” or “following our dreams.”

It did meet those expectations, but there was actually more. As I watched, I wondered: Was this Disney movie actually making a political commentary about bias, sexism, racism, and xenophobia? Did they really do that?

Yes, they did. My first hint was a subtle joke in the beginning when the hero—a determined, hard-working bunny named Judy Hopps—shows up for her first day at work as a police officer. She’s called “cute” by the dispatcher—a cheetah named Clawhauser—and Judy replies, “Ooh, you probably didn’t know it, but a bunny can call another bunny cute, but when other animals do it, it’s a little….”

I looked around the theater. Did other folks catch that? Was that actually a line just for me, a black woman, about what can be said within a group but not without? Surely that was a blip?

But it wasn’t. The movie turned out to be explicitly about bias of all types, from unconscious prejudice to a “we don’t serve your kind” attitude to the deliberate cultivation of fear to achieve political power. It speaks directly to our heated political climate, however imperfectly. It did this with compelling characters and by echoing words we often use in conversations about race and bias: “well I didn’t mean to,” “don’t be sensitive,” “they shouldn’t be here.”

Now, I’m not saying that the movie is perfect. There is something really disturbing about the way the animals are sorted according to their biology, with some reverting back to their inherent “savagery.” Also, the relationship between prejudice in the movie and real-world racism is not entirely clear; Zootopia does not have much to say about power or exploitation.

Perhaps as a result, much of the writing about Zootopia has run the gamut from “this is the best racial commentary ever” to “this is the worst.” It is neither, in my view. If you want a Disney movie to do all the work of explaining bias to your kids for you, then this isn’t it. Zootopia isn’t a perfect movie about bias, but it is the perfect opportunity for you to talk about these issues with your children. 

In fact, you absolutely need to see Zootopia with them—and you need to talk about it afterward. Teachers can do the same in the classroom.

Many children over the age of nine will easily be able to grasp the descriptions of prejudice and bias, and they’ll understand the parallels. But research indicates that even children as young as five will be able to understand the concepts of bias and prejudice. The majority of the kids who see this movie will understand the “unfairness” and the lack of justice in it. Then we as adults can help them make the direct connections to the world around us. In my dissertation research, I found that children who were better able to identify prejudice when they saw it in movie clips had parents who were helping them make sense of bias. Those children, in turn, had more cross-race peers and lower overall rates of bias.

You can start with language like this: “I wonder what you noticed. Have you ever been treated that way? Have you ever treated others that way?” From there, you can use Zootopia to impart at least three lessons to kids about prejudice. (Warning: Some spoilers below!)

1. Stereotypes hurt everyone
The language of stereotyping is explicitly used in the movie, as when Officer Clawhauser apologizes for calling Judy “cute.” So we can ask children if they know what a stereotype is, encouraging them to come up with examples. The five year old in our group said, “Yeah, like when kids think that I can’t do the monkey bars fast because I’m a girl or because I’m little.” That’s exactly it. We can help them understand that stereotypes are sometimes true about some people, but certainly not always true about all people.

The movie quite cleverly shows how stereotypes can harm both the people doing the stereotyping and the people being stereotyped. Judy is stereotyped—but she also stereotypes other characters. She is initially deceived by a kindly, meek lamb, who (spoiler alert!) later turns out to be the movie’s villain.

In the typical children’s movie, the dark, ferocious creatures are pretty much always the bad guys and the small fuzzy ones are the good guys. Not so in Zootopia, where the animals are seldom what they seem—and the lesson gets driven home over and over again that thinking in terms of stereotypes can lead you to bad conclusions or even put you in danger.

2. Prejudice is unfair
This is the next step: Prejudice is when stereotypes are used to differentially treat people. This is where kids often go to the “it’s not fair” portion of their understanding. There are many scenes in the movie where prejudice happens. Prejudice forces Judy to do meter-maid work instead of the job she trained for.

There is a particularly sad flashback scene when one of the main characters, the con artist fox Nick Wilde, is getting ready to join an animal “cub scouts.” He is excited because foxes usually aren’t allowed in this activity, and he has worked hard to join the group. He is lured downstairs by the other animals to be initiated—but instead they tease him and tell him that he’s never allowed to join. In fact, they go so far as to muzzle him.

It’s a cruel depiction of exclusion—and will certainly resonate with children’s experiences of not being included. It’s a great scene to ask: “Do you remember when they wouldn’t let Nick in their group? What did you think about that? Have you ever felt that way? Did anyone not let you into a group because they held a stereotype about you—thought that you were something you weren’t? Yes, well that’s prejudice.”

By talking about these scenes and using kids’ language about fair treatment, we can actually help our children better identify prejudice when it is happening. We can help them to connect empathically with those who are the targets of bias. We can ask them how it feels to be treated that way and encourage them to think about times when maybe they treated others in prejudiced ways. The idea here isn’t to make kids feel guilty, but rather to help them put themselves in another person’s shoes and begin to identify behavior that they might want to change.

3. We can fight prejudice—and people can change
The characters in Zootopia don’t just see discrimination—they also fight against it. You can highlight the strategies that they use, which include connecting with family and talking about what is going on with friends. The movie definitely conveys how members of a stereotyped group must often “work twice as hard” to achieve the same result as others. This idea is taken for granted in many families—that members will encounter barriers that force them to defy stereotypes or convince others that they are worthy. But for some kids (and some adults), this will be an entirely new idea. It also shows how “working twice as hard” isn’t a perfect strategy—despite her hard work, Judy is still discriminated against.

Can people grow and change? Zootopia‘s answer is yes, but change isn’t easy. The movie shows a lot of conflict, even between friends. Through these conflicts it explores the difficult idea of “allyship”—the process of supporting people who face prejudice and building relationships beyond those who share our social identities. We can use the term “ally” with our children, using Judy and Nick as examples.

In Zootopia, Judy and Nick become allies. They hurt each other and make mistakes, but they also forgive and decide to work together to overcome bias. Of course, one of the best ways we can illustrate this ability to evolve and support each other is by embracing it ourselves—thus modeling for our kids. How often do your children see you connect to those who are different from you in race, sexuality, or class, to name a few? Do they see you cooperating, having fun?

This might be the most valuable lesson contained in Zootopia: By connecting across our differences, we can make the world a better place. This is what Judy the bunny and Nick the fox learn to do—and your children can learn to do it, too, with your help.

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Can We Bring the USA Back Together Again?

Whatever side of the political spectrum you are on, it’s tough to be happy about the current state of politics in the US. Congress is stymied by discord and obstructionism; candidates for office bow to billionaires to get funding for their campaigns; mudslinging is a common practice in our political discourse. It’s hard to watch as our country spirals into hate-filled rhetoric and deep ideological divisions.

But while some might believe that the answer lies in their “side” winning the political fight, many others just feel hopeless that any outcome will change the dynamic. Faith in our government is at an all-time low, and the divide has become wider than ever, with more and more Americans opting out of the political process altogether. So what’s to be done to change that?

Mark Gerzon, an international mediator, provides some guidance in his new book, The Reunited States of America: How We Can Bridge the Partisan Divide. While admitting things are pretty dire at the moment, he outlines some of the steps we can take—as citizens and within organizations—to bridge our differences and find common ground for future governance.

Gerzon speaks from experience. He has been a mediator in Washington, DC, as well as in several international conflicts where polarizing dialogue and stalemates are the norm. Yet, he has found a way forward, by practicing a few, practical ideas of engagement, which he insists could help break the partisan divide.

One important step, he argues is reframing the goal of politics. Instead of citizens or politicians insisting that their side has all the answers, he promotes a mediator’s vision in which “Americans can work together with people different from ourselves to find common ground that can strengthen the country we all love.”

He argues that solutions to the stalemate come from learning how to listen to others with respect and genuine openness, rather than expecting people to give up their viewpoints and win them to your side. Bringing people face to face with each other, with civilized rules for engagement—like listening without interrupting, seeking to understand rather than debate, and entering with an open, rather than closed mind—all help to promote positive relationships, he writes, which can go a long way toward improving political outcomes.

“What voters want, and America needs, are leaders who will seek relationships with their adversaries rather than control over them,” writes Gerzon. “Since we are not going to have a one-party rule, we need politicians who will work together.”

Some of his suggestions may seem painful to consider at first—but he has good cause for making them. For example, he advises taking a break from hyper-partisan media sources and, instead, listening more to voices from the “other side” of the political aisle. He also suggests that people eschew name-calling and disrespectful communications in favor of listening and learning from those who think differently than you. Otherwise, we risk further alienation from each other.

“Between pluribus and unum is a lot of hard work. It involves opening our minds and our hearts to find common ground,” he argues.

His ideas could seem pie in the sky…until he highlights the many, many people inside and outside of Capitol Hill who are already making this happen. Readers might know of the partnership that progressive Van Jones and conservative Newt Gingrich created to reduce the number of nonviolent offenders in prison and to convince both political parties to work for prison reform. But it was refreshing to learn of other, lesser-known people and organizations, like the Convergence Center for Policy Resolution, the Village Square, and the Bridge Alliance, to name just a few, who are working to put people from all political stripes together in order to come up with novel solutions that bridge political divides.

According to Gerzon, the reason these organizations are gaining ground is that so many people—even politicians—are tired of worn out political rhetoric. They’ve come to see the importance of dialogue over debate in solving our complex problems.

“Healthy, honest debate is a first-rate tool for deciding between two options. But it is a lousy, ineffective tool for creating a better option,” he argues. “If two sides are debating second-rate proposals, the debate itself cannot generate a better one. Dialogue, however, is designed for precisely this purpose.”

For those readers who want to opt in and start working toward better “transpartisan” solutions, Gerzon recommends ways one can engage in the movement for political change. In addition to joining organizations he features in the book, he suggests taking a short “vacation” from your political identity and being more open to discovering different political viewpoints—perhaps joining one of a number of living room conversations happening around the country.

In addition, he suggests working to reform unfair political practices that create more division—for example, gerrymander voting districts or creating shadow organizations that allow the top 1 percent to discreetly fund political campaigns. When considering candidates for political office, he advises citizens to look for leaders who, if not independent, can at least lessen partisan divisions, because they demonstrate that they know how to listen to others, work with diverse partners, and treat adversaries with respect.

“There can be no genuine, productive search for common ground without a willingness to learn on the part of all of us,” he writes.

Of course, this may seem overly optimistic—can people really get outside of their party affiliations and not be overly influenced by media messages? Will they forego power in order to work toward the greater good? Perhaps not; but if we don’t try to move in that direction, we are surely bound to end up with more of the same.

“If both parties have failed our country, just working to make sure that our side wins is not enough,” writes Gerzon.

In many ways, Gerzon’s arguments mirror those of social scientists—and of the Greater Good Science Center—who’ve argued for the importance of empathy and respecting others’ viewpoints in order to find common ground, and who warn of the dangers of ignoring internal biases in decision-making. Time and time again, we find that when we choose connection, respect, and openness over power, disrespect, and control, great things can happen—even in politics, argues Gerzon.

“If all of us do our part, our chorus of commitment to our country will cut through the hyperpartisan static,” he writes.

And that, indeed, gives me hope for a more united America.

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Five Science-Backed Strategies for More Happiness

Did you know that happiness has its own holiday?

Four years ago, the General Assembly of the United Nations proclaimed March 20 to be the International Day of Happiness. It’s easy to understand why they see happiness as something to celebrate: Happy people are healthier; they get sick less often and live longer. Happy people are more likely to get married and have fulfilling marriages, and they have more friends. They make more money and are more productive at work. Based on decades of research, it has become clear that happiness is not just a personal issue; it’s a matter of public health, global economics, and national well-being. 

But it doesn’t come easy, as most of us know. Disappointments and annoyances grab our attention like gnats, and even the good things in life seem to lose their luster over time. Add to that a crammed schedule and mounting obligations, and happiness might just seem out of reach—achievable for other people, perhaps, but not us.

Fortunately, research suggests that happiness is something we can cultivate with practice. The Greater Good Science Center has collected many happiness practices on our website Greater Good in Action, alongside other research-based exercises for fostering kindness, connection, and resilience. Below are 11 of those happiness practices, grouped into five broader strategies for a more fulfilling life.

1. Acknowledge the good

If we don’t feel happy, it’s tempting to look for things to fix: the job that isn’t prestigious enough, the apartment that’s too cramped, our partner’s annoying habit. But focusing on all the negatives isn’t the surest route to feeling better. Instead, a simple way to start cultivating happiness is by recognizing the good.

In the Three Good Things exercise, for example, you keep a journal devoted solely to the positives in your life. Each evening, you write down three things that went well and add some detail about each, including how they made you feel. For example, you might recall a heartfelt thank you from a coworker, a quiet moment drinking tea, or your daughter’s infectious laughter. Importantly, you also briefly explain why you think each good thing happened—which focuses your attention on the enduring sources of goodness that surround you.

A 2005 study invited participants to do this practice daily for a week, and afterward they reported feeling happier and less depressed than when they started. In fact, they maintained their happiness boost six months later, illustrating how impactful it can be to focus on the good things in life.

Many of those good things lie just outside our doorstep, and we can practice noticing them on a Savoring Walk. Here, you take a 20-minute walk and observe the sights, sounds, and smells you encounter—freshly cut grass, an epic skyscraper, a stranger’s smile. Each time you notice something positive, take the time to absorb it and think about why you enjoy it. On your subsequent Savoring Walks, strike out in different directions to seek new things to admire.

In a study by Fred Bryant of Loyola University Chicago, participants who took Savoring Walks daily for a week reported greater increases in happiness than participants who went for walks as usual. “Making a conscious effort to notice and explicitly acknowledge the various sources of joy around us can make us happier,” write Bryant and Joseph Veroff in the book Savoring.

If you have trouble seeing the good that’s already around you, another strategy is to create some. In Creating and Recalling Positive Events, you carve out time for yourself and fill your schedule with enjoyment.

When you have a day free, don’t rush around doing chores; instead, try three different happy activities:Something you do alone, such as reading, listening to music, or meditating.
Something you do with others, such as going out for coffee, riding your bike, or watching a movie.
Something meaningful, such as volunteering, helping a neighbor in need, or calling a friend who’s struggling.

If your go-to happiness practice has been Netflix and a bowl of ice cream, this exercise can reconnect you with different sources of satisfaction. These three activities should offer you a sense of pleasure, engagement, and meaning, all viable paths to a satisfying life. A 2014 study found that even psychiatric patients with suicidal thoughts found value in doing this exercise, reporting more optimism and less hopelessness afterward.

2. Add happiness through subtraction

Even after we identify the positives in our life, we’re still prone to adapting to them over time. A good thing repeated brings us less satisfaction, until it no longer seems to contribute to our day-to-day mood at all; we take it for granted. That’s why, sometimes, it’s a good idea to introduce a little deprivation. 


In Mental Subtraction of Positive Events, you call to mind a certain positive event—the birth of a child, a career achievement, a special trip—and think of all the circumstances that made it possible. How could things have turned out differently? Just taking a moment to imagine this alternate reality creates a favorable comparison, where suddenly our life looks quite good.

In a 2008 study, participants who performed this exercise reported feeling more gratitude and other positive emotions than participants who simply thought about past positive events without imagining their absence. Mental Subtraction seems to jolt us into the insight that the good things in our lives aren’t inevitable; we are, in fact, very lucky.

If imagining absence isn’t quite enough for you, what about experiencing it for real? In the Give It Up practice, you spend a week abstaining from a pleasure in order to appreciate it more fully. This pleasure should be something that’s relatively abundant in your life, such as eating chocolate or watching TV. At the end of the week, when you can finally indulge, pay special attention to how it feels.

In a 2013 study, people who gave up chocolate savored it more and experienced a more positive mood when they finally ate it at the end of the week, compared with people who ate chocolate as usual. This exercise may not only open your eyes to a single pleasure (like the miracle of cacao), but make you more conscious of life’s many other pleasures, too.

3. Find meaning and purpose

Creating and Recalling Positive Events reminds us that pleasure isn’t the only path to bliss; meaning can also bring us happiness, albeit a quieter and more reflective kind.

In the Meaningful Photos practice, you take pictures of things that are meaningful to you and reflect on them. Over the course of a week, look out for sources of meaning in your life—family members, favorite spots, childhood mementos—and capture about nine or ten different images of them. At the end of the week, spend an hour reflecting on them: What does each photo represent, and why is it meaningful to you? Jot down some of those thoughts if it’s helpful.

Amid the chores and routines, life can sometimes feel dull and mundane. Reigniting our sense of meaning can remind us what’s important, which boosts our energy and gives us strength to face life’s stresses. In a 2013 study, college students who completed this exercise not only boosted their sense of meaning, but also reported greater positive emotions and life satisfaction as well.

We can also boost our energy and motivation by fostering a sense of purpose, and the Best Possible Self exercise is one way to do that. Here, you journal for 15 minutes about an ideal future in which everything is going as well as possible, from your family and personal life to your career and health.

In a 2006 study, participants who wrote about their Best Possible Selves daily for two weeks reported greater positive emotions afterward, and their mood continued increasing up to a month later if they kept up the practice.

This exercise allows us to clarify our goals and priorities, painting a detailed picture of where we want to be. This picture should be ambitious but realistic so that it motivates us to make changes, rather than reminding us how imperfect and disappointing our lives are now. When we reflect on our future this way, we may feel more in control of our destiny.

4. Use your strengths

Just as we hunt for things to fix in life, we also tend to obsess over flaws in ourselves; our weaknesses loom large. But what if we put more time and attention into our strengths and positive attributes?

The Use Your Strengths exercise invites you to consider your strengths of character—from creativity and perseverance to kindness and humility—and put them into practice. Each day for a week, select a strength and make a plan to use it in a new and different way. You can repeat the same strength—directing your curiosity toward a work project one day and toward your partner’s interests the next—or work on different strengths each day. At the end of the week, synthesize the experience by writing about what you did, how it made you feel, and what you learned.     

In a 2005 study, participants who engaged in this exercise for a week reported feeling happier and less depressed, and that happiness boost lasted up to six months. Use Your Strengths may help us transfer skills between home and work—applying our professional creativity to our children’s school assignments or our domestic kindness to our co-workers—and give us a confidence boost all around.

5. Connect with others

The practices above invite us to turn inward, tinkering with our attitudes and the way we view the world. But decades of science also suggest that turning outward and connecting to the people around us is one of the surest routes to happiness.

As a first step, you can try an adapted version of the Best Possible Self exercise for relationships to give you insights into what kinds of social connection you desire. In an ideal life, what would your relationships with your spouse, family, and friends look like?

One way to feel an immediate boost of connection is through Random Acts of Kindness. Random Acts of Kindness don’t have to be flashy or extravagant; they can be as simple as helping a friend with a chore or making breakfast for your partner. You can also extend your circle of kindness to strangers and community members, feeding a parking meter or offering a meal to someone in need.

In a 2005 study, participants who performed five acts of kindness on one day a week for six weeks reported increases in happiness. (This didn’t happen when they spread out their acts of kindness across the week, perhaps because a single kind act may not feel noteworthy on its own.) Researchers also suggest varying your acts of kindness over time to keep the practice fresh and dynamic.

Some of your acts of kindness may involve giving, and the Make Giving Feel Good practice helps ensure that giving does, indeed, bring happiness. Researchers Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton, among others, have found evidence that being kind and generous does make us happier, but they’ve also found that acts of giving are most effective when they meet these three criteria:It’s a choice: Give because you choose to, not because you feel pressured or obligated to.
You connect: Giving can be an opportunity to make connections with the people you’re helping, so choose activities where you get to spend time with recipients, like helping a friend move or volunteering at a soup kitchen.
You see the impact: If you’re donating money, for example, don’t just give and move on. Find out what your money will be used for—like new classroom supplies or a cooking stove.

In a 2011 study, participants were offered a $10 Starbucks gift card to use in different ways: They either gave it to someone, gave it to someone and joined them for a drink, or used it on themselves while drinking with a friend. The ones who gave the card away and spent time with the recipient—connecting with them and seeing the impact of giving—felt happiest afterward.

Of course, the pursuit of happiness isn’t all sunshine and rainbows and mugs of tea and smiling children. Sometimes we need to tackle our insecurities and weaknesses, and we can’t just ignore our draining jobs and nagging relatives. But the practices here represent the other side of the coin, the one we often neglect: seeing, appreciating, and mobilizing the good.

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Why You Should Share Your Struggles on Facebook

It’s tempting to hide our true selves and worst moments on social media. Instead of sharing the whole story, we brag about our accomplishments and post pictures of beach vacations—stuff that research suggests can stimulate envy. Research also finds that Facebook users are at risk of addiction, loneliness, and other negative effects.

But that’s one side of the story, a story that Facebook’s 1.4 billion active users are shaping and rewriting every day. A new study suggests that sharing our struggles can, in fact, bring out the best in our Facebook friends. According to a paper presented at the recent CSCW 2016 conference, users can provide genuine emotional support to each other in times of distress.

Moira Burke and Mike Develin, data scientists at Facebook, analyzed millions of status updates where Facebook users shared their feelings. In the first large-scale study of its kind, they took a look at exactly what happens when people tell their friends that they feel annoyed, sad, heartbroken, helpless, and more. The results might instill some faith in humanity on social media.

1. Facebook users express negative emotions pretty often
We might imagine that Facebook users keep their negative emotions to themselves, preferring to turn to close friends and family for the difficult task of admitting they’re struggling. But that doesn’t seem to be the case. In addition to those posed “I’m lounging by the beach” photos, it turns out that Facebook users are also sharing a good deal of negative emotion.

In an initial study of almost 1.4 million US Facebook users, the researchers examined 30 million status updates with a “feeling annotation,” that little box underneath a post where users complete the sentence “I’m feeling…” (When you currently use this feature, Facebook suggests a variety of emotions: blessed, excited, loved, amused, annoyed, sick, etc.) 

Among the 30 million status updates they examined, 38 percent expressed a negative emotion.  In general, younger and male users tended to express more negative emotions than their older and female counterparts. Users were also more likely to broadcast their negative feelings if they had smaller and more-dense networks of friends. Denser networks are more tightly knit, which means that more of your friends are also friends with each other.

2. When you express negative emotions, your friends rally around you
In a second study, this time analyzing about 30 million status updates from more than 19 million US Facebook users, the researchers focused their lens on the response to an emotion. After we express a negative feeling on Facebook, how do our friends react?

If Facebook truly is as superficial as we fear, this type of post could be less popular. Our friends might feel uncomfortable; digital eyebrows might be raised at our flagrant flouting of the rule to “only post happy stuff.” But that’s not what the researchers observed.

Twenty-four hours after users posted a negative feeling, those posts had received 36 percent more comments than posts without a feeling annotation. The most-commented feelings included ones you’d really hope would get responses: devastated, nervous, heartbroken, worried, and scared. In addition, friends also took the time to write longer comments, using 21 percent more words (though, admittedly, the average comment was still fewer than seven words long).

“The results mirror face-to-face support provision, with friends lifting each other up in times of sadness,” the researchers say.

3. When you express negative emotions, your friends empathize
In the second study, the researchers also analyzed the text of responses, looking for positive emotions words (e.g., love, nice, sweet), negative emotion words (e.g., hurt, ugly, nasty), and supportive words (e.g., bless, luck, strength, sympathy). What they found was evidence of empathy.

When users posted a negative emotion, their friends responded with more negative emotion as well—78 percent more than in responses to posts with no feeling annotation. When we feel bad, it seems, our friends feel with us.

Responses to negative-emotion posts contained nearly 2.5 times more supportive words and also more positive emotion, perhaps because friends were wishing each other well. “Mutual friends of the original poster [may be] collectively offering support to each other and trying to reappraise the situation,” the researchers say—a kind of ad hoc support group. 

4. Friends are particularly sensitive to low self-worth
All these effects seemed to be amplified when Facebook users shared a select few feelings—namely, negative feelings about the self: unwanted, worthless, alone, helpless. These posts received 72 percent more comments that were 51 percent longer and contained twice as many negative-emotion words than your average response to a post without a feeling annotation. Emotions like unloved or defeated act as big red flags calling for our friends’ help.

Researchers also tracked how many private messages users received after posting their status updates, weeding out conversations that had already been in progress. When users posted negative, self-related feelings, friends mobilized their support across private channels as well: Messages to the user increased by 24 percent, and you can easily imagine the content (although the researchers didn’t study it): I saw your post—are you okay? Is there anything I can do to help?

On the surface, then, it would seem as if Facebook users are providing genuine emotional support to each other, looking out for their friends and empathizing with their emotions. We do know that people feel closer to their Facebook friends after getting comments from them, for example (and more so than after getting a like). Future research may tell us how Facebook users feel after the particular emotional interactions studied here, and what happens if our negative feelings get no response.

In the meantime, this research might encourage all of us to share more about our struggles on social media. Your tough times can bring out the best in your friends—and help make Facebook a better place for everyone.

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Three Surprising Ways to Feel Less Busy

Busyness stinks.

Although people tell me all the time they like feeling busy—perhaps because it makes them feel important and significant—I’m not buying it. Would you ever choose busyness over a more relaxed form of productivity? When life starts to feel hectic, here are a few ways to dial back the overwhelm.

1. Give yourself a shot of awe

When researchers induced feelings of awe in people—by showing them video clips of people next to vast things like whales or waterfalls—it altered their perception of time such that the people felt like they had more time on their hands. So much time on their hands, in fact, that awestruck people become likely to give away their time by volunteering to help someone out. They also report fewer feelings of impatience.

Not sure where to find yourself some awe? Look no farther than YouTube. Try searching “awe” and “whales,” or just watch this oldie but goodie video clip—it makes me feel awestruck every time. If the concept of “awe” feels too abstract, try thinking about things that amaze you. What makes you feel a childlike sense of wonder? Makes you feel elevated or inspired? Now take five minutes to let one of those things work their magic on your busy brain.

2. Create an anti-busyness ritual

Researchers believe that the brains in both humans and animals evolved to feel calmed by repetitive behavior, and that our daily rituals are a primary way to manage stress. This is especially true in unpredictable environments or situations where we feel pressured, a lack of control, or threatened in some way.

When the pace of life seems to be taking off without you, create a ritual to help you feel more in control. What counts as a ritual? Something you do repetitively in certain situations—usually a series of behaviors done in the same order. Think of your favorite ball player’s pregame ritual.

When I start to feel pressured for time, my own “busyness ritual” kicks in: I stretch my neck (first by looking to the left, and then to the right, and then by tipping my left ear to my left shoulder and my right ear to my right shoulder). I exhale deeply with each stretch, and then center my head, and straighten my posture. On my last exhale, I think to myself: “I have plenty of time.” The stretching and deep breathing may be what helps me feel calm, but also having and using a ritual—any ritual—can help us feel more in control and less overwhelmed.

3. Find “flow”

Dropping into “the zone” or finding flow is the opposite of feeling busy. Time seems to stand still—if we are aware of time at all. Flow isn’t as elusive a state as you might think, but it does require that we stop multi-tasking, and that we build a fortress against interruption around ourselves. (I also have a “get into the flow” ritual that I use before I write).

I know, I know. You don’t have time to foster awe, or create an anti-busyness ritual, or stop multi-tasking. You’re too busy!

Listen: You don’t have time NOT to do these things. Busyness is a mark of what neuroscientists call “cognitive overload.” This state impairs our ability to think creatively, to plan, organize, innovate, solve problems, make decisions, resist temptations, learn new things easily, speak fluently, remember important social information, and control our emotions. In other words, it impairs basically everything we need to do in a given day. So if you have important work to do, please: Take five minutes to dial back your busyness.

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If you liked this post, you’ll love this short and funny documentary, HumanKinda. The premise is that busyness robs us of our humanity, making us only “kinda” human.

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Four Awe-Inspiring Activities

When was the last time something filled you with awe? While young children seem to be wonderstruck on a regular basis, this experience tends to be rare in adults; our attention is by necessity more focused on day-to-day responsibilities and mundane tasks. But awe is just as important for adults, according to a new and rapidly growing field of research.

Researchers define awe as the feeling we get in the presence of something larger than ourselves that challenges our usual way of seeing the world. A great work of art, a breathtaking vista, a moving speech, the first flowers of spring—these can all evoke awe.

Central to the experience of awe is a sense of smallness, but not the kind associated with shame or self-doubt—rather, awe involves feeling interconnected with others and broadening our horizons, like a camera lens zooming out to reveal a more complex and inclusive picture. From this vantage point, everyday concerns tend to feel less overwhelming—as we get smaller, so do they.

Research suggests that awe has numerous psychological benefits, including increased life satisfaction, a sense of time slowing down or standing still, and a greater desire to help others. It may also have health benefits: A recent study found that people who experienced awe more frequently in their daily lives showed lower tissue levels of interleukin-6, a pro-inflammatory cytokine associated with heart disease risk. Remarkably, awe predicted lower levels of interleukin-6 than other positive emotions, including joy, contentment, and amusement. Awe may help people cope better with stress by promoting curiosity and exploration, rather than withdrawal and isolation.

It’s not necessary—or desirable—to feel awe all the time, but most of us could use a little more of it in our lives. Researchers have identified several effective strategies for increasing awe, many of which are collected on the Greater Good Science Center website Greater Good in Action (GGIA), which features the top research-based activities for fostering happiness, kindness, connection, and resilience.

Here, I highlight GGIA’s four core awe practices.

1. Write about a personal experience of awe

What experiences in your life have most filled you with a sense of wonder and inspiration? A hike through the Grand Canyon? A visit to the pyramids of Egypt? Your child’s first steps?

The simple act of writing about awe can be very powerful. The Awe Narrative practice involves reflecting on a personal experience of awe and then writing about it in as much detail as possible. Recalling the experience in vivid detail can conjure up the feelings you had at the time.

A 2012 study led by Melanie Rudd, assistant professor at the Stanford University Graduate School of Business, found that people who completed this writing exercise felt even better than people who recalled and wrote about a happy experience. Afterward, they reported stronger feelings of awe, less sense of time pressure, and greater willingness to volunteer their time to help a charity.

This practice may be especially useful when the daily grind is weighing you down. Even just a brief reminder of an awe-inducing experience from your past may help lift you out of the doldrums and remind you that the world can be a magical place.

2. Take an Awe Walk
Flickr / Chris Chabot / CC BY-NC 2.0
Travel can be a great source of awe, but awe can also be found closer to home. The Awe Walk practice involves taking a stroll somewhere that has the potential to inspire awe. This could be a natural setting, like a tree-lined trail; an urban setting, like the top of a skyscraper; or an indoor setting, like a museum.

Whether you feel awe on your Awe Walk depends not just on where you go, but on your attitude. One way to create more opportunities for awe is to approach your surroundings with fresh eyes, as if you’re seeing them for the first time. Otherwise ordinary features—a bird singing, the color of the sky—may be transformed into something more extraordinary.

Your walk will also be enhanced if you leave your cell phone (and other potential distractions) at home so that you can be fully present, and if you seek out novel environments, where the sights and sounds are unexpected.

But it’s also possible to integrate an Awe Walk into your daily routine—even if a route is familiar to you, you can make an effort to notice new things. The same old sights you pass every day may turn out to be surprising sources of inspiration. As a case in point, Paula Hawkins, author of The Girl on the Train, got the idea for the bestselling novel during her morning commute, as she gazed curiously out the train window.

Indirect evidence for the effectiveness of the Awe Walk comes from a 2015 study led by Paul Piff, then a researcher at the University of California, Berkeley. In this study, one group of participants stood in a grove of towering eucalyptus trees and gazed up for just one minute, while another looked at a building instead. Those who looked up at the trees reported greater feelings of awe, were less likely to feel superior to others, and were more likely to help someone in need, supporting the idea that awe fosters a sense of humility and concern for others.

3. Watch an awe-inducing video
Yosemite National Park
Even if you’re stuck at home, awe can be found on your computer screen—the Internet provides an endless supply of goosebump-inducing images and videos. One of these videos is featured in the Awe Video practice—a reel of majestic shots from Yosemite National Park. National Geographic is another good source of awe-eliciting media, and YouTube hosts countless recordings of riveting speeches and performances.

You could also draw from your own photo or video collection, if you’ve visited awe-inspiring locations, or make a point to capture your next adventure on film (provided that this doesn’t interfere with the experience itself).

Research suggests that the Awe Video practice is an effective way to boost awe in the moment. In a second 2012 study led by Melanie Rudd, participants watched a brief video displaying people in city streets and parks interacting with vast, mentally overwhelming images of waterfalls, whales, and astronauts. Compared to participants who watched a video designed to induce happiness, they reported greater feelings of awe and a sense of having more time.

4. Read an awe-inspiring story

Written words can also evoke awe. The Awe Story practice involves reading a detailed story about climbing up the Eiffel Tower and taking in the panoramic view. The story is told in the second person to make readers feel like they’re experiencing it themselves.

Awe-inspiring writing can also be found in literature and nonfiction, such as Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, and in your own writing (a reason to consider recording your experiences of awe as they occur, so that you can reflect back on them when you’re in need of an awe boost).

A third 2012 study led by Melanie Rudd illustrates some possible benefits of reading about awe. In this study, participants read either the Eiffel Tower story or a story about climbing an unnamed tower and seeing a plain landscape from above. Those who read the Eiffel Tower story reported greater awe, a greater preference for experiences over material objects, a sense of having more time, and greater life satisfaction (compared to those who read the neutral story). That sense of having more time was what made people more satisfied with their lives.

Life can sometimes feel lackluster and dull, and inspiration can be hard to find. On those days, even a small dose of awe can go a long way in elevating your spirits and reviving your sense of purpose. Awe isn’t always a comforting feeling—sometimes it can be downright frightening—but it’s a powerful way to cut through the monotony and see things in a new light. We hope that the awe exercises on Greater Good in Action will be a useful starting point as you aspire to make your life more “awesome.”

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How Altruistic is Your Brain?

Many scholars have argued that we humans are a morally flawed species, concerned only about ourselves. Without religious doctrine and strict ethical codes, we would have little reason for staving off our immoral, selfish behaviors and no compunction to act altruistically.

But according to Donalf Pfaff, a neuroscientist at Rockefeller University, this model of human social behavior is based on outmoded thinking and not supported by science. In his book The Altruistic Brain, Pfaff argues that findings from neuroscience and behavioral science point to a new model of altruism—one that sees altruism not as a response to moral authority, but as an instinct that is hard-wired into our brains.

In other words, we are “born to be good,” he argues: We have the brain circuitry that allows us to be sensitive to what other people are thinking and feeling, to empathize with their suffering, to care about their welfare, and to translate that information into compassionate action. Many of these neural mechanisms may fall below our conscious awareness; but they exist and drive our actions. That’s why we tend to develop rationalizations for why we act altruistically in a given situation—rationalizations that come after the fact, not before.

“The guiding principle of a healthy human brain is, ‘First act morally, then ask why,’” he writes.

Similar to arguments made by evolutionary biologists, Pfaff suggests that altruism is not the result of religion, but probably evolved to allow early humans to expand their niche and survive in a hostile world. He believes that the drive to have sex and the need to care for children is part of what propelled humans to decrease their fear of strangers and expand their circle of caring to include more and more people—something that altruism augments.

“Hormones and nerve cells that regulate the behaviors that are essentially social and that can be among the friendliest of behaviors—sex and parenting—provide the evolutionary and mechanistic background for prosociality,” he writes.

But Pfaff goes beyond evolutionary theory. By painstakingly reviewing the work of a wide range of researchers—Joshua Greene and Michael Tomasello, to name just a couple—he shows how helping others is generally our first response in human interactions, even though we may act differently given more time or thought. This leads him to suggest that we should “design strategies to elicit this capacity effectively, rather than to start from the assumption that it must be taught from scratch.”

In reviewing the research on priming, Pfaff suggests that people could be “primed” to act altruistically if they knew they had an instinctual capacity for doing so. He points to ways of structuring one’s environment to increase altruism in order to promotes trust, foster better relationships, and create a “virtuous cycle.” He even goes so far as to suggest that we could (and should) restructure regulatory bodies and the criminal justice system to inspire more altruistic and relational—rather than punitive and adversarial—ways of working together for fairness and justice.

“Because we know that moral reciprocity is humanity’s default position and we believe it is desirable, it would seem incumbent on us to work to develop institutions and cultures that foster moral reciprocity,” writes Pfaff. 

Of course, altruistic tendencies are not universal, and there are cases where it falls apart altogether. Pfaff describes some of these cases—individual “bad actors,” gangs, and war, for example—and suggests ideas for how to use the concept of the altruistic brain to help avert them. Of course, much of this part of his book is speculative, and sometimes overly idealistic; but it does give one food for thought…and some hope, too. Perhaps, if we come to understand how caring for others is part of our natural instinct, we may be able to stave off some of our larger social problems and learn how to better resolve our conflicts.

According to Pfaff, our brains would definitely be on our side.

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