Category Positive Psychology

{ Empathy Is a Choice …* } Research Says: Empathy is only as limited as we choose it to be

{ Empathy Is a Choice ...* } Research Says: Empathy is only as limited as we choose it to be | rethinked.org

“Arguments against empathy rely on an outdated view of emotion as a capricious beast that needs to yield to sober reason. Yes, there are many situations in which empathy appears to be limited in its scope, but this is not a deficiency in the emotion itself. In our view, empathy is only as limited as we choose it to be.” 

In a recently published article, psychologists Daryl CameronMichael Inzlicht, and William A. Cunningham dispute the notion that empathy is a limited commodity, making the much more compelling argument that empathy is a choice.

We believe that empathy is a choice that we make whether to extend ourselves to others. The “limits” to our empathy are merely apparent, and can change, sometimes drastically, depending on what we want to feel.

The co-authors highlight several studies which show that the absence of empathy is linked to extrinsic and context-specific factors. By disproving the idea that our failures of empathy are linked to inherent limits in our capacity for the emotion, these studies offer an inspiring and compelling case for choosing to empathize.

. . . * 

Two decades ago, the psychologist Daniel Batson and colleagues conducted a study that showed that if people expected their empathy to cost them significant money or time, they would avoid situations that they believed would trigger it. More recently, one of us, Daryl Cameron, along with the psychologist Keith Payne, conducted an experiment to see if similar motivational factors could explain why we seem more empathetic to single victims than to large numbers of them.

Participants in this study read about either one or eight child refugees from the Darfur region of Sudan. Half of the participants were led to expect that they would be asked to make a donation to the refugee or refugees, whereas the other half were not. When there was no financial cost involved in feeling empathy, people felt more empathy for the eight children than for the one child, reversing the usual bias. If insensitivity to mass suffering stemmed from an intrinsic limit to empathy, such financial factors shouldn’t have made a difference.

. . . *

Some kinds of people seem generally less likely to feel empathy for others — for instance, powerful people. An experiment conducted by one of us, Michael Inzlicht, along with the researchers Jeremy Hogeveen and Sukhvinder Obhi, found that even people temporarily assigned to high-power roles showed brain activity consistent with lower empathy.

But such experimental manipulations surely cannot change a person’s underlying empathic capacity; something else must be to blame. And other research suggests that the blame lies with a simple change in motivation: People with a higher sense of power exhibit less empathy because they have less incentive to interact with others.

. . . *

Likewise, in another recent study, the psychologists Karina Schumann, Jamil Zaki and Carol S. Dweck found that when people learned that empathy was a skill that could be improved — as opposed to a fixed personality trait — they engaged in more effort to experience empathy for racial groups other than their own. Empathy for people unlike us can be expanded, it seems, just by modifying our views about empathy.

C H O O S E   E M P A T H Y   . . . *

Source: Empathy Is Actually a Choice via New York Times, published July 10, 2015

the power of [ awe…* ]

The Power of Awe…for altruism*

The NY Times published a great Op Ed this past Friday called Why Do We Experience Awe? In it, psychologist professors’ Paul Piff and Dacher Keltner cite studies that demonstrate the power of experiencing awe, “that often-positive feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends our understanding of the world.” Experiences of awe are those that give you goosebumps.

In a series of studies, the authors found that awe is a “collective” emotion that motivates us to be altruistic – to act in collaborative ways and care more for the greater good than for ourselves. In one study, people were either given a few minutes to look at awe-inspiring Tasmanian blue gum eucalyptus trees or to look at the facade of a science building nearby. Afterwards, an experimenter “dropped” a handful of pens. Those who spent the previous few minutes staring at the trees picked up more pens to help the other person.

Photo Credit: Institute of Paper Science & Technology (http://www.rbi.gatech.edu/)

Photo Credit: Institute of Paper Science & Technology (http://www.rbi.gatech.edu/)

In another experiment, participants who wrote about past experiences of awe or watched nature scenes for five minutes cooperated more and shared more resources.

The authors explain that

…awe imbues people with a different sense of themselves, one that is smaller, more humble and part of something larger… fleeting experiences pf awe redefine the self in terms of the collective, and orient our actions toward the needs of those around us.

The Power of Awe…for your health*

Other research has indicated that awe is also beneficial for your health. One study found a strong correlation between experiencing positive emotions and low IL-6 levels, a molecule that promotes inflammation in the body. The stronger correlation was between levels of inflammation and having felt awe-struck.

The college students in their study reported feeling this “awe-struck” emotion 3 or more times a week, which is good news. Awe-inspiring experiences are out there if you look for them.

My Awe-filled Weekend…*

Piff and Keltner worry that today’s culture is awe deprived. The cite art, nature, and simple quotidian acts of humanity as places to find this awe and suggest that we more actively pursue awe-inspiring moments.

In a place like NYC, there are ample opportunities to find awe, if you take the time to look for it. Over the weekend I noted my own experiences of awe.

On Friday I visited the MoMA – a wonderful place to appreciate the beauty and wonder expressed upon a canvas. While there, I discovered a painting I had never seen before, entitled Hide-and-Seek by Pavel Tchelitchew (1942). This image is a game of hide and seek on its own, and the longer you stare the more images you find hidden in the canvas.

Hide-and-Seek (1942)

Hide-and-Seek (1942)

I spent Sunday at Coney Island, where the old school amusement park, giant busy boardwalk, and aquarium provided countless experiences of awe. Luna Park is a place out of an earlier time, with old wooden roller coasters and traditional carnival games. It was a wonderful break from the modern-day technological world to co-experience the joy of more simple entertainment.

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On the Coney Island Boardwalk, the colliding of cultures and experiences make for an awe-inspiring experience. There were dance parties, snake-charmers, and people of all ages, races, and cultures coming together to enjoy the beautiful weather (and Nathan’s hotdogs from its original location).

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At the New York Aquarium, we were mesmerized by tropical fish, sharks, and sting rays. I saw a sea lion show sitting beside two young children and together we delighted in the sea lions’ tricks.

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I hope you all had a similarly awe-inspiring weekend! Until next week…*

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rethinking { stress } to live a healthier life.

THE PRIMAL SCREAM…*

Last night I witnessed Columbia University’s traditional PRIMAL SCREAM. If, like me, you have no idea what I’m talking about, this scream is a tradition with variants at a number of prestigious Universities – including UCLA, Stanford, Harvard, Cornell, U Penn, and Vassar. At midnight of the Sunday of finals week each semester, students open their windows or go outside and SCREAM blood-curdling, horror-movie worthy screams. It is quite the exhilarating and satisfying experience.The tradition is said to help students release their pent up anxiety and stress about exams.

It’s finals week at Columbia so stress levels are high and libraries are packed at all hours of the day and night with students finishing papers and cramming for tests.In fact, this has been an especially stressful year in my life. I’ve been working 60-80 hour weeks with an amount of responsibility on projects that has left me exhausted and anxious more than I’d like to admit. I’ve seen it affect my sleep, diet, and mood in negative ways. Which is why the following TED talk is so important.

RETHINK STRESS…*

As discussed in Kelly McGonigal’s TEDGlobal2013 talk, “How to make stress your friend,” McGonigal explains that despite what we’ve been told, stress is NOT the enemy. In a recent Pew study, results suggested that it is not the experience of stress but instead the belief that stress is bad for your health, that leads to death and other negative health outcomes. In other word, it is not stress itself but rather how you think about it, that leads to poor health.

Changing your attitude towards stress can change your body’s response to it. When we’re stressed we have a clear physiological response: our hearts beat faster, we breathe faster, we sweat. And our minds interpret these as negative signs of anxiety.

McGonigal asks, what if you view these changes as signs that your body is energized and preparing itself for a challenge? In a study at Harvard, researchers found that participants who were trained to rethink their physiological stress responses as helpful rather than a sign of weakness, were less stressed, less anxious, and more confident. More importantly, their blood vessels did NOT constrict. In a typical stress response, our blood vessels constrict which, if chronic, can lead to cardiovascular disease. But these participants’ physiological profiles more closely resembled people experiencing joy or courage.

 

http://ideas.ted.com/embrace-your-stress-a-visual-idea/

 

The Social Side of Stress…*

McGonigal also speaks to the social side of stress, specifically the power of Oxytocin. Oxytocin is a stress hormone that makes you compassionate and caring. It motivates you to seek support, to tell people how you feel, to surround yourself with people who care about you. It is, in essence, a built-in resilience feature for stress. And physiologically, releasing oxytocin and giving into its urges – seeking support and love – is even better for your heart health.

As McGonigal concludes,

Stress gives us access to our hearts. The compassionate heart that finds joy and meaning in connecting with others, and yes, your pounding physical heart, working so hard to give you strength and energy. And when you choose to view stress in this way, you’re not just getting better at stress, you’re actually making a pretty profound statement.You’re saying that you can trust yourself to handle life’s challenges. And you’re remembering that you don’t have to face them alone.

CONCLUSIONS…*

To me, this TED talk gives the PRIMAL SCREAM even more profound meaning. This scream embodies the strength and confidence of the student body to tackle the week ahead. While studying for finals and paper-writing can often feel like isolating and solitary experiences, the unison behind the scream ties students together into a community that can accomplish anything.

So, if you are approaching the next week with anxiety or trepidation, let out a nice long primal scream and change your mindset about stress for a healthier, happier life. Never under-estimate the power of a good rethink…*

 

Can Learning About the Science of Happiness Actually Make You Happier?

Can Learning About the Science of Happiness Actually Make You Happier? | rethinked.org

Six cartoon faces created by Pixar artist Matt Jones to convey fear, enthusiasm, anger, affection, sadness, and amusement – source: Greater Good Science Center

 

In an article published yesterday on Greater Good Science Center, Emiliana Simon-Thomas and Dacher Keltner, co-instructors for a MOOC on the scientific principles and everyday behaviors that predict happiness, GG101x: The Science of Happiness, shared some preliminary findings into the effects that taking their ten-week course had on participants. They wanted to find out whether taking an online course about the science of happiness actually makes one happier. Turns out, it does.

Of course, happiness is a notoriously difficult concept to define, which makes the issue of measuring it and capturing its changes in quality and intensity over time a complex endeavor to say the least. For their purpose Simon-Thomas and Keltner set out the following definition of happiness :

There is no perfect consensus definition, though most people have an intuitive sense for how it feels, and research suggests that there are systematic qualities and characteristics of those who fit the description of “very happy people.” Key insights that arise from this work, taking multiple methods and perspectives into account, is that happiness hinges upon the strength and authenticity of a person’s social connections, their aptitude for human kindness, and their constructive role in meaningful community.

Based on this definition, Simon-Thomas and Keltner monitored various self-reported metrics related to happiness of the 5000 participants who completed the course, before, during and four months after they had completed the course. What they found makes a pretty compelling argument for learning about the science of happiness–the participants’ happiness levels went up over the ten weeks in which they were taking the course and was still up from their starting level four months after completing the course.

Every week, we checked in with our students to see how they were feeling. We showed them a sequence of six cartoon faces created by Pixar artist Matt Jones to convey fear, enthusiasm, anger, affection, sadness, and amusement. Under each, we asked them to rate, on a scale of 1 to 10, how much each face matched how they’d been feeling lately.  Then we transformed their collective weekly ratings into a single score.

The result? For students who responded at least 8 out of 10 times—suggesting that they were fully participating in the course—positive feelings went up, and up, and up. They felt progressively less sadness, anger, and fear, while at the same time experiencing more and more amusement, enthusiasm, and affection.

We also invited students to fill out a brief battery of research-validated questionnaires that are regularly used to assess feelings like happiness, stress, flourishing, or satisfaction with life. They did this three times, just before, right after, and three to four months after completing the course. Again, we found evidence that participating in our Science of Happiness course improved people’s lives.

More specifically, the course’s participants found that:

1. Well-being went up and stayed up

During the course, subjective happiness, life satisfaction, and flourishing increased by about five percent—and this boost remained even four months after the course was completed, suggesting that the impact of GG101x is sustained.

2. Stress and loneliness went down, and stayed down

Students reported feeling significantly less stress and loneliness in their lives, both issues that present substantial barriers to health and happiness. This also continued to be true four months after the course ended.

3. A sense of common humanity went up, and stayed up

It turns out that GG101x helped people to think of themselves as having a stronger connection to the rest of humanity, no matter how similar or different. This more open-minded perspective may be a key to boosting happiness on wider, more collective levels.

Source: Can an Online Course Boost Happiness?

Find happiness in the humdrum, rediscover the mundane, && { embrace the ordinary…* }

Most commentary on the explosion of social media and tedious micro-blogging has been negative: we’ve become a generation of over-sharers, we’re over documenting our lives rather than experiencing them.

But recent research suggests that you should NOT delete your tumblr or deactivate your Twitter. A recent article in Psychology Today reminds us all to both document and embrace the ordinary. As the author, Dr. Amie Gordon says,

Even when it seems silly, or not worth it, take the time to record the seemingly unmemorable moments in your life. The future you will be grateful. 

(my ordinary)

(my ordinary)

In a series of studies by Zhang et al. (2014), the authors find that we derive joy from reliving records of the past, in the form of rediscovery, and that people systematically underestimate the value of rediscovering the past. They find that individuals underestimate the extent to which rediscovering past experiences will be thought-provoking and interesting in the future. Additionally, the authors found that people find pleasure in rediscovering ordinary, mundane experiences, not just extraordinary ones. Furthermore, a final study demonstrated that ordinary events are perceived as much extraordinary over time.

(my humdrum)

(my humdrum)

Some tips on how to document your ordinary life include taking a photo a day, write “a day in the life” posts, or keep a journal. One website called the 365 project helps facilitate the photo-a-day challenge. Dr. Gordon states that “a day in the life” blog posts are her favorites to read, and I wholeheartedly agree with that sentiment. For inspiration, A Cup of Jo did a feature called Motherhood around the World, where mothers documented their seemingly mundane lives to contrast with those of other cultures.

Who knew that those Instagram posts about what you ate for breakfast might bring you happiness after all. :-)

(my mundane)

(my mundane)

…There is magic in the ordinary. It is the ordinary among us after all who make the world go round, who live quietly graceful lives, and who, when heroes are needed, step forward to make a difference…
[Roberta Gately, Huffington Post]

[all Instagram photos are my own]

Learn To Grow Your Happiness Muscles With Positive Psychology On This International Day of Happiness …*

Learn To Grow Your Happiness Muscles With Positive Psychology On This International Day of Happiness ...* | rethinked.org - Photo: Elsa Fridman

Wishing you all a very happy International Day of Happiness. Through my exploration of Positive Psychology last year, I have come to reframe happiness not as an emotional ‘destination’ but more as a capacity. The good news is that a) emotional and cognitive capacities can be cultivated and strengthened in much the same way that our physical muscles can be–through work and proper training; and b) the field of Positive Psychology has a lot of easily implementable hacks and interventions to guide us in training our capacity for happiness.

So to celebrate International Day of Happiness, why not learn more about what Positive Psychology has to offer in terms of growing our happiness muscles (plural, because there are various kinds of happiness).

Want to learn even more? Check out this upcoming MOOC, fittingly titled A Life of Happiness and Fulfillment, which will start June 15,2015.

{ Power Posing } How to use your own body language to change how you feel about yourself…*

In my Visual Explanations course this semester, we learn about how gesture can facilitate cognition.

If you’ve been watching Grey’s Anatomy this season (does ANYONE still watch Grey’s Anatomy other than me?), there was an episode this last week about the “superhero pose”. One of the doctors is about to begin an extremely challenging brain surgery, and she decides to hold this pose for 5 minutes prior to boost her confidence and performance.

While the vast amount of medical jargon on this show makes anyone in a medical profession cringe, this bit of information is mostly true. As this Psychology Today article, Superhero Stance, explains, holding a power pose for a few minutes can make people feel more powerful and act that way.

In the cited study, high-power poses included sitting in a chair, arms behind the head, elbows out, and feet up on a desk (like a boss, “relaxing”), and standing in front of a table, legs about a foot apart, leaning forward and hands on the table bearing weight.

This study indicates that not only can our minds change our bodies, but our bodies can change our minds.

superhero

 

Amy Cuddy, one of the researchers in this area, talk about her findings in the TED talk: Your body language shapes who you are. She speaks to the power of gesture and how our nonverbals govern not only how other people think and feel about us but how we think and feel about ourselves.  

She discusses our natural body language reactions to powerful and powerless situations, and suggests that by intentionally placing ourselves in this body language positions, we can enact those feelings of power or powerlessness.

This is a long but interesting talk that I highly recommend. This week, as I begin to collect data in schools for my study, I will definitely be taking on some “power poses” before I start my days!

 

Positive Psychology Activities & Cultivating A Growth Mindset Are An Important Part of Living A Meaningful Life …*

At the end of each year, the folks of the Greater Good Science Center round up their favorite insights from the year’s scientific research on happiness, altruism, mindfulness and gratitude, what they group together as the “science of a meaningful life.” Having spent a good portion of 2014 exploring the science and activities of Positive Psychology through my rethinked*annex side project and fangirling over Carol Dweck and her work on the benefits of a growth mindset, I was particularly excited to see the two insights that positive psychology activities do have an impact on enhancing happiness and that a growth mindset is a key in growing our empathy muscle.

{ Activities from positive psychology don’t just make happy people happier—they can also help alleviate suffering } 

Research on positive psychology activities—like keeping a gratitude journal or regular meditation—has offered compelling evidence that it’s possible to cultivate happiness over time. What’s more, during the past year, we saw many different papers suggest that positive activities aren’t just for positive people, and that negative conditions aren’t just alleviated by targeting negative influences. Instead, nurturing positive skills can help pull people out of depression, anxiety, and even suicidal thoughts. – Source: The Top 10 Insights From 2015

{ People with a “growth mindset” are more likely to overcome barriers to empathy }

According to a recent paper published in the Journal of Social Psychology, our beliefs about empathy are critical to fostering it. People primed to see empathy as a skill—in other words, people given a “growth mindset” about empathy, seeing it as something one can build through practice—were more likely to “stretch themselves to overcome their limitations.” Across all of their studies, they found that people who believe empathy can be developed expended greater effort in challenging contexts than did people who believe empathy cannot be developed, suggesting that our beliefs about ourselves are key to expanding empathy on both individual and societal levels. – Source: The Top 10 Insights From 2015 

You can read the rest of the curated scientific insights from 2014 on living the meaningful life here.

{ Going Nowhere } – Pico Iyer on the Importance of Sitting Still… *

Elsa and I have been blogging a lot about travel and all of the things you learn by exploring the world and exploring yourself while out in the world. [See 5 Things I Understood While Walking 500 Miles or Thoughts on Travel – The People and The Lightness] So I found it funny and refreshing to hear this TED talk by Pico Iyer, a travel blogger, about the value in sitting still. He states that in an age of constant movement, nothing is more urgent then the act of going nowhere. I thought it to add the perfect balance to our discussion.

 

Iyer agrees with the value and beauty of travel, but he explains that only through sitting still we can sift through the slideshow of experience. This balance of movement and stillness is a loop that leads to learning. He tell the story of how a trip to North Korea of a only few days gave him sights, but only through sitting still for years after could he turn those into insights. He also sees the value of stillness for improving travel- suggesting that “nowhere is magical, unless you can bring the right eyes to it.” Through stillness, we can develop more attentive and appreciative eyes.

For Iyer, going nowhere means taking a few minutes a day, a day a few, or a few months a year (whichever works best for you) to sit still to find out what moves you, to recall where your happiness lies. It also entails taking retreats from life, turning off our technology, and getting to places of real quiet.

He urges his audience to make more conscious efforts to sit still. I blogged a month or so ago about mindfulness meditation, which is one great technique for approaching some stillness. But rather than focusing on the “now” of experience, Iyer believes in the importance of stillness for reflection on the past and for cultivating a future.

I wholeheartedly agree with this message. I worry that in this world of technology and interconnectedness, I spend my free moments checking email or playing Candy Crush rather than reflecting and being still. Especially in New York City, it is so easy to get swept up in the constant motion and movement – to feel that busyness is a sign of success. Yet our bodies and minds really crave those moments of doing nothing, and in fact need those moments to process, reflect, and to learn.

You can view this inspirational talk below. Let me know what you think!

 

{ Mindfulness Meditation }

I first was introduced to mindfulness meditation while interning in an in-patient psychiatric facility with schizophrenic and bipolar patients. One of my jobs there was to help my boss do a literature review on mindfulness for a pilot intervention study she was conducting to see how mindfulness meditation could improve the well-being of her patients.

While I did not stay at the internship long enough to see through her study, I’d expect that she’d find positive results. Mindfulness – or the “nonjudgmental awareness of experiences in the present moment” has been demonstrated to increase feelings of well being and help with psychiatric issues. Research has suggested it does this through attention regulation, body awareness, emotion regulation, and changes in perspective of self (Holzel et. al, 2011). Further studies have shown that this type of meditation can decrease stress, improve working memory and test scores, and help veterans deal with symptoms of PTSD, among many other positive health outcomes.

How does it work? Coming from the Buddhist tradition, mindfulness meditation involves cultivating a relaxed focused mind. It can be extremely difficult at first, but those who practice mindfulness meditation tell me that it gets easier over time. Personally, whenever I try to sit and meditate, my experience tends to be a lot like this:

My mind is either wandering or I am falling asleep.

…*

However, in an inspirational TED talk, Andy Puddicombe urges us all to take 10 minutes out of each day to practice mindfulness meditation. When is the last time you took 10 minutes to do absolutely nothing? Andy explains that in the “go-go-go” world we live in, we do not take the time to care for our minds. A Harvard study suggests that we spend on average 47% of each day mind wandering, which is actually linked to unhappiness. We are not living in the present moment. Mindfulness meditation helps us to get back into the here and now.

He says that at first meditation can feel a lot like having a wobbly tooth – you know it’s wobbly and it hurts but you can’t resist poking it with your tongue. Eventually, you learn to have focused relaxation, where you allow thoughts to come and go without getting agitated or stuck on them. You begin to see patterns in your own cognitions and are able to untangle them.

Ultimately, meditation offers the opportunity and potential to step back and get a different perspective on your thought processes. As Andy reminds us, “we can’t change everything that happens but we can change our experience of it.”

After listening to his talk, I am inspired to try mindfulness meditation again. I also imagine that teaching students mindfulness in the classroom could have major beneficial effects on their stress levels and attentional skills. Could you take 10 minutes out of your day to meditate? Could you take 10 minutes out of your school day to meditate with your students?

I’ll let you know how my little mindfulness meditation experiment goes this week. Let me know if any of you try it yourself.

Namaste.

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