1. Study suggests optimists and happy people are healthier overall

    November 14, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Michigan press release:

    Research shows that optimists and happy people are healthier overall, enjoying lower blood pressure and less depression and anxiety, among other measures.

    However, data on the effect of weight and Body Mass Index on physical and mental health are rare — especially among college students, who suffer high rates of anxiety and depression and often neglect physical self-care and exercise.

    To that end, researchers from the University of Michigan and Fudan University in China set out to learn the extent to which BMI and positive outlook affect the physical and mental health of college students in China’s Fudan University.

    They found that a positive outlook and BMI both contributed significantly to good health, said Weiyun Chen, associate professor of health and fitness at the U-M School of Kinesiology.

    Researchers asked 925 students to rate four indicators of psychological well-being: hope, gratitude, life satisfaction and subjective happiness. They also calculated students’ BMI based on self-reported body weight and height. To assess physical and mental health, researchers asked students various questions about their sleep quality and how often they felt healthy, energized, worthless, fidgety, anxious or depressed.

    Chen said that taken together, the four psychological variables and BMI accounted for 41 percent of the total variance in health. Individually, subjective happiness had the most significant impact, followed by hope, and then BMI.

    By themselves, gratitude and life satisfaction didn’t influence overall health. Also, interestingly, BMI was correlated with physical and overall health, but not with hope, gratitude, life satisfaction or mental health.

    In light of the intense academic pressure Chinese college students face, especially at elite institutions like Fudan, Chen said she was surprised by how many students rated themselves happy and healthy. This could point to China’s emphasis on well-being in schools.

    “They have structured, organized physical educations classes,” Chen said. “It’s not just fitness, it’s a variety of things so you can meet different people’s needs. They realized that emphasizing only academics isn’t good for overall health, and that they needed to emphasize the wellness part.”

    These numbers might look different for college students in the U.S., where two of three adults are overweight or obese, and 17 percent of youth ages 2-19 are considered obese, according to the CDC.

    By contrast, 714 Fudan students, or 77.2 percent, were classified as normal body weight, while only 83 students were overweight, and just 5 students were obese, with 123 students considered underweight.

    “Over the past 20 years, the United States has shrunk physical education in elementary school and in college,” Chen said. “In China, especially in the past decade, they have started to emphasize physical education, and they are taking a holistic, whole person approach.”

    Chen said the findings suggest that universities should creatively design wellness programs and centers that dynamically integrate body, mind and spirit into a seamless unit.

    The study has several limitations: all students were recruited from one university, and the results cannot be generalized; the research design prevented establishing causal effects; and the study did not account for gender differences.


  2. Study suggests short nature intervention can bring out the best in people

    November 12, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of British Columbia Okanagan campus press release:

    Is it any wonder that most happiness idioms are associated with nature? Happy as a pig in muck, happy as a clam, happy camper.

    A UBC researcher says there’s truth to the idea that spending time outdoors is a direct line to happiness. In fact, Holli-Anne Passmore says if people simply take time to notice the nature around them, it will increase their general happiness and well-being.

    Passmore, a PhD psychology student at UBC’s Okanagan campus, recently published research examining the connection between taking a moment to look at something from the natural environment and personal well-being. A recent study involved a two-week ‘intervention’ where participants were asked to document how nature they encountered in their daily routine made them feel. They took a photo of the item that caught their attention and jotted down a short note about their feelings in response to it.

    Other participants tracked their reactions to human-made objects, took a photo and jotted down their feelings, while a third group did neither. Passmore explains that examples of nature could be anything not human built: a house plant, a dandelion growing in a crack in a sidewalk, birds, or sun through a window.

    “This wasn’t about spending hours outdoors or going for long walks in the wilderness,” Passmore says. “This is about the tree at a bus stop in the middle of a city and the positive effect that one tree can have on people.”

    Passmore, who studies wellness, says she was ‘overwhelmed’ not only by the response of her 395 study participants — more than 2,500 photos and descriptions of emotions were submitted — but also by the impact that simply noticing emotional responses to nearby nature had on personal well-being. And their prosocial orientation — a willingness to share resources and the value they placed on community.

    There is scientific documentation that people who live in greenspaces generally seem to be happier, and may live longer than those who don’t. Passmore is taking that research further. This study is one of a series by a research team in UBC Okanagan’s psychology department known as the “Happy Team” which is providing evidence that nature can increase happiness.

    “The difference in participants’ well-being their happiness, sense of elevation, and their level of connectedness to other people, not just nature — was significantly higher than participants in the group noticing how human-built objects made them feel and the control group.”


  3. Study suggests cultural context may affect link between positive emotions and health

    September 14, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Association for Psychological Science press release:

    Positive emotions are often seen as critical aspects of healthy living, but new research suggests that the link between emotion and health outcomes may vary by cultural context. The findings, published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, show that experiencing positive emotions is linked with better cardiovascular health in the US but not in Japan.

    “Our key finding is that positive emotions predict blood-lipid profiles differently across cultures,” says psychological scientist Jiah Yoo of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “American adults who experience high levels of positive emotions, such as feeling ‘cheerful’ and ‘extremely happy’, are more likely to have healthy blood-lipid profiles, even after accounting for other factors such as age, gender, socioeconomic status, and chronic conditions. However, this was not true for Japanese adults.”

    “Our findings underscore the importance of cultural context for understanding links between emotion and health, something that has been largely ignored in the literature,” Yoo adds. “Although some studies have examined cultural differences in links between positive emotions and healthy functioning, this work is novel in that it includes biological measures of health and large representative samples from both countries.”

    The fact that positive emotions are conceived of and valued differently across cultures led Yoo and colleagues to wonder whether the health benefits observed in tandem with positive emotions might be specific to Western populations.

    In American cultures, experiencing positive emotions is seen as desirable and is even encouraged via socialization. But in East Asian cultures, people commonly view positive emotions as having dark sides — they are fleeting, may attract unnecessary attention from others, and can be a distraction from focusing on important tasks,” says Yoo.

    The researchers designed a cross-cultural comparison, examining data from two large representative studies of adults: Midlife in the United States and Midlife in Japan, both funded by the National Institute on Aging. Data included participants’ ratings of how frequently they felt 10 different positive emotions in the previous 30 days and measures of blood lipids, which provided objective data on participants’ heart health.

    “Because of the global prevalence of coronary artery disease, blood lipids are considered important indices of biological health in many Western and East Asian countries,” Yoo explains.

    As expected, the data indicated that experiencing frequent positive emotions was associated with healthy lipid profiles for American participants. But there was no evidence of such a link for Japanese participants.

    The differences may be due, in part, to the relationships between positive emotions and BMI in each culture. Higher positive emotions were linked with lower BMI and, in turn, healthier lipid profiles among American participants, but not among Japanese participants.

    “By demonstrating that the cultural variation in the connection between emotional well-being and physical well-being, our research has wide-ranging relevance among those who seek to promote well-being in the communities and the workplace, including clinicians, executives, and policy makers,” Yoo concludes.

    In future work, the researchers will examine longitudinal data to determine whether the evidence suggests a direct causal link between emotions and health. They also hope to identify emotional profiles that may be more relevant or important to health outcomes in East Asian cultures.


  4. Study suggests dog walkers motivated by happiness, not health

    September 11, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Liverpool press release:

    It appears to be a case of ‘do what makes you happy’ for people who regularly walk their dogs.

    According to new University of Liverpool research, owners are motivated to go dog walking because it makes them feel happy, not because of other health and social benefits.

    In the most in-depth study of dog owner’s perceptions of dog walking to date, 26 interviews were combined with personal written reflections of dog walking experiences.

    The researchers found that while owners may say the reason they go walking is to benefit the dog, the importance of their own improved happiness and wellbeing is clear.

    These feelings of happiness, however, are contingent on the owner believing that their dog is enjoying the walk too. Anything that threatens this, such as behaviour problems, a perception that they have a ‘lazy’ dog, or their dog is too old, reduces their motivation to walk.

    Increased physical activity and social interactions with other dog owners were found to be secondary bonuses but were rarely motivating.

    Study lead Dr Carri Westgarth, a research fellow at the University of Liverpool, said: “The factors that motivate dog walking are extremely complex, yet we know they can strongly motivate human health behaviour.”

    “It is crucial to understand why owners walk their dogs if we are to be able to effectively promote owners to walk their dogs more.”

    With more than eight million dogs in households across the UK, dog walking is a popular everyday activity. Dog owners are generally more physically active than non-owners, yet some rarely walk with their dog at all.

    An owner briskly walking their dog for at least 30 minutes each day easily exceeds the 150 minutes recommended minimum physical activity per week. If all dog owners did this it would dramatically boost population levels of physical activity.

    Dr Westgarth added: “It’s clear from our findings that dog walking is used to meet the emotional needs of the owner as well as the needs of the dog. This may explain why pilot dog walking interventions with messages focused on health or social benefits have not been particularly successful.

    Possible key points for future interventions to increase dog walking are to promote how it may increase the dogs, and thus the owner’s, happiness.”


  5. Study finds secret to thriving

    by Ashley

    From the University of Portsmouth press release:

    What it takes to thrive, rather than merely survive, could be as simple as feeling good about life and yourself and being good at something, according to new research.

    From a teenager studying for their exams to an employee succeeding at work, thriving can be seen at all ages and across all cultures.

    Until now and despite plenty of theories, there has been no agreement on what makes a person thrive or on how people can try and ensure they do.

    Dr Daniel Brown, a sport and exercise scientist at the University of Portsmouth, has pulled together all the research on what makes people thrive, from studies of babies and teenagers, to studies of artists, sportspeople, employees and the elderly, and has come up with the first definitive catch-all.

    He said: “Thriving is a word most people would be glad to hear themselves described as, but which science hasn’t really managed to consistently classify and describe until now.

    “It appears to come down to an individual experiencing a sense of development, of getting better at something, and succeeding at mastering something.

    “In the simplest terms, what underpins it is feeling good about life and yourself and being good at something.”

    The study outlines the ‘shopping list’ underlying Dr Brown’s simple definition. To thrive doesn’t need all the components, but suggests a combination of some from each of the two following lists may help

    A: Is:

    • optimistic,
    • spiritual or religious,
    • motivated,
    • proactive,
    • someone who enjoys learning,
    • flexible,
    • adaptable,
    • socially competent,
    • believes in self/has self-esteem.

    B: Has:

    • opportunity,
    • employer/family/other support,
    • challenges and difficulties are at manageable level,
    • environment is calm,
    • is given a high degree of autonomy,
    • is trusted as competent.

    Research has established that though thriving is similar to resilience, prospering or growth, it stands alone.

    Thriving has been examined at various stages of human life and has at times been described as vitality, learning, mental toughness, focus, or combinations of these and other qualities. It has also been examined in various contexts, including in the military, in health and in child development.

    “Since the end of the 20th century, there has been a quest in science to better understand human fulfilment and thriving, there’s been a shift towards wanting to understand how humans can function as highly as possible,” said Dr Brown.

    “Part of the reason for a lack of consensus is the research so far has been narrowly focused. Some have studied what makes babies thrive, others have examined what makes some employees thrive and others not, and so on. By setting out a clear definition, I hope this helps set a course for future research.”

    Dr Brown’s research makes six recommendations for future research, including the need for close examination of what enables thriving, and whether thriving has any lasting or cumulative effect on individuals.

    He carried out the research as part of his PhD studies at the University of Bath. His primary supervisor, Dr Rachel Arnold, an expert in the psychology of performance excellence, is a co-author of the paper.

    The study is published in European Psychologist.


  6. Secret to happiness may include more unpleasant emotions

    August 26, 2017 by Ashley

    From the American Psychological Association press release:

    People may be happier when they feel the emotions they desire, even if those emotions are unpleasant, such as anger or hatred, according to research published by the American Psychological Association.

    “Happiness is more than simply feeling pleasure and avoiding pain. Happiness is about having experiences that are meaningful and valuable, including emotions that you think are the right ones to have,” said lead researcher Maya Tamir, PhD, a psychology professor at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “All emotions can be positive in some contexts and negative in others, regardless of whether they are pleasant or unpleasant.”

    The cross-cultural study included 2,324 university students in eight countries: the United States, Brazil, China, Germany, Ghana, Israel, Poland and Singapore. The research, which was published online in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, is the first study to find this relationship between happiness and experiencing desired emotions, even when those emotions are unpleasant, Tamir said.

    Participants generally wanted to experience more pleasant emotions and fewer unpleasant emotions than they felt in their lives, but that wasn’t always the case. Interestingly, 11 percent of the participants wanted to feel fewer transcendent emotions, such as love and empathy, than they experienced in daily life, and 10 percent wanted to feel more unpleasant emotions, such as anger or hatred. There was only a small overlap between those groups.

    For example, someone who feels no anger when reading about child abuse might think she should be angrier about the plight of abused children, so she wants to feel more anger than she actually does in that moment, Tamir said. A woman who wants to leave an abusive partner but isn’t willing to do so may be happier if she loved him less, Tamir said.

    Participants were surveyed about the emotions they desired and the emotions they actually felt in their lives. They also rated their life satisfaction and depressive symptoms. Across cultures in the study, participants who experienced more of the emotions that they desired reported greater life satisfaction and fewer depressive symptoms, regardless of whether those desired emotions were pleasant or unpleasant. Further research is needed, however, to test whether feeling desired emotions truly influences happiness or is merely associated with it, Tamir said.

    The study assessed only one category of unpleasant emotions known as negative self-enhancing emotions, which includes hatred, hostility, anger and contempt. Future research could test other unpleasant emotions, such as fear, guilt, sadness or shame, Tamir said. Pleasant emotions that were examined in the study included empathy, love, trust, passion, contentment and excitement. Prior research has shown that the emotions that people desire are linked to their values and cultural norms, but those links weren’t directly examined in this research.

    The study may shed some light on the unrealistic expectations that many people have about their own feelings, Tamir said.

    “People want to feel very good all the time in Western cultures, especially in the United States,” Tamir said.”Even if they feel good most of the time, they may still think that they should feel even better, which might make them less happy overall.”


  7. Study suggests using money to buy time linked to increased happiness

    August 14, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of British Columbia press release:

    New research is challenging the age-old adage that money can’t buy happiness.

    The study, led by researchers at the University of British Columbia and Harvard Business School, suggests that using money to buy free time — such as paying to delegate household chores like cleaning and cooking — is linked to greater life satisfaction.

    “People who hire a housecleaner or pay the kid next door to mow the lawn might feel like they’re being lazy,” said study lead author Ashley Whillans, assistant professor at Harvard Business School who carried out the research as a PhD candidate in the UBC department of psychology. “But our results suggest that buying time has similar benefits for happiness as having more money.”

    The researchers surveyed more than 6,000 adults in the United States, Denmark, Canada and the Netherlands. Respondents were asked if and how much they spent each month to buy themselves free time. They also rated their life satisfaction, and answered questions about feelings of time stress.

    Respondents who spent money on time saving purchases reported greater life satisfaction. The effect held up even after controlling for income.

    “The benefits of buying time aren’t just for wealthy people,” said UBC psychology professor and the study’s senior author Elizabeth Dunn. “We thought the effects might only hold up for people with quite a bit of disposable income, but to our surprise, we found the same effects across the income spectrum.”

    To test whether buying time actually causes greater happiness, the researchers also conducted a field experiment. Sixty adults were randomly assigned to spend $40 on a time saving purchase on one weekend, and $40 on a material purchase on another weekend. The results revealed that people felt happier when they spent money on a time saving purchase than on a material purchase.

    Despite the benefits, the researchers were surprised to discover how few people choose to spend their money on time saving purchases in daily life. Even in a sample of 850 millionaires who were surveyed, almost half reported spending no money outsourcing disliked tasks. A survey of 98 working adults asking how they would spend a windfall of $40 also revealed that only two per cent would use it in a way that saved them time.

    “Although buying time can serve as a buffer against the time pressures of daily life, few people are doing it even when they can afford it,” said Dunn. “Lots of research has shown that people benefit from buying their way into pleasant experiences, but our research suggests people should also consider buying their way out of unpleasant experiences.”


  8. Researchers crack the smile, describing three types by muscle movement

    August 13, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Wisconsin-Madison press release:

    The smile may be the most common and flexible expression, used to reveal some emotions, cover others and manage social interactions that have kept communities secure and organized for millennia.

    But how do we tell one kind of smile from another?

    “When distinguishing among smiles, both scientists and laypeople have tended to focus on true and false smiles. The belief is that if you smile when you’re not happy, the smile is false,” says Paula Niedenthal, a psychology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “But people smile in many different circumstances and during many emotional states. So asserting that only smiles that result from states of happiness are ‘true’ smiles limits our understanding of this important facial expression.”

    Niedenthal and colleagues from Cardiff University and the University of Glasgow published a set of experiments that seek to expand our understanding of the human smile this week in the journal Psychological Science, showing three distinct, reliably recognized expressions — smiles of reward, affiliation and dominance — and describing the facial muscle combinations that make them.

    Each smile hinges on an anatomical feature known as the zygomaticus major, straps of facial muscle below the cheekbones that pull up the corners of the mouth. But it’s not the only muscle at work.

    Participants in the study looked at thousands of computer-generated expressions with random combinations of facial muscles activated — with one exception.

    “We varied everything that could be varied in an expression, but our stimuli included some action from the smile muscle, the zygomaticus,” says Magdalena Rychlowska, a postdoctoral researcher at Cardiff. “We asked participants to tell us when they see a reward or affiliative or a dominance smile, and when the expression is not a smile.”

    The researchers turned their participant-sorted smiles back on two more sets of observers, checking recognition and social messages until they had recipes for each smile.

    For example, a reward smile — “probably the most intuitive,” Niedenthal says, “the kind of smile you would use with a baby, so he will smile back or do things you like” — is a symmetrical hoist of zygomaticus muscles plus a dash of eyebrow lift and some sharp lip pulling.

    Affiliative smiles — used to communicate tolerance, acknowledgment, or a bond, and show that you’re not a threat — come with a similar symmetrical upturn to the mouth, but spread wider and thinner with pressed lips and no exposed teeth.

    Dominance smiles are used to signify status and manage social hierarchies. They dispense with the symmetry, pairing a bit of lopsided sneer with the raised brows and lifted cheeks typically associated with expressing enjoyment.

    “This facial expression has evolved to solve basic tasks of human living in social groups: Thanks, I like this. Don’t worry, I’m not going to hurt you. Hey, I’m in charge here,” Niedenthal says. “There are so many words people use to describe different smiles, but we see them as describing subtypes of a reward situation or an affiliative situation or a situation of negotiating hierarchy and having disdain for someone else.”

    With precise physical descriptions of smile types, researchers can better classify subtypes and study the use and effects of smiles in pivotal human interactions.

    “We now know which movements we should look for when we describe smiles from real life,” says Rychlowska. “We can treat smiles as a set of mathematical parameters, create models of people using different types of smiles, and use them in new studies.”

    Rychlowska and collaborators are already digging into the way affiliative and dominance smiles can shift the outcome of games and negotiations. Niedenthal is working with surgeons who repair and reconstruct facial bones and muscles.

    “They may have to make choices that will affect a patient’s expression for the rest of their life,” Niedenthal says. “It’s useful for them to know how different kinds of smiles are used in the world, and which muscles are involved in making them.”

    Better definitions of smile types should also help people navigate intercultural communication. Previous research has shown Niedenthal that while the types of smiles used vary from country to country, there is plenty of variation in how often they are used.

    “Americans smile so much that people from other countries are taught to smile more when they interact with us,” she says. “The problem is, they’re almost always taught one kind of smile, and that can cause confusion. “Simply teaching people about the existence of different types of ‘true’ smiles can help people pay more attention and avoid some of those misunderstandings.”


  9. Happiness can affect physical health

    July 31, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Wiley press release:

    A new review indicates that subjective well-being — factors such as life satisfaction and enjoyment of life — can influence physical health. The review’s investigators also examine why this is so and conditions where it is most likely to occur.

    Subjective well-being may exert its effects on physical health through health behaviors, as well as through the immune and cardiovascular systems. Although scientists still are exploring and debating when happiness most affects health, there is no doubt that it can do so.

    With more research, it may one day be informative for clinicians to monitor individuals’ subjective well-being just as other factors are currently assessed. Individuals should also take responsibility for their health by developing happy mental habits.

    “We now have to take very seriously the finding that happy people are healthier and live longer, and that chronic unhappiness can be a true health threat.

    People’s feelings of well-being join other known factors for health, such as not smoking and getting exercise,” said Prof. Ed Diener, co-author of the Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being article. “Scores of studies show that our levels of happiness versus stress and depression can influence our cardiovascular health, our immune system strength to fight off diseases, and our ability to heal from injuries.”


  10. Generous people live happier lives

    July 20, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Zürich press release:

    Generosity makes people happier, even if they are only a little generous. People who act solely out of self-interest are less happy. Merely promising to be more generous is enough to trigger a change in our brains that makes us happier. This is what UZH neuroeconomists found in a recent study.

    What some have been aware of for a long time, others find hard to believe: Those who are concerned about the well-being of their fellow human beings are happier than those who focus only on their own advancement. Doing something nice for another person gives many people a pleasant feeling that behavioral economists call a warm glow. In collaboration with international researchers, Philippe Tobler and Ernst Fehr from the Department of Economics at the University of Zurich investigated how brain areas communicate to produce this feeling. The results provide insight into the interplay between altruism and happiness.

    Even a little generosity makes people happier

    In their experiments, the researchers found that people who behaved generously were happier afterwards than those who behaved more selfishly. However, the amount of generosity did not influence the increase in contentment. “You don’t need to become a self-sacrificing martyr to feel happier. Just being a little more generous will suffice,” says Philippe Tobler.

    Before the experiment started, some of the study participants had verbally committed to behaving generously towards other people. This group was willing to accept higher costs in order to do something nice for someone else. They also considered themselves happier after their generous behavior (but not beforehand) than the control group, who had committed to behaving generously toward themselves.

    Intent alone suffices to cause neural changes

    While the study participants were making their decision to behave or not to behave generously, the researchers examined activity in three areas of the participants’ brains: in the temporoparietal junction (where prosocial behavior and generosity are processed), in the ventral striatum (which is associated with happiness), and in the orbitofrontal cortex (where we weigh the pros and cons during decision-making processes). These three brain areas interacted differently, depending on whether the study participants had committed to generosity or selfishness.

    Simply promising to behave generously activated the altruistic area of the brain and intensified the interaction between this area and the area associated with happiness. “It is remarkable that intent alone generates a neural change before the action is actually implemented,” says Tobler.

    Benefit from the promise to behave generously

    “Promising to behave generously could be used as a strategy to reinforce the desired behavior, on the one hand, and to feel happier, on the other,” says Tobler. His co-author Soyoung Park adds: “There are still some open questions, such as: Can communication between these brain regions be trained and strengthened? If so, how? And, does the effect last when it is used deliberately, that is, if a person only behaves generously in order to feel happier?”

    About the experiment

    At the beginning of the experiment, the 50 participants were promised a sum of money that they would receive in the next few weeks and were supposed to spend. Half of the study participants committed to spending the money on someone they knew (experimental group, promise of generosity), while the other half committed to spending the money on themselves (control group).

    Subsequently, all of the study participants made a series of decisions concerning generous behavior, namely, whether to giving somebody who is close to them a gift of money. The size of the gift and the cost thereof varied: One could, for example, give the other person five francs at a cost of two francs. Or give twenty francs at a cost of fifteen. While the study participants were making these decisions, the researchers measured activity in three brain areas: in the temporoparietal junction, where prosocial behavior and generosity are processed; in the ventral striatum, which is associated with happiness; and in the orbitofrontal cortex, where we weigh the pros and cons during decision-making processes. The participants were asked about their happiness before and after the experiment.