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 maintaining strong social networks linked to slower cognitive decline

    by Ashley

    From the Northwestern University press release:

    Maintaining positive, warm and trusting friendships might be the key to a slower decline in memory and cognitive functioning, according to a new Northwestern Medicine study.

    SuperAgers — who are 80 years of age and older who have cognitive ability at least as good as people in their 50s or 60s — reported having more satisfying, high-quality relationships compared to their cognitively average, same-age peers, the study reports.

    Previous SuperAger research at the Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer’s Disease Center (CNADC) at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine has focused on the biological differences in SuperAgers, such as discovering that the cortex in their brain is actually larger than their cognitively average, same-age peers. This study, published Oct. 23 in the journal PLOS ONE, was the first to examine the social side of SuperAgers.

    “You don’t have the be the life of the party, but this study supports the theory that maintaining strong social networks seems to be linked to slower cognitive decline,” said senior author Emily Rogalski, associate professor at Northwestern’s CNADC.

    Participants answered a 42-item questionnaire called the Ryff Psychological Well-Being Scale, which is a widely used measure of psychological well-being. The scale examines six aspects of psychological well-being: autonomy, positive relations with others, environmental mastery, personal growth, purpose in life and self-acceptance. SuperAgers scored a median overall score of 40 in positive relations with others while the control group scored 36 — a significant difference, Rogalski said.

    “This finding is particularly exciting as a step toward understanding what factors underlie the preservation of cognitive ability in advanced age, particularly those that may be modifiable,” said first author Amanda Cook, a clinical neuropsychology doctoral student in the laboratory of Rogalski and Sandra Weintraub.

    Other research studies have reported a decline in social networks in people with Alzheimer’s disease and Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI), and previous literature has shown psychological well-being in older age to be associated with reduced risk of developing Alzheimer’s dementia.

    “It’s not as simple as saying if you have a strong social network, you’ll never get Alzheimer’s disease,” Rogalski said. “But if there is a list of healthy choices one can make, such as eating a certain diet and not smoking, maintaining strong social networks may be an important one on that list. None of these things by themself guarantees you don’t get the disease, but they may still have health benefits.


  4. Study suggests some natural environments more psychologically beneficial than others

    November 9, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Surrey press release:

    Spending time in rural and coastal locations is more psychologically beneficial to individuals than time spent in urban green spaces, a new study in the journal Environment & Behavior reports.

    During this innovative study, researchers from the University of Surrey, University of Exeter, University of Plymouth and Plymouth Marine Laboratory worked with Natural England to examine the experiences of over 4,500 people when spending time in nature and investigated for the first time how different environmental settings and their quality impacted on psychological wellbeing.

    Asking participants to describe their visit and to evaluate their overall encounter, researchers discovered that those who visited rural and coastal locations reported greater psychological contentment than those who spent time in urban green spaces, such as city gardens and parks. It was also found that visits to natural areas of protected or designated status i.e. national parks, also resulted in improved mental wellbeing.

    Researchers found these visits to nature (especially those to protected sites and to coastal and rural green settings) were associated with both greater feelings of relaxation and refreshment but also stronger emotional connections to the natural world. Interestingly it was discovered that visits longer than 30 minutes were associated with a better connection and subsequently had greater psychological benefits.

    Socio-economic status was also found not to be a factor in enjoyment of nature, demonstrating the importance of providing free/affordable entrance to sites. This will help prevent socio-economic inequality in accessing nature.

    Lead author of the paper Dr Kayleigh Wyles, who undertook the research whilst at Plymouth Marine Laboratory and now Lecturer in Environmental Psychology at the University of Surrey, said:

    “We’ve demonstrated for some time that nature can be beneficial to us, but we’re still exploring how and why. Here we have found that our mental wellbeing and our emotional bond with nature may differ depending on the type and quality of an environment we visit.

    “These findings are important as they not only help unpick the mechanisms behind these psychological benefits, but they can also help to prioritise the protection of these environments and emphasise why accessibility to nature is so important.”

    Professor Mel Austen, Head of the Sea and Society Science Area at Plymouth Marine Laboratory said: “It was surprising to learn that the extent of protection of marine environments also affects the extent of mental health benefits that people gain from their interactions with the sea.

    “People’s health is likely to become an increasingly important aspect to consider as we manage our coasts and waters for the benefit of all users.”

    The positive benefits of interaction with nature are well documented with numerous studies reporting a reduction of stress levels in participants and an increase in overall wellbeing in those spending time in nature. This is the first study of its kind which shows that different types of natural environments have more of an impact on psychological wellbeing than others.


  5. Study suggests sharing experiences improves wellbeing of healthcare staff

    October 28, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Surrey press release:

    Healthcare staff who regularly share the emotional, social or ethical challenges they face in the workplace experience less psychological distress, improved teamwork and increased empathy and compassion for patients and colleagues, a new study commissioned by the National Institute for Health Research reports.

    In the first in-depth study in the UK, researchers from the University of Surrey, Kings College London, the University of Sheffield and The King’s Fund examined the impact of Schwartz Center Rounds® (Rounds), on both clinical and non-clinical staff. Rounds are monthly forums that offer a safe space for staff to share experiences with colleagues and to discuss the challenges they face in their work and its impact on them.

    The psychological wellbeing of 500 staff members who attended Rounds regularly, irregularly or not all, was measured over an eight-month period, using the clinically validated GHQ-12questionnaire.

    Researchers found that the wellbeing of staff who attended Rounds regularly significantly improved, with the proportion of those with psychological distress halving- down from 25 per cent to 12 per cent. There was little change in the psychological wellbeing of staff that did not attend Rounds over this period.

    When asked of the benefits of Rounds, participants noted that attending led to greater understanding, empathy and tolerance towards colleagues and patients and positive changes in practice.

    Following the publication of the Francis report which highlighted Schwartz Rounds as being a way of fostering good teamwork and improving morale amongst staff, the implementation of Rounds in the UK rapidly increased. The research found that Rounds were implemented variably and challenges to implementation and sustainability included ward staff attendance, and the workload and resources required for planning and running Rounds.

    Jill Maben, Professor of Nursing at the University of Surrey and formerly of Kings College London, said: “Delivering care to patients at some of the most challenging times in their lives has an emotional impact on staff, which undoubtedly impacts on their own wellbeing and on their work.

    “Our study is the first in the UK to demonstrate that those who regularly attend Rounds see significant benefits; their symptoms of anxiety and depression are reduced, they are better able to cope with the issues they face and have more empathy towards patients and colleagues, which undeniably has a positive impact on those in their care.

    “Given these impacts it is good to see Rounds running in over 160 organisations in the UK, particularly in light of the Francis report, which called for more compassionate patient care. The challenge is for organisations to continue to invest in Rounds in resource-constrained environments.”

    Dr Cath Taylor, Reader at the University of Surrey and formerly of King College London, said: “NHS and hospice staff are the unsung heroes of our society, but the physical and emotional demands placed on them often go unnoticed, leading to high rates of burn out and people often leaving the profession. Rounds are a unique organisational wide intervention that we found benefitted many attendees.”

    Professor Jo Rycroft-Malone, Director of the NIHR’s Health Services and Delivery Research (HS&DR) Programme, said: “The NIHR is proud to have funded an important piece of research which is the first in depth study of its kind to evaluate the impacts of Schwartz Center Rounds. We feel this was an important area to research following the Francis Report highlighting the importance of Rounds.

    “Hospital and hospice staff work incredibly hard to care for patients and it is crucial that they can ease the physical and emotional demands they face while also helping to boost colleagues’ teamwork and morale and improve care, compassion and empathy for patients.”

    Professor Jeremy Dawson, Professor of Health Management at the University of Sheffield, said: “Schwartz Center Rounds offer a valuable support system to healthcare staff, that can help to improve wellbeing, and that enable a focus on compassion and empathy towards colleagues and patients that is difficult to achieve in their otherwise hectic working lives.”

    Jocelyn Cornwell, Chief Executive of The Point of Care Foundation (which holds the licence to promote and support Schwartz Rounds in the UK and Ireland) said:

    “We are delighted that this research shows that Schwartz Rounds have significant positive impacts on the well-being and experience of the staff who take part in them. The Rounds offer a unique space for all staff in organisations to come together as equals, to share experience and listen to one another.

    “In environments in which staff are under tremendous pressure, the Rounds offer a much-needed space for reflection and renewal. We hope that organisations that are not doing Rounds will pay attention to the research findings, and organisations that are doing them, will re-double their efforts to sustain them.”


  6. Study suggests availability of nature near city-dwellers’ homes improves brain health

    October 18, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Max-Planck-Gesellschaft press release:

    A study conducted at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development has investigated the relationship between the availability of nature near city dwellers’ homes and their brain health. Its findings are relevant for urban planners among others.

    Noise, pollution, and many people in a confined space: Life in a city can cause chronic stress. City dwellers are at a higher risk of psychiatric illnesses such as depression, anxiety disorders, and schizophrenia than country dwellers. Comparisons show higher activity levels in city dwellers’ than in country dwellers’ amygdala — a central nucleus in the brain that plays an important role in stress processing and reactions to danger. Which factors can have a protective influence? A research team led by psychologist Simone Kühn has examined which effects nature near people’s homes such as forest, urban green, or wasteland has on stress-processing brain regions such as the amygdala. “Research on brain plasticity supports the assumption that the environment can shape brain structure and function. That is why we are interested in the environmental conditions that may have positive effects on brain development. Studies of people in the countryside have already shown that living close to nature is good for their mental health and well-being. We therefore decided to examine city dwellers,” explains first author Simone Kühn, who led the study at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development and now works at the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf (UKE).

    Indeed, the researchers found a relationship between place of residence and brain health: those city dwellers living close to a forest were more likely to show indications of a physiologically healthy amygdala structure und were therefore presumably better able to cope with stress. This effect remained stable when differences in educational qualifications and income levels were controlled for. However, it was not possible to find an association between the examined brain regions and urban green, water, or wasteland. With these data, it is not possible to distinguish whether living close to a forest really has positive effects on the amygdala or whether people with a healthier amygdala might be more likely to select residential areas close to a forest. Based on present knowledge, however, the researchers regard the first explanation as more probable. Further longitudinal studies are necessary to accumulate evidence.

    The participants in the present study are from the Berlin Aging Study II (BASE-II) — a larger longitudinal study examining the physical, psychological, and social conditions for healthy aging. In total, 341 adults aged 61 to 82 years took part in the present study. Apart from carrying out memory and reasoning tests, the structure of stress-processing brain regions, especially the amygdala, was assessed using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). In order to examine the influence of nature close to peoples’ homes on these brain regions, the researchers combined the MRI data with geoinformation about the participants’ places of residence. This information stemmed from the European Environment Agency’s Urban Atlas, which provides an overview of urban land use in Europe.

    “Our study investigates the connection between urban planning features and brain health for the first time,” says co-author Ulman Lindenberger, Director of the Center for Lifespan Psychology at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development. By 2050, almost 70 percent of the world population is expected to be living in cities. These results could therefore be very important for urban planning. In the near future, however, the observed association between the brain and closeness to forests would need to be confirmed in further studies and other cities, stated Ulman Lindenberger.


  7. Study suggests believing you have fewer friends than your peers can contribute to unhappiness

    September 24, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of British Columbia press release:

    Feel like everyone else has more friends than you do? You’re not alone– but merely believing this is true could affect your happiness. A new study from the University of British Columbia, Harvard Business School and Harvard Medical School has found that new university students consistently think their peers have more friends and spend more time socializing than they do. Even when that’s untrue, simply believing so affected students’ wellbeing and sense of belonging.

    “We know the size of your social networks has a significant effect on happiness and wellbeing,” said study lead author Ashley Whillans, assistant professor at Harvard Business School who carried out the research while a PhD candidate at UBC. “But our research shows that even mere beliefs you have about your peers’ social networks has an impact on your happiness.”

    The researchers used data collected from a survey of 1,099 first-year students at UBC. Students were asked how many friends they had made and to estimate how many friends their peers had made since starting school in September.

    The researchers found a greater proportion of students (48 per cent) believed other students had made more close friends than they did. Thirty-one per cent believed the opposite.

    A second survey tracking 389 students across their first year found students who believed their peers had more friends at the beginning of the year reported lower levels of wellbeing.

    However, several months later, the same students who thought their peers had moderately more friends than they did at the beginning of the year reported making more friends compared to students who thought their peers had many more friends.

    “We think students are motivated to make more friends if they think their peers only have one or two more friends than they do,” said Whillans. “But if they feel like the gap is too big, it’s almost as if they give up and feel it isn’t even worth trying.”

    Frances Chen, the study’s senior author and assistant professor in the UBC department of psychology, said the public nature of social activities is likely why students feel their peers are doing better socially.

    “Since social activities, like eating or studying with others, tend to happen in cafes and libraries where they are easily seen, students might overestimate how much their peers are socializing because they don’t see them eating and studying alone,” said Chen.

    The findings could help inform university initiatives to support students’ transition to university life, possibly through an intervention to correct social misperceptions and promote friendship formation, said Chen.

    More research is needed to determine whether the same pattern emerges among new immigrants, or people moving to a new city or starting a new job, said Chen.

    “These feelings and perceptions are probably the strongest when people first enter a new social environment, but most of us probably experience them at some point in our lives,” she said.


  8. Study looks at what goes on when a relationship is being questioned

    September 2, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Utah press release:

    Knowing whether to stay in or leave a romantic relationship is often an agonizing experience and that ambivalence can have negative consequences for health and well-being.

    Now a new study offers insights into what people are deliberating about and what makes the decision so difficult, which could help therapists working with couples and stimulate further research into the decision-making process.

    The study, led by U psychology professor Samantha Joel, was published in Social Psychology and Personality Science. Co-authors were Geoff MacDonald and Elizabeth Page-Gould of the University of Toronto.

    “Most of the research on breakups has been predictive, trying to predict whether a couple stays together or not, but we don’t know much about the decision process — what are the specific relationship pros and cons that people are weighing out,” Joel said.

    In the first phase of the study, the researchers recruited three samples of people — including people who were in the midst of trying to decide whether to break up or not — to participate in an anonymous survey.

    Participants were asked open-ended questions about their specific reasons for both wanting to stay and leave a relationship.

    That yielded a list of 27 different reasons for wanting to stay in a relationship and 23 reasons for wanting to leave.

    The stay/leave factors were then converted into a questionnaire that was given to another group of people who were trying to decide whether to end a dating relationship or marriage. Those dating had been together for two years on average, while married participants reported relationships that averaged nine years.

    In both studies, general factors considered as the individuals deliberated what to do were similar.

    At the top of the stay list: emotional intimacy, investment and a sense of obligation. At the top of the leave list: issues with a partner’s personality, breach of trust and partner withdrawal.

    Individuals in both dating and married situations gave similar reasons for wanting to leave a relationship.

    But the researchers found significant differences in stay reasoning between the two groups.

    Participants who were in a dating relationship said they were considering staying based on more positive reasons such as aspects of their partner’s personality that they like, emotional intimacy and enjoyment of the relationship. Those who were married gave more constraint reasons for staying such as investment into the relationship, family responsibilities, fear of uncertainty and logistical barriers.

    And about half of the participants said they had reasons to both stay and leave, indicating ambivalence about their relationships.

    “What was most interesting to me was how ambivalent people felt about their relationships. They felt really torn,” Joel said. “Breaking up can be a really difficult decision. You can look at a relationship from outside and say ‘you have some really unsolvable problems, you should break up’ but from the inside that is a really difficult thing to do and the longer you’ve been in a relationship, the harder it seems to be.”

    Most people, Joel said, have standards and deal breakers about the kind of person they want to date or marry but those often go out the window when they meet someone.

    “Humans fall in love for a reason,” Joel said. “From an evolutionary perspective, for our ancestors finding a partner may have been more important than finding the right partner. It might be easier to get into relationships than to get back out of them.”


  9. Study looks at activities shown to improve health and well-being

    August 4, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Newcastle University press release:

    Gyms, walking groups, gardening, cooking clubs and volunteering have all been shown to work in improving the health and well-being reported by a group of people with long-term conditions.

    Key to the success was a ‘Link Worker’ who helped participants select their activity and supported them throughout the programme.

    The in-depth study by academics at Newcastle University shows how social prescribing of non-medical activities helps people with long term health conditions and is published in BMJ Open.

    Dr Suzanne Moffatt, Reader in Social Gerontology said: “The findings demonstrate that social prescribing, such as offering someone with heart disease the opportunity to take part in a gardening club, does work.

    “People who took part in the study said social prescribing made them more active, it helped them lose weight and they felt less anxious and isolated, as a result they felt better.

    “This is the first time that these kind of non-medical interventions have been fully analysed for physical health problems and the results are very encouraging.

    “What the study also highlighted was the importance of a specific individual, a Link Worker, to help people with issues such as welfare benefits, debt, housing — so they were helping with the whole life and lifestyle which was shown to improve the person’s health and well-being.”

    Non-medical help

    Ways to Wellness has provided social prescribing with the support of dedicated Link Workers since its launch in April 2015. The study is based on interviews with thirty people from the 2,400 people who have used the service since its start.

    The participants reported how they had been deeply affected, physically, emotionally and socially by their health problems. They detailed physical effects including pain, sleep problems, side-effects of medication and significant problems functioning and many explained how this had led to depression and anxiety and how their problems had worsened as they got older.

    In the interviews they explained how working with a Link Worker to find the right activity and to get support in dealing with financial problems had built self-confidence, self -reliance and independence.

    Activities such as gardening, dance clubs and voluntary work helped them lose weight and increase fitness leading to people managing the pain and tiredness better. It also led to them feeling less socially isolated and impacted positively on self-esteem and mental wellbeing.

    Ways to Wellness

    Ways to Wellness covers the west of Newcastle, including 17 GP practices where 18 % of residents have long-term conditions and receive sickness and disability-related benefits.

    People who have asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, diabetes (Type 1 or Type 2), heart disease, epilepsy, osteoporosis (thinning of the bones) and any of these conditions with depression and/or anxiety are eligible for the scheme.

    The Link Worker also helps patients to access other support, services and local activities.

    Alex Hall, Senior Link Work with Ways to Wellness said: “The Ways to Wellness service works because it helps our clients take control of their lives, and gives them access to services they may not have been aware of. It’s amazing to see how small steps taken to empower someone can change their lives so drastically.”


  10. 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.”