Category Archives: Health and Wellbeing

Feelings of Awe and a Sense of Meaning Alter Your Mental Health and Behavior

Screen Shot 2015-08-21 at 3.26.14 PMAugust 18, 2015

One of the themes I write about is that our vision of our future self – what we aspire to “become” over time – can affect our mental health, positively or negatively. I’ve described how the absence of a positive vision of your future can actually create depression over time. In our society it’s easy to become encased within oneself; too self-absorbed and disconnected from our interconnections with others that are part of reality of life, today. Some recent research illustrates that how we experience ourselves in the larger world impact on tendency towards anxiety and depression. Moreover, it affects how we relate to other people.

A good empirical confirmation of this comes from research from the UC Berkeley and UC Irvine. It found that people who experience a sense of awe – a sensation of being part of something much larger than themselves – prompts them to behave more benevolently, in a more giving manner, towards others. I think what happens, there, is that the awe-struck experience pulls you outside of yourself. It propels you into an experience of “forgetting yourself.” And that expanded awareness that your are part of, and interwoven with, something much larger than just your individual being carries over towards behaving more positively and generous towards others.

Participants in the research, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, consistently reported that awe produced “a reduced sense of self importance relative to something larger and more powerful that they felt connected to,” according to the lead researcher, Paul Piff. Subsequent analysis of the research data confirmed that this feeling of the “small self” was responsible for the increase of ethical, generous behavior they subsequently demonstrated in the study.

In a different but related way, a study of the impact of a sense of meaning and purpose upon one’s mental health found a strong connection. The research, published in the Journal of Social Service Research, found that people who create a sense of purpose and meaning in their lives, and seek to find and experience their “true self,” experience fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety. This study looked at role of having a sense of meaning and purpose in treatment programs for addiction, in particular. It found that, in that population, more symptoms of emotional disorders were found among those who lacked a sense of meaning in their lives. However, I think that it has implications for the population at large, and corroborates the larger theme that I described above about the value of learning to “forget yourself.”

Credit: Spirit Science and Metaphysics

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Reduce Your Social Anxiety By Serving Others

Screen Shot 2015-08-04 at 3.21.47 PMAugust 4, 2015

I think a recent study about social anxiety provides more evidence that fixating on our ego — our self-absorption — whether it’s heightened focus on our “needs,” our personal slights, real or imagined, our sense of self-importance, our desire to possess and control — is the root of many emotional and physical conflicts. In this study researchers examined what might help people who suffer from social anxiety, which can be very debilitating, frustrating, and isolating. It found that engaging in acts that help or benefit other people helps reduce social anxiety.

In effect, doing good for others helps socially anxious people become more socially engaged in positive, satisfying ways. That reflects letting go of preoccupation with one’s self; of how other’s will perceive you, think about you, form assumptions about you. Doing something for others pulls you out of that kind of anxiety-generating self-absorption.

The study, conducted by researchers at the University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University and published in Motivation and Emotion, pointed out that performing acts of kindness to the benefit of others is known to increase happiness, positive interactions and perceptions of the world at large. So they examined if, over time, acts of kindness change the level of anxiety that socially anxious people experience while interacting with others; and helps them to engage more easily.

The results of the study confirmed that. It found that a greater overall reduction in the desire to avoid social situations was found among those who actively lent a helping hand in the experimental situation. That is, acts of kindness helped counter feelings of possible rejection and levels of anxiety and distress. 

According to senior author Jennifer Trew, “Acts of kindness may help to counter negative social expectations by promoting more positive perceptions and expectations of a person’s social environment. It helps to reduce their levels of social anxiety and, in turn, makes them less likely to want to avoid social situations.” 

Credit: CPD Archive

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Divorce, Separation, Co-Habitation — Good For Your Health?

Screen Shot 2015-07-14 at 4.06.43 PMJuly 14, 2015

We’re in the midst of a steady, major transformation of how we think about intimate relationships — what we seek from them; and how we engage in them for mutual benefit. Increasing numbers of men and women pursue relationships that they define as positive, meaningful and healthy, although they may differ from traditionally accepted norms. So it’s good to see research evidence that sheds light on which of those shifts demonstrate positive outcomes with respect to emotional and physical health.

One recent study looked at the health outcomes of people who are divorced, as well as those who co-habit without marriage. Contrary to previous studies suggesting that divorced and unmarried couples experience less health than those who are married, this study, conducted by London-based researchers, found evidence to the contrary. Published in the American Journal of Public Health, the study found that individuals who have divorced and remarried are no more likely than those who have remained married to have cardiovascular or respiratory health problems in early middle age. The study has implications for younger generations as more people pursue unconventional relationships, and the reality of divorce continues to be an option for some.

“…Our research shows that people born in the late 1950s who live together without marrying or experience divorce and separation, have very similar levels of health in middle age to those who are married,” said lead author Gerge Ploubidis, in a Medical XPress summary. In fact, some even experienced health benefits, in the long term, despite going through divorce, according to the researchers. “Surprisingly, those men who divorced in their late 30s and did not subsequently remarry, were less likely to suffer from conditions related to diabetes in early middle age compared to those who were married.” In fact, although couples who married in their 20s and early 30s and remained married had the best levels of health, unmarried couples living together had almost identical standards of health.

The impact of a relationship, per se, was underscored by the finding that men and women who had never married or lived with a partner, had the worst health in middle age, with higher likelihood of conditions related to diabetes, cardiovascular and respiratory problems. In that respect, the missing element in this research, of concern to those of us in the mental health field, is what we can learn about the impact of shifting definitions of relationships upon psychological health. Recognizing that they are intertwined is crucial, and the subject of increasing study. For example, the links discovered between the gut, the brain, emotions, types of food consumed and inflammation.

Credit: Funologist

 

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Bosses Who Serve Their Employees Have Better Business Outcomes

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July 7, 2015

A recent study has found that when bosses put employees’ needs over their own, measurable improvements result: in customer satisfaction, higher job performance by employees, and lower turnover are the result. According to the researchers, this type of leadership suggests that if businesses lead by caring for their people, the profits will take care of themselves.

Although this study focused on a service-oriented business, I think its implications highlight something broader: The findings mirror growing recognition by organizations, by individuals in relationships and throughout society in general that positive, supportive engagement with others — in which you serve something of value and importance to all of you, and not just your own narrow self-interest – creates positive benefits for everyone. And that’s really a core feature of a healthy society – one in which people’s attitudes, values and behavior adapt positively to continuous change; to the growing diversity and interconnection among people. Such adaptation promotes positive outcomes for all. Business leadership, as this and many other studies show, increasingly recognizes that reality. But it also applies to intimate and family relationships; and has implications for public policy, as well.

This particular study adds another bit of evidence in the business realm. For example, it found that when bosses act as servants to their employees, it’s good for business. The research found measurable increases in key business metrics like job performance, customer service and employee retention. That is, employees feel the most valued and give back to the company and its customers when their bosses create a culture of trust, caring, cooperation, fairness and empathy. According to Sandy Wayne, one of the authors of the research, “The best business leadership style is far from, ‘Do this. Don’t do that.’ A servant leader looks and sounds a lot more like, ‘Is there anything I can do to help you?’ Or, ‘Let me help you….’ Or, ‘What do you need to…?’ This approach helps employees reach their full potential.”

The corresponding admiration employees have for bosses who care about them manifests itself in teamwork, loyalty and dedication to the business and its customers. The leadership style trickles down. Wayne said, “It’s contagious. The employees see their leaders as role models and often mimic those qualities, creating a culture of servant leadership. This serving culture drives the effectiveness of the business as a whole.”

The need for management cultures that recognize and support this kind of leadership is highlighted when you consider the frequent surveys that show ongoing work-related stress, often associated with negative or unsupportive leadership. One current example is a survey of over 2000 people. It found that the majority of workers feel overworked, and that burnout appears to have become the new normal.

And that’s a prescription for an unhealthy workforce and society.

Credit: ASTD

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The Fake Workaholic

Screen Shot 2015-05-14 at 11.23.35 AMMay 12, 2015

This recent article by New York Times writer Neil Irwin caught my attention: He describes a study of the workaholic culture within one large consulting company. The study, from Boston University, found that “Some of the people ostensibly turning in those 80- or 90-hour workweeks, particularly men, may just be faking it.” The findings were based on just that one company, but it does raise the possibility that workers in other companies that promote — or require — a workaholic culture may also be publicly pretending to embrace the long hours regimen.

But to me, these findings raise, implicitly, a deeper problem: Our career and organizational cultures require men and women to adapt and embrace a view of “success” defined by steady, singular pursuit of position, power and financial reward — via workaholic behavior. That, despite substantial evidence that the latter leads to diminished productivity, innovation and employee commitment; despite the pervasive stress among employees, which underlie a wide range of illness — emotional and physical; and despite — no surprise — surveys that show tremendous employee dislike, dissatisfaction and conflict with the culture and management of their organizations. Irwin alludes to an aspect of this at the end of his article, writing, “Maybe it’s that too many companies reward the wrong things, favoring the illusion of extraordinary effort over actual productivity.”

Interestingly, the study found that people who were “passing” as workaholics “…received performance reviews that were as strong as their hyper-ambitious colleagues. For people who were good at faking it, there was no real damage done by their lighter workloads.” Moreover, “…women, particularly those with young children, were much more likely to request greater flexibility through more formal means, such as returning from maternity leave with an explicitly reduced schedule. Men who requested a paternity leave seemed to be punished come review time, and so may have felt more need to take time to spend with their families through those unofficial methods.”

Those additional findings highlight the deeper, pervasive theme I raised above: Our cultural norm that equates a successful adult life with embracing a workaholic and psychologically unhealthy workplace culture has ongoing destructive impact –to individuals, but also to the long-term viability of organizations in this fast-evolving era of rapid change and the rise of younger generations and their view of work, life, and what they are seeking in both realms.

For Irwin’s full article, click here.

Credit: Peter Arkle

 

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A True Test of Empathy Towards Others

Screen shot 2015-04-07 at 10.44.38 AMApril 7, 2015

Many people believe themselves to be compassionate beings who experience empathy towards others. That’s the capacity to put yourself “inside” the other person, and experience his or her reality. It’s different from just feeing sympathy for another’s situation. Research confirms our innate capacity for empathy; we’re “wired” that way. But practicing it? That doesn’t always occur, especially when you’re challenged to do so. I think the latter presents the true test. For example, say you’re feeling burdened with stressful situations or conflicts of your own; and a friend or family member is also experiencing major difficulties. Are you able to muster up and convey empathy to that person, when you’re dealing with your own difficult issues at the same time? That’s the real challenge. It’s a kind of corollary to the idea that virtue is meaningless in the absence of temptation: Empathy is meaningless in the absence of major self-concerns! 

Photo credit: HBR.org

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Must You Feel Trapped By Regrets About The Past?

Screen shot 2015-03-26 at 10.41.12 AMMarch 17, 2015

John, a 57 year-old man, consulted me for a mixture of “personal and career stagnation,” as he put it. His thoughts soon turned to a decision he made in his 20s, when he reluctantly entered a career path and profession that his father urged him to follow. He said he now saw that his need for parental approval back then was part of a larger pattern that also led him into a marriage with the “wrong” partner. “I feel so much regret, about how foolish I was not to listen to my own heart – if I even knew what it was back then.”

Throughout the decades I’ve heard many men and women express similar laments about turning points in their lives – significant experiences or choices they made, which they look back upon with deep regret and feelings of entrapment. They tell me the sadness they feel about the direction they took; what they turned away from, especially when they see the consequences over time that they feel entrapped by.

However, it’s possible to experience your regrets in life differently. Those regrets have likely taught you something about yourself and changed you. But you may not realize it. And, you may not have acted upon what’s changed within you, as you go forward in your life today.

To explain, lets first take a look at two examples of people’s regrets and how they can paralyze one’s present life: The woman who dropped out of graduate school when she was offered an entry-level editorial job with a newspaper. She was attracted by the seeming security of the position, and she said she had doubts about her journalistic skills, anyway. She remained with the paper for many years, while feeling increasingly stagnated. Ultimately, she was let go during a retrenchment. Now, at midlife, in a tight job market and an unforgiving life situation for people like her, she tells me, “If only I had stayed in grad school, how different my life would have been. But now…” She says she feels trapped and depressed about her life.
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Lulled Into Numbness at Midlife?

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March 10, 2015

Note: Some midlifers who consulted me recently about relationship and career conflicts brought to mind an article I wrote for the Washington Post a few years back. I think these issues will remain current for some time — and people of all ages would be wise to heed them — so I decided to repost it here: 

As a psychotherapist and a member of the booming midlife generation, I’ve heard many expressions of midlife distress, but few as poignant as this: A 47-year-old married mother of three told me about a dream. She’s on one of those moving sidewalks and can’t get off. On either side, scenes pass by of herself living different lives, with different people. Suddenly she recognizes the Grim Reaper standing at the end of the sidewalk, arms outstretched, awaiting her.

She wakes up, screaming.

Why the dream? And why did it provoke such distress?

The symbolism may be obvious, but I’ve found much of the research on midlife contradictory. A decade-long MacArthur Foundation study suggested that most people don’t experience a midlife crisis, that they sail through their 40s and 50s. More recently, though, two new studies suggest that midlife is a time if not of crisis then of common and sometimes severe depression.

One study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found a 20 percent rise in suicide among people ages 45 to 54 from 1999 to 2004 — a rise that exceeded that of all other age groups.

Another reported an increase in depression during people’s 40s to early 50s, after which happiness rises again. Researchers from the University of Warwick and Dartmouth College, who studied 2 million people from 80 nations, found this pattern to be consistent across sex and socioeconomic levels and among developed and developing countries.

Explanations for these data remain elusive. Some experts think the rise of midlife suicide may reflect something as specific as the decrease of hormone replacement therapy among women or as general as the stress of modern life. As for the rise in happiness after midlife depression, some speculate that people may simply have learned to set aside aspirations they know they will never realize.

I find these explanations unconvincing. What the data underscore is the need for a new understanding of the complexities of midlife, one that would enable people to deal more effectively with the positive and negative changes they encounter. Here’s my understanding: Continue reading

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Why Anxious People Make Bad Decisions

Screen shot 2015-03-03 at 11.50.54 AMMarch 3, 2015

If you’re highly anxious, you’re going to have trouble making decisions in unpredictable, uncertain situations. That’s no surprise, but new research shows how and why that happens. I think the findings add to the value of meditation, which many studies have found builds your capacities to regulate stress and anxiety.

In this new study, researchers at at the University of California, Berkeley and the University of Oxford looked at people’s response to unpredictability. As reported in Medical Express, they found that people prone to high anxiety have a tougher time reading the environmental cues that could help them avoid a bad outcome. They have more trouble deciding how best to handle life’s uncertainties, in general.

“Our results show that anxiety may be linked to difficulty in using information about whether the situations we face daily, including relationship dynamics, are stable or not, and deciding how to react,” said study lead author Sonia Bishop, in a summary of the research. “It’s a bit like being Alice in Wonderland, trying to work out if the same rules apply or if everything is different and if so, what choices you should make,” she added.

For example, the researchers explained, a friend may suddenly lash out for no discernible reason. That friend’s behavior could reflect a typical variation in their day-to-day mood or interactions or, more dramatically, an underlying change in their relationship with you. The challenge for a person prone to anxiety is assessing the situation in context of what else has happened recently and responding appropriately.

The study, published in Nature Neuroscience, found that highly anxious people may catastrophize as well. For example, they may “interpret a lovers’ tiff as a doomed relationship or a workplace change as a career threat.” And, as Bishop noted, “An important skill in everyday decision-making is the ability to judge whether an unexpected bad outcome is a chance event or something likely to reoccur if the action that led to the outcome is repeated.”

The researchers suggest that a glitch in the brain’s higher-order decision-making circuitry may underlie this difficulty. For a full description of the study and how it was conducted, see this summary in Medical Express. 

Photo Credit: HomeArt / Shutterstock

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5 Essential Mind-Body-Behavior Practices That Enhance Everything

Screen shot 2015-02-24 at 10.47.46 AMFebruary 24, 2015

Evidence from both clinical observations and empirical research increasingly confirms that how you engage your entire being in the world significantly impacts your physical, mental, emotional and relationship health. Moreover, each of several life practices enhances the others; they are synergistic. Let’s look at some:

Cultivating a positive outlook is associated with a healthier heart and lower incidence of osteoporosis. This study of 5100 adults from the University of Illinois found that “Individuals with the highest levels of optimism have twice the odds of being in ideal cardiovascular health compared to their more pessimistic counterparts,” according to lead author Rosalba Hernandez. And, “This association remains significant, even after adjusting for socio-demographic characteristics and poor mental health.”

Similarly, research conducted by the University of Eastern Finland found that post-60 year old women who have higher levels of satisfaction with their lives were found to have higher bone density, and suffer less frequently from osteoporosis than those who are more unsatisfied with life. The study, published in Psychosomatic Medicine,assessed life satisfaction by looking at such factors as “interest in and easiness of life, happiness, and loneliness,” as reported in an AAAS summary. Although the study focused on women, men, as well, suffer from osteoporosis; and more significantly, would experience greater overall health with a positive mentality about life.

And still another study finds that people who experience positive emotions also have greater longevity, as do those who express self-determination in life.

Western empirical science is validating the benefits of such Eastern mind-body-spirit practices as meditation and yoga. 
Their benefits have been well known to practitioners, but they are now increasingly embraced in the West because the evidence from research makes their benefits more “believable” and acceptable to Western thinking.

Two recent examples: Continue reading

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Become More Productive at Work by Giving it Less Attention?

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February 17, 2015

I often suggest to business clients — as well as to some of my psychotherapy patients — that they create a “life project” in which they commit to personal development within these six interrelated dimensions of life: intellectual, emotional, relational, creative, spiritual and physical. Note that none of these relate explicitly to work and career. But when you do this — creating new goals or aspirations for each dimension, and taking steps that pull you towards them, you find that it also enhances your effectiveness and productivity at work. You realize how interrelated the different “parts” of your life is.

In an interesting Harvard Business Review article, Stew Friedman of the Wharton School describes research confirming that building an integrated life will, in fact, increase work effectiveness and productivity. This is important, because I think we’re seeing increasing evidence that when you seek to develop and “grow” more fully, in all dimensions, it enhances your overall life — your inner wellbeing and your outer success.

Friedman’s study has a somewhat different take on the dimensions of life from those I described above, but it confirms the value of bringing “parts” of your life into greater integration and harmony. That leads to a seeming paradox: By giving less focus to your work, you perform better at it.

He writes, “…what if the secret to performing better at work, and feeling more satisfied, isn’t to put more effort and energy into work but less? Instead of working harder and longer, what if you better integrated the four domains of your life – work, home, community, and self? My research has shown just that: By focusing more on the areas of life you care most about, even if those aren’t work, you’ll perform better at your job.”

In the research, Friedman asked participants to experiment with small changes “to see how those tweaks affected all four domains over a short period of time.” He pointed out that there are, of course, barriers to integrating the dimensions of one’s life, such as fear of change. But learning to minimize them can make it more likely to try, “thereby getting more done and creating greater harmony in your life.”

He suggested these three ways of minimizing the barriers: Continue reading

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A Positive Mentality About Life Increases Both Cardiovascular and Bone Health

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February 3, 2015

Do you want to increase your heart health and keep your bones strong throughout your lifetime? Cultivating a positive mentality about life helps, according to new research findings. Such studies add to accumulating data that your emotional, mental and spiritual states are interwoven with your physical wellbeing. We’re seeing Western empirical science steadily confirm what’s been observed and known about the mind/body/spirit interconnection within the ancient Eastern traditions.

One new study found a strong connection between optimism – a generally positive outlook on life – and cardiovascular health. This study of 5100 adults from the University of Illinois found that “Individuals with the highest levels of optimism have twice the odds of being in ideal cardiovascular health compared to their more pessimistic counterparts,” according to lead author Rosalba Hernandez. And, “This association remains significant, even after adjusting for socio-demographic characteristics and poor mental health.”

Optimists had significantly better blood sugar and total cholesterol levels than their counterparts. They also were more physically active, had healthier body mass indexes and were less likely to smoke, according to the research, published in Health Behavior and Policy Review. This was the first study to examine the association of optimism and cardiovascular health in a large, ethnically and racially diverse population.

According to Hernandes, “This evidence…suggests that prevention strategies that target modification of psychological well-being — e.g., optimism — may be a potential avenue for…improving Americans’ cardiovascular health.”

Similarly, research conducted Continue reading

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