Tag Archives: psychological health

Trump’s Election Makes Men More Aggressive, Research Shows

April 11, 2017

A new study from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business finds that the emboldening of the extreme right that helped Donald Trump win the presidency has altered social norms. Part of that shift reflects an increase in men acting more aggressively toward women.

To explain, the researchers noted that such groups such as the Southern Poverty Law Center have found an uptick of hate crimes and harassment taking place across the country. The rise of such incidents led Wharton researchers to examine whether a dimension of that might be found in differences in communications styles of men and women; for example, if their negotiation tactics changed – both before and after the election – depending on which gender they interact with.

Their experiments found a striking result: Post-election, male study participants were less cooperative, more likely to use adversarial strategies and less likely to reach an agreement with a partner. “We didn’t know Trump was going to be elected; we didn’t set out to study Trump’s election,” according to lead researcher Corinne Low. “We had the [lab experiment] sessions on the calendar already, and post-election, we looked at the data and saw that people’s behavior was profoundly different.”

“It appears that whatever Trump represents – that rhetorical style, that presence – seems to have consequences for other people’s behaviors.” Before the election, men were less likely to use aggressive negotiation tactics when they knew their partner was a woman – a pattern that could be classified as chivalry or a kind of “benevolent sexism,” Low says. “This tells us that if women’s outcomes are dependent on men’s whims, those whims could change. We could see the turning of the tide, and suddenly men are more aggressive.”

The experiments involved playing a “Battle of the Sexes” game in which men and women had to divide $20 with a partner. In some cases, participants were told the gender of their partner; in other cases, that information wasn’t provided. Each round had only two options for splitting the money: One partner would get $15 and the other would get $5, or vice versa; or, if they couldn’t agree, both would walk away with zero.

The researchers pointed out that previous studies suggest that political and world events can affect people’s behavior, including their displays of generosity, cooperation and fairness. “It appears that whatever Trump represents – that rhetorical style, that presence – seems to have consequences for other people’s behaviors,” Low says.

Many human rights and social justice groups have observed a spike in anti-Semitism and hate crimes following the election. “That’s anecdotal evidence that words matter,” Low says, “and what we have is lab evidence that this matters.”

 

Credit: Wisegeek

 

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Hurt Your Relationship Through This Quick And Fast Way!

March 28, 2017

Kathy and Paul were talking one night after dinner about plans for a summer vacation, and soon found themselves disagreeing with each other’s suggestions. At one point, Kathy raised the idea of a trip to a national park area. Paul had a sudden flashback: A similar trip some years ago, which ended in disaster. Bad lodging, terrible weather, and bickering about why they had done that trip to begin with. Paul recalled that Kathy had been more interested in it than he was, but that he had gone along with it to please her.

Suddenly, Paul made a negative comment about a recent furniture purchase. He told her he thought it was too expensive — and ugly to boot, but had gone along with it because she liked it. “Why are you bringing that up now?” Kathy asked, angrily. “That’s got nothing to do with planning our trip!” Their conversation deteriorated from there, and they didn’t speak to each other for the rest of the evening.

So what happened? Some new research from the University of Waterloo sheds light on how and why. But relationships are complicated: Some other studies find that attempts to heal disagreements may have an opposite effect, depending on the situation and the needs or vulnerabilities of each partner.

First, the Waterloo research, published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin: It found that when one partner recalls a negative experience from the past — triggered by something in the present that has no real connection to it – that partner is likely to bring up most any annoyance or irritation from the present. The researchers called that “kitchen thinking,” because partners throw everything but the kitchen sink into the argument.

The study’s co-author Kassandra Cortes said, “When memories feel closer to the present, those memories are construed as more relevant to the present and more representative of the relationship. If one bad memory feels recent, a person will also be more likely to remember other past slights, and attach more importance to them.”

That is, that if a partner’s past transgression or slight feels like it happened yesterday — even if it didn’t — he or she is more likely to remember it during new, unrelated arguments. So, even if neither partner mentions an old transgression during the current argument or disagreement, just thinking about it could erupt in ways that hurt the relationship in the present.

And then, the other partner is likely to feel befuddled; even angry, unable to understand why their partner has become so upset over something so seemingly minor. Moreover, that can have lasting effects: The researchers found that partners who tend to recall previous slights or wounds during new conflict tended to react more destructively, with more conflicts and more negative feelings about their relationships, in general.

Other studies, though, present somewhat contradictory findings about what helps couples deal with conflicts or emotionally distressing experiences. For example, research from SUNY at Binghamton found that being supportive and positive towards your partner in an effort resolve a conflict can backfire, and actually raise the partner’s stress level. And, in other situations, behaving in ways that appear unsupportive can have a paradoxical, positive impact.

On the other hand, another study, from the University of Alberta and published in Developmental Psychology, found that conveying empathy and showing direct emotional support to an unhappy or troubled partner enhances the partner’s mental health and helps the overall relationship. 

Psychologically, I think these seemingly mixed findings illustrate that people who experience underlying anxiety and insecurity in their relationships and who often fear abandonment – whether consciously or unconsciously — will tend to experience past slights as being closer in time to the present, and react to them in the present, compared to those who feel more secure. Moreover, their degree of security in relationships can lead to outwardly contradictory responses to either empathic or non-empathic communications from their partners.

Overall, I think that even couples who experience secure attachment personally and with each other would benefit from practicing what I’ve described here as “radical transparency”  — mutual disclosure and openness — especially when a situation generates conflict or differences. That is, become transparent right then, when the issue arises. Ignoring what you experience or thinking you can dismiss it is likely to render it semi-underground, where it brews…awaiting for an opportunity to infect a new situation.

Credit: Flickr/Sage Therapy

A version of this article also appeared in Psychology Today.

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You Have No Life? That’s The New Status Symbol!

March 7, 2017

Not surprising, really, but a new study highlights how enamored so many busy careerists are by their decline of leisure time. In fact, increasing numbers aspire to having no life.

The research found that some people boast about the lack of spare time as a status symbol —even an aspirational lifestyle. According to Harvard Business School’s Anat Keinan, the lead author of the study with colleagues from Columbia and Georgetown, “People used to spend their time in ostentatiously unproductive ways to show their status,” says Keinan. But now, something in our culture has changed about how status is achieved, as conspicuous ostentatious consumption has become less socially acceptable. Those wishing to flaunt their status have had to find more subtle ways to show their value. At the same time, our go-go workplaces are emphasizing and rewarding 24×7 productivity.

“When we talk about traditional conspicuous consumption, it’s about consuming scarce and expensive things like jewelry or money or cars,” Keinan says. “But the new conspicuous consumption is about saying, I am the scarce resource, and therefore I am valuable.”

Keinan pointed out that the notion of equating “busyness” with status flies in the face of decades of social history, where enjoyment of nonproductive leisure time was seen as a mark of a successful life. The ability to fritter away your hours was considered the apex of success as evidenced in books from sociologist Thorstein Veblen’s 1899 classic The Theory of the Leisure Class (he coined the term “conspicuous consumption”) to television shows such as “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.” If you didn’t actually have a life of leisure, you could pretend you did by buying increasingly affordable luxury brands like Cadillac or Rolex.

The study’s findings were described by Michael Blanding in a Harvard Business School post, based on an interview with Keinan about the research, to be published in the Journal of Consumer Research.

Blanding described six experiments the researchers set up to gauge our attitudes about luxury and busyness. As a preliminary test, the researchers combed through social media posts by celebrities compiled by Harris Wittels, author of Humblebrag, The Art of False Modesty, and found more than 1 in 10 were about being too busy or “not having a life.” (A typical example: “Hi, I’m 16 and I’m publishing 3 books and an album this year. Do you have any advice on how to handle it best?”) Continue reading

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What Prevents Taking Work Stress Home With You?

February 14, 2017

I think this new study is useful, per se, but it contains a glaring, most significant omission. And that’s often typical of academic research that ignores the reality of everyday experience. To explain, researchers at the University of Central Florida found that exercise and sleep are keys to keeping employees from bringing work stress and frustrations home.

The study, reported in this summary from the University, looked in particular at abusive behavior at home. They found that those who engaged in more walking at work, and had more sleep, were less likely to behave abusively at home. That is, according to researcher Shannon Taylor, “…employees who are mistreated at work are likely to engage in similar behaviors at home. If they’ve been belittled or insulted by a supervisor, they tend to vent their frustration on members of their household. Our study shows that happens because they’re too tired to regulate their behavior.”

Well, yes. Exercise and sleep help everyone.

But as a solution, that finding deals with a symptom, not the source. It ignores the primary sources of most employee distress and dissatisfaction to begin with: A management culture that’s outright abusive, psychologically unhealthy, unsupportive of career development, too limiting of opportunities for continued learning, and a host of other management and organizational issues. I’ve written a great deal about the impact of an unhealthy management and leadership culture upon people’s workplace experience; and their role in a range of emotional and physical ailments that people experience as a consequence.

Moreover, the current study was conducted with MBA students – a population whose work experiences are not the same as entry level, mid-level or senior career workers. So the researchers’ conclusions — “burning an additional 587 calories can reduce the harmful effects of mistreatment and help prevent it from carrying into the home…(by,for example) with an hour of swimming or a brisk 90-minute walk” — are healthy practices, certainly. But they don’t address the fact that healthy organizations will help people experience a more positive, supportive, and meaningful career and work experience to begin with.

The research was published in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

Credit: NIU Newsroom

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Enjoying Life, Helping Others…And Your Longevity

January 24, 2017

Two new, unrelated, studies show interesting links between longevity and your experience of life; especially how you actually live it. I think both raise questions about the latter. To explain, researchers from University College London looked at previous findings that single occasions of of enjoyment and life satisfaction appeared linked with greater longevity. The researchers then extended that to look at the impact of enjoying life over a longer period.

The new study of over 9000 adults in their 60s was conducted at two-year intervals. It found that the death rate was progressively higher among people who experienced fewer occasions of enjoying life – even when accounting for other possible factors. Those reporting the most frequent experience of enjoying life had a death rate of 24 percent lower than others in the study. The researchers concluded that the longer an individual experiences life enjoyment, the lower the risk of death.

However, in my view, this study raises the question of what fuels and supports a sense of enjoying life through the years to begin with? I see a key source: having a sense of purpose and engagement in life — a reason for living — tends to lead to greater overall health, which can translate into greater longevity. And that larger purpose is associated with engaging in something larger than just oneself. — something that draws on one’s mental, emotional and creative capacities in the service of something meaningful.

The other study I referred to corroborates that point: It found that people who care for others, who provide emotional support and help people in some way, also experience longer lives. That joint study from several universities, described in this report from the University of Basel, was published in Evolution & Human Behavior.

I think the upshot of studies like these, combined with clinical observation, is that moving beyond fixation with yourself — your own ego, your body, your “needs” — is the key to mind-body-spiritual health over the long run. And it’s no surprise that longevity is a by-product.

Credit: Markgrove.tv

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Life’s Dilemmas And Crossroads – A Few Reflections

January 10, 2017

“People pay for what they do, and still more for what they have allowed themselves to become. And they pay for it very simply; by the lives they lead.” — James Baldwin (1924-1987). Baldwin’s observations reminds me so much of how often I’ve heard someone tell me, in one version or another, “I don’t like the person that I’ve become…”

Similarly, there’s the lament, “I waited too long…now what?” — I’ve often heard that from a person who’s awakened to realizing what they’ve wanted to do or express in their life, but always postponed. Or, they’ve discovered that they’ve been sleepwalking through the years. And there are fewer of them remaining.

Credit: CPD Archive

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Our Human Contradictions…At Year’s End

December 27, 2016
A few end-of-year thoughts, stirred by a recent NPR report about the ways our universe is likely to end, eventually. It reminded me that we organic entities, endowed with consciousness, are but specks on a planet that itself, is just a speck in this vast galaxy; just one of billions of galaxies. If we grasp that reality, we see how foolish we humans are: All in the same boat, all heading for demise and the infinite unknown. But rather than unite with love and joy and caring, and in the embrace of our common state – and fate – we descend into petty slights, grievances, anger, resentments, hatred. Never forgiving, never letting go. And, of course, we kill each other, as well. That’s what we do, whether in our family relationships, our own society, or throughout the world. Yes, as Shakespeare wrote, “Lord, what fools these mortals be!”

Credit: BBC

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What’s Your Feeling About Getting Older? It Directly Affects Your Health

December 6, 2016

That old adage, “You’re only as old as you feel” is correct, according to a new study. It finds that your attitude about aging does, in fact, impacts your overall health. The research, from the Irish Longitudinal Study on Aging (TILDA) at Trinity College Dublin, found that negative attitudes to aging affect both physical and cognitive health in your later years. Moreover, participants who held positive attitudes towards aging had improved cognitive ability as they aged.

According to the lead researcher Deirdre Robertson, “The way we think about, talk about and write about aging may have direct effects on health. Everyone will grow older and if negative attitudes towards aging are carried throughout life they can have a detrimental, measurable effect on mental, physical and cognitive health.”

The study, summarized in Medical News Today, resulted in these major findings:

  • Older adults with negative attitudes towards aging had slower walking speed and worse cognitive abilities two years later, compared to older adults with more positive attitudes towards aging.
  • This was true even after participants’ medications, mood, their life circumstances and other health changes that had occurred over the same two-year period were accounted for.
  • Furthermore, negative attitudes towards aging seemed to affect how different health conditions interacted. Frail older adults are at risk of multiple health problems including worse cognition. In the TILDA sample frail participants with negative attitudes towards aging had worse cognition compared to participants who were not frail. However frail participants with positive attitudes towards aging had the same level of cognitive ability as their non-frail peers.

The researchers concluded that these findings have important implications for media, policymakers, practitioners and society more generally. Societal attitudes towards aging are predominantly negative. Everyone will grow older and if these attitudes persist they will continue to diminish quality of life.

Credit: CPD Archive

 

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Research Explains Why People Believe False Information

screen-shot-2016-11-29-at-12-09-00-pmNovember 29, 2016

Here’s a timely study from Northwestern University: It sheds some light on why people are so often influenced by false information. That’s especially relevant to the many falsehoods that circulate through social media age; especially those made by President- elect Trump. The study finds that people quickly download the inaccurate statements into memory because it’s easier than critically evaluating and analyzing what they’ve heard. Later, according to the lead author David Rapp, the brain pulls up the incorrect information first because it’s less work to retrieve recently presented material. “If it’s available, people tend to think they can rely on it. But just because you can remember what someone said, doesn’t make it true.” So, even when we know better, our brains often rely on inaccurate or misleading information to make future decisions.

It think this study’s findings have importance for understanding the political arena, especially the environment surrounding the 2016 Presidential campaign and its aftermath. Trump regularly cited blatantly false information – and many people swallowed it whole, despite disconfirming evidence. Even now, with his recent claim that thousands of votes were illegal – without a shred of evidence – his apologists and supporters claim it’s true.

The study shows that it’s even harder to avoid relying on misinformation when accurate and inaccurate information is mixed together. Rapp says, “We’re bombarded with tons of information all day; it’s a nightmare to critically evaluate all of it. We often assume sources are reliable. It’s not that people are lazy, though that could certainly contribute to the problem. It’s the computational task of evaluating everything that is arduous and difficult, as we attempt to preserve resources for when we really need them.”

He adds, “Trump just says things, but once you can get them encoded into people’s memories, they believe it, use it or rely on it. Disentangling truth from falsehoods when they are mixed up from different sources makes the challenge even more difficult.”

In the study, published in the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science, Rapp outlines several ways to avoid falling into the misinformation trap:

  • Critically evaluate information right away. That may help prevent your brain from storing the wrong information. “You want to avoid encoding those potentially problematic memories,” Rapp said.
  • Consider the source: People are more likely to use inaccurate information from a credible source than from an unreliable source, according to Rapp’s previous research. “At this point, it’s even clear to Donald Trump’s proponents that his words are often nonsensical,” Rapp said. “But his strong supporters who want him to be right will do less work to evaluate his statements.”
  • Beware of “truthy” falsehoods. “When the truth is mixed with inaccurate statements, people are persuaded, fooled and less evaluative, which prevents them from noticing and rejecting the inaccurate ideas,” Rapp said. For example, during the campaign Trump initially said he saw the video of money changing hands for kidnapped individuals in Iran; he later retracted it. At the same time, news outlets reported there actually was a video. 

Credit: Kaboompics.com

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High-Stress Job? Beware: An Early Death Is More Likely

screen-shot-2016-11-15-at-11-44-18-amNovember 15, 2016

A new study from Indiana University has found that people who are in high-stress jobs, and who typically have little control over their work — its flow, time-frame and impact – are more likely to die younger or have poorer health. compared with people who have more power and decision- making autonomy.

According to this news release from the Kelley School of Business, previous academic research has found that having greater control over your job can help you manage work-related stress. But it’s never suggested that it was a matter of life and death — until now.

The study, published in Personnel Psychology, used a longitudinal sample of 2,363 Wisconsin residents in their 60s over a seven-year period. The researchers found that for individuals in low-control jobs, high job demands are associated with a 15.4 percent increase in the likelihood of death, compared to low job demands. For those in high-control jobs, high job demands are associated with a 34 percent decrease in the likelihood of death compared to low job demands.

According to lead author Erik Gonzalez-Mulé, “We explored job demands, or the amount of work, time pressure and concentration demands of a job, and job control, or the amount of discretion one has over making decisions at work, as joint predictors of death. These findings suggest that stressful jobs have clear negative consequences for employee health when paired with low freedom in decision-making, while stressful jobs can actually be beneficial to employee health if also paired with freedom in decision-making.”

And, he added, “When you don’t have the necessary resources to deal with a demanding job, you…might eat more, you might smoke, you might engage in some of these things to cope with it.”

Credit: Interrete

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Being Kind To Others Elevates Your Wellbeing, Research Finds

screen-shot-2016-10-31-at-3-11-46-pmNovember 1, 2016

This small but useful study from Oxford researchers underscores our human interconnectedness; and that doing something positive for others enhances our own happiness. In a review of 400 published studies about the relationship between kindness and happiness, the researchers found that being kind did have a modest, but noticeable impact on the person’s happiness. 

Although the review of the 400 studies found that the effect is lower than some pop-psychology articles have claimed, the researches pointed out that future research might help identify which kind acts are most effective at boosting happiness. They noted that existing research does not distinguish between kindness to family and friends versus strangers and, taking this into account, targeted kindness rather than indiscriminate kindness may have a greater effect on happiness.

The study’s lead author Oliver Scott Curry pointed out that “Our review suggests that performing acts of kindness will not change your life, but might help nudge it in the right direction. We recommend further research is done to compare the effects of being kind to family and friends as opposed to strangers. This is an area about which we know surprisingly little at the moment.”

Nevertheless, this brings to my mind the teachings from most spiritual and philosophical traditions, which describe the greater joy and happiness one experiences when doing something positively for others; when giving to others. For example, this from the Sufi teacher Hazrat Inayat Khan (1882-1927):

“A person who, alone, has seen something beautiful, who has heard something harmonious, who has tasted something delicious, who has smelt something fragrant, may have enjoyed it, but not completely. The complete joy is in sharing one’s joy with others. For the selfish one who enjoys himself and does not care for others, whether he enjoys things of the earth or things of heaven, his enjoyment is not complete.” 

Credit: Explore Curiocity

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Yoga Practice Reduces Anxiety Disorder, New Research Finds

screen-shot-2016-10-10-at-11-36-58-amOctober 11, 2016

I’ve written previously about new research that shows how mind-body practices such as yoga and meditation have a positive impact mental and physical health. I recently came across a new study, and it adds to the accumulating evidence about the value of these practices. This one finds that yoga, in particular, can help reduce and diminish anxiety – the most widespread type that we describe – in the terminology of diagnostic categories — as “generalized anxiety disorder.”

Sound familiar? Anxiety, along with depression, are the two most prevalent symptoms that practitioners see; and the most often treated with psychotherapy — along with the many medications that pharmaceutical companies have created for this enormous market.

This new research by Georgia State University, and published in the International Journal of Yoga Therapy, looked at the effects of yoga on three people with anxiety disorder, and whether or not yoga could be helpful. That is, if yoga could serve as an alternative or additional treatment option for people suffering from anxiety.

In short, the researchers found that yoga tended to reduce worry, a primary symptom of anxiety.

As the lead author Jessica Morgan Goodnight explained, “When people have this diagnosis, they worry a lot–uncontrollably–about the future, which causes physical symptoms like muscle tension and trouble sleeping, and their lives and their relationships are impaired because of it.”

She reported that in this study, “Two participants showed decreases in daily worry ratings after they started yoga and reported less worry on a daily basis. The third participant was steadily increasing worry before starting yoga, but the increasing trend ended and began leveling out after she started practicing yoga.”

This is one small study, of course. But I think it’s significant because it shows that yoga can help people with anxiety reduce their symptoms. Other research has shown similar effects from tai chi, Qigong, and that even short-term meditation affects the regions of the brain that are related to anxious and depressed emotional states.

“It’s nice to provide options for people with mental health conditions to try to reduce their symptoms and increase the quality of their lives…(and this shows) yoga could be an option for people.” The researchers say pilot studies like this pave the way for more conclusive research to be conducted in the future.

Credit: UC Santa Barbara

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More Evidence: Literary Fiction Increases Your Emotional Capacities

screen-shot-2016-10-08-at-12-19-20-pmOctober 4, 2016

In a previous essay I argued that reading serious literature – not popular fiction – helps your “evolve” and deepen your self-awareness and emotional capacities; and I cited some research that provided evidence of just that. Now, a new study underscores and adds to those findings and observations.

In my earlier article I wrote, “Delving into serious fiction engages you in the core human issues that everyone grapples with, consciously or unconsciously. The prime one is the question of, “What’s the meaning of life; of my life? And, related issues concerning moral judgment, the impact of social conventions, conflicting paths in life, and so on.”

Related to that, I cited research reported in the New York Times: That reading serious fiction has a demonstrable impact on increasing empathy, social awareness and emotional sensitivity. The study found not only that reading serious fiction increased reader’s emotional awareness and empathy, but that pop fiction did not have the same effect. In my view, those findings illustrate an essential part of becoming more fully human.

And now, a new study has found that reading literary fiction appears to be associated with superior emotion recognition skills. This study found that participants who recognized and were familiar with authors of literary fiction tended to perform better on an emotional recognition test. This association held even after statistically accounting for the influence of other factors that might be connected to both emotion skills and reading more literary fiction, such as past educational attainment, gender and age.

The method of the study is described here, and was published in the journal Psychology of Aesthetics.

The authors then conducted a second study involving over 300 more participants. It also included a measure of participants’ self-reported empathy levels. This was to check that it’s not simply that people with more empathy are more attracted to literary fiction and also tend to do better at the emotion recognition test. Again, participants who recognized more literary fiction authors also tended to perform better on the emotion test. Moreover, this association remained even after controlling for the influence of differences in participants’ empathy levels.

The authors say they believe the apparent link between reading more literary fiction and better emotion recognition skills emerges because “the implied (rather than explicit) socio-cognitive complexity, or roundness of characters, in literary fiction prompts readers to make, adjust, and consider multiple interpretations of characters’ mental states.”

So – find a good novel or short story by a writer of serious fiction, and read on!

Credit: Pexels

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Childhood Insecurity Affects How You Deal With Adult Stress

screen-shot-2016-09-12-at-5-44-18-pmSeptember 20, 2016

This new study adds to the knowledge that child relationships have profound and lasting impact on a range of adult experiences, including personality traits, the potential for positive engagement with others; or for emotional disturbance. This study, published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, found that insecurity in childhood makes it harder to deal with stressful experiences as an adult. That’s often visible in how individuals respond very differently to situations that might be challenging or difficult in some way.

I think the upshot of this study, described below, adds to the growing knowledge that childhood experiences have lasting impact; a long “tail” throughout many dimensions of adult life. In this case, its impact is visible when dealing with potentially anxious or stressful situations.

The key challenge is determining what can heal the impact of the past and enable new growth.

In this summary of the current study, Christine Heinisch, one of the authors, points out that, “We know from other studies that our history of attachment directly influences how we act in social situations, but what about reaction to a neutral stimulus under emotional conditions?” Continue reading

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Bad Jobs Hurt Your Mental Health By The Time You’re 40

Screen Shot 2016-09-03 at 3.40.39 PMSeptember 13, 2016

No surprise, here: Yet another study has demonstrated that unengaging, insufficiently meaningful work — and the overall work culture — has negative impact upon mental health. And, it’s apparent by the time you’re 40.

This new research found that debilitating work experiences in your 20s and 30s have an accumulated negative impact on your mental health by the time you’re into your 40s. And that continues on, needless to say. The research found that people who were unhappy with their work early in their careers became more depressed, worried, and had more trouble sleeping.

Of course, many previous studies have shown that the majority of people are unhappy with their work – even hate it. For example, a 2014 survey by the Conference Board. But oddly — despite all the research and clinical evidence that debilitating work and unhealthy management impacts your mental health in increasingly harmful ways over time – those mental health consequences continue to be overlooked or ignored.

This new study was conducted by Ohio State researchers. It investigated the long-term health effects of job satisfaction, or lack of it, earlier in people’s careers. It analyzed data from longitudinal surveys of nearly 6500 American workers, in which people rated their level of satisfaction with their work.

According to the findings, described in this report from Ohio State, all participants reported a number of health issues after they reached the age of 40. Specifically, those people who expressed the lowest job satisfaction over the years reported much higher levels of depression, sleep problems, and excessive worry; as well as scoring lower on traditional mental health measures.

Moreover, those who initially reported high job satisfaction, but then had a downward trend, were more likely than the consistently satisfied group to report trouble sleeping, excessive worry, and symptoms of psychiatric conditions And among those who had low job satisfaction, their mental health was more affected than their physical health.

As one of the researchers, Hui Zheng, pointed out, however, “The higher levels of mental health problems for those with low job satisfaction may be a precursor to future physical problems. Increased anxiety and depression could lead to cardiovascular or other health problems that won’t show up until they are older.” Zheng added that a person does not have to be at the end of their career to see the health impacts of job satisfaction on mental health: the study participants were examined while in their 40s. Overall, “We found that there is a cumulative effect of job satisfaction on health that appears as early as your 40s,” said lead author Jonathan Dirlam.

Credit: CPD Archive

 

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Music While You Work Increases Teamwork

Screen Shot 2016-09-03 at 11.51.39 AMAugust 30, 2016

So turn up the volume! A new study finds that playing music while people are working actually increases cooperation and teamwork. A series of experiments conducted by Cornell University found that music has an impact on the cooperative attitudes among workers.

According to a summary of the research, the question arose from the observation that “From casual acoustic melodies at the coffee shop to throbbing electronic beats at teen clothing outlets, music is used to mold customer experience and behavior.” The researchers wondered what impact it might have on employees? So they conducted two studies to test the effect of different types of music on the cooperative behavior of individuals working as a team.

The researchers, Kevin Kniffin, Jubo Yan, Brian Wansink and William Schulzer, published their findings in the Journal of Organizational Behaviordescribed in this summary from Cornell:

For each study, participants were grouped into teams of three. Each team member was given multiple opportunities to either contribute to the team’s value using tokens or keep the tokens for personal use.

When happy, upbeat music was played – researchers chose the “Happy Days” theme song, “Brown Eyed Girl” by Van Morrison, “Yellow Submarine” by the Beatles and “Walking on Sunshine” by Katrina and the Waves – team members were more likely to contribute to the group’s value. When music deemed unpleasant was played – in this case, heavy metal songs by less than well-known bands – participants were more likely to keep tokens for themselves. The researchers found contribution levels to the public good when happy, upbeat songs were played were approximately one-third higher compared to the less pleasant music. Continue reading

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Singles Experience Greater Personal Growth Than Married People

Screen Shot 2016-08-16 at 2.27.42 PMAugust 16, 2016

Our culture is witnessing growing diversity in how people choose to live; with whom, their traditions and norms. But it’s practically a stereotype to portray single people as unhappy, unfulfilled, and lonely; perhaps emotionally troubled. Of course, that can be true for some. We see some psychotherapy patients, for example, who are single and experience significant conflicts in their romantic quests.

But that’s also a misleading assumption. In fact, new research from UC Santa Barbara turns that picture of single people on its head: It finds that single people have heightened feelings of self-determination and are more likely to experience more psychological growth and development than many married people.

According to the study’s lead author, Bella DePaulo, “It is time for a more accurate portrayal of single people and single life – one that recognizes the real strengths and resilience of people who are single, and what makes their lives so meaningful,” DePaulo adds, “The preoccupation with the perils of loneliness can obscure the profound benefits of solitude.”

And there are plenty who are solitary. Currently, Bureau of Labor Statistics show that 50.2 percent of the nation’s adult population were single as of 2014. “Increasing numbers of people are single because they want to be,” DePaulo points out. “Living single allows them to live their best, most authentic, and most meaningful life.” Continue reading

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Mental Health Professionals Ignore Their Responsibility to The Public

Screen Shot 2016-07-21 at 10.20.39 AMJuly 20, 2016

Those of us in the mental health professions are too silent and disengaged from an important responsibility we have to individual lives and society today. To explain, we live with increasing fears and insecurity, as we worry about what may lie ahead in this world: The increasing disruption and violence. Steady, unrelenting transition to a diverse and non-white majority U.S. culture. Continuing economic uncertainty. The impact of not dealing with climate change, and how it will alter the lives of future generations. And, especially, growing cynicism about the capacity of our social and governmental institutions to really understand or deal with any of these new realities of life.

In view of the above, we psychologists and psychiatrists should be playing a visible role in identifying what psychologically healthy living consists of, in the midst of today’s world: What it looks like, in our ideas, our emotions, our behavior; and in our public policies. And, what supports those features of mental health in the face of today’s challenges. I think we’re abdicating this role. I plan to write more about this in the future, but want to sketch out some ideas here, for discussion.

Generally, we can describe health as whatever promotes positive, constructive adaptation to change; what enhances flexibility and proactive behavior when dealing with changing or unexpected life circumstances; and mentally embracing the reality that our internal wellbeing and outward success are interdependent with those of others. Overall, that means behaving in ways that promote the common good, publically and privately. Interdependence, much of which is fueled by globalization and the merger of technology and communication, requires it.

This perspective asks us mental health professionals to take some positions and voice them publically. That is, articulate and advocate those social, cultural and political issues that promote psychologically healthy lives and society, rather than ignore those that undermine or impede them. To do so, we’re aided by a wealth of knowledge and information to draw on. It comes from clinical experience with a range of people who seek our help; and from extensive, published empirical research. The two sources converge. But too many of our mental health professionals don’t connect the dots. Or they don’t want to, perhaps in fear that voicing a position would erode their professional authority with their patients. Continue reading

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The Trump Mentality: A Contemporary Conquistador?

Screen Shot 2016-06-16 at 10.22.59 AMJune 16, 2016

Both liberal and conservative writers express amazement over Donald Trump’s consistent inconsistencies – even incoherencies – regarding the positions he voices. But in fact there are no contradictions at all – once you realize there’s a larger theme, connecting them. It’s an overall, consistent mentality.

To explain, let’s look at the apparent discrepancies. One that’s particularly baffling is a seeming disconnect within Trump’s attitudes and behavior towards women. A recent New York Times story highlighted this. It described blatant, sexist objectification of women in his private relationships, relating to them as objects to seduce and possess as romantic conquests — until he becomes tired of them. And yet, he’s also promoted women to positions of management and responsibility in his business entities. So on the one hand, Trump looks like a conventional, though somewhat exaggerated, sexist skirt-chaser. But on the other hand, a modern, equality-promoting executive.

More broadly confounding are Trump’s multiple, ever-changing positions on policies, both domestic and foreign. They, too, appear incomprehensibly inconsistent from one moment to the next. Now you could explain that incoherency as the behavior of a more extremely bombastic, highly narcissistic politician. One who often expresses unanchored, off-the-cuff thinking. After all, narcissism is almost a job requirement for politicians, as Harold Lasswell described decades ago in his seminal book, Power and Personality.

But most narcissistic, power-seeking politicians want to garner enough broad support to get elected. Typically, they do that through charisma, crafted positions and calculated posturing for maximum appeal. That’s what doesn’t mesh with Trump’s emotionally unregulated — and ultimately self-undermining — indiscriminate attacks on others. Including needed allies or potential supporters, even. That latter, destructive mentality is more reminiscent of one of Gore Vidal’s bon mots: “It’s not enough that I succeed; others must fail.

So on the surface, Trump’s attitudes and behavior don’t appear to reconcile, whether about women in particular or his political aims. But they really do. There’s an overriding theme that ties them all together: An overall mentality – an emotional and mental perspective and attitude. It’s that of an unbridled, unquestioned sense of personal greatness; of total power to control, possess and dominate as one wishes; for whatever purpose desired, at any moment.

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Some Thoughts To Ponder…

Screen Shot 2016-06-14 at 11.27.24 AMJune 7, 2016

Think about this: All art, all literature; all science, even, reflects an attempt to understand who we are, what we are, and why we are…as well who this person is that each of us has become at this moment in time and space, on this planet.

And, these quotes to consider as you reflect upon the days and weeks ahead…or anytime.

“Any human anywhere will blossom in a hundred unexpected talents and capacities simply by being given the opportunity to do so.” — Doris Lessing (1919-2013), British writer; 2007 Nobel Prize in literature.

“Everyone, real or invented, deserves the open destiny of life.” — Grace Paley (1922-2007) Short story writer, poet, political activist.

Credit: Caleb George Morris

 

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Does Fighting Really Energize Your Sex Life?

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May 24, 2016

A previous article of mine, posted on LiveYourVie.comcontinues to be relevant to many couple, today:

“Of course, we fight!” John said, “All couples do; that’s normal!” He looked at me incredulously, as Mary quickly added with a tight smile, “But then we have ‘make-up sex.’ And that makes things better.”

Nevertheless, they sought therapy over their concern about the long-term impact of this “normal” pattern.

Perhaps you share John and Mary’s experience or views. Many do. The sex lives and relationships of couples often descend over time into diminishing excitement and passion, and increasing boredom and routine. Call it “marital sex,” in contrast to what couples often experience at the start of a relationship. In “marital sex,” you’re bringing into the bedroom all the other parts of your relationship, like disagreements over finances, or even over trivial things like where to place the furniture or where to vacation—not to mention parenting challenges, which become a large part of any couples’ relationship. And aside from all of your collective relationship and family issues, each of you has your own individual concerns—your career, your aging parents, or other familial stressors.

Couples often assume that fighting and conflict are inevitable—“normal,” even—and that they’re to be tolerated and, at best, managed. They may not recognize that their diminished sexual and romantic life is as interwoven with how and why they conflict as it is with their relationship overall. Then they may focus on ways to re-energize their sex life, as though it’s disconnected from the rest of their relationship, and as though that will compensate for their relationship conflicts. Continue reading

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Stress, Success, And the Demise of Manhood

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It’s no surprise that surveys document increasing stress and emotional conflict among workers and within their intimate relationships. One recent example: A report from Fortune that American workers are more stressed than ever. Based on 500 Americans, it found that more than half said their stress level reached significant levels. And at home, career-related conflicts increasingly intersect with relationship issues in negative ways.

One study found that men automatically interpret a partner’s success as their own failure, even when they’re not in direct competition. Moreover, couples’ conflicts often involve differences about what success means. Those differences infiltrate their sex lives. As I’ve written elsewhere, some believe that “make-up” sex will cover over their differences about their life goals or values. But it doesn’t.

In my view, such findings and observations highlight a deeper and broader theme: Our views of “success” and traditional “manhood” are changing as a byproduct of our evolving, diversifying culture. That theme was hinted at by recent research findings that higher status and material success are associated with attitudes of entitlement and narcissism. Those, in turn, affect your view of yourself and how you relate to others you’re connected with, often with negative consequences.

In essence, we’re experiencing significant upheaval and transformation regarding what men traditionally learn to define as “manhood” and “success” in our culture. It’s unraveling the traditional definition of “maleness;” the values and behavior that have defined what a successful male is — at work, in intimate relationships and in society.

That is, many men feel unmoored regarding their identity, purpose and place in a world that’s evolving rapidly in ways that feel threatening to life as they’ve known it. Men who cling to traditional positions of power in society (including domination in their intimate relationships) — and who define their self-worth by such power — can feel terrified; in danger of losing what they thought “manhood” and a stable, successful life was. They may fear losing domination in their relationships and material measures of prestige and success

It can be frightening to experience one’s previously stable world under siege. Especially so, for those who’ve profited from or otherwise bought into a manhood identity centered around holding and using personal power for material ends, elite status and social recognition. To them, it may feel inconceivable that society would be anything other than stable and supportive of who they are; of their secure place in the world, and that they would be the perpetual beneficiaries of that stability.

Much of the political appeal of Donald Trump both reflects and taps into those fears. That stirs longings for restoring how things “used to be.” But reality has a path of its own. Old expectations are eroding in the face of major cultural and social shifts that give voice to demands for greater equality and shared power. This forces men to reformulate what they think supports positive, intimate relationships, and what they think defines a successful life as a man, in today’s world.

Consider just a few of these shifts:

The upshot is that our society is evolving towards greater interdependency, collaboration and equality at all levels. That means shifting away from the primacy of self-interest and towards serving the larger social good. The traditional definition of success and manhood, along with attempts to maintain the vested interests in it, can, indeed, feel like standing on crumbling ground when you’re hit with large-scale social change and transformation that you don’t understand; or are told is harmful and must be opposed at all costs.

A version of this article also appeared in The Huffington Post.

Credit: The Huffington Post

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The Impact Of Long-Term Resentment Among Family Members

Screen Shot 2016-05-19 at 3.49.50 PMMay 10, 2016

Thoughts I was reflecting on the other day….It’s so pervasive – and so debilitating, for so many families: Allowing anger, resentment, rivalries and related negative, unforgiving, emotional attitudes prevail in their relationships, up through and even beyond death. I’ve observed this to some degree in the majority of my patients and research, over the years. Such a waste of energy and spirit. Certainly confirms Tolstoy’s comment, “…each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

Credit: CPD Archive

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Is Your Coworker Struggling With Depression?

Screen Shot 2016-05-03 at 10.53.04 AMMay 3, 2016

Here’s an informative article by Martha C. White, from Money. It quotes me a few times, especially about my emphasis on how the management and workplace culture can create emotional conflict for people, independent of what they be bringing to the workplace from their personal lives, outside of work.

The article follows:

The recent sad news that a young Apple employee was found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound at the company’s headquarters raises an important, if troubling, question: Would you know what to do if you suspected a coworker might be dangerously depressed?

Of course, if there is the threat of violence to themselves or others, calling 911 or contacting company security is the way to go—you shouldn’t put yourself in danger. But before a troubled person reaches that breaking point, mental health experts say they often tip their hand, indicating in ways that seem clear in hindsight that they were wrestling with depression.

The Warning Signs

Many of us see our coworkers more hours in a week than we see our own family members, which means we are in a unique position to detect a shift in a colleague’s mental state.

“It’s always a difficult issue, yet most coworkers can tell if something seems wrong or off in a colleague’s demeanor,” said Douglas LaBier, a business psychologist and the director of the Center for Progressive Development in Washington, D.C.

While saying things like they want to die, feel completely alone, or have nobody who cares about them are obvious indications of a troubled mental state, most people who struggle with depression in the workplace express their distress more subtly than that, noted Edward Yost, a human resources executive with the Society for Human Resource Management. More general feelings of being helpless or trapped, especially if expressed frequently, are more likely to be the kind of comments a coworker might express to another, he said.

Two hallmarks of depression that go hand in hand are isolation and withdrawal, said Gary Namie, director of the Workplace Bullying Institute. The isolation may be self-imposed or may be a result of being shut out of workplace cliques.

People who are depressed may withdraw from others and distance themselves from social interaction, Namie said, and because many people with depression are good at masking their feelings of self-negativity, a colleague may brush off a sudden disappearance from team lunches or department happy hours by blaming an increased workload or other job-related obligations.

For a conscientious coworker, those claims should be carefully considered, because there are two possibilities here, neither of which is great news from a mental health perspective. The first is that he or she is using work as an excuse to pull away from others. The second is that the person actually is overloaded with work all the time.

“Many become depressed and demoralized not just by personal issues outside of work, but by the management culture at work,” LaBier said. Whether the reason is a conflict with the boss or other management, no opportunity for advancement, or a sense of stagnation, “Feelings of being stuck and trapped result—which will cause emotional problems,” he said. Continue reading

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Prejudice Reduced After Just Brief Periods of Meditation

Screen Shot 2016-04-23 at 10.57.28 AMApril 19, 2016

This new research is both interesting and encouraging: It found that just seven minutes of meditation can reduce racial prejudice. The study, from the University of Sussex, was published in the journal Motivation and Emotion. It used the Buddhist mediation technique of loving-kindness meditation, which promotes unconditional kindness towards oneself and others.

Before describing this particular study, I want to point out that one important implication of this research, in my view, is that prejudices of all sorts are learned and conditioned from a variety of social and cultural forces; and, they can be consciously altered. Knowing this is especially important in our current era of reactive prejudice towards those who are “different,” and whose presence is becoming more visible as our society becomes increasingly diverse.

Regarding this study, the lead researcher Alexander Stell, said: “This indicates that some meditation techniques are about much more than feeling good, and might be an important tool for enhancing inter-group harmony.” This form of meditation is aimed at generating feelings of happiness and kindness towards oneself and others through conscious focus on repeating thoughts and phrases that are positive and beneficent, while visualizing a particular person.

According to Stell, “We wanted to see whether doing loving-kindness meditation towards a member of another ethnic group would reduce the automatic preference people tend to show for their own ethnic group.”

In the study, a sample of 71 white, non-meditating adults were each given a photo of a gender-matched black person and either received taped LKM instructions, or instructions to look at the photos and notice certain features of the face. Both conditions lasted just seven minutes. Details of the experiment are described in this summary from the University.

The researchers found that just seven minutes of loving-kindness meditation directed to a member of a specific racial group (in this case, a black person) was sufficient to reduce racial bias towards that group. Additionally the researchers measured levels of positive emotions that were either “other-regarding” (e.g., love, gratitude, awe, elevation) and those that were more self-directed (e.g., contentment, joy, pride). They found that people doing loving-kindness meditation showed large increases in other-regarding emotions. Those emotions were found to be what drives the reduction of bias.

Credit: CPD Archive

A version of this article also appeared in The Huffington Post

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Wisdom Requires Both “Head” and “Heart”

Screen Shot 2016-04-09 at 2.51.47 PMApril 5, 2016.

Of course! Our cognitive, logical, linear thought processes must be joined with our capacity for perspective and understanding of the larger context of a problem, for “wisdom” to emerge. This new study finds an interesting dimension of that “oneness”: the variability of the heart rate.

The research was described in this summary from the University of Waterloo. It found that heart rate variation and thinking process work together to enable wise reasoning about complex social issues. The study by Waterloo and the Australian Catholic University was published in  Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience.

The authors state that their study breaks new ground in wisdom research by identifying conditions under which psychophysiology impacts wise judgment. “Our research shows that wise reasoning is not exclusively a function of the mind and cognitive ability,” says the lead author,Igor Grossmann. “We found that people who have greater heart rate variability and who are able to think about social problems from a distanced viewpoint demonstrate a greater capacity for wise reasoning.”

The study extends previous work on cognitive underpinnings of wise judgment to include consideration how the heart’s functioning impacts the mind. It points out that a growing consensus among philosophers and cognitive scientists defines wise judgment to include the ability to recognize the limits of one’s knowledge, to be aware of the varied contexts of life and how they may unfold over time, to acknowledge others’ points of view, and to seek reconciliation of opposing viewpoints.  Continue reading

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Open Marriages, Other Forms of Sexual-Romantic Coupling: On The Rise?

Screen Shot 2015-07-14 at 4.06.43 PMMarch 24, 2016

I was recently interviewed for a New York Times article by Tammy La Gorce that portrayed the long-term open marriage of the actress Mo’Nique and her husband Sidney Hicks. The couple maintains that it works for them, despite the criticism and disbelief they often encounter. La Gorce’s article quoted my views about open marriage — what it means, and whether it “works,” from a psychological perspective. Because my views contrasted sharply with some of the others cited, especially those of Helen Fisher of the Kinsey Institute, I’m elaborating on them here.

First, the open marriage is just the current version of what became more visible during the early ‘70s because of the book, The Open Marriage, and the popular movie, Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice.” Overall, it’s part of a much broader shift, or evolution, underway today. It’s towards a sense of greater freedom to create and be open about different forms of intimate relationships; ones that people define for themselves as desirable and satisfying.

Increasingly, men and women seek to create and maintain an intimate relationship that they experience as fulfilling and meaningful. And that they define, themselves; not by others or conventional norms. How their relationships evolve down the road, over time, is something they will assess and judge for themselves. And we can see what the evidence shows.

It’s wise to suspend judgment, especially about psychological health, when views about the latter are contaminated by ideology or shared values and norms. As you grow through the adult years in today’s changing, increasingly diverse society, a broadened perspective enables you to realize that life can be complex; and can work differently for different people.

For example, Kim (not her real name) a divorced woman in her 40s, explained to me that she maintains a satisfying relationship with a man who also has a lifelong, supportive connection with a woman who is the mother of his three children. They find it works for them, given their life circumstances. And we can judge them from our own perspectives and life choices…or observe and respect what works for them. Continue reading

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Covert Sexism in the Workplace: As Harmful as Overt Behavior?

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It’s pretty clear that our workplaces are steadily evolving towards environments of greater equality. That is, organizations in which men and women are valued, recognized and rewarded for the capacities most crucial to an organization’s success. For example, the ability to work collaboratively, particularly with others who differ from oneself — whether because of gender, cultural and ethnic backgrounds; or sexual orientation.

This is an ongoing, gradual transformation, however, with many subtle obstacles rooted in personal and institutional prejudices and barriers. So it’s important to document and raise awareness about attitudes and behavior that continue to undermine individuals and teams in organizations. One current example is revealed in this study that examined hidden sexism in the workplace. It found that that frequent sexist comments as well as a management culture that covertly demeans women are just as damaging to women as overt acts of sexual coercion, sexually-tinged conduct or sexist behavior towards them.

Such hidden, embedded sexism, according to the research published in The Psychology of Women Quarterly, may go unnoticed. That is, “Norms, leadership, or policies that reduce intense harmful experiences may lead managers to believe that they have solved the problem of maltreatment of women in the workplace,”according to the authors. Continue reading

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Does More Money or More Time Bring Greater Happiness?

Screen Shot 2016-03-10 at 9.47.41 AMFebruary 23, 2016

Here’s a bit of new research I came across. It’s findings sound intuitively obvious, but I think it’s important to emphasize: The study found that valuing your time over the pursuit of money is linked to greater overall happiness. This finding highlights one aspect of a link between healthy personal values and psychologically healthy lives. I regularly see this in my work, and wish it would be more soundly emphasized by my fellow mental health professionals.

In the research, a series of studies of nearly 5,000 people was conducted by the University of British Columbia. It found that there’s a pretty even divide among people’s preferences for valuing their time vs. their money. Unfortunately — but not surprisingly, given our cultural view about what’s most “desirable” in life — only about half of the study’s participants said they valued their time over money. However, slightly more than half of the people were found to value their time over their money.

The important finding, however, was that the preference for giving priority to time over making more money was associated with greater happiness in life. And happiness, wellbeing, equanimity and psychological health are all interwoven.

The study is described in detail here, and was published in the journal Social Psychological & Personality Science.

Interestingly, the study also found that older people also were more likely to say they valued their time compared to younger people. This raises questions about the impact of age upon one’s values and overall life perspectives; and whether the shift in mentality and values hat occurs with increasing age can be supported and grown at earlier stages of life. Continue reading

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Are You ‘Checked-Out’ On the Job? Here’s Why

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You may have heard about the Spanish man who was found to have not reported for work for six years, and no one noticed — although he continued to be paid. When finally discovered, he claimed that when he did go to work, he had nothing to do.

That may be an extreme example, but many people today are turned-off by their jobs in less visible ways. They become pretty disengaged from work – either mentally checking out, or in actual behavior if they can – like faking doing work, or skipping out to go to a movie. Surveys find disengagement as high as 70% of American workers. It’s no surprise that nearly every day a new survey pops up about how much people dislike their jobs and their management. The reasons typically include severe, unrelenting stress from too many demands and too few resources or rewards, such as cited in a poll of 7000 people. Both stress and just tuning out are often rooted in debilitating, undermining management behavior and workplace culture. For example, a survey of 2,000 workers found that 47 percent said their managers made them feel threatened, rather than rewarded, and 24 percent thought their bosses were poor communicators, lacking empathy.

Three Sources of Boredom and Disengagement

But I find three additional, often overlooked reasons why employees tune out or disconnect from their work, and become bored or depressed on the job:

Too Much Mismatch – This occurs when you start to realize that “I just don’t belong here.” An example is a woman working in financial services who described to me an increasing mismatch Continue reading

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Chronic Stress and Anxiety Will Damage Your Brain

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A new research review finds that chronic stress and anxiety puts you at increased risk for developing depression and dementia. Finding such an association is not new, but this examination of several studies was more extensive and conclusive. It examined a number of research reports of how brain areas are impacted by chronic anxiety, fear and stress.

In a summary of the findings, the authors concluded that there is “extensive overlap” of the brain’s neurocircuitry in all three conditions, which may explain the link between chronic stress and the development of neuropsychiatric disorders, including depression and Alzheimer’s disease.

The authors pointed out that experiencing anxiety, fear and stress is considered a normal part of life when it is occasional and temporary, such as feeling anxious and stressed before an exam or a job interview. However, when those acute emotional reactions become more frequent or chronic, they can significantly interfere with daily living activities such as work, school and relationships. The research was published in the journal Current Opinion in Psychiatry and conducted by Canadian researchers from the the Rotman Research Institute.

“Pathological anxiety and chronic stress are associated with structural degeneration and impaired functioning of the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex (PFC), which may account for the increased risk of developing neuropsychiatric disorders, including depression and dementia,” said Linda Mah, lead author of the review.

“Looking to the future,” she added, “we need to do more work to determine whether interventions, such as exercise, mindfulness training and cognitive behavioral therapy, can not only reduce stress but decrease the risk of developing neuropsychiatric disorders.”

Credit: Allouteffort

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Why Living Together Without Marriage Can Increase Your Mental Health

Screen Shot 2016-02-02 at 10.20.24 AMJanuary 26, 2016

I’ve written previously that we’re living through a steady, growing shift in our society, as men and women re-think what kinds of relationships they seek and prefer – whether straight or gay. For example, I’ve written here that part of this shift is towards increasing acceptance of a variety of emotional-sexual experiences of couples; including polyamory; and committed couples who choose not to marry.

Now, some new research adds to these findings, as well as to recent survey data, that younger people, especially, are more concerned with building a positive, sustaining relationship than with marriage, per se. The current study, described in this report from Ohio State University, found that both men and women experience as much of a boost in their emotional well-being whether they move in together or marry. It was a bit more for women, but interestingly, that boost occurred equally among men and women who had a prior relationship that didn’t work out.

That finding is significant for reasons that might not be visible on the surface: I think it reflects the reality that forming a lasting love relationship with the right partner requires a prior failure or two. Such experiences are like a “leavening” of your inner self. It builds the foundation for learning what kind of person – his or her values, character, outlook on life — meshes with who you are, along those dimensions. And that increases the likelihood that a couple will grow together, emotionally, sexually, intellectually and spiritually, rather than grow apart.

This new study was based on data collected throughout the 2000s. It found that, for young adults who moved on from a first relationship, both men and women received similar emotional boosts whether they moved in with their second partner or got married to them.

The findings suggest an evolving role of marriage among young people today, said Sara Mernitz, co-author of the study. “Now it appears that young people, especially women, get the same emotional boost from moving in together as they do from going directly to marriage,” she said. “There’s no additional boost from getting married.”

Claire Kamp Dush, co-author of the study, pointed out that “We’re finding that marriage isn’t necessary to reap the benefits of living together, at least when it comes to emotional health.” The study appears online in the Journal of Family Psychology.

Credit: Kari Layland

A version of this article also appeared in The Huffington Post.

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Does Having More Money Or More Time Bring You Greater Happiness?

Screen Shot 2016-01-18 at 5.27.45 PMJanuary 12, 2016

Here’s a bit of new research I came across. I think it provides an example of healthy values among psychologically healthy people; and should be emphasized by us mental health professionals. The study found that valuing your time over the pursuit of money is linked to greater overall happiness. Not surprisingly, only half of the study’s participants said they valued their time over money.

The research consisted of a series of studies of nearly 5000 people, conducted by the University of British Columbia. It found that there’s a pretty even divide among people’s preferences for valuing their time vs. their money. Actually, slightly more than half of the people valued their time over their money — which is encouraging. 

The study’s basic finding was that the preference for giving priority to time over making more money was associated with greater happiness in life. The study, described in detail here, and published in the journal Social Psychological & Personality Science, also found that older people also were more likely to say they valued their time compared to younger people.

The study noted that a participant’s gender or income didn’t affect whether they were more likely to value time or money. However, the researchers pointed out they didn’t include participants living at the poverty level who may have to prioritize money to survive. That’s understandable, but it also points out how strongly our culture — incorrectly — associates increasing material wealth with personal happiness and wellbeing in life overall, as though they go hand in hand. And once you go down that road, it’s endless: how much is “enough?” Our social values make the criteria for having “enough” very elusive.

Credit: CPD Archive

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Behind the Climate Victory; a Human Victory?

Screen Shot 2016-01-05 at 10.37.39 AMJanuary 5, 2016

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A guest post from John Friedman, who heads corporate responsibility communications worldwide for Sodexo Group. John blogs on sustainability for The Huffington Post, and is a leading writer on corporate responsibility and sustainable business. He’s the author of PR 2.0: How Digital Media Can Help You Build A Sustainable Brand.

Now that the fireworks have faded along with some of the afterglow from the very successful COP21 meeting in Paris we must begin in earnest in deciding what 2016 will bring. With guarded optimism I read articles summarizing the year and for the most part they reflect a renewed hope and optimism that comes from the global agreement not only on efforts to cap global temperatures to increasing no more than 2 degrees Celsius, but also the ‘stretch target’ of 1.5 degrees.

The 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals are an excellent framework. They recognize that we must continue to improve quality of life and social justice for more and more (ideally all) people within the constraints of our very resilient planet’s ability to replenish and restore (some) natural resources.

They bear repeating here:

  • Goal 1. End poverty in all its forms everywhere
  • Goal 2. End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture
  • Goal 3. Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages
  • Goal 4. Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all
  • Goal 5. Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls
  • Goal 6. Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all
  • Goal 7. Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all
  • Goal 8. Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all
  • Goal 9. Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation
  • Goal 10. Reduce inequality within and among countries
  • Goal 11. Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable
  • Goal 12. Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns
  • Goal 13. Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts
  • Goal 14. Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development
  • Goal 15. Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss
  • Goal 16. Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels
  • Goal 17. Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development

What happened in Paris at the COP21 was a watershed meeting because it demonstrated our ability to agree on the big important issues and come together to set universal goals. And we can and should take notice of the importance not just for the global climate, but for all the issues, including those impacted by climate change and the need to address it (such as health, well-being, sustainable economic development, equality, justice, fighting corruption, etc.) Continue reading

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Actions That Benefit Others — Not Just Oneself — Lead to More Effective Work Teams

Screen Shot 2015-12-03 at 11.56.25 AMDecember 1, 2015

Although we’re seeing political and cultural calls for policies that advocate self-interest; and social-political positions that ignore or deny evidence of continuing global interdependence, the reality on the ground tells a different story: There, we find data that positive benefits for individuals, business and society accrue from serving the common good; actions that support the benefit of others enhance all, including oneself.

A recent study from Notre Dame and the University of Illinois is a good example. The research, published in the Academy of Management Journal, found that when members of a work team are supported and motivated to benefit others, those teams are higher performing. Moreover, its members remain in their teams for longer periods.

The study examined 67 work teams from both the U.S. and China, as well as 124 student teams at Notre Dame. According to lead researcher Jasmine Hu, “Findings from both the field study and lab research showed that the greater motivation to benefit others, the higher the levels of cooperation and viability and the higher the subsequent team performance.”

She added, “These types of teams were also less likely to have members voluntarily leave their teams. Furthermore, we discovered that these positive effects of team motivation to benefit others were stronger the more the tasks required close interaction and higher interdependence among its members.”

The researchers concluded that the research provided evidence for the importance of management practices that enhance motivation to benefit others. That, in turn, increases the collaboration and cooperation necessary for high-performing teams. It produces “…higher performance, more organizational citizenship behavior, and (members) stay in their teams for a longer period,” Hu said. Moreover, “The highest level of team effectiveness was achieved when team motivation to benefit others and the interdependence of tasks among team members were both high.”

In my view, this study’s findings emphasize the key management role of building and supporting positive relationships among team members. The latter is interwoven with and dependent upon positive management and leadership behavior. That is, by demonstrating belief in and commitment to collaboration and support for individual growth and development at the same time.

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Even Short Periods of Meditation Will Reduce Racial Prejudice

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Now this is encouraging news: A new study finds that just seven minutes of meditation can reduce racial prejudice. The study, from the University of Sussex, was published in the journal Motivation and Emotion. It used the Buddhist mediation technique of loving-kindness meditation, which promotes unconditional kindness towards oneself and others.

The lead researcher Alexander Stell, said: “This indicates that some meditation techniques are about much more than feeling good, and might be an important tool for enhancing inter-group harmony.” This form of meditation is aimed at generating feelings of happiness and kindness towards oneself and others through conscious focus on repeating thoughts and phrases that are positive and beneficent, while visualizing a particular person.

According to Stell, “We wanted to see whether doing loving-kindness meditation towards a member of another ethnic group would reduce the automatic preference people tend to show for their own ethnic group.”

In the study, a sample of 71 white, non-meditating adults were each given a photo of a gender-matched black person and either received taped LKM instructions, or instructions to look at the photos and notice certain features of the face. Both conditions lasted just seven minutes. Details of the experiment are described in this summary from the University.

The researchers found that just seven minutes of loving-kindness meditation directed to a member of a specific racial group (in this case, a black person) was sufficient to reduce racial bias towards that group. Additionally the researchers measured levels of positive emotions that were either ‘other-regarding’ (e.g. love, gratitude, awe, elevation) and those that were more self-directed (e.g. contentment, joy, pride). They found that people doing loving-kindness meditation showed large increases in other-regarding emotions. Those emotions were found to be what drives the reduction of bias.

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Can Empathy Modify Someone’s Political Views?

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In the context of the rising xenophobia expressed by — mostly — Republican presidential contenders, this new study from the University of Toronto is certainly apropos: It finds that empathy towards a political opponent’s moral views is a more effective path towards political persuasion. I think it highlights the power of being able to step outside yourself and put yourself into the mindset – the emotions, thoughts and values — of another; especially someone with whom you disagree strongly.

A summary of the study, published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin pointed out that if opponents really care about making even modest in-roads with each other, they’ll pay attention to this research: It showed that arguments based on a political opponent’s moral principles, rather than one’s own, have a much better chance of success. 

“We were trying to figure out ways to overcome the polarization,” said Mathew Feinberg, one of the researchers. A series of experiments had liberals and conservatives come up with arguments of their own for someone of the opposite political viewpoint.

The results showed that both groups were extremely poor at developing arguments that would appeal to their political opposite, even when specifically asked to do so. Worse, some participants in both camps actually attacked the morality of those they’d been asked to convince. 

But appealing to core principles of the opposite political persuasion appeared to help. For example, conservatives were more inclined to support universal health care when presented with purity-based arguments that more uninsured people might lead to more disease spread. Liberals showed an uptick in support for higher military spending, when shown an argument based on the principle that the military and the employment opportunities it provides help to reduce inequality.

“Instead of alienating the other side and just repeating your own sense of morality, start thinking about how your political opposition thinks and see if you can frame messages that fit with that thought process,” suggests Feinberg. A good point.

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How Depression Damages Your Memory And Concentration

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November 10, 2015

A new study finds that depression can diminish what you retain in your memory, as well as interfere with your ability to stay mentally focused. This research confirms what we see clinically among people who experience persistent negative, depressed moods and mental states. I think these findings underscore we are one integrated bio-psycho-social-spiritual-environmental organism. All dimensions of ourselves and our life experiences, both “inner” and “outer,” affect all others – emotionally, cognitively and behaviorally.

The study, from the University of Texas at Dallas, and published in the Journal of Affective Disorders, is the first to show that depressive thoughts are maintained for longer periods of time for people with depressed mood, and this may reduce the amount of information that they can hold in their memory.

According to lead author Bart Rypma, “We have known that negative thoughts tend to last longer for those with depression. However, this study is unique in showing that, these thoughts, triggered from stimuli in the environment, can persist to the point that they hinder a depressed person’s ability to keep their train of thought.”

And, added researcher Nick Hubbard, “The fact that depressive thoughts do not seem to go away once they enter memory certainly explains why depressed individuals have difficulty concentrating or remembering things in their daily lives. This preoccupation of memory by depressive thoughts might also explain why more positive thoughts are often absent in depression; there simply is not enough space for them.” The UT Center for Brain Health’s summary describes how the study was conducted and the data it provided.

I think this research points to the value of both mindfulness meditation and psychotherapy. Both can help people build their inner resources for, on the one hand, managing the impact of depressed mood upon their mental focus; and on the other hand — most importantly — envisioning positive emotional experiences to create in daily life. Both forms of help can gradually subsume a person’s cognitive and emotional dimensions of depressed thoughts and attitudes; as well as help them expand beyond their often fixed, negative view of themselves, which impedes creating a more positive experience of life.

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Feeling Emotionally Connected To Work Is Linked With Greater Psychological Wellbeing…But Why?

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I came across this new research finding that people who feel emotionally engaged and connected with their work experience greater psychological wellbeing. That may sound obvious, though it’s good whenever empirical data confirms the obvious. But I think the missing piece in the research is what, exactly, promotes that sense of emotional connection with your work to begin with?

This study from Denmark, published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, examined the well-being and other health-related outcomes in 5,000 Danish workers. It found significantly higher well-being for employees in workgroups with “the employee’s emotional attachment to, identification with, and involvement in the organization.” They also had lower sickness absence rates and fewer sleep disturbances.

The lead author, Thomas Clausen, suggests that efforts to increase emotional connection with work may lead to a happier, healthier workforce. This makes sense, of course. Most companies would likely agree. The problem is that sense of connection with work reflects many factors that organizational leadership often fails to recognize or address. For example:

  • Does senior leadership promote a positive work culture, in which workers are valued and provided opportunities for continued learning and development?
  • Is diversity encouraged and valued in practice, not just in company mission statements? 
  • Is there a workaholic and/or sexist management culture permeating the organization?
  • Perhaps most importantly, do employees experience a sense of impact their work has upon the product or service the company provides? The latter appears increasingly important to younger workers, as surveys show. 

I’ve written about these issues previously, and they are crucial for long-term, sustainable success within our culture of increasing interconnection, transparency and constant flux; of rapid technology change and generational shift regarding values, life goals, and how people re-define personal and career success. 

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Why Showing Gratitude Strengthens Marriage Relationships

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I want to highlight the findings of this new study from the University of Georgia  — that feeling appreciated and valued by your partner strengthens your marriage and increases your belief about its endurance. I think that these findings — though they are about marriage relationships — underscores something important about what builds positive relationships in general. That is, whether they are intimate, work-related, or those in broader societal contexts. Showing and feeling gratitude in relationships go a long way in building and maintaining positive, mutually supportive connections. And the latter are crucial for personal and societal wellbeing.

This study, published in the journal Personal Relationships, was based on surveys of 468 married couples. It found that that spousal expression of gratitude was the most consistent significant predictor of marital quality. 

“It goes to show the power of ‘thank you,'” said the study’s lead author Allen Barton. “Even if a couple is experiencing distress and difficulty in other areas, gratitude in the relationship can help promote positive marital outcomes.” Added co-author Ted Futris. “…when couples are engaging in a negative conflict pattern like demand/withdrawal, expressions of gratitude and appreciation can counteract or buffer the negative effects of this type of interaction on marital stability,” 

The study also found that higher levels of spousal gratitude protected men’s and women’s divorce proneness from the negative effects of poor communication during conflict. And, according to Barton, “This is the first study to document the protective effect that feeling appreciated by your spouse can have for marriages. It highlights a practical way couples can help strengthen their marriage, particularly if they are not the most adept communicators in conflict.”

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How Can You Deal With An Abusive Boss?

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I’ve written previously about abusive bosses and psychologically unhealthy management in general, and I’m revisiting it a bit here, because of a new study that highlights the difficulty people have when dealing with this kine of management environment. And not just employees: sometimes researchers themselves have a naive understanding of the problem.

That is, some recent research about employees who deal with abusive bosses shows that a well-intentioned study of workplace behavior can produce findings that confound the researchers’ predictions. This research found one unsurprising result; but another part of the findings – which puzzled the researchers — is what caught my eye.

To explain, the research surveyed the ways in which employees behave when working for abusive bosses. Those are often people who are narcissistic, denigrating, arrogant and unsupportive — or outright undermining — of employee’s learning and development.

The unsurprising part of the findings was that just trying to avoid the abusive boss or plotting ways to retaliate didn’t work. That made things worse for the employee, according to the study, published in the Journal of Applied Psychology and summarized by Jena McGregor in the Washington Post.

Rather, the other set of findings is what got my attention. Here, the researchers predicted that “acts of compassion and empathy — employees who assist bad bosses by going above and beyond, helping bosses with heavy workloads even when they’re not asked” would lead to diminished abuse by those bosses. And, that “acts of kindness might help lessen future rude or abusive behavior.”

The researchers were surprised to discover that it didn’t happen. Instead, according to the study’s co-author Charlice Hurst, “Abusive supervisors didn’t respond to followers being positive and compassionate, and doing things to be supportive and helpful.” The researchers concluded that their findings seemed to “clash with common sense.”

Really? I think most anyone who’s ever worked for abusive bosses would laugh at such “common sense” assumptions. No, trying to be “nice” or empathic towards the narcissistic, arrogant boss who often makes conflicting demands on employees isn’t going to produce positive change. Continue reading

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Psychedelics Increasingly Used For Healing And Growth

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The benefits of psychedelics for a range of emotional conflicts has been gaining increased recognition and re-emergence into — hopefully — the mainstream of treatment. In addition, researchers who are now legally allowed to conduct studies on their benefits are also finding that psychedelic drugs can have profound, transformative effects upon people — not just those who experience emotional conflicts such as anxiety or PTSD. 

An analysis published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal finds, according to a summary of the research, that psychedelic drugs have a strong effect on one’s conscious experience. They include such as lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), psilocybin, found in “magic mushrooms,” dimethyltryptamine (DMT), mescaline and methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA). According to Evan Wood, one of the co-authors, “The re-emerging paradigm of psychedelic medicine may open clinical doors and therapeutic doors long closed.”

Much current research focuses on more overt emotional disorders or conflicts. For example, that LSD-assisted psychotherapy might help reduce anxiety from terminal illness. Another, that “magic mushrooms” helped alcoholics reduce their drinking; and, a study of the drug MDMA shows a reduction in PTSD symptoms in people with chronic, treatment-resistant PTSD.

But also highly intriguing are the observations that psychedelics can have lasting, significant effect on transforming your personality. For example, a Johns Hopkins study found that a single session of psilocybin can produce lasting personality changes. The Hopkins study reported that “Lasting change was found in the part of the personality known as openness, which includes traits related to imagination, aesthetics, feelings, abstract ideas and general broad-mindedness. Changes in these traits, measured on a widely used and scientifically validated personality inventory, were larger in magnitude than changes typically observed in healthy adults over decades of life experiences.”

In a recent Huffington Post interview, Johns Hopkins researcher Matthew Johnson discussed research by him and his colleagues on the effects of psilocybin and other psychedelics, which he calls a “paradigm shift,” that “Psychedelics open a door to the mind, and then what’s behind that door is really all about the participants and the intention that they bring to the session. The fact that the effects last beyond the time that you take the medication — that’s really a new paradigm in psychiatry.”

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Covert Sexism In The Workplace Is As Harmful As Overt Behavior

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Our workplaces are steadily evolving towards environments in which men and women are valued, recognized and rewarded for their ability to work collaboratively with others who differ from them – whether gender, cultural and ethnic backgrounds, or sexual orientation. It’s a gradual process, however, and it’s important to document and raise awareness of the attitudes and behavior that continue to undermine individuals and teams in organizations. A current example is this study: It found that that frequent sexist comments and management cultures that are covertly demeaning to women are just as damaging to women as acts of sexual coercion or overtly sexual conduct and behavior towards them.

The research, published in The Psychology of Women Quarterly, found that “Norms, leadership, or policies, that reduce intense harmful experiences may lead managers to believe that they have solved the problem of maltreatment of women in the workplace,” according to the authors. “However, the more frequent, less intense, and often unchallenged gender harassment, sexist discrimination, sexist organizational climate and organizational tolerance for sexual harassment appeared at least as detrimental for women’s wellbeing. They should not be considered lesser forms of sexism.” The research team analyzed 88 independent studies of a combined 73,877 working women, and found following associations:

  • Sexism and gender harassment were just as harmful to working women’s individual health and work attitudes as common job stressors such as work overload and poor working conditions.
  • When women are the targets of sexism and harassment in the workplace, they are more dissatisfied with supervisors than co-workers.
  • There was a trend of a more negative effect of sexism and harassment in male-dominated workplaces, such as the armed forces and financial and legal services firms. However, the authors suggested this required further research.

The authors added, “Our results suggest that organizations should have zero tolerance for low intensity sexism, the same way they do for overt harassment. This will require teaching workers about the harmful nature of low intensity sexist events, not only for women, but also for the overall organizational climate.”

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Why It’s Possible To Alter Your Personality

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The novelist Norman Mailer wrote in The Deer Park, it’s a law of life that “one must grow or else pay more for remaining the same.”

So true, though many people believe that who you are – specifically, your personality – is fixed. In fact, much conventional thinking in psychology holds that our personalities remain constant.

But that’s not accurate: We’re always changing and evolving, in some way – for better or for worse. Many of us mental health professionals witness that occur among our patients. Keep in mind that who we may “become” is being shaped and determined by who we are right at this moment, by the kind of person we are inside; the qualities that we express in our daily lives, relationships and aspirations.

It’s good to see some recent research that confirms our capacity to change and grow dimensions of our personality. Change occurs from awareness of what aspects of our personality we want to develop, and working hard to “practice” them in daily life.

One example: Researchers at the University of Illinois conducted a study that tested the degree to which people could “grow” a particular personality trait or quality over a period of 16 weeks. The research, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, found that the participants who desired to change some dimension of themselves did so, in contrast to those who displayed less interest. The researchers pointed out that the results were modest, but that they show, “…at the very least, people’s personality traits and daily behavior tend to change in ways that align with their goals for change.”

They explained that it’s an unfolding process: “Goals led to changes in behavior, which led to changes in self-concept, which prompted more behavior change.”

I think this highlights the importance of having a vision of your more “developed” self; some aspect or dimension of your personality that you aspire towards. That has the effect of drawing you towards expressing those qualities of yourself, like being pulled by a magnet. Continue reading

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What Matters More — Your Character, Or What You Can Do For Me?

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This is one of those experiments that give credence to an intuitive feeling, one that’s consistent with a philosophical/spiritual perspective but we often ignore when we want to extract value from others, for our material benefit. The study, conducted by NYU researchers, found that people’s impressions of others’ character is a more important factor than what they might be able to do for us, when making decisions about them.

The study, published in Nature Neuroscience, contradicts the conventional thinking that when we learn from positive or negative feedback in our interactions with people, we make conclusions based on the benefits they bring us – their “reward value.”

As so often the case, “conventional” thinking,” is often based more on assumptions than on evidence. As this study’s lead author Leor Hackel explains, “When we learn and make decisions about people, we don’t simply look at the positive or negative outcomes they bring to us—such as whether they gave us a loan or helped us move. Instead, we often… form trait impressions, such as how generous a person seems to be, and these impressions carry more weight in our future social decisions.”

In the experiment, participants made a series of “reward-based” decisions while their neural activity was monitored using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Participants learned about other people in a series of interactions in an economic game played over the computer. Part of the study examined whether participants learned the relatively generosity of a player—a “trait impression”—in addition to learning the monetary worth of the player. The researchers’ statistical tests showed that participants learned generosity information more strongly than reward value.

After the experiment, described in detail here, participants were asked to choose which players they would prefer to interact with in a future cooperative task. The researchers found that their preferences were strongly guided by their trait impressions of players, relative to a player’s reward value. According to David Amodio, one of the researchers, “In other words, our results show that people naturally see others and even objects in terms of more general characteristics—and not just in terms of mere reward value.”

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How Your Personality Can Change And Grow — Or Stagnate Over Time

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There’s an old Buddhist saying that if you want to see into your future, just look into a mirror. It’s true, that who we are right now, and at each moment of time into the future, shapes who we become – for better or for worse. Although that truth is evident to anyone who’s at all observant of how people’s lives unfold and evolve over time, it’s interesting to see empirical evidence supporting it. The latter helps those who think we’re fixed in our personalities over our lifetime. Unfortunately — and ironically — such people tend to be those of us in the psychological and mental health fields.

This new study from Germany focused on people who experience loneliness early in life can act in ways that increase that aspect of their personality – leading to more loneliness and poorer health over time. And the experiences we seek out can also affect and shape our personalities, in reverse, over time. As the research finds, “there’s evidence that personality changes as we get older. And just as we can strive to lose weight, there’s evidence we can intentionally change our personalities.

The researchers found that “our personality affects the likelihood that we’ll become more lonely (and feel less well) as we get older, but also that being lonely (and feeling less healthy) shapes our personality, potentially setting up a vicious circle of isolation.”

Although this study looked at negative personality traits and how they interact with life experiences, I think it’s more significant to consider how we can evolve and grow positive dimensions of ourselves over time, with conscious intent and a vision of how we want to “become.” Here, clinical evidence joins philosophical teachings. As the novelist Norman Mailer wrote in The Deer Park, it’s a law of life that “one must grow or else pay more for remaining the same.”

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Why Are Women More Likely To Initiate Divorce?

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Some new data about divorce and non-marital breakups contains an unexpected finding, and I think it underscores an ongoing evolution in what people want and seek in their romantic relationships. The study, based on a survey of over 2000 heterosexual couples, found that women initiated nearly 70% of all divorces. Yet there was no significant difference between the percentage of breakups initiated by women and men in non-marriage relationships.

How to explain? I find that this data is consistent with what I and others have seen clinically. When men and women seek couples therapy and then subsequently divorce; or, when either partner seeks individual therapy about a marriage conflict that ends in divorce, it’s often the woman who expresses more overt conflict and dissatisfaction about the state of the marriage. On the other hand, the man is more likely to report feeling troubled by his wife’s dissatisfaction, but “OK” with the way things are; content to lope along as time passes.

In contrast, I find that younger couples – who are more likely to form non-marital but committed relationships — experience more egalitarian partnerships to begin with. When the relationship crumbles beyond repair, both experience that disintegration. Both are equally likely to address it – and part, if it can’t be healed.

These clinical observations are consistent with what the study’s lead author, Michael Rosenfeld, suggests — that women may be more likely to initiate divorces because the married women reported lower levels of relationship quality than married men. In contrast, women and men in non-marital relationships reported equal levels of relationship quality. Rosenfeld said his results support the feminist assertion that some women experience heterosexual marriage as oppressive or uncomfortable.

He adds, “I think that marriage as an institution has been a little bit slow to catch up with expectations for gender equality. Wives still take their husbands’ surnames, and are sometimes pressured to do so. Husbands still expect their wives to do the bulk of the housework and the bulk of the childcare. On the other hand, I think that non-marital relationships lack the historical baggage and expectations of marriage, which makes the non-marital relationships more flexible and therefore more adaptable to modern expectations, including women’s expectations for more gender equality.”

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

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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.”

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How Good Leaders Help People Change And Grow

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This Harvard Business Review article by Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman suggests ways in which good leaders enable people to change. I think it captures some of the best attitudes and behavior of those leaders who value the growth and development of their employees.

However, there’s one missing element that I would like to have seen the authors include and emphasize. They defined effectiveness at leading change as “…the managers’ ability to influence others to move in the direction the organization wanted to go.” True, per se – but only if that direction promotes collaboration, creative innovation, learning and development; occurs within a positive, healthy leadership culture; is committed to sustainable practices; and in which leadership conveys – as recent studies find is essential to a productive workplace — a sense of humbleness and empathy in one’s leadership role. 

With that caveat, I think the authors describe eight leadership practices that do support positive change among employees. They are based on their analysis of a large dataset of direct reports and leaders. Following is their description of them, excerpted from their HBR article.

They write: Continue reading

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Reduce Your Social Anxiety By Serving Others

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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.” 

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