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August 2012 - Happier Human

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24

The 6 Fraudulent Schemes We Mistake as Dreams

The Great American Dream – anyone can rise up from poverty to become rich and beautiful.

These dreams come from our culture – work hard, get a great education, work even harder, make lots of money, become attractive, marry a beautiful spouse, have kids, retire in a beach house.

Generally, our culture is good. It motivates and humanizes. It’s what says, “having an affair is wrong” when we come too close to losing control. It’s what says, “give back to your community” when we get too greedy.

But in the spirit of cohesion, patriotism, and lazy thinking, we often forget that culture is a work in progress, full of many mistakes.

Gays are gross? Yes, let’s kill 27 of them! Introverts are weak? Yes, let’s become extroverts! Muslims hate freedom? Yes, let’s spend $1 trillion and 3,542 American lives to kill over 100,000 Iraqis! Iraqis aren’t human, so who cares!

I believe the American Dream is one of those cultural mistakes, nothing more than a convincing scheme.

Despite the cries of Occupy Wallstreet, it’s still possible to rise up from poverty to become rich and beautiful. But I think the reason that most people are too lazy to achieve that dream isn’t because they lack ambition, but because it just isn’t worth the effort.

Below I look at six dreams which I believe all of us have held at some point in our life, but which I believe deserve a second appraisal. Dreams which we are told will make us fulfilled and happy, but which may actually do very little besides use up our time.

Continue reading

3

The Science of Compassion

Summary

Many studies are beginning to show not only the positive impact of having more compassion, but the effectiveness of techniques to improve it.

However, many methodological concerns remain: sample sizes are usually small (50 to 100); control groups are usually wait-lists (which are not placebo controlled); studies are short-term, usually two to three months; the effect sizes are sometimes small (<10%) and the control groups have a disproportionate tendency to also show increases in compassion (rather than a normal distribution centered around delta 0), suggesting a partial exposure effect.

Table of Contents

Open Hearts Build Lives: Positive Emotions, Induced Through Loving-Kindness Meditation, Build Consequential Personal Resources

Study explored the impact of loving kindness meditation on positive emotion and a wide range of well-being measures.

Protocol
6, hour long group sessions held over 7 weeks, 20-30 people per group. Average time spent meditating was 60 minutes a week (the weekly group session was 40 minutes of lecture and 20 minutes of meditation). Sample size of 200 (102 meditation; 100 control).

Variables
Time spent meditating compared against:

-Positive emotion: a weekly, composite variable which averaged daily experiences of amusement, awe, contentment, joy, gratitude, hope, interest, love, and pride (o to 4 for each emotion). Used Kahneman’s day reconstructure method.

-Cognitive resources (mindfulness and awareness), agency thinking, savoring, optimism, ego-resilience, psychological well-being, adjustment, positive relations with others, illness, sleep duration, satisfaction with life, and depression.

Results
-Over the course of the 9 weeks, measures of positive emotion increased by about 10%.

-As participants became more skilled in the practice, each hour of meditation exerted greater effect on positive emotion felt (week 1, 1 hour of meditation increased positive emotion by about 2.5%; week 7, 1 hour of meditation increased positive emotion by about 7%).

-Participants did not have to meditate every day to feel better every day; that is, the effect on positive emotion was not simply how much time the subject meditating that day, but how much they meditated over the past few weeks. However, participants did feel better on those days they meditated.

-Positive emotion significantly improved 9 of the 18 general well-being measures: mindfulness, pathways thinking, savoring, environmental mastery, self-acceptance, purpose in life, social support received, positive relations with others, and illness symptoms. These in turn acted on life satisfaction.

-Positive emotion was not directly correlated with increased life satisfaction – that is, positive emotion improved life satisfaction only so much as it built personal resources (such as the nine mentioned above). I believe this result deserves to be more fully explored and tested.

Concerns
-Control group used was not sham meditation, but a do-nothing wait-list. As a result, the effects of LKM could be because of the basic act of meditation, and not the specific meditation that LKM represents. Results could also be because of placebo effect. Rational offered by authors for not using a representative control is questionable (‘we don’t want to waste the time of our subjects’).

-Study was short – 7 weeks of LKM, and 9 weeks of practice. It’s possible the effects could degrade over time, although the trend from the study was the opposite.

-Sample was “predominantly White, educated, and motivated for self-change.”

-One of the primary authors is Barbara Fredrickson. As the originator of the broaden-and-build theory, she holds a bias to confirm research which supports her thesis (like this study).

Full study here.

Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2008
Barbara Fredrickson, Kimberly Coffey, Michael Cohn, Sandra Finkel, Jolynn Pek

Fredrickson, B. L., Cohn, M. A., Coffey, K. A., Pek, J., & Finkel, S. M. (2008). Open Hearts Build Lives: Positive Emotions, Induced Through Loving-Kindness Meditation, Build Consequential Personal Resources. Journal Of Personality & Social Psychology95(5), 1045-1062.

Self-Compassion is a Better Predictor Than Mindfulness of Symptom Severity and Quality of Life in Mixed Anxiety and Depression

This study compared the life improving effects of mindfulness against self-compassion. The results suggest LKM to be just as or more effective than mindfulness meditation in improving quality of life.

Protocol
Participants completed a set of questionnaires. Sample size of 504; 90% of participants had one sought psychiatric services; 50% currently taking psychiatric medicine, 46% in therapy; 87% experiencing anxiety or depression; 62% experiencing anxiety and depression.

Variables
Mindfulness (Mindful Attention Awareness Scale) and self-compassion (Self-Compassion Scale) compared against:

-Anxiety (Beck Anxiety Inventory), depression (Beck Depression Inventory), worry (Penn State Worry Questionnaire), and quality of life (Quality of Life Inventory).

Results
Self-compassion was two to three times more predictive than mindfulness in explaining anxiety, depression, worry, and quality of life.

Concerns
The study tested correlation, not causation: the study does not show that self-compassion can be as easily increased as mindfulness, and even if self-compassion can be trained, this study has not shown that this increase would actually increase quality of life. A longitudinal study comparing the effects of mindfulness meditation against LKM meditation would be significantly more revealing.

Full study here.

Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 2010
Nicholas Van Dam, Sean Sheppard, John Forsyth, Mitch Earleywine

Van Dam, N. T., Sheppard, S. C., Forsyth, J. P., & Earleywine, M. (2011). Self-compassion is a better predictor than mindfulness of symptom severity and quality of life in mixed anxiety and depression. Journal Of Anxiety Disorders25(1), 123-130. doi:10.1016/j.janxdis.2010.08.011

Is Compassion For Others Stress Buffering? Consequences of Compassion and Social Support For Physiological Reactivity to Stress

Study examines the hypothesis that, “social support is most beneficial for those best able to take advantage of it: individuals high in compassion.”

Protocol
59 San Franciscan women completed questionnaires. They were then hooked up to an EEG and ICG, and blood pressure sensors. Finally, they were instructed to give a speech to two evaluators (a simulation of stress). Half the group had supportive evaluators (smile; you’re doing a great job), half had neutral evaluators (flat non-verbal feedback).

Variables
Compassion (the compassion subscale of the dispositional positive emotion scales), defensiveness, cynicism, pessimism, negative affect, self-esteem, self-efficacy, loneliness, perceived support, and social power were compared against three measures of stress: arterial blood pressure, cortisol, and heart rate variability (across the two conditions).

Results
-“Compassion for others was not significantly correlated with any of the baseline physiological measures.” This implies that being more compassionate does not lower your day to day levels of stress.

-There was no relationship between compassion and stress in the neutral condition.

-In the support condition, those with more compassion experienced less stress. This result was true only of compassion, and none of the other nine predictive variables.

Concerns
-All subjects were female, and sample size was small.

-The neutral evaluators seemed more like rejection evaluators to me. This in turn implies that compassion could effect neutral situations as well as supportive ones.

Full study here.

Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 2010
Brandon Cosley, Shannon McCoy, Laura Saslow, Elissa Epel

Cosley, B. J., McCoy, S. K., Saslow, L. R., & Epel, E. S. (2010). Is compassion for others stress buffering? Consequences of compassion and social support for physiological reactivity to stress. Journal Of Experimental Social Psychology46(5), 816-823. doi:10.1016/j.jesp.2010.04.008

Effect of Compassion Meditation on Neuroendocrine, Innate Immune and Behavioral Responses to Psychosocial Stress

Studies measured the immune and stress modulating effects of LKM.

Protocol
For six weeks, 33 participants trained in compassion meditation twice a week (50-min class twice a week, average of 20 min of meditation), and 28 participants in a health discussion ‘control group’. Between weeks 8 through 10, subjects participated in a stress test and completed questionnaires.

Variables
Average number of meditation sessions per week was compared against general distress before and after the stress tests (30-item Profile of Mood States) and against IL-6 and cortisol levels.

Results
-Prior to the stress test, the meditation and control group did not differ.

-After the stress test, the meditation group showed a better immune and stress response than the control group. Specifically, the there was a strong inverse correlation between number of meditation sessions and outcome variables (e.g. -.3 to -.4).

-To address the concern that those with a better stress response are more likely to meditate (rather than those who meditate more having a better stress response), the authors checked for and found no (statistically significant) correlation between initial stress response and inclination to meditate.

Concerns
-Small sample size.

-No real control condition.

Full study here.

Journal of  Psychoneuroendocrinology, 2009
Thaddeus Pace, Lobsang Negi, Daniel Adame, Steven Cole, Teresa Sivilli, Timothy Brown, Michael Issa, Charles Raison

Pace, T. W., Negi, L., Adame, D. D., Cole, S. P., Sivilli, T. I., Brown, T. D., & … Raison, C. L. (2009). Effect of compassion meditation on neuroendocrine, innate immune and behavioral responses to psychosocial stress. Psychoneuroendocrinology34(1), 87-98. doi:10.1016/j.psyneuen.2008.08.011

Enhancing Compassion: A Randomized Controlled Trial of a Compassion Cultivation Training Program

Study wished to test the effectiveness of compassion cultivation training (CCT) for enhancing levels of compassion.

Protocol
100 participants, 60 assigned to CCT, 40 to wait-list. Notably, participants were adults. “CCT is a structured protocol that consists of a 2-h introductory orientation, eight once weekly 2-h classes, and daily compassion-focused meditation practice.”

“Each class includes: (a) pedagogical instruction with active group discussion, (b) a guided group meditation, (c) interactive practical exercises related to the specific step of the week, and (d) exercises designed to prime feelings of open-heartedness or connection to others, either through reading poetry or through reflecting on inspiring stories. Participants are encouraged and instructed to engage in daily informal and formal home meditation practice for at least 15 min (building up to 30 min) using pre-recorded guided meditations”

Variables
-The Fears of Compassion Scales (FCS; Gilbert et al. 2010) and the Self-Compassion Scale (SCS; Neff 2003a).

-Weekly minutes of CCT meditation.

Results
-Average weekly meditation time was 101 minutes. Meditation time was correlated with less fear of compassion for others, but no other measures.

-Fear of compassion significantly reduced (15 to 40%), and self-compassion significantly increased (20%).

 

Concerns
-Poor control – is a waitlist rather than an alternative attempt at cultivating compassion (e.g. different form of meditation, prayer, volunteer work, CFT, etc…).

-Unknown if benefits persist past training period.

Full study here.

Journal of Happiness Studies, 2012
Hooria Jazaieri, Geshe Jinpa, Kelly McGonigal, Erika L. Rosenberg, Joel Finkelstein, Emiliana Simon-Thomas, Margaret Cullen, James Doty, James Gross, Philippe Goldin

Hooria Jazaieri, Geshe Jinpa, Kelly McGonigal, Erika L. Rosenberg, Joel Finkelstein, Emiliana Simon-Thomas, Margaret Cullen, James Doty, James Gross, Philippe Goldin (2012). Enhancing compassion: A randomized controlled trial of a compassion cultivation training program. Journal of Happiness Studies, doi:10.1007/s10902-012-9373-z

The Role of Self-compassion in Romantic Relationships

This study compared the role of self-compassion in predicting relationship success against self-esteem.

Protocol
104 heterosexual couples filled out a series of surveys. “Relationship length ranged from 1 to 18 years (Mlength 3.8 years), with 39% of couples married, 41% co-habiting, and 21% living separately. Sixty percent of participants had children. The age of participants ranged from 18–44 years old (Mage 26.9 years)”

Variables
Self-Compassion Scale (SCS; Neff, 2003a), perception of partner’s self-compassion (variation of SCS), and Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale (RSE; Rosenberg, 1965) against:

-Relational well-being (Harter, Waters, & Whitesell, 1998; Neff & Harter, 2003), Intimate Bond Measure (IBM; Wilhelm & Parker, 1988), Autonomy and Relatedness Inventory (ARI; Hall & Kiernan, 1992; Schaefer & Edgerton, 1982), Conflict Tactics Scale (Straus & Gelles, 1990), Relationship Assessment Scale (RAS; Hendrick, Dicke, & Hendrick, 1998), and the Relationship Questionnaire (RQ; Bartholomew & Horowitz, 1991).

Results
-Women reported 8% less SC than men, “a finding which is consistent with prior research (e.g., Neff, 2003a; Neff & Vonk, 2009).”

-“The link [for SC] was significantly positive for Care, Relatedness, Acceptance, and Autonomy, supporting the hypothesis that higher levels of SC would be associated with more positive perceptions of one’s own behaviors and attitudes by relationship partners. The link [for SC] was significantly negative for Control, Detachment, Dominance and Verbal aggression, supporting the hypothesis that higher levels of SC would be associated with less negative perceptions of the one’s own behaviors and attitudes.”

-Self-Compassion was more predictive of relationship success than Self-Esteem (SE) – the table below canceled out the shared variance between SC and SE. Notably, SC was correlated with extremely less dominance and verbal aggression. On the other hand, self-esteem was correlated with increased dominance and verbal aggression, leading to the possibility that self-compassion is a safer, more effective version of self-esteem.

Concerns
This is a correlational study – “While it may be the case the higher preexisting levels of SC enhance relationship functioning, it may be that harmonious and close relationships enhance the ability to be self-compassionate.”

Full study here.

Journal of Self and Identity, 2012
Kristin Neff, S. Natasha Beretvas

Neff, K. D., Beretvas, S. N. (2012).  The role of self-compassion in romantic relationships.  Self and Identity. DOI:10.1080/15298868.2011.639548

Self-Compassion and Psychological Resilience Among Adolescents and Young Adults

This study examined the effect of self-compassion on the well being of adolescents, as near all previous research had focused on college students or adults. In addition, the study examined self-compassion as an alternative to self-esteem, “the need for high self-esteem has been found to contribute to certain problematic behaviors, including bullying, aggression, self-enhancement bias, and narcissism.”

Protocol
Sample of 235 adolescents, and 287 college students (the control). Participants completed a series of surveys.

Variables
Self-Compassion Scale (SCS; Neff, 2003a), Beck Depression Inventory (BDI; Beck & Steer, 1987), Spielberger State-Trait Anxiety Inventory–Trait form (Spielberger, Gorsuch, & Lushene, 1970), Social Connectedness Scale (Lee & Robbins, 1995), maternal subscale of the FamilyMessages Measure (Stark, Schmidt, & Joiner, 1996), Index of Family Relations (Hudson,1992), Relationship Questionnaire (Bartholomew & Horowitz, 1991), and the personal uniqueness subscale of the New Personal Fable Scale (Lapsley et al., 1989).

Results
-“Maternal support and family functioning were significant predictors of self-compassion. Attachment style also predicted self-compassion, with secure attachment positively associated with self-compassion, and preoccupied and fearful attachment negatively associated with self-compassion.”

-“Those who displayed the personal fable—the sense that the self’s experiences are unique and not shared by others—reported significantly lower levels of self-compassion. (r= .28 to .33)”

-“Self-compassion was a significant partial mediator between maternal support and well-being.” In english, “one way parents may influence their children’s functioning is by fostering self-compassionate or self-critical inner dialogues.”

-Self-compassion was significantly correlated with well-being (r=.36), even after controlling for several potential underyling factors (e.g. maternal support), as seen in the table below:

Concerns
-There are potentially other confounding variables not considered by this study, in which case self-compassion would not be a distinctly predictive construct.

-Correlational.

-“The participants in the study were largely white and middle class.”

Full study here

Journal of Self and Identity, 2010
Kristin Neff, Pittman McGehee

Neff, K. D. & McGeehee, P. (2010).  Self-compassion and psychological resilience among adolescents and young adults.  Self and Identity, 9, 225-240.

Self-Compassion and Adaptive Psychological Functioning

Two studies which examined potential ways in which self-compassion may improve well-being.

Study 1: Examines effectiveness of self-compassion and self-esteem in buffering against anxiety.

Protocol
91 undergraduates filled out a series of surveys, went through a “mock job interview situation [where they] were asked to give a written answer to the dreaded but inevitable interview question, ‘Please describe your greatest weakness'”, filled out the anxiety measure for the second time, and then finally answered the mock interview questions again.

Variables
Self-Compassion Scale (SCS; Neff, 2003a), Rosenberg self-esteem scale (RSE; Rosenberg, 1965), Positive and Negative AVect Schedule (PANAS; Watson, Clark, & Tellegen, 1988), Speilberger State-Trait Anxiety Inventory—State form (Spielberger, Gorsuch, & Lushene, 1970), and text analysis of their interview answers – a tally of four categories of words ““First person singular” (pronouns such as I and me); “First person plural” (pronouns such as we and our); “Social references” (social words such as friend, talk or share): and “Negative emotions” (words such as nervous, angry or sad).”

Results
-“Self-compassion was associated with significantly less anxiety after considering one’s greatest weakness (r = -.21, p< .05).” In comparison, self-esteem had a correlation of r=-.11.

-“Self-compassion was negatively correlated with use of first person singular pronouns such as “I” (r =-.21, p < .05). Self-compassion was also positively correlated with use of first person plural pronouns such as “we” (r = .23, p < .05) and with social references such friends, family, communication, and other humans (r = .21, p6.05).”

Concerns
-No control.

-Correlational; which is the concern that the second study attempted to address.

Study 2: Moves from correlation into causality – attempting to increase levels of self-compassion, and then seeing if that increases levels of well-being.

Protocol
40 college students (38 females) completed a set of surveys, underwent the “Gestalt two-chair” exercise (Greenberg, 1983, 1992), and were then retested.

“The intervention was created to assist clients in challenging maladaptive, self-critical beliefs, allowing them to become more empathic towards themselves (Safran, 1998). In this approach, two conflicting aspects of the self are given voice—a self-critical voice and an “experiencing” voice that feels criticized, so that each is allowed to express its own values, wants, and needs. The goal of the exercise is to arrive at a point where the part of the self that feels judged and unworthy “comes to know and appreciate itself [so that one] feels compassion for the newly discovered vulnerable self.”

Variables
Therapist ratings of participants’ self-compassion levels and Self Compassion Scale against:

-Self-Criticism subscale of Blatt, D’AZitti, and Quinlan (1976) Depressive Experiences Questionnaire (DEQ), The Social Connectedness Scale (Lee & Robbins, 1995), Speilberger State-Trait Anxiety Inventory—Trait form (Spielberger et al., 1970), Beck Depression Inventory (Beck, Ward, Mendelson, Mock, & Erbaugh, 1961), Ruminative Responses scale (Butler & Nolen-Hoeksema, 1994), and the White Bear Suppression Inventory (Wegner & Zanakos, 1994).

Results
-“Those who experienced an increase in self-compassion also experienced increased social connectedness and decreased self-criticism, depression, rumination, thought suppression, and anxiety.”

Concerns
-Small sample size, and near all female population (95%).

-The study does not actually mention how much self-compassion changed over the course of the study, suggesting the change was small.

Full study here.

Journal of Research in Personality, 2007
Kristin Neff, Kristin Kirkpatrick, Stephanie Rude

Neff, K. D., Kirkpatrick, K. & Rude, S. S. (2007).  Self-compassion and its link to adaptive psychological functioning.  Journal of Research in Personality, 41, 139-154.

Self-Compassion, Interpersonal Conflict Resolutions, and Well-being

Study examined the effects of self-compassion on conflict resolution.

Protocol
506 college students completed a series of surveys.

Variables
Self-Compassion Scale (SCS; Neff, 2003a) against:

-Conflict resolution behavior: “Participants were asked to provide a written example of a real-life situation in which their needs or desires conflicted with those of their mother, father, best friend, and romantic partner… Participants were asked to report how they resolved the conflict given the following three choices, self-subordination, compromise, or self-prioritization.”

-Authentiticy: “‘When you resolved conflicts this way, did you feel like you were being your true self, the real you, or did it feel false, that you were acting that way, but it was not the real you?’’”

-Emotional Turmoil: The degree of inner conflict and turmoil felt while resolving the conflict (1 to 5).

-Relational Well-Being

Results
-Men were 5% more self-compassionate than women.

-“Males showing a slightly greater tendency to self-subordinate with romantic partners than females (31.9% of resolutions among males, compared to 22.8% of resolutions among females).” Hah! Which gender is selfish now!

-“For each one-point increase in self-compassion, participants were 61% more likely to compromise with mothers, 47% more likely to compromise with fathers, 117% more likely to compromise with best friends, and 100% more likely to compromise with romantic partners, relative to self-subordinating. Participants were also 53% more likely to compromise with romantic partners, relative to self-prioritizing.” For reference, a one-point increase in self-compassion is about a 33% increase.

-“For each one-point increase in self-compassion, odds for participants to resolve conflicts authentically (opposed to inauthentically) increased with mothers by a factor of 3.15 (a 215% increase), with fathers by a factor of 2.25 (a 125% increase), with best friends by a factor of 1.59 (a 59% increase), and with romantic partners by a factor of 1.63 (a 63% increase).”

-“Self-compassion was significantly associated with less emotional turmoil: r =-.32; fathers, r=-.35; best friends, r=-.23; and romantic partners r=-.28.”

-“Self-compassion was significantly associated with greater relational well-being: mothers, r=.23; fathers, r=.29; best friends, r=.22; and romantic partners, r=.17.”

Concerns
-“The tendency for individuals to claim that they compromised in their relationships may have been inflated.”

-Sample was of college students.

-“Self-reports of conflict resolution behavior were retrospective, so it is possible that in looking back at past conflicts, participants judged resolutions more positively.” It’s possible more compassionate people are also more optimistic, which in turn makes them more likely to positively color past events.

Full study here

Journal of Self and Identity, 2012
Lisa Yarnell, Kristin Neff

Yarnell, L. M., Neff, K. D. (2012).  Self-compassion, interpersonal conflict resolutions, and well-being. Self and Identity. DOI:10.1080/15298868.2011.649545

Effects of Taiji Practice on Mindfulness and Self-Compassion in Healthy Participants—A Randomized Controlled Trial

Study examines the effects of tai-chi practice on mindfulness and self-compassion. “The Taiji course lasted for 12 weeks. Training sessions took place twice a week and lasted for 60 min each.” Problems include a poor control – a waitlist, and a small sample size (35 tai-chi, 35 control).

The results are not suggestive of tai-chi as an effective method of increasing self-compassion. The tai-chi group increased their levels of compassion by 5 to 10%. While statistically significant, the control also increase their levels of compassion by 2 to 7%.

Full study here.

Loving-Kindness Meditation to Enhance Recovery From Negative Symptoms of Schizophrenia

Study is a case analysis of three patients suffering from schizophrenia, all three of which showed improvement from loving kindness meditation (LKM), and one showing large improvement. Given the myriad biases which plague case analyses, this study can be taken as a sign that LKM may work, and deserves rigorous investigation, not that it actually does.

Full article here.

A Pilot Study of Loving-Kindness Meditation For The Negative Symptoms of Schizophrenia

Better than the above study, which had only 3 participants, this study had 18 participants. LKM improved patient symptoms, but 18 participants is still extremely small, and the lack of a control is concerning.

Full article here.

Loving-Kindness and Compassion Meditation: Potential for Psychological Interventions

A comprehensive literature review.

Full review here.

 

1

The 6 Fraudulent Schemes We Mistake as Dreams (No Animation)

The Great American Dream – anyone can rise up from poverty to become rich and beautiful.

These dreams come from our culture – work hard, get a great education, work even harder, make lots of money, become attractive, marry a beautiful spouse, have kids, retire in a beach house.

Generally, our culture is good. It motivates and humanizes. It’s what says, “having an affair is wrong” when we come too close to losing control. It’s what says, “give back to your community” when we get too greedy.

But in the spirit of cohesion, patriotism, and lazy thinking, we often forget that culture is a work in progress, full of many mistakes.

Gays are gross? Yes, let’s kill 27 of them! Introverts are weak? Yes, let’s become extroverts! Muslims hate freedom? Yes, let’s spend $1 trillion and 3,542 American lives to kill over 100,000 Iraqis! Iraqis aren’t human, so who cares!

I believe the American Dream is one of those cultural mistakes, nothing more than a convincing scheme.

Despite the cries of Occupy Wallstreet, it’s still possible to rise up from poverty to become rich and beautiful. But I think the reason that most people are too lazy to achieve that dream isn’t because they lack ambition, but because it just isn’t worth the effort.

Below I look at six dreams which I believe all of us have held at some point in our life, but which I believe deserve a second appraisal. Dreams which we are told will make us fulfilled and happy, but which may actually do very little besides use up our time.

This is the unsexy version of the post; if you have javascript enabled, please read here.

Wealth

Money often costs too much.                           -Ralph Waldo Emerson

Money buys happiness and increases life satisfaction. Just take a look at the graph below – as income increases, so does happiness.1

Ah my apologies, that’s the wrong graph. I forgot the first rule of statistics: mislead, mislead, mislead.
 

That’s better – now we see a clear relationship. More money = more happiness.

The average person with a family income of $60,000 is about 20% happier than someone with a family income of $15,000.

How can the difference be so small? So small that I had to manipulate the graph? The poor are more resilient than we think. The rich are too ambitious and overworked.

In my previous life as a wall street consultant, the high pay came with long hours and high stress. I was working 60 hours a week.

It’s the same for all high-paying jobs. Lawyer, doctor, investment banker, or consultant – if you’re getting paid above average, you’re also working longer than average.

Was the extra 20 hours of work each week worth a 20% increase in life satisfaction? No.

A five minutes a day, 30 minutes a week gratitude journal could have done the same. More even.

Let’s get geeky.

When evaluating a decision, estimate the potential benefit and the potential cost. If the benefit is high and the cost low, great. If it’s the other way around, stay away.

In everyday life, this is called common sense.  In the world of business, this calculation is called return on investment (ROI).

A high paying job will cost about 20 extra hours each week in additional work and stress. It’s potential reward is about a 20% increase in life satisfaction and happiness.

A gratitude journal will cost about 30 minutes each week. It’s potential reward is a 10 to 20% increase in life satisfaction and happiness – let’s say 15% for this calculation.

In other words, the ROI of a gratitude journal is 30 times the ROI of a high paying job.

In other words, you should quit your stressful job and start spending some more time being grateful. Or don’t quit. It’s just 30 minutes a week.

Takeaway: Materialism is inefficient.

Beauty

Beauty might bring happiness, but happiness always brings beauty.                         -Kevyn Aucoin

If your kid is fat and that gives her anxiety, that’s a problem. But if she has that anxiety because you keep telling her she needs to lose weight, you may want to stop. For the average child, physical appearance has no correlation with happiness.2

It’s different for adults. The good-looking are on average 7% happier than the bad-looking.3,4

For comparison, the grateful and optimistic are 20 to 50% happier than the ungrateful and pessimistic.5

Changing your appearance will do little to change your life satisfaction. Unless you’re an urban female.

Urban settings (but not rural settings) promote a“free market” of relationships in which attractiveness, a basis for personal choice, is an important determinant of social and psychological well-being.                          -Does Attractiveness Buy Happiness6

Having lived in NYC, I agree. As a child living in suburban American, I had no choice but to play with my neighbors. When I lived in the city I didn’t even know my neighbor’s names.

In an urban setting, attractiveness helps form connections, especially if you’re female. In urban settings, the pressure to be beautiful is strong, mostly if you’re female.

So if you live in a city, are female, and your weight is giving you anxiety, lose weight. But that takes months and mountains of willpower. Do something easier.

If becoming more attractive is one of your goals, it’s because you want more social approval. You want more self-esteem, more attention, and more smiles directed your way. I understand. I want to be more attractive too.

But there is an easier way. Make more, better friends. Be interesting. Be zestful. Volunteer. Join clubs. Be passionate. Go do things. People like that are beautiful, regardless of their physical appearance.

Takeaway: Unless you’re really hideous or actually find happiness in obsessing over your appearance, don’t worry. Ugly people are happy too. 

Sunshine

A day without sunshine is like, you know, night.                          -Steve Martin

Remember the last time you had a warm soup or apple cider during the winter? Or a cold soda or beer during summer? It felt good. Because of the contrast.

There is no hot without cold; no cold without hot.

I’m not getting philosophical. Humidity after a clear day is correlated with reduced vigor and happiness.7 Sunshine after a cloudy day is correlated with increased mood.8

But sunshine after sunshine is correlated with nothing.

But if every day was warm and sunny, you would get use to it.

A study of 1,993 Americans living in California, Michigan, and Ohio found no correlation between location and life satisfaction. That is, although people in the midwest complained about their poor weather, although they also said they would be happier if they lived under California’s bright sun, although Californian’s said that their bright sun makes them happier, midwesterners were just as happy as Californians.9

We have a tendency to take things for granted. The weather is no exception. A 2006 study found that the only time rising temperature was correlated with rising mood was in spring, when the memory of cold winter was still in mind.10

Weather is also not that important. Most of the time, we’re indoors completely unconcerned about the temperature and humidity. In the California study, weather was ranked last in importance out of 11 items. Would you rather have good job prospects, a vibrant social life, financial security, or nice weather?

I would rather have the first three.

There is one exception – living in an extremely cold region with below average levels of sunshine is correlated with reduced wellbeing.11 In places like Alaska and Greenland seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is much more common. SAD is depression brought on by poor weather and lack of sunlight.

Takeaway: Avoid really cold and dark places. Everything else is not much different.

Children

Parents are unhappy. I’ve checked, and for every subgroup of the population I analyzed, parents report being less happy than similarly situated nonparents.                          –Betsy Stevenson

I’m single right now. Possibly because I tell dates, “I don’t want kids”.

I’ve looked at the data myself – three studies have shown a negative correlation between happiness and having kids.12,13,14 They also showed that kids decrease rather than increase marital satisfaction.

Two recent studies suggest that parents are actually happier than non-parents, and that their studies are more accurate than the previous ones.

I don’t think it’s that clean-cut. I believe this active debate indicates that there is no clear correlation either way.

Maybe kids will make you happy. Maybe they won’t.

So if you’re looking to have children to improve your marriage or to make you happy, like 76% of Pew respondents, who answered that their reason for having kids was the ‘joy of children’, you may be making a mistake.

Think about it – you’ll spend thousands of hours and hundreds of thousands of dollars raising your children. If you spent that same time meditating, exercising, and becoming more grateful, you’d be guaranteed to be happier.

But there is more to life than happiness, which is probably why despite the data, Betsy decided to have kids.

Three recent studies suggest that having children increases meaning and purpose in life. And of course – all of us want to leave a legacy. For some it will be our children, for others our books, and for others our companies.

If you want children to be your legacy, and you’re willing to sacrifice your time, money, and peace of mind for it, I applaud you. I need your kids to fund my social security.

Takeaway: Kids are for meaning and purpose. Friends and vacations are for happiness.

*Ironically, across all of these studies, men with children had greater well-being than women with children. I’m so glad I’m a man. Not only do I not have to give birth, I don’t have to have periods, I also don’t have to change any as many diapers.

**If you’d like to better understand how, on average, having kids can possibly reduce happiness, I recommend the book Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert.

Education

Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.                          ―Aristotle

I love to learn – I read new research papers and books every week. Does that love of learning correlate with increased life satisfaction?

Sometimes. A survey of 2,727 Americans found that those with a high level of education were twice as likely than those with a low level of education to be very happy.15

But that same survey found that those with a low level of education were 47% more likely to be the happiest than those with a high level of education.15

I would rather be happiest than very happy. It seems it would be better for me to enjoy, rather than to always question.

Knowledge is power. No one said that power is happiness.

Knowledge teases, with the hope of the grand things our lives can be, but also with the despair of the grand things our lives are not.

These results have been confirmed by a meta-analysis of over eight surveys measuring over 100,000 people.16

The very happy are the most economically productive – making money and driving innovation.

The happiest people are the most socially productive – spending more of their time on developing their relationships and their communities.

So is a high level of education worth it? If you’re just looking for happiness, then no. You don’t need a PhD, Masters, or even an Undergraduate degree. Demographics are poorly correlated with life satisfaction.

All of us want more than happiness – we also want meaning and purpose. Many people choose to have kids to fill that need. I would rather learn as much as I can and share that knowledge with all of you.

For that I may need to make a sacrifice.

I may need to choose ‘very happy’ over ‘happiest’.

Oh the sacrifice.

Takeaway: Cheap education is good education.

Choice

The growth of options and opportunities for choice has three, related, unfortunate effects. It means that decisions require more effort. It makes mistakes more likely. It makes the psychological consequences of mistakes more severe.                          -Barry Schwartz

A few months ago I was having a quarter-life crisis. That’s what gave birth to this blog.

Quarter-life crises are a new phenomenon. So are mid-life crises and the case that the average person will change careers seven to ten times.17

Why the changes? The burden of choice and pains of possibilities unreached.

Some choice is good. It gives birth to individuality. It gives us the feeling of control.

Too much choice is bad. It overwhelms.

From the book the Paradox of Choice:

I want a pair of jeans—32–28,” I said. “Do you want them slim fit, easy fit, relaxed fit, baggy, or extra baggy?” she replied. “Do you want them stonewashed, acid-washed, or distressed? Do you want them button-fly or zipper-fly? Do you want them faded or regular?”

I was stunned… I decided to try them all…

The jeans I chose turned out just fine, but it occurred to me that day that buying a pair of pants should not be a daylong project. By vastly expanding the range of choices, they had created a problem. Before these options were available, purchasing jeans was a five-minute affair. Now it was a complex decision in which I was forced to invest time, energy, and no small amount of self-doubt, anxiety, and dread.

And that’s just pants.

We of Gen X and Y know we can travel the world, save starving children, rise the corporate ladder, and dream big dreams. Our worlds are no longer limited to the town we grew up in. The possibilities are exciting.

The possibilities are also crushing. With every fork come dozens of choices than need evaluation. With every choice made, there are dozens of possibilities turned away, waiting to fester into regret.

With power and opportunity come responsibility – the requirement to evaluate more and more choices. It can be draining.

Soon I will be moving. A part of me wants to comb through the data and create complicated statistical models to rank all of my choices. A part of me knows that the data is a curse, because NYC or San Francisco, Singapore or Boston, there are people. As long as there are people, I will be happy.

Takeaway: Simplify. Uncertainty feels bad, simplicity feels good.

 

There are no universal truths – just averages. You may be the exception that finds bliss from becoming rich or moving to a California beach. I hope you are – because those goals are easy compared to the true paths to happiness, which require changing our personality.

But as much as I hope and as much as you hope, you’re unlikely to be that exception. So remember – just because society encourages you to be excited about something, just because you listened and now feel excited, doesn’t make that something a good idea.

People are exposed to many messages that encourage them to believe that a change of weight, scent, hair color (or coverage), car, clothes, or many other aspects will produce a marked improvement in their happiness. Our research suggests a moral, and a warning: Nothing that you focus on will make as much difference as you think.                           -Daniel Kahneman, founder of Behavioral Economics

Culture is humanizing. Culture is also often stupid.

Think I’m wrong about one of these ideas? Did I miss a happiness scheme? Tell me with a comment below!

References

1. General Social Surveys, 1972-2006
2. Holder, M. D., & Coleman, B. (2008). The contribution of temperament, popularity, and physical appearance to children’s happiness. Journal Of Happiness Studies, 9(2), 279-302. doi:10.1007/s10902-007-9052-7
3. Daniel S. Hamermesh & Jason Abrevaya, 2011. “”Beauty Is the Promise of Happiness”?,” NBER Working Papers 17327, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
4. World Happiness Report, 2012
5. Park, N., Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. P. (2004). STRENGTHS OF CHARACTER AND WELL-BEING. Journal Of Social & Clinical Psychology, 23(5), 603-619.
6. PLAUT, V. C., ADAMS, G., & ANDERSON, S. L. (2009). Does attractiveness buy happiness? “It depends on where you’re from”. Personal Relationships, 16(4), 619-630. doi:10.1111/j.1475-6811.2009.01242.x
7. Sanders, J. L., & Brizzolara, M. S. (1982). RELATIONSHIPS BETWEEN WEATHER AND MOOD. Journal Of General Psychology, 107(1), 155.
8. Howarth, E. E., & Hoffman, M. S. (1984). A multidimensional approach to the relationship between mood and weather. British Journal Of Psychology, 75(1), 15.
9. Schkade, D. A., & Kahneman, D. (1998). Does Living in California Make People Happy?. Psychological Science (Wiley-Blackwell), 9(5), 340.
10. Aaronson, L. (2006). Happiness Is a Beach, Sometimes. Psychology Today, 39(1), 27.
11. Rehdanz, K., & Maddison, D. (2005). Climate and happiness. Ecological Economics, 52(1), 111-125. doi:10.1016/j.ecolecon.2004.06.015
12. Clark, A.E. and Oswald, A.J. (2002a). “Well-Being in Panels”, mimeo, University of Warwick.
13. Rafael Di Tella & Robert J. MacCulloch & Andrew J. Oswald, 2003. “The Macroeconomics of Happiness,” The Review of Economics and Statistics, MIT Press, vol. 85(4), pages 809-827, November.
14. Alesina, Alberto, Rafael Di Tella and Robert MacCulloch. “Inequality And Happiness: Are Europeans And Americans Different?,” Journal of Public Economics, 2004, v88(9-10,Aug), 2009-2042.
15. World Values Survey Databank, United States [1982], United States [1990], United States [1995], United States [1999] 16. Oishi, S., Diener, E., & Lucas, R. E. (2007). The optimal level of well-being: Can we be too happy? Perspectives on Psychological Science, 2, 346-360.
17. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Employee Tenure Summary, 2010, USDL-10-1278