Tagged Happiness

Its Okay to Feel Joy Right Now

Here’s how to prolong it.

The birds are chirping, a warm breeze is blowing and some of your friends are getting vaccinated. After a year of anxiety and stress, many of us are rediscovering what optimism feels like. And the good news about an increase in available vaccines could not come at a more joyous time.

Spring is the season of optimism. With it comes more natural light and warm weather, both great mood boosters, and some of our most hopeful religious holidays: Easter, Passover, the Hindu festival of Holi and Nowruz, the Persian new year that celebrates springtime and renewal.

But if you’re expecting your happiness to skyrocket the moment we finish off this pandemic once and for all, think again.

Yes, receiving your vaccine shot, daydreaming about intimate dinner parties or those first hugs with grandchildren may give you a jolt of joy, but euphoria, unfortunately, tends to be fleeting.

Blame “hedonic adaptation,” said Rhea Owens, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Minnesota Duluth, who conducts research on positive psychology interventions in counseling practices. When good (or bad) things happen, we feel an initial surge or dip in our overall happiness levels. Hedonic adaptation means that, over time, we settle back into wherever we were happiness-wise before that good or bad event happened. Even if the good thing — like getting your dream job — is continuing.

To maintain those positive feelings, you are going to need to work on it a bit. Thank evolution.

“Our brains developed biologically for survival, not happiness,” said Sanjay Kumar, the director of contemplative practices and well-being at the Fish Interfaith Center at Chapman University in Orange, Calif. The human mind, he added, “prioritizes negative experiences to be remembered more strongly than positive ones, as a way for us to anticipate potential threats in our environment.”

While that’s good for evolution, excessive worry isn’t anyone’s idea of a happy state of mind.

Ultimately, happiness is more of a daily practice than anything else, Dr. Kumar said. Which is why getting your coronavirus shot may make you happy for a moment, but won’t bring you long-term happiness. The good news is that researchers have found steps that will (and no needles are required). Even better: these strategies work perfectly in a moment like this — when hope is on the horizon, but the path toward it isn’t clear.

To start, it’s OK if you’re not OK.

While many Americans are beginning to exhale, many others are buried deep in grief.

If that’s you, it’s OK if this stage of the pandemic does not feel joyous, said Shannon South, a transpersonal psychologist based in Asheville, N.C. If you need to avoid pictures of your friends getting their coronavirus vaccines on social media, that’s fine. Consider this your permission to let yourself feel what you need to feel.

If you’re not allowing yourself to feel happy because you worry you’ll be disappointed by future bad news, that’s OK too, Dr. Owens said. This is called defensive pessimism, and it can help people feel more in control of a bad situation. In a moment like this, where there are worrying signs of more trouble ahead — like Italy and Spain putting in effect new lockdowns — and case numbers in the U.S. remain stubbornly high, it’s understandable if you are just not ready to feel optimistic yet, said Dr. Owens said.

Savor this (and everything).

Your first time hugging friends in a year is going to be so sweet, you’ll undoubtedly savor every moment of it. But there is joy in everyday things, too. Spring seems especially full of good moments for savoring — like finding the shell of a just-hatched robin’s egg, spying a chorus of daffodils in a local yard or just feeling the sun of a spring day on bare arms. Even the mundane things — like watching yet another youth soccer game — can feel special if you take a moment to remember the not-so-distant past when so much of our lives was put on hold.

Dr. Owens recommends simply taking a beat whenever something good happens — no matter how small — to really acknowledge it.

Marvel as much as you can.

In the past decade, researchers have been investigating the relationship between wonder, happiness and good health. In 2013, the Social Interaction Lab at the University of California, Berkeley, started “Project Awe,” to study the intersection of awe and happiness. In one study published in the journal Emotion in 2015, participants (in this case college students) who experienced more positive emotions had lower levels of interleukin-6, a marker for inflammation. And the participants with the lowest levels of interleukin-6, were the participants who reported feeling awe most often.

Awe also may make us more generous. A 2015 paper published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology looked at five different studies on feelings of awe and “pro-social” — what’s good for the collective group — behavior. The researchers found that being awed made participants more generous toward others and ethical in their decision-making.

Perhaps this research explains why getting the vaccine is such a serotonin boost for so many. Not only do you suddenly feel like the future is brighter, but you may also feel awe at the wonders of modern science.

If needles don’t make you feel awe, that’s fine. This feeling can come from a walk around the block, said Allen Klein, author of “The Awe Factor.” One of his favorite strategies for ensuring his daily dose of awe is heading out for an “awe walk.” On these strolls, he’ll turn off his mental list of chores and things to remember, and instead focus on finding wonder in small things along the way.

Be grateful and kind.

Acts of kindness tend to increase people’s ratings of their happiness, Dr. Owens said. “I think we could all use a little bit of extra kindness right now.”

The boost you get may not be huge, however. A review of studies published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology in 2018 found benefits of kind acts were modest. But they were there.

You may also get some benefit from simply thinking about good deeds you have done in the past. A 2021 study published in The Journal of Positive Psychology by researchers at the University of California, Riverside, found reflecting on past kind deeds improved well-being at a rate similar to actually going out and doing new good deeds. This isn’t clearance to never be kind again, though. But if you’re stuck at home and cannot get out to help a friend, try thinking back on a time when you did those things.

Realize happiness alone isn’t enough.

If you have been struggling with depression throughout the pandemic — as many Americans have — working to boost your own happiness may not be the cure you are hoping for. “The opposite of depression is not happiness,” said Dr. Jeff Ditzell, a New York-based psychiatrist. “The opposite of depression is no longer being depressed.”

The good news, Dr. South said, is that for many Americans their circumstances may be driving their depression. A 2020 study by researchers at Boston University looked at depression symptoms among survey takers before the pandemic and then during it. Participants reporting symptoms of depression more than tripled, and having financial trouble and high levels of stress correlated with having a higher risk of depressive symptoms during the pandemic.

If you have been struggling with symptoms of depression these past 12 months, you may feel your depression subside as the pandemic slowly wanes. It may not. Clinical depression should be treated by a mental health professional.

Break out your calendar.

While we still don’t know when indoor concerts, big parties and other Before Time activities will return as before, scheduling a few safe activities can do wonders for keeping your optimism up. In fact, just anticipating an event can sometimes be as pleasurable as the activity itself. Perhaps it’s too early to set a date for that 15-person dinner party, but you certainly can crack open a cookbook to start planning the menu.

And when party day arrives, don’t forget to savor every last morsel and belly laugh, as you eat, drink and be more than just fleetingly merry.

The Pandemic Happiness Gap

Mind

The Pandemic Happiness Gap

New surveys show that in the last year, older adults tended to be more positive than younger ones, suggesting that the ability to cope improves with age.

Credit…Nicole Xu
Benedict Carey

  • March 12, 2021, 12:00 p.m. ET

For all its challenges to mental health, this year of the plague also put psychological science to the test, and in particular one of its most consoling truths: that age and emotional well-being tend to increase together, as a rule, even as mental acuity and physical health taper off.

The finding itself is solid. Compared with young adults, people aged 50 and over score consistently higher, or more positively, on a wide variety of daily emotions. They tend to experience more positive emotions in a given day and fewer negative ones, independent of income or education, in national samples (work remains to be done in impoverished, rural and immigrant communities.)

But that happiness gap always has begged for a clear explanation. Do people somehow develop better coping skills as they age?

Or is the answer more straightforward: Do people sharpen their avoidance skills, reducing the number of stressful situations and bad risks they face as they get older?

To test these two scenarios, scientists needed an environment where both older and younger populations were in equally stressful situations.

But “there’s never been a way we could somehow test the effect of extreme stress on this relationship, in any ethical way,” said Susan Charles, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Irvine.

The coronavirus changed that. If the outbreaks across the country through the spring showed one thing clearly, it was that older people have been at much higher risk — both of getting sick and dying of Covid-19 — than the young.

“This was, from the beginning, a threat to older people that they simply could not avoid — and, crucially, it was prolonged stress,” said Laura Carstensen, a psychologist at Stanford University’s Center on Longevity.

A research team led by Dr. Carstensen studied that reality. In April, after the potential scope of the pandemic was apparent, the team recruited a representative sample of some 1,000 adults, aged 18 to 76, living across the country. The participants answered surveys with detailed questions about their emotions over the previous week, including 16 positive states, like relaxed or amused, and 13 negative ones, like guilt or anger.

They also rated the intensity of those feelings. People who said they had been angry over the past week, for example, would see an item asking, “When you felt angry this past week, how angry did you typically feel — a little, somewhat, very, or extremely angry.”

If older people indeed manage their emotions by choosing to avoid stressful situations, the scientists reasoned, then their study should show the happiness gap shrinking, if not disappearing.

Yet their moods remained elevated, on average, compared with those in younger generations, the survey data showed — despite the fact that both groups reported the same stress levels.

“Younger people were doing far worse emotionally than older people were,” Dr. Carstensen said. “This was April, the most anxiety-producing month, it was novel, cases went from nothing to 60,000, there was lots of attention and fear surrounding all this — and yet we see the same pattern as in other studies, with older people reporting less distress.”

In a similar study, psychologists at the University of British Columbia exhaustively surveyed some 800 adults of all ages in the first couple of months of the pandemic — and found the same thing.

“The Covid-19 pandemic has led to an outbreak of ageism, in which public discourse has portrayed older adults as a homogeneous, vulnerable group,” the authors conclude. “Our investigation of the daily life amid the outbreak suggests the opposite: Older age was associated with less concern about the threat of Covid-19, better emotional well-being, and more daily positive events.”

These results hardly rule out avoidance as one means of managing day-to-day emotions. Older people, especially those with some resources, have more ability than younger adults to soften the edges of a day, by paying for delivery, hiring help, staying comfortably homebound and — crucially — doing so without young children underfoot.

One of the few investigations to find no age-related differences in well-being, posted last year, was focused on 226 young and older adults living in the Bronx. In this, New York’s most underserved borough, older people often live with their children and grandchildren, helping with meals, school pickup, babysitting, in effect acting as co-parents. No “age bump” in emotional well-being for them, the researchers found, in part, they concluded, because “the sample was somewhat ‘more stressed’ than average levels nationwide.”

Even with that crucial distinction noted, these studies bolster a theory of emotional development and aging formulated by Dr. Carstensen that psychologists have been debating for years. This view holds that, when people are young, their goals and motives are focused on gaining skills and taking chances, to prepare for opportunities the future may hold. You can’t know if you’ll be any good running a business, or onstage, unless you give it a real chance. Doing grunt work for little money; tolerating awful bosses, bad landlords, needy friends: the mental obstacle course of young adulthood is no less taxing for being so predictable.

After middle age, people become more aware of a narrowing time horizon and, consciously or not, begin to gravitate toward daily activities that are more inherently pleasing than self-improving.

They’re more prone to skip the neighborhood meeting for a neighborhood walk to the local bar or favorite bench with a friend. They have accepted that the business plan didn’t work out, that their paintings were more fit for the den than for a gallery. They have come to accept themselves for who they are, rather than who they’re supposed to become. Even those who have lost their jobs in this tragic year, and face the prospect of re-entering the job market — at least they know their capabilities, and what work is possible.

These differences will be important to keep in mind in the near future, if only to blunt a widening generational divide, experts say. A pandemic that began by disproportionately killing the elderly has also savagely turned on the young, robbing them of normal school days, graduations, sports, first jobs, or any real social life — and shaming them, often publicly, if they tried to have one. Now, in a shrinking economy, they’re at the back of the vaccine line.

“I think the older generation now, as much as it’s been threatened by Covid, they’re beginning to say, ‘My life is not nearly as disrupted as my children’s or grandchildren’s,’” Dr. Charles said, “and that is where our focus on mental well-being should now turn.”

Can Exercise Make You More Creative?

Phys Ed

Can Exercise Make You More Creative?

To spur innovation and ideas, try taking a walk.

Credit…Getty Images
Gretchen Reynolds

  • Feb. 3, 2021, 5:00 a.m. ET

If you often exercise, there’s a good chance you also tend to be more creative, according to an interesting new study of the links between physical activity and imagination. It finds that active people come up with more and better ideas during tests of their inventiveness than people who are relatively sedentary, and suggests that if we wish to be more innovative, we might also want to be movers and shakers.

Science already offers plenty of evidence that physical activity influences how we think. Many studies in people and animals show that our brains change in response to physical activity, in part because during exercise we marinate our brains with extra blood, oxygen and nutrients. In rodent studies, animals that regularly exercise produce far more new brain cells than their sedentary counterparts and perform better on thinking tests, even if they are elderly. In people, too, exercise tends to sharpen our abilities to reason and remember and buoys our moods.

But creativity is one of the most abstract of thinking skills and difficult to quantify, and its relationship with exercise has not been clear. A few past studies have found intriguing relationships between moving and originality. In one notable 2012 experiment, for instance, researchers asked some of their volunteers to move their arms loosely and fluidly through space, tracing the lines of a looping, curvy line-drawing the scientists had shown them, while another group arm-aped a straighter, more angular drawing. After each session, the researchers urged the volunteers to dream up novel, unexpected uses for an ordinary newspaper and found that those who had moved fluidly, almost as if they were dancing, came up with more original ideas than those whose movements had been rigid, straight and formalized.

Another, more conventional 2014 study of exercise and creativity likewise found that moving can spur innovation. In the main part of that multipart experiment, volunteers sat at a desk in a lackluster office space, trying to imagine new ways to use a button and otherwise engage their imaginations. They then completed a slightly different test of their creativity while walking on a treadmill in the same uninspiring room. Almost all of the participants spun out ideas that were more numerous and ingenious while walking than sitting.

But those and most other past studies of movement and creativity looked into the short-term effects of physical activity under tightly controlled conditions in labs or similar settings. They did not examine the potential linkages, if any, between everyday activities, like going for a walk, and the workings of our imaginations, or how being active could possibly affect creativity in the first place.

So, for the new study, which was published in Scientific Reports, researchers at the University of Graz in Austria decided to track the normal activities of a group of average adults and also measure their creativity, to see whether and how the two might align.

The scientists wondered, too, about happiness. Some past research had speculated that good moods might be the intermediary linking activity and creativity. According to that idea, moving makes people happier, and their good cheer in turn makes them more creative; in that scenario, moving does not directly affect creative thinking.

To learn more, the researchers gathered 79 healthy adults, gave them activity trackers for five days and then asked them to visit the lab and let their imaginations soar, conceiving new uses for car tires and umbrellas and finishing partial drawings. The researchers then rated their output on its originality and other measures. The volunteers also completed standard questionnaires about their moods.

Finally, the scientists crosschecked the data, using a complex form of statistical analysis that incorporates findings from related, earlier research (to give the results more statistical heft) and weighs how much of a role a potential mediator plays. In this case, the researchers wondered, did being happy relate closely both to how much people moved and their creativity, meaning it linked the two?

The answer, the researchers concluded, was no. The most active of the volunteers proved to be also the most creative, especially if they often walked or otherwise exercised moderately. Active people also tended to be happy people, although their moods were highest if they engaged in relatively vigorous activities, like jogging or playing sports, rather than moderate ones.

But the correlations between activity, creativity and moods were slight. People could walk often and be quite creative but not especially happy, suggesting that it was not improved moods that most influenced creativity. It was moving.

The findings point to “an association between creativity and physical activity in everyday life,” says Christian Rominger, a professor of psychology at the University of Graz and the study’s lead author.

The study was associational, though, meaning it looked at a brief moment in people’s lives. It did not involve a randomized experiment and cannot tell us if being more active directly causes us to be more creative, only that activity and creativity are linked. It also does not explain how exercise and other activities might shape creativity, if not by raising moods, or show whether a brisk walk now helps us better finish a newspaper column or some other creative venture later. But the results do intimate that active imaginations start with active lives.

Downsize New Years Resolutions for 2021

This Year, Try Downsizing Your Resolutions

2020 was a rough one. Here’s how to make goals for 2021 that feel both satisfying and doable.

Credit…Igor Bastidas
Christina Caron

  • Dec. 29, 2020, 5:00 a.m. ET

After the unpredictable, torrid year we’ve had, the idea of making New Year’s resolutions for 2021 might seem a tad overwhelming.

“I am keeping the bar so low,” the comedian Robyn Schall joked during an interview with The New York Times this month.

“No goals,” she said, laughing. “Just one day at a time.”

Schall, 36, became internet-famous in November after she posted a video on TikTok about her unfulfilled resolutions from last December, a list she read aloud while “half-crying, half-laughing” with a glass of wine in hand.

“Travel more,” she wrote. (She has been sequestered in “the tiniest of tiny” studio apartments in Manhattan.) “Make more money.” (Schall has been unemployed since March.) “Be more social.” (Nope.) “Spend more time with my grandma.” (Both of her grandmothers died this year.)

Even if you’re the type of person who is put off by New Year’s resolutions, experts say that in 2021 — or any year, really — writing out one or two specific, small and attainable goals can help develop confidence and a sense of pride, improving your well-being.

And right now we could all use a little more positivity in our lives.

Here’s how to get started.

Think about your motivations.

Just because it’s the first of January doesn’t mean you will automatically feel motivated to start a new habit.

“You’re not going to sustain a behavior change unless you have internal motivation,” said Sara L. Dolan, an associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.

So when making New Year’s resolutions, consider what changes you’d like to make, but also why you want to make them, Dr. Dolan advised. What makes you feel committed to reaching your goal?

For example, if you know you’d like to lose weight, is it because you’re trying to conform to society’s standards about body size? Is it because your doctor told you to do it? Those are external motivators, which are less likely to help you reach your goal. On the other hand, if losing weight appeals to you because eating healthy foods and exercising make you feel physically and mentally better, those are internal motivations that will make you more likely to build new, long-term habits.

Pick bite-sized goals that are actually achievable.

For New Year’s resolutions to work, avoid pie-in-the-sky wishes and focus instead on goals that are doable and easily measurable. Resolving to get healthier, for example, might be too vague.

“If you set this giant, nonspecific, unattainable goal, what motivation are you going to have to ever try again if you fail?” Dr. Dolan said.

If you want to get stronger but haven’t exercised in years, don’t aim to start working out at the gym three days a week for an hour at a time.

Instead, whittle your expectations and start by going to the gym once a week for just half an hour or less, Dr. Dolan advised. If you can do this consistently for a couple of months, try going twice a week. Each small success can help propel you toward bigger ones.

Michelle Gielan, author of the book “Broadcasting Happiness: The Science of Igniting and Sustaining Positive Change,” said that she bought an elliptical exercise machine on Craigslist this year and made a goal to use it for just 15 minutes a day. The short time limit felt manageable to her, and once she actually started her workout, she would often keep going for an additional 10 minutes.

“Start small; pick some small goal that you almost know you’re going to accomplish,” Gielan said. “Your brain gets a win and that win releases all these positive neurochemicals. And then we want to do it again.”

Make a plan, not a resolution.

Having a goal is great, but how will you achieve it?

For example, if you want to make more money, what are the steps you need to take in order to do that and how much extra income would you need to hit your goal? If you’re employed, is overtime a possibility or are you aiming for a promotion? Do you need to go back to school to learn a different set of skills? The more you dissect your goal, the easier it is to break it into actionable steps.

And you’ll be more likely to follow through with your goal if those steps are detailed, said Charles Duhigg, the author of “The Power of Habit,” a book that explores the science of habit formation.

A 2011 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, for instance, found that employees of a large company who were prompted to write down the date and time they planned to get a company flu shot were statistically more likely to get it than those who received reminders for the shot but who weren’t prompted to write down their plan.

“Oftentimes also, when you come up with a plan, you anticipate what the obstacles are going to be,” Duhigg said. “When people change sustainably, it’s because they anticipated where they’ll fail and they’ve come up with some kind of recovery plan in advance.”

Shorten your list and write it down.

If you have several types of goals, choose one that resonates with you the most, the experts said. (Maybe choose two if you’re feeling ambitious.)

Having just one goal and a plan for achieving it is more important than having lots of vague goals, they said.

Next, write everything down.

This will not only help you think through your goals, but also help make them more memorable, said Katy Milkman, a behavioral scientist and professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, and the author of “How to Change,” a forthcoming book on the science of achieving goals.

Telling your goals to other people will also help keep you accountable, she added.

“The more deeply you engage with them, the more likely you are to follow through,” Dr. Milkman said.

When writing out your goal, the way you phrase it might also make a difference, according to a Swedish study published this month. Researchers found that it may be more effective to frame your plans in terms of what you are going to do versus what you shouldn’t do. For instance, say that you want to “go to bed a half an hour earlier” instead of saying you want to “stop going to bed so late.”

Cut yourself some slack.

In the end, 2020 has been a rough year, so don’t put too much pressure on yourself when trying to meet your goal.

Research shows that people are more likely to pursue their goals during times that feel like new beginnings in their lives, Dr. Milkman said. Examples might include Mondays, birthdays, the first of the month or other milestones like starting a new job or moving to a different state.

So don’t give up if you don’t fulfill your New Year’s resolutions.

Encourage yourself with gentle reminders — using your phone alarm can sometimes be helpful in nudging you to hit the gym or get ready for bed — and if money is tight, set yourself up for success by choosing goals that are inexpensive to achieve, said Dr. Joel L. Young, medical director of the Rochester Center for Behavioral Medicine in Rochester Hills, Mich.

Even if you don’t accomplish your goal as quickly as you want to or in the exact way you had planned, it’s still important to celebrate that you’re working toward making a positive change.

“In a year like this we need to give ourselves more grace and forgiveness and have more self-compassion,” Dr. Dolan said.


What will your downsized resolutions be this year? Let us know in the comments.

How Teenagers Use Free Time Affects Mood

Adolescence

How Teens Use Downtime to Connect, Distract or Reflect

Different choices for how young people use free time lead to different kinds of relief.

Credit…Antonio Giovanni Pinna
Lisa Damour

By

  • Dec. 3, 2020, 5:00 a.m. ET

When pandemic-weary adolescents get to take a break, what should they do with themselves? The main aim, of course, should be to feel better after the break than before it. But different downtime choices lead to different kinds of relief. Adolescents (and adults) might want to reflect on the options for how they spend their free time — whether they’ve got 20 spare minutes today or can anticipate more unscheduled time in the weeks ahead.

Here’s a look at three ways teenagers tend to spend their downtime, and the particular benefits and challenges that come with each.

Connecting With the World Digitally

Young people often use their downtime to text with friends or check their social media accounts — and with good reason. Particularly under the restrictions of the coronavirus pandemic, teenagers rely on these platforms to connect with peers and to keep up with headlines. Spending time online might deliver the boost of an amusing exchange with a friend, a clever meme or good news about a favorite sports team. If it does, that makes for a restorative break.

But, of course, it can go another way.

Checking in on social media or the 24-hour news cycle is the psychological equivalent of sidling up to a slot machine. Hitting the jackpot — receiving digital love from a friend or finding an encouraging update about a vaccine — feels good. Pulling the lever and losing — whether that’s your messages being “left on read,” meaning the recipient doesn’t respond, or catching a depressing headline — is pretty much bound to happen from time to time.

For teenagers, especially in the context of the pandemic, turning to social media as a way to recharge can be a high-stakes gamble. Jill Walsh, a Boston University sociologist who studies technology use among adolescents, finds that having fewer in-person interactions has left many teenagers feeling “incredibly uncertain about their friendships.” Previously tolerable ambiguity in communications can now be highly distressing. Dr. Walsh notes that “getting a text that simply reads ‘k,’” — shorthand for OK that can be read as friendly, curt or angry — “can create a huge amount of emotional labor as a kid tries to figure out what it means.”

Before defaulting to downtime scrolling, teens might weigh the possibility of seeing a mood-lifting post against the chance that they’ll run into something distressing. A well-spent break should help to ease the mind; it shouldn’t open new tabs to worry over in our mental browsers.

Getting Lost in Distractions

There’s a lot to be said for taking occasional, all-consuming mental vacations, especially during a pandemic. Research on chronic stress shows that engrossing, happy distractions, such as competing in a sport or losing oneself in a movie or a book, can help young people weather persistently difficult circumstances.

Happy distractions may be a particularly apt choice when teenagers find themselves dogged by worries about school, peers, rising Covid-19 rates or anything else. Peggy Zoccola, an associate professor of psychology at Ohio University who studies the impact of stress and coping on the body, has found that ruminating over unpleasant events raises blood pressure and heart rate and triggers the ongoing release of stress hormones. Distraction, however, stops or attenuates the biological stress response. “It’s important,” she says, “to be able to recover and not always be pumping out these stress hormones.”

In fact, transporting diversions can be useful in two ways at once. According to Dr. Zoccola, they both draw our minds away from negative events that can trigger our biological stress response and at the same time pull them toward positive experiences that may prompt the release of natural mood-improving substances in the body that work much like opioids to help us feel better.

That said, it’s possible to have too much of a good thing. While pleasant distractions provide valuable mental and physiological breaks from stressful conditions, “my hesitation with recommending distraction,” Dr. Zoccola said, “is that while it can get people out of the moment, if it goes on too long, that might prevent folks from addressing an issue, or might create a new one.” Teenagers can run an easy check for themselves by asking, “Are my distractions getting in the way of what I need to do?”

Creating Space for the Mind to Wander

As a third option, young people sometimes use openings in their schedule for pursuits that are engaging, but only to a degree. Researchers use the term “soft fascination” in connection with activities that require attention but don’t entirely occupy the mind, such as spending time in nature or taking a long shower. More absorbing endeavors, such as playing a video game or solving a puzzle, recruit what’s known as “hard fascination.”

Compared to hard fascination, soft fascination uses less mental bandwidth and leaves more room for the mind to wander and reflect. Avik Basu, an environmental psychologist at the University of Michigan who researches soft fascination, explains that activities that “don’t swamp the mind” are more likely to be restorative because “a softly fascinating environment allows for reflection — and that’s when the problem-solving part of our brains can really get to work.”

In other words, soft fascination relieves stress by helping us close those mental browser tabs; unhurried reflection lets us sift through mental clutter, quiet internal noise and come up with fresh, useful solutions. According to Dr. Basu, “the ‘aha’ moments you have in your shower — that’s the problem-solving mechanism of the mind working. The answer just bubbles up!”

Unfortunately, for many young people, the pandemic has swept away previously routine occasions for soft fascination. Indeed, many of us have come to appreciate how much mental housekeeping we used to do as we made our daily commute or walked along a familiar route to work or school. Teenagers might now have to go out of their way to seek low-key activities when their minds feel cluttered. And they may need adults’ encouragement to do so, because simply going for a stroll or looking out a window can seem boring compared to the allure of online catching up or consuming distractions.

When it comes to self-restoration, we all have options — with connection, distraction and reflection being chief among them. Caring for our mental and emotional health matters now even more than usual, so it’s essential for people of all ages to take the breaks that best address the needs of the moment.

For U.S. Parents, a Troubling Happiness Gap

Photo

Credit Getty Images

For years, social scientists have known that nonparents are happier than parents. Study after study has confirmed the troubling finding that having kids makes you less happy than your child-free peers.

Now new research helps explain the parental happiness gap, suggesting it’s less about the children and more about family support in the country where you live.

Based on data from 22 countries and two international surveys of well-being, researchers found that American parents face the largest happiness shortfall compared to people who don’t have children. The happiness gap between parents and nonparents in the United States is significantly larger than the gap found in other industrialized nations, including Great Britain and Australia. And in other Western countries, the happiness gap is nonexistent or even reversed. Parents in Norway, Sweden and Finland — and Russia and Hungary — report even greater levels of happiness than their childless peers.

The researchers, led by the University of Texas sociology professor Jennifer Glass, looked for factors that might explain the international differences in parental happiness, and specifically why parents in the United States suffer a greater happiness penalty than their peers around the world.

They discovered the gap could be explained by differences in family-friendly social policies such as subsidized child care and paid vacation and sick leave. In countries that gave parents what researchers called “the tools to combine work and family,” the negative impact of parenting on happiness disappeared.

“We comprehensively tested every other alternative,” said Dr. Glass, the lead author of the study, which will be published in the American Journal of Sociology in September. “The two things that came out most strongly in explaining the variation were the cost of care for the average 2-year-old as a percent of wages and the total extent of paid sick and vacation days.”

Notably, the researchers found that economic differences, whether a parent was married or partnered and whether the pregnancy was planned or unintended had no impact on the happiness gap. They also considered the impact of other family-friendly social policies, such as extended maternity and paternity leaves, flexible schedules and even policies that gave money to parents in the form of a child allowance or monthly payments.

Paid parenting leave has “nowhere near as big an effect as these other two policies, “said Dr. Glass, while the other policies didn’t have a significant impact on the happiness gap. Policies that made it less stressful and less costly to combine child rearing with paid work “seem to be the ones that really matter.”

Those same two policies, she said, were also correlated with increased happiness among nonparents. That more paid sick leave and vacation time would make nonparents happier was no surprise, but “we were a little puzzled that lower child care costs would show an effect on nonparents,” Dr. Glass said. She and her colleagues speculate that the result is what economists call an indirect benefit: Everyone is better off when countries invest in the future of their labor force, and everyone suffers when they don’t.

But while there are certainly distinctions in family policy to be made between the United States and other developed countries, there are also substantial cultural differences in the ways children are raised here and in other countries. Those distinctions are hard to measure, but might also account for some of the relative difference between parental and nonparental happiness.

“There’s an incredible anxiety around parenting here that I just don’t feel in other countries,” said Christine Gross-Loh, the author of “Parenting Without Borders,” a comprehensive look at modern parent culture across the developed world, who is raising her children between the United States and Japan. She points to Americans’ anxiety around children’s college and future prospects, and also to our emphasis on keeping children physically safe, and the harsh judgment of parents who are perceived to be doing a poor job of it.

“In Japan, my 6-year-old and my 9-year-old can go out and take the 4-year-old neighbor, and that’s just normal,” she said, while in the United States that kind of freedom can draw criticism and even lead to interventions by Child Protective Services.

In countries where there is a strong agreement about the norms around parenting, parents may worry less about their own choices. Without a single overarching parenting tradition, American parents may feel like they have “too many choices” as compared to parents in more homogeneous cultures, says W. Bradford Wilcox, an associate professor of sociology and the director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia. “A clear and well-defined script can be psychologically comforting,” he said, and its lack can leave parents feeling “unmoored.”

Dr. Glass agrees that cultural differences add to the greater relative parent and nonparent happiness gap — but she notes that those cultural differences are also reflected in our family policies. Much of our anxiety around our children in the United States, she said, is very clearly a reflection of our policy choices.

“We have to compete for good child care. We compete to live where there’s a good elementary school,” she said. “We compete for activities because a child’s entire fate seems to depend on where he goes to college, because there’s no guarantee — if we don’t, our child might be left behind.”

Those fears, Dr. Glass said, come in part from our country’s high tolerance for unequal access to the resources families need. In countries that offer policies supporting a parent’s ability to balance work and family, she sees a commitment to egalitarianism. “A crucial part of what’s going on is the idea that every child deserves an equal chance in life,” she said.

The good news is that the findings show that the happiness gap of parenting is not inevitable. Stephanie Coontz, who teaches history and family studies at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., and is co-chairwoman of the Council on Contemporary Families, said it was a pleasant surprise to see the researchers document the need for better family policies.

“Don’t just swoop in and give a longer maternity leave,” Dr. Coontz said. “It’s a lifetime investment in helping people combine work and family for the long haul.”


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The Secrets to a Happy Life, From a Harvard Study

What does it take to live a good life?

Surveys show that most young adults believe that obtaining wealth and fame are keys to a happy life. But a long-running study out of Harvard suggests that one of the most important predictors of whether you age well and live a long and happy life is not the amount of money you amass or notoriety you receive. A much more important barometer of long term health and well-being is the strength of your relationships with family, friends and spouses.

These are some of the findings from the Harvard Study of Adult Development, a research project that since 1938 has closely tracked and examined the lives of more than 700 men and in some cases their spouses. The study has revealed some surprising – and some not so surprising – factors that determine whether people are likely to age happily and healthily, or descend into loneliness, sickness and mental decline.

The study’s current director, , outlined some of the more striking findings from the long-running project in a recent TED Talk that has garnered more than seven million views.

“We publish our findings in academic journals that most people don’t read,” Dr. Waldinger, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, said in a recent interview. “And so we really wanted people to know that this study exists and that it has for 75 years. We’ve been funded by the government for so many years, and it’s important that more people know about this besides academics.”

The study began in Boston in the 1930s with two very different groups of young men.

In one case, a team of researchers decided to track Harvard college students through adulthood to see what factors played important roles in their growth and success. “They thought there was too much emphasis placed on pathology at the time and that it would be really useful to study people who were doing well in their young adult development,” Dr. Waldinger said. The study recruited 268 Harvard sophomores and followed them closely, with frequent interviews and health examinations. In recent years the study has also incorporated brain scans, blood draws and interviews with the subjects’ spouses and adult children.

At around the same time the study began, a Harvard Law School professor named Sheldon Glueck started to study young men from some of Boston’s poorest neighborhoods, including 456 who managed to avoid delinquency despite coming from troubled homes. Eventually the two groups were merged into one study.

Over the decades, the men have gone into all walks of life. They’ve become lawyers, doctors, businessmen and — in the case of one Harvard student named John F. Kennedy — president of the United States. Others went down different paths. Some became alcoholics, had disappointing careers or descended into mental illness. Those who remain alive today are in their 90s.

Through the years, the study has produced many notable findings. It showed, for example, that to age well physically, the single most important thing you could do was to avoid smoking. It discovered that aging liberals had longer and more active sex lives than conservatives. It found that alcohol was the primary cause of divorce among men in the study, and that alcohol abuse often preceded depression (rather than the other way around).

The study has gone through several directors. Dr. Waldinger, who took over in 2003, is its fourth. He expanded the study so it focused not just on the men but also on their wives and children. The researchers began videotaping the couples in their homes, studying their interactions, and interviewing them separately about nearly every facet of their lives, even day-to-day spats.

As the researchers looked at the factors throughout the years that strongly influenced health and well-being, they found that relationships with friends, and especially spouses, were a major one. The people in the strongest relationships were protected against chronic disease, mental illness and memory decline – even if those relationships had many ups and downs.

“Those good relationships don’t have to be smooth all the time,” Dr. Waldinger said. “Some of our octogenarian couples could bicker day in and day out. But as long as they felt that they could really count on the other when the going got tough, those arguments didn’t take a toll on their memories.”

Dr. Waldinger found a similar pattern among relationships outside the home. The people who sought to replace old colleagues with new friends after retiring were happier and healthier than those who left work and placed less emphasis on maintaining strong social networks.

“Over and over in these 75 years,” Dr. Waldinger said, “our study has shown that the people who fared the best were the people who leaned into relationships with family, with friends and with community.”

Dr. Waldinger acknowledged that the research showed a correlation, not necessarily causation. Another possibility is that people who are healthier and happier to begin with are simply more likely to make and maintain relationships, whereas those who are sicker gradually become more socially isolated or end up in bad relationships.

But he said that by following the subjects for many decades and comparing the state of their health and their relationships early on, he was fairly confident that strong social bonds are a causal role in long-term health and well-being.

So what concrete actions does he recommend?

“The possibilities are endless,” he said. “Something as simple as replacing screen time with people time, or livening up a stale relationship by doing something new together, long walks or date nights. Reach out to that family member you haven’t spoken to in years — because those all-too-common family feuds take a terrible toll on the people who hold the grudges.”

Letting Happiness Flourish in the Classroom

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Credit

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Emma Seppala

Emma SeppalaCredit

When I look out into my classroom, and take the emotional temperature of my students, I’m usually checking for engagement. I want to make sure they feel supported, are interested in the lesson at hand, and that the lesson is relevant to each student.

But happiness? I stopped looking for happiness long ago. I see it periodically, when the conditions are perfect, and the stars align just so. When happiness strikes in my classroom, I relish it as I would any other rare anomaly, like thundersnow or a two-faced calf. Regular sightings, however, seem too much to hope for given the inhospitable climate in many American classrooms.

Emma Seppala, however, the author of “The Happiness Track,” and science director of Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, has not lost hope. Dr. Seppala admits that yes, happiness can be a rare beast in our classrooms, but we can create and protect learning conditions in which happiness can flourish.

Happiness, Dr. Seppala explained in an email, is not something we can afford to lose at home or in our classrooms, as it forms the very foundation of deep, meaningful learning. Happy kids show up at school more able to learn because they tend to sleep better and may have healthier immune systems. Happy kids learn faster and think more creatively. Happy kids tend to be more resilient in the face of failures. Happy kids have stronger relationships and make new friends more easily.

Unfortunately, we put our children’s happiness at risk when we model what Dr. Seppala calls the “myths of success”: the belief that success is inextricably tied to stress and anxiety, perseverance at all costs, avoidance of personal weakness, and a myopic focus on cultivating expertise in a specialized niche.

We may tell kids that we want them to be happy, and that we care about their learning more than we care about their grades, but when we model the myths of success in our own lives, they know the truth. Perpetuating these myths, whether through our words or actions, undermines the very happiness and learning we claim to value.

If we truly want to cultivate happiness in our homes and schools, we can’t just pay it lip service. We must model behaviors that, according to Dr. Seppala, make us happier, healthier and more productive.

Live in the moment. Rather than encouraging children to live from one to-do item to the next, help them focus and enjoy whatever activity they are engaged in now. “Research shows our minds wander off task 50 percent of the time. Yet when our mind wanders, we have more negative emotions. While a little bit of stress about the next to-do can serve as a motivator, long-term chronic stress impairs both physical health and intellectual faculties such as attention and memory,” Dr. Seppala said in an email.

Model resilience. “While we can’t often change the work and life demands our children face in their lives, we can help them train their nervous systems to be resilient, and to thrive in the face of difficulties and challenges,” Dr. Seppala said. Talk about how you have overcome challenges, model healthy resilience, and help kids find respite from the pressures of achievement. Techniques such as meditation, yoga and breathing exercises help your children rest their minds and bodies, and allow them to recover from the physical and emotional damage stress can impart.

Manage your energy. While negative emotions can be damaging to kids’ mental and physical health, our society’s penchant for constant, high-intensity positive emotions takes a toll as well. “Western societies value excitement and other high-intensity positive emotions over low-intensity positive emotions such as calm. While there’s nothing wrong with excitement and fun, children need to know how to balance excitement with the ability to calm down and function from a centered, peaceful place, saving precious mental energy for tasks that need it most,” Dr. Seppala said.

Do nothing. “Taking time off to disconnect and relax focus helps promote kids’ creativity and insights,” Dr. Seppala wrote. “Children need time for idleness, fun and irrelevant interests, and as research shows C.E.O.s currently value creativity higher than any other trait in the incoming workforce, it behooves you to let your kids relax and access their inner inventor.”

Be kind to yourself. While it’s good to strive for improvement, excessive self-criticism can backfire, and become self-sabotage. Self-criticism maintains focus on the negative, leaving kids anxious, afraid of failure and less likely to learn from mistakes. Self-compassion, however, improves children’s ability to excel in the face of challenges, to develop new skills and to learn from their mistakes.

Be kind to others. Research shows that people who are supportive and compassionate toward others are more successful. Fortunately, Dr. Seppala said, “Children are naturally compassionate and kind; we simply need to protect these traits.”

Children should not be surprised by joy. If they are, the responsibility for its absence lies at the feet of parents, teachers and administrators who have pushed happiness out of its native habitat to make room for the toxic, invasive species of anxiety, stress and fear.

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Why Doctors Care About Happiness

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Danielle Ofri, M.D.

Danielle Ofri, M.D.Credit Joon Park

Working in a general medical practice sometimes feels like being at the greeting station of a Ferris wheel: Every few minutes another person gets off and brings a new set of medical issues into your office.

My first patient on a recent Thursday was a buoyant 71-year-old. Her rotator cuff tendinitis was an occasional bother, as was her allergic rhinitis, but neither got in the way of her picking up her school-age grandchildren every afternoon for a daily playground outing. On rainy days they danced to hip-hop music in her living room, and she showed me the video on her phone.

My next patient was only 43, but his kidneys were grinding to a halt under the weight of two decades of poorly controlled diabetes. Dialysis was looming in the near future, and he alternated between being depressed about it and being in denial of it. Every one of our visits had a funereal atmosphere as we discussed the logistics of something he desperately wanted no part of.

And so it went over the course of the day, changing gears on a dime with each new patient. Along with a swinging pendulum of medical conditions came a similar array, it seemed, of emotions.

The correlation of happiness and health — or unhappiness and poor health — has been noted over the centuries. “He who can believe himself well, will be well,” wrote Ovid, whose robust trope continues to find fertile ground in our current culture of wellness and self-help as well as in a burgeoning body of scientific research. But teasing out cause and effect is thorny.

On one hand, mood could drive health. Happy people are more likely to make salutary choices in their life — exercise, eat their veggies, get regular medical care — and so will become more healthy. When you are depressed or lonely, however, it can be hard to exercise, and that pint of cookie-dough ice cream may seem more welcoming than the chia-kale casserole wilting at the back of the fridge.

On the other hand, health may be the instigator of mood. If you are healthy, you tend to feel good. Having energy allows you to pursue the things you enjoy, and this makes you happy. When you are sick, though, you feel lousy and exhausted — not to mention saddled with medical bills — so it’s hard to pursue the joyful activities of life.

The latest entry in the health and happiness field — the Million Women Study — appears to poke a hole in the accepted dictum that well-being is a driver of good health. By far the largest study on the subject to date, it followed its cohort of middle-aged women in Britain for 10 years. The data showed an association of poor health and unhappiness. But after adjusting for medical conditions, demographics and lifestyle factors, unhappiness was not an independent predictor of increased mortality.

There have been critiques of the study methodology. The evaluation of happiness, for example, was based on a single question and focused on only one moment in time. Controlling for factors like smoking, exercise, income and marital status for the benefit of clean statistics may have ended up eradicating the very mechanisms by which happiness may improve health: quitting smoking, exercising, holding down a good job, staying married.

Small studies have hinted at causality by demonstrating that interventions to increase positive feelings yield improved physiological measurements. But we’ll never be able to answer the question in the purest scientific methodology — randomizing people to happy lives or miserable lives and then following them for a lifetime to see what happens.

Nevertheless, the association of happiness and health remains a potent touchstone in both popular and medical culture. In practical terms, which actually causes the other is less relevant than the fact that both are important. If a patient has poor health and is also feeling miserable, it’s not enough just to address the medical problem. How a person is feeling emotionally needs to be acknowledged and explored.

Doctors, of course, can’t solve the economic, societal and interpersonal challenges that cause unhappiness, but attention to the inner sense of suffering is helpful above and beyond our treatments for the disease itself.

But the opposite may offer an even more powerful payoff. When doctors notice unhappiness in their patients, they should be probing more carefully for hidden illness. Beyond uncovering disorders such as depression, for which unhappiness is a direct symptom, there may be other illnesses lurking.

On a busy clinic day, each time a new person steps off that Ferris wheel into a medical evaluation there are a host of boxes to check off — height, weight, blood pressure, pulse. Lord knows I don’t want to see a “happiness” check-box in the electronic medical record. But the patient’s sense of well-being is something that should definitely register beyond the minor afterthought that it typically merits.

We in the health care professions need to notice and inquire about happiness the same way we do other aspects of our patients’ lives. Lately I’ve started asking about it, and besides getting a much more nuanced understanding of who they are as people, I learn what their priorities are (often quite different from mine as their physician).

I also inquire about obstacles to their happiness, and brainstorm with them on ways to ease some of these. I don’t presume that these challenges are facile to solve, but hopefully our conversation helps let patients know that their happiness matters as much as their cholesterol.

And if increasing happiness does in fact improve health — well, why not try to help our patients achieve it. The side effect profile and cost surely beat most of our current medications, and, at least for now, you don’t have to get prior authorization from an insurance company.


Danielle Ofri’s newest book is What Doctors Feel: How Emotions Affect the Practice of Medicine. She is a physician at Bellevue Hospital and an associate professor of medicine at the New York University School of Medicine, as well as editor in chief of the Bellevue Literary Review. She spoke on Deconstructing Our Perception of Perfection at TEDMED.