Top 10 Tips for Increasing Well Being and Happiness: Insights from 2015 Research- Part 2
What did we learn in 2015 about how to improve well-being, stay happy, mindful, and healthy? Here are some of the key findings from research studies.
Insight # 6 Older Americans are becoming less happy.
American society has undergone significant upheavals in the past few decades, from the invention of social media to the globalization of the economy. We have more money, bigger homes, and more education, but also greater inequality. Have all these changes made us happier?
Only some of us, suggests a study published this year in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science. According to survey responses from 1.3 million people spanning 1972 to 2014, today’s American adolescents are happier than teens were in the past, but adults over age 30 have become less happy.
Note that this isn’t a longitudinal study, when researchers follow the same individuals over time; instead, this study compared the subjective well-being of specific age groups at different points in recent history. Previous studies have found that happiness jumps up and down over the course of individual lives, with most finding that happiness falls dramatically in middle age and then gently increases as we enter the senior years. By comparing age groups over time, Jean Twenge and her colleagues were able to detect social trends in happiness. Their results are echoed by a report this year from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which showed that the suicide rate for Americans aged 35 to 64 years has jumped by 28 percent since 1999, while the rate for younger people has stayed steady.
These findings are important because they reveal a previously hidden problem, although the research hasn’t yet told us exactly why this shift is happening. Something about American cultural changes over the past 40 years seems to be hitting adults hard while buoying up adolescents, and the researchers can only speculate. One suspicion? We’re seeing a rise in individualism and a weakening of social ties that may be primarily harmful to adults. Many adults over 30 have moved through a stage of independence and exploration and now crave connection, but may have difficulty finding fulfilling relationships and communities.
Insight # 7 Good peer relationships are essential to adolescent wellness.
Social isolation hurts humans of all ages, but a new wave of studies published this year shows just how sensitive teens are to their social environment.
To start, a new longitudinal study in Psychological Science suggests that teens who have close friendships and follow their peer group grow up to be healthier than the loners, or those who only pursue self-interest. Even when taking into account other potential contributors to health outcomes, like adult drug use, friendship quality and group-focus in one’s early teens predicted health in one’s mid-20’s better than the combined effect of one’s body mass index or prior history of serious illness. “We had no idea how important peer relationships would be, or that their reach would spread as far as physical health,” says Joseph Allen, who is the principal investigator at the University of Virginia’s Adolescent Research Group.
Two other studies suggest why this might be the case. One paper published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience looked specifically at how social context relates to risk-taking in the teen brain. In a two-year study, researchers at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and UCLA asked 46 teens to keep daily diaries about experiences with peer conflict and support. Researchers then scanned the brains of participants as they inflated a virtual balloon. How close participants take it to the point of explosion reveals their attitudes toward risk; previous studies have found this task correlates “with real-life risk behaviors such as adolescent smoking, sexual promiscuity, addiction, and drug use, suggesting that this task provides a scanner-compatible proxy for measuring real-world behaviors.”
In analyzing the diaries in relation to the brain scans, researchers found that less support and more conflict with peers was associated with greater risk-taking behavior. Risk-taking teens showed greater activation in the ventral striatum which has a large amount of dopamine receptors, and the insula, which is involved in sensing other people’s feelings as well as your own. While the implications of the neural findings aren’t yet entirely clear, this study reveals how critical teen friendships are to healthy choices.
It’s a finding echoed in another paper published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B. After a research team from the University of Warwick analyzed interview and questionnaire data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health, they concluded that a healthy mood spreads through teen social networks, but that depression did not—and, in fact, friendship could reduce both the frequency and depth of depression.
During adolescence, kids start to turn from their parents to their peers to find approval, values, and company. These studies reveal the circumstances in which that can be good or bad. “That desire to be like other people and look the part, that’s a built-in human desire,” says Allen. “We kind of pillory adolescents a bit unfairly for being overly focused on peers, not recognizing that as humans we need to get along and fit in, in order to get by.”
Insight # 8 Happiness is contagious—via our sense of smell.
Wake up and smell the happiness! A study published in Psychological Science suggests that happy people give off an odor that makes others smile.
Scientists know that happiness is contagious: People with happy friends are more likely to become happy in the future, for example. Intuitively, this makes sense: In the company of happy people, we have more warm experiences and shared giggles. But could something else be going on? Previous research suggests that fear can be communicated via smell, so a group of European researchers decided to investigate this pathway.
In an exploratory study, the researchers collected sweat samples from male participants as they watched videos designed to elicit positive feelings, such as the “Bare Necessities” clip from the movie The Jungle Book and a comedic prank from a TV show. Sweat samples were also collected from participants who were made to feel afraid or no emotional response at all. All of the sweat samples were then presented to female participants to smell while their facial expressions were recorded.
When sniffing sweat from someone who felt happy, the women were more likely to exhibit an authentic smile. According to the researchers, this means that happy sweat may have a distinct chemical makeup that our noses pick up on.
This research sheds light on a subtle yet everyday way in which happiness can be communicated. It suggests that, by surrounding ourselves with happier people (and their scents), we could bring more positive emotion into our lives. And by becoming happier ourselves, we could be boosting the happiness of our friends and family without even realizing it.
Insight # 9 Teaching kids social-emotional skills has profound health and safety benefits.
Skills like kindness and empathy are sometimes dismissed as a luxury in education, not nearly as practical or important as teaching math and reading.
But a study published in November by the American Journal of Public Health suggests that those social-emotional skills are a key to doing well in school and avoiding some major problems later in life. In fact, the study even suggests that neglecting these skills could pose a threat to public health and safety.
Researchers from Penn State and Duke University analyzed a wealth of data from a long-term project that tracked 753 low-income students in four states from the time they were in kindergarten until they turned 25. They found that if a student’s kindergarten teacher rated him or her as being high in “pro-social” skills—such as cooperating with peers or understanding others’ feelings—that student was significantly more likely to finish high school and college, and to hold down a steady job; he or she was also significantly less likely to receive public assistance, have run-ins with the law, abuse alcohol or drugs, or go on medication for mental health problems. That held true regardless of the student’s gender, race, socioeconomic status, the quality of their neighborhood, or several other factors.
The results echo other recent findings that point to the profound and varied benefits of nurturing students’ social-emotional skills. One study, for instance, found that feeling socially connected as a kid is more strongly associated with happiness in adulthood than academic achievement is; another found that children who participate in social-emotional learning (SEL) programs do better academically.
Indeed, the researchers say their results make a convincing case for investing more in students’ social-emotional skills—which, according to prior research, are malleable and can be improved, with lasting and meaningful results.
“Enhancing these skills can have an impact in multiple areas,” they write, “and therefore has potential for positively affecting individuals as well as community public health substantially.”
Insight # 10 Mindful people seem to make healthier choices.
The first wave of mindfulness research revealed its positive impact on psychological health. The second wave is beginning to show how mindfulness improves our physical health—a link that, if proven, would serve as a powerful response to mindfulness critics.
To that end, two studies published this year in the International Journal of Behavioral Medicine found that people who are more mindful have a lower risk of obesity and cardiovascular disease.
But the missing link in this research—and previous research on mindfulness as treatment for bingeing and weight loss—is how exactly mindfulness affects health and health behaviors. Another study, published this year in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, found at least one piece of that puzzle: Mindfulness can actually make unhealthy food seem less appealing.
Across two experiments, the researchers found that hungry participants were drawn to unhealthy foods. But that attraction completely disappeared after participants learned mindful attention, the ability to see our thoughts and feelings (including a craving for M&Ms) as transient—temporary mental events, nothing more. Most encouragingly, this finding held in a real-life cafeteria setting: The mindful participants chose lower-calorie meals and more salads than the non-mindful participants, who preferred cheese puff pastries and donuts.
Mindfulness—in this case, a mere 12-minute exercise that involved no meditation—seems to allow us to disengage from our problematic cravings and thus make healthier choices. The researchers found a similar dynamic with the desire for casual sex, and speculate that it could apply in many other domains, as well—wherever a little distance from our urges or phobias might improve behavior.
“Mindful attention offers a promising and novel strategy for self-control,” they conclude.
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Jason Marsh is the founding editor in chief of Greater Good and the GGSC’s director of programs. Jeremy Adam Smith is producer and editor of the Greater Good Science Center’s website. Kira M. Newman is an editor and web producer at the Greater Good Science Center. Kirra Dickinson is a research assistant at the Greater Good Science Center. Jill Suttie is Greater Good’s book review editor.