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How to be happy

Mindapples doesn’t write much about happiness (there are plenty of fine organisations around doing that); instead we focus on mental health, feeling at home in your head, and accepting whatever feelings you have.

Wanting to be happier is a perfectly good goal though, and most of the things positive psychologists and happiness campaigners advocate can be a part of a mentally healthy lifestyle. In our latest book, The Mind Manual, we even featured a whole chapter on ‘How to be happy’, reviewing the psychology of happiness and how to apply it to our lives.

One of the best resources we found was that the British Psychological Society has compiled a ‘guide to happiness’, filled with experimentally-validated tips for being happier. It’s always a little strange to read scientific guides to things that are as subjective and philosophically complex as ‘happiness’ – after all, the pursuit of happiness is more than simple biochemistry – but there are some interesting findings in the piece.

Please do read it for yourself if you have time, but here are a few of our favourites:

  • We’re happier when we’re busy. Although our natural inclination might be to chill out, finding things you love doing is a great recipe for a happy life.
  • Sharing good news helps. Be careful not to brag or make other people feel bad by comparison, but finding people to share your joys makes the joys sweeter.
  • Don’t imagine everyone else is happy. Looking around the world, and particularly the internet, it can feel like everyone else has it made – but in fact they probably feel just as up-and-down as you do.
  • Little and often is the best way. Small, frequent daily mood boosters – mindapples, if you like – help more than big life changes or audacious goals.
  • We’re resilient to happiness – but also unhappiness. The same things that make it hard to stay permanently cheerful also make it hard to stay permanently sad.

Happiness means different things to everyone though, so don’t aspire to feel “the right way”. Instead, notice the times when you feel good, think about what you’re doing in those times, and try to do a bit more of them. Happiness isn’t an end-state to be reached; it’s a habit to be practiced.

Learn more about how to be happy and healthy in our illustrated guides to the mind, The Mind Manual and A Mind for Business, published by Hamlyn Press and Pearson/FT.

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Can you catch happiness?

If you had a virus you would probably want to avoid passing it on to friends and colleagues, but did you know emotion travels over social networks in much the same way viruses do?

That’s not to say emotions are like diseases of course: being grumpy won’t make you or the people around you sick. But research shows that wellbeing is shared within networks and spreads based on social ties, so your wellbeing can have a direct impact on the people around you – not just with friends and family, but in work too.

Low wellbeing in workplaces is associated with a range of health and business problems such as increased absences, lower productivity and higher health insurance costs, so focusing on improving the wellbeing of employees is important for the bottom line as well as its ethical implications.

Make emotional contagion work for you: if you run a business, boosting the wellbeing of staff could result in a contagion with positive implications for the overall health of the business, in all senses. You can use this principle in all your relationships too: are you spreading good moods, or bringing people down? So think about what moods your people are passing on, to friends, colleagues and customers, and harness emotional contagion to benefit everyone.

Learn more about your mind in our illustrated guides, The Mind Manual and A Mind for Business, published by Hamlyn Press and Pearson/FT.

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Drink water! What dehydration does to your mind

We all know water is good for us, and it’s certainly easy to get hold of it, but we don’t often stop to think about how beneficial it can be, not just for our physical health, but for our minds too.

Recent research shows that dehydration not only affects our physical wellbeing, but also our mood, and our ability to think clearly.

Studies carried out at the University of Connecticut in 2012 showed that even mild dehydration – approximately 1.5% below normal body water levels – caused participant to experience fatigue, tension and anxiety, and difficulties when working on mental tasks. The adverse effects on mood were particularly prominent in women, both at rest and during exercise.

Mild dehydration can be as little as 500ml less than you need – the equivalent of one small bottle of water. Even this small amount can make a big difference.

They also found that staying hydrated is as important for those who work in an office sitting down as it is for those who are physically active. Negative effects of dehydration are experienced whether one is resting or walking on a treadmill for 40 minutes.

So make sure you drink enough water during the day. It’s an easy and effective way to help prevent low moods, tension and poor mental ability. Experts recommend drinking 2 litres, or 8 standard glasses, of water a day, to stay hydrated and keep yourself mentally effective (though bear in mind you will also get water from the food you eat too). So drink more water! It’s free!

Learn more about your mind in our illustrated guides, The Mind Manual and A Mind for Business, published by Hamlyn Press and Pearson/FT.

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What can you do about a bad mood?

We all find ourselves in a bad mood from time to time. The triggers and stresses may vary, but understanding what’s going on in our mind and body can make it easier to deal with it.

Some psychologists believe a bad mood can be caused by ‘ego depletion’ – a form of mental tiredness – and that if we use up our willpower trying to avoid temptation (e.g. food) we drain our cognitive resources. The harder we push our minds to avoid something the more likely we are to get irritated, angry and cynical, which can raise blood pressure, stop digestion, and elevate heart rate – causing a bad mood.

Researchers have also found that being in a bad mood gives you a sense of tunnel vision: if you’re in a good mood, you have a wider view of your surroundings whereas bad moods can cause us you to miss things.

So what can you do to alleviate a bad mood?

  1. Eat
    Your bad mood could be caused by low blood sugar in which case food is key. Eating regenerates nutrients depleted during the day. Fatty acids can have a positive effect on emotions and spicy foods release endorphins. Win.
  2. Exercise
    Moderate or high-level exercise releases endorphins, which can improve your mood almost immediately. This happiness boost may not last long, but it should be enough to lift you out of a fug.
  3. Listen to music
    Music can trigger a release of dopamine into your brain and provides a “potent pleasurable stimulus” as you follow and anticipate a tune. Mozart or Madonna, crank up the volume and feel your spirits lift.
  4. Embrace it
    It’s not all doom and gloom, a bad mood can trigger more careful, attentive thinking and the accompanying tunnel vision can help you focus more completely on a specific task. It can also make you more persuasive because it promotes concrete ideas and communications styles. So if you can’t beat the blues turn them to your advantage and tackle a complex problem or project.

Above all though, try to remember that bad moods are natural and healthy. Just as you will feel happy some days for no particular reason, you can also feel down. Don’t agonise over the reasons too much, or panic about changing how you feel. Instead, notice how you’re feeling, and remind yourself that the feeling will pass. Give your mind a bit of time, hold off on quick fixes, and see how you feel later: sometimes the best thing to do is to do nothing.

Need more ideas for coping with a bad mood? Try this list of handy articles on managing moods:

And of course you can learn more about your mind in our illustrated guides, The Mind Manual and A Mind for Business, published by Hamlyn Press and Pearson/FT.

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Kindness is good for you

Being kind to other people is officially good for you – and it seems it’s all down to a nerve that links social contact with positive emotions.

The vagus nerve links directly to nerves that tune our ears to human speech, coordinate eye contact and regulate emotional expressions. It influences the release of oxytocin, a hormone that is important in social bonding. Higher ‘vagal tone’ is also associated with intimacy with others and more altruistic behaviour.

Recent studies suggest that people who regularly practice mindful ‘loving kindness’ meditations, focusing on warm, compassionate thoughts about themselves and others, show an increase in positive emotions like joy, interest, amusement, serenity and hope. The emotional and psychological changes brought about by positive emotion and connectedness to others, seem to correlate with an improvement in vagal function.

The vagus also regulates how our heart rate changes with our breathing so being kind and compassionate to other people could also be a great way to improve your physical health. In general, the greater the vagal tone, the more varied your heart-rate and the lower your risk of cardiovascular disease and other major killers, so every positive interaction you have can have a positive impact on your own health and happiness.

Try these two articles for more information about the health benefits of kindness and mindfulness meditation.

Learn more about your mind in our illustrated guides, The Mind Manual and A Mind for Business, published by Hamlyn Press and Pearson/FT.

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The Downsides of Emotional Intelligence

Emotional intelligence is often touted as the key to personal and professional success, but it can also have its dark side.

Research suggests that when people have self-serving motives, emotional intelligence can become a weapon for manipulating others. In a work context, employees who engage in the most harmful behaviour often possess high emotional intelligence, which they use for personal gain. People who are good at controlling their own emotions can disguise their true feelings and when they understand what others are feeling they can motivate them to act against their own best interests. In terms of leadership there can be a fine line between motivation and manipulation (Adolf Hitler’s speeches displayed high levels of ‘emotional intelligence’, for example).

Studies have also revealed that high emotional intelligence doesn’t necessarily translate to better performance. Being able to read and regulate emotions is a clear plus for jobs requiring attention to emotions (e.g. sales reps, call centre staff, counsellors, managers). However, for jobs that have fewer emotional demands (e.g. mechanics, scientists, accountants) it seems that the more emotionally intelligent an employee, the lower their performance. In this context the ability to read facial expressions, body language and vocal tones appears to be more of a distraction than an asset.

Being able to understand and manage our emotions can be a powerful tool, but it’s worth bearing in mind that like any skill, emotional intelligence may not always be associated with good intent. Always use your powers to improve the lives and emotional states of people around you – because how they feel affects you too!

Read more about the dark side of emotional intelligence in The Atlantic.

Learn more about your mind in our illustrated guides, The Mind Manual and A Mind for Business, published by Hamlyn Press and Pearson/FT.

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How to think like Sherlock Holmes

Most of us want to be smarter. The idea of being able to analyse situations more accurately, spot things others have missed, is appealing – like being a star detective.

Maria Konnikova, author of Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes, has been exploring how our minds make deductions and come to conclusions, and how we can tune our minds to make more accurate observations and better decisions.

The key, it seems, is to pay attention. Many of us find ourselves constantly multitasking, which affects our ability to focus in an engaged and productive way. This can interfere with our working memory and make it harder for us to notice the relevant factors in a decision. We miss information, and because of that, we make bad decisions.

Konnikova suggests four key strategies to help us optimise our attention:

Be selective

The details and observations we select to include in our ‘mind attic’ shape and filter our perception of reality and are likely to impact future decision making. Learn to pay attention better and allocate attention mindfully, rather than thoughtlessly paying attention to everything.

Be objective

We believe what we want to see and what our ‘mind attic’ decides to see and often forget to separate the factual situation from our subjective interpretation of it. Setting goals beforehand can help us direct precious attentional resources properly, but shouldn’t be an excuse to reinterpret objective facts to mesh with what we want or expect to see.

Be inclusive

To be truly attentive we need to take in as much as possible using all our senses (sight, smell, hearing, taste, touch), making sure we don’t leave anything out that could be relevant to the goals we have set ourselves.

Be engaged

When we are engaged in what we are doing we persist longer at difficult problems and become more likely to solve them. We experience what psychologist Tory Higgins refers to as flow, a presence of mind that allows us to extract more from whatever it is we are doing and also makes us feel better and happier. This style of engaged, mindful attention helps us remember things better, and recall them when we need them, meaning we take more informed and considered decisions.

Mental distance can also help us make smarter decisions. As Konnikova explains, “Psychologist Yaacov Trope argues that psychological distance may be one of the single most important steps you can take to improve thinking and decision-making. It can come in many forms… [b]ut whatever the form, all of these distances have something in common: they all require you to transcend the immediate moment in your mind. They all require you to take a step back.”

So the next time you’re faced with a big decision, make sure you’re paying attention, because the more information you have, the more perspective you can get, the smarter you will be.

Read more about this fascinating area on Maria Popova’s excellent Brain Pickings blog.

Learn more about your mind in our illustrated guides, The Mind Manual and A Mind for Business, published by Hamlyn Press and Pearson/FT.

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How to stay motivated

Next time you’re struggling to stay motivated and focused it might be worth taking a fresh look at why. Research suggests that it is likely to be because you feel forced, can’t see the point of the activity or doubt your own capabilities

Studies show that we are more motivated when we feel in control. If we choose a course of action consistent with our own opinions we tend to persist for longer, suggesting that pursuing a task we endorse is energising, whereas acting under duress is taxing.

When we’re true to our own beliefs and values our motivation increases, for example studies show a clear correlation between students valuing a subject and being willing to independently investigate a question. If you’re struggling with motivation, reflecting on why an activity is meaningful can make you feel more invested in it.

Our perception of our own capabilities also plays a key role in motivation. Research indicates that the more competent we are at something the more likely it is that we will want to pursue it. A study of student athletes showed that practice made the students more likely to consider themselves competent, and a sense of competence meant that they were more likely to engage in athletic activity. Similar studies in music and academics suggest the same thing.

Believing that effort pays off can also inspire us to stay motivated and keep learning. Carol S Dweck, a psychologist at Stanford University found that people who credit their success to innate talent rather than hard work give up more easily when facing a new challenge because they assume it exceeds their ability.

Read more about sustaining motivation in Scientific American Mind.

Learn more about your mind in our illustrated guides, The Mind Manual and A Mind for Business, published by Hamlyn Press and Pearson/FT.

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How to hack your to-do list

Bottomless inboxes and endless to-do lists have become the bane of our lives. Trying to keep track of outstanding tasks can be stressful – our attention has a limited capacity and we can only fit so much in our mind at any one time. But help is at hand. Research suggests that rather than removing tasks by actually doing them we just need to have a good plan of when and how to do them. The act of planning how to finish something enables us to let go of uncompleted tasks that are cluttering our memory.

David Allen’s international bestseller ‘Getting Things Done’ provides a practical guide to how to do this. The GTD archive and reminder system acts as a plan for how to release the part of your attention that is struggling to hold each item on your to-do list in your mind. It is based on writing down everything you need to remember and filing it effectively in three main areas:

  1. Archive to store stuff you might need one day (and can forget about until then)
  2. Current task list where everything is stored as an action
  3. A “ticker file” of 43 folders in which you organise reminders of things to do (43 folders because that’s one for the next thirty-one days plus the next 12 months).

Breaking down your to do list into individual actions allows you to convert your work into things you can either physically do, or forget about, happy in the knowledge that these tasks are in the system. Each day you pick up the folder for that day and either action the item, or defer it to another folder for a future day or month.

With the remembering and monitoring taken care of your mind is freed from its tendency to get fixated on unfinished tasks and forget those that have been completed – known by psychologists as the Zerigarnik Effect.

Read more about hacking your to-do list on the Mindhacks blog.

Learn more about your mind in our illustrated guides, The Mind Manual and A Mind for Business, published by Hamlyn Press and Pearson/FT.