Emotions can be fleeting and superficial, for example imagine the split-second of anger you experience after missing the bus. But other “peak emotional states” are more powerful and they are accompanied by intense physical reactions, such as crying or “the chills”. Often these physical manifestations accompany extreme fear or sadness, but they can also occur when we admire a magnificent sunset or enjoy a beautiful piece of music.
Now a study published in Scientific Reports by Kazuma Mori and Makoto Iwanaga has taken a closer look at the contrasting psychology and physiology underlying the chills and tears many of us experience when we’re profoundly moved by a song.
Humans are infovores, hungry to discover, and nothing holds more fascination than the future. Once we looked for answers through divination, now science can forecast significant events such as the onset of certain hereditary disease. But the fact that some people choose not to know – even when information is accessible, and has a bearing on their lives – has encouraged scientists, including Gerd Gigerenzer and Rocio Garcia-Retamero, to try to map out the limits of our appetite for knowledge. Their recent study in Psychological Review suggests that it is a fear of what we might discover – and wishing that we’d never known – that often drives us to deliberate ignorance.
When you experience frustrations at work – spats with colleagues, or last-minute demands – it’s natural to want to voice your feelings. And surely it’s healthier. After all, better out than in! Not according to new evidence in the European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology that shows complaining about negative events actually cements their impact. The researchers Evangelia Demeroutia and Russell Cropanzano recommend trying instead to meet the slings and arrows of everyday indignity with all the “sportsmanship” you can muster.
Volunteer! Universities, community groups and even the NHS recommend it, citing benefits for society and also yourself. The claimed personal outcomes include boosting your health and subjective wellbeing, but while the former is slowly gathering experimental backing, the wellbeing research is overwhelmingly correlational, making it hard to prove that volunteering is causing the gains (it’s certainly plausible, for instance, that happier people are simply more inclined to give up their time for free). Now the journal Comprehensive Results in Social Psychology has published a more robust test: a randomised study. The researchers looked for evidence to support the mental wellbeing benefits from volunteering … but they looked in vain.
For millennia, humans have enjoyed using alcohol as a social lubricant. The reasons seem obvious at first. Most of us have had a drink or two that’s put us at ease, helped us lose our inhibitions, lifted our mood. And yet, literally for decades through the last century, psychologists and other scientists struggled to find evidence for what they termed the “tension reduction theory” that proposed alcohol was rewarding because of its relaxing, mood-enhancing effects. In the lab, alcohol often had no effect or even made people feel worse.
A new review in Behaviour Research and Therapy helps make sense of this mismatch between real life and the lab. Too much of the early research presumed alcohol’s effects are straightforward, that if you give a dose of alcohol to a person sat alone in a psych lab, that its pharmacological effects will kick in and make them feel jollier and less anxious.
The reality, as Michael Sayette of the University of Pittsburgh explains in his review, is that alcohol’s rewarding effects interact in complex ways with our thoughts and emotions and the social situations we find ourselves in. To uncover why social drinking is so rewarding, researchers have had to develop more sophisticated, realistic experiments. Here I’ve pulled out five of the key insights from Sayette’s review that help explain why so many of us find alcohol the perfect companion when we’re socialising.
Feeling authentic in a relationship – that is, feeling like you are able to be yourself, rather than acting out of character – is healthy, not just for the relationship, but for your wellbeing in general. This makes sense: after all, putting on a fake show can be exhausting. But dig a little deeper and things get more complicated because there are different ways to define who “you” really are.
Is the real you how you actually think and behave, for instance? Or, taking a more dynamic perspective, is it fairer to say that the true you is the person you aspire to be: what psychologists call your “ideal self”?
For a paper in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Muping Gan and Serena Chen asked members of the public about this and 70 per cent of them thought that the ability to be your actual self was more important for feeling authentic in a relationship than being able to be your ideal self.
But contrary to this folk wisdom, across several studies, the researchers actually found evidence for the opposite – that is, feelings of authenticity in a relationship seem to arise not from being our actual selves in the relationship, but from feeling that we can be our best or ideal self.
Adolescents take more risks than adults: they are more likely to binge drink, have casual sex, commit crimes and have serious car accidents. In fact, adolescence is a paradox because it is a time of peak physical fitness, but also the time when people are most likely to be injured or killed in an accident. For this reason, it’s critical to understand what drives teenagers to take more risks. To date, many explanations of teenage risk taking have focused on the positive side of these behaviours: the rewarding “kick” that comes from taking a risk that ends well. Some studies have shown that teenagers experience more of this rewarding feeling, and this contributes to the increased risk taking seen at this age.
Fewer studies have considered how teenagers respond when risks turn out badly. This is important because all our previous experiences, both good and bad, affect our subsequent behaviour. If we make a risky decision like gambling money, and it pays off, it’s more likely we’ll decide to gamble again in the near future. Equally, if we take a gamble and it turns out badly, we’ll probably be a bit more reserved next time. But it turns out that some teenagers don’t respond like this: according to a new study in NeuroImage, some of them do not adjust their behavior so readily when things go wrong, and this may be linked to a distinct pattern of activation in their brains.
“happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know” Ernest Hemingway
A lot of us would like to be smarter and happier, but does one lead to the other? Folk wisdom suggests not: old sayings tell us that “ignorance is bliss” and that “only a fool can be happy”. What does the psychology literature say? A new meta-analysis in the Journal of Vocational Behaviour has combined the results from dozens of previous studies involving many tens of thousands of participants and, contrary to the received wisdom, it concludes that higher intelligence actually does correlate with greater happiness (or “life satisfaction”) and job satisfaction, but only weakly.
Most research into the emotion of awe – a response to something vast or overwhelming – has focused on its positive upsides, classing it alongside delight or pleasure. But the University of California’s Greater Good research programme recently published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology the first full investigation of what they call “threatening awe” defined as a strong feeling of wonder and fear.
Amie Gordon and her team looked at times where people felt awe in response to overwhelming stimuli like huge storms or the vastness of the universe, or were exposed for the first time to accounts of historical horrors such as the Vietnam war. Skin conductance and heart rate measures showed that feeling the threatening version of awe activated the sympathetic autonomic nervous system, which is associated with negative emotional states. The data also suggested that feeling threatening awe rather than the positive kind may be influenced by thoughts which make us actively feel powerless – the prospect of being trapped on the pitiless ocean – rather than simply small, such as reflecting on the vastness of the cosmos.
Whereas previous work has shown awe to be associated with wellbeing and life satisfaction, one of the new experiments involving 603 participants found that an ominous video with swirling tornadoes, associated with threat-based awe, produced lower wellbeing compared to a positive awe-filled video and even a neutral one. Gordon’s team pointed out that the word awe produces two offspring with very different connotations: awesome and awful. Gazing into the face of God, or the vastness of the cosmos, isn’t a sunshine and kittens experience: awe exists in the “upper reaches of pleasure and on the boundary of fear”.
If you’re in need of some renewed faith in human nature, the research literature on altruism by toddlers is a great place to look. Charming studies have shown that little children will readily go out of their way to help you, such as picking up things you’ve dropped, or passing you stuff you can’t reach. They can even do “paternalistic helping” which is when they ignore your specific request to help you in a way that you’ll find even more beneficial.
There are some evolutionarily tinged theoretical explanations for why children have these instincts: we’re a highly social species so it makes sense that we’re naturally inclined to help each other as a way to gain status and receive reciprocal favours later. A new paper in Developmental Psychology has taken a slightly different approach, asking: what is it, in the moment, that motivates toddlers to help others? Robert Hepach and his colleagues, including Michael Tomasello who’s conducted a lot of the landmark work on the development of altruism, report that toddlers are helpful, at least in part, because, well, they enjoy it. In fact, based on a new body-language measure of their emotion, they seem to find helping someone else about as pleasurable as they find helping themselves.