They say that if you can laugh at it, you can live with it. Is this true? Does the ability to see the funny side of things really act like a psychological shield against stress? A series of new studies in Personality and Social Psychological Bulletin provides some tentative support for the idea. But the research also illustrates why this is such a difficult topic to study – does humour really reduce stress or is it just easier to see the funny side when you are coping well? And it’s worth remembering the serious risk that if humour is shown to be protective by psychology research – and it’s a big if – that those who suffer most from stress will be put under social pressure to help themselves by cheering up, a situation only likely to intensify their distress.
By guest blogger Tomasz Witkowski
At least one in four readers of this post will die of cancer. This is a simple statistic that leads rationally thinking people to treat the possibility as very likely. And this is what many do: they try to adopt a lifestyle that minimises the risk to some degree. But how do we know what minimises and what increases this risk? Of course, by listening to experts, the best of whom are scientists who research these things. However, whenever there is disquiet brought about by uncertainty, self-titled experts come out of the woodwork. Discussion of factors increasing the risk of cancer is today not only the domain of medical doctors and psycho-oncologists, but is also engaged in by some alternative medicine proponents, pseudopsychologists, and fringe psychotherapists, whose opinions are disseminated by journalists, some more thorough than others (see myth #26 in 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology for more background).
Among these opinions is the common claim that negative thinking, pessimism, and stress create the conditions for the cells in our body to run amok, and for cancer to develop. Similar declarations accompany therapeutic propositions for changing our way of thinking into a more positive one that will protect us from cancer, or even cure us of the disease. Should you, therefore, begin to fear the possibility of cancer if you are not prone to optimism, or – even worse – have bouts of depression?
By Alex Fradera
Doctors who want to avoid accusations of hypocrisy should keep themselves in reasonable shape if they intend to advise their patients to do the same. Indeed, some medical organisations explicitly encourage their physicians not only to stay fit, but to make sure that their patients know it, thereby role-modelling the recommended behaviours. However, new research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology shows that doctors who promote their own fitness may actually scare away overweight patients who are most in need of help.
Already substantial evidence suggests that feeling lonely – regardless of whether we actually are socially isolated based on our number of relationships – is bad for our health, affecting our odds of developing heart disease and other chronic conditions. A new study in Health Psychology extends this literature by showing that feelings of loneliness, but not levels of social isolation, seem to increase the toll of acute illness, in this case by worsening the subjective experience of having a cold.
The researchers, led by Angie LeRoy at the University of Houston and Rice University, said their findings could be useful for helping doctors understand their patients’ different experiences of short-term illnesses. It also provides yet more evidence for why interventions aimed at reducing loneliness need to focus on quality not quantity of social interaction – after all, it’s perfectly possible to feel intensely alone in a crowded room.
In the TV series Better Call Saul, Saul’s brother Chuck believes that electromagnetic signals from mobile phones and other devices make him seriously ill. He lives as a recluse and uses a foil blanket to protect himself. By some estimates, millions of people – around 5 per cent of the population – believe that they too suffer from “electrosensitivity” or “electromagnetic hypersensitivity”. Though they may not suffer as much as Chuck, these individuals claim that wi-fi and other signals make them ill, triggering headaches and other symptoms.
The medical consensus based on double-blind trials (in which neither researcher nor test subject knows when a test device is real or pretend) is that while the experience of electrosensitivity-related symptoms may be real, they are not caused by electromagnetic fields. More likely is that the symptoms arise from a “nocebo effect” – a strong belief that the fields are harmful.
A new study in the Journal of Health Psychology sheds new light on electrosensitivity by suggesting that it is people who feel especially connected to nature – normally considered a positive trait – who may be particularly likely to suffer from electrosensitivity, probably because their love of nature is accompanied by a heightened negative attitude to anything they consider artificial.
Zsuzsanna Dömötör and her colleagues surveyed 510 people online, 74 of whom described themselves as electrosensitive. The electrosensitive participants tended to score higher than the others on modern health worries in general (related to things like pollution and tainted food), on sensitivity to bodily symptoms, and nature relatedness (measured by agreement with items like “I always think about how my actions affect the environment” and “My ideal vacation spot would be a remote, wilderness area”). What’s more, nature connectedness interacted with the other variables: people prone to modern health worries were especially likely to complain of electrosensitivity if they also felt a connection with nature.
By guest blogger Simon Oxenham
Academically successful children are more likely to drink alcohol and smoke cannabis in their teenage years than their less academic peers. That’s according to a study of over 6000 young people in England published recently in BMJ Open by researchers at UCL. While the results may sound surprising, they shouldn’t be. The finding is in fact consistent with earlier research that showed a relationship between higher childhood IQ and the use in adolescence of a wide range of illegal drugs.
Studies show that when heterosexual women look at other women’s bodies, they, just like men, tend to spend a disproportionate amount of time looking at their waists, hips and breasts, as if estimating how much they will appeal to men. This is consistent with “mate selection theory” which argues, among other things, that women have evolved strategies to monitor potential love rivals. However, psychologists are interested in this topic, not only from an evolutionary perspective, but also because women who feel dissatisfied with their bodies, and who are vulnerable to developing eating disorders, may be especially pre-occupied with comparing their body against others, potentially exacerbating their anxieties.
Past research is mixed: some studies suggest women with body dissatisfaction and/or eating disorders pay disproportionate attention to the bodies of thin women, other studies suggest the opposite. A new exploratory paper in Psychological Research says hang on a minute, we don’t actually know much about how healthy, confident women behave when they look at other women, nor whether their attention is influenced by their feelings about their own bodies.
The luxury microwave meal was delicious, the house is warm, work’s going OK, but you’re just not feeling very happy. Some positive psychologists believe this is because many of us in rich, Western countries spend too much of our free time on passive activities, like bingeing on Netflix and browsing Twitter, rather than on active, psychologically demanding activities, like cooking, sports or playing music, that allow the opportunity to experience “flow” – that magic juncture where your abilities only just meet the demands of the challenge. A new paper in the Journal of Positive Psychology examines this dilemma. Do we realise that pursuing more active, challenging activities will make us happier in the long-run? If so, why then do we opt to spend so much more time lazing around engaged in activities that are pleasant in the moment, but unlikely to bring any lasting fulfilment?
Deep brain stimulation is a medical procedure that involves implanting electrodes permanently into the brain and using them to alter the functioning of specific neural networks. A battery inserted subcutaneously in the chest provides the device with power. One application of the technology is as a treatment for Parkinson’s Disease, a neurodegenerative condition that causes tremors and difficulties moving. While the treatment can bring about an impressive alleviation of symptoms, research suggests that Parkinson’s patients often struggle to adjust psychologically. Now a case study published in the British Journal of Health Psychology has provided some of the first insights into what it’s like for a patient to contemplate undergoing surgery for deep brain stimulation, and then to adjust in the immediate aftermath.
It’s that time of year when many of us are trying our best to begin a new exercise habit. One psychological factor affecting our chances is how we think we’ll feel during the exercise, and how that compares to the way we actually feel when we get going, and how we feel afterwards. A new study in Health Psychology has explored whether it’s possible to increase people’s adherence to a new exercise regime by making their expectations more positive. While the main intervention was a disappointment, there is an encouraging message in the results: moderate-to-vigorous exercise is likely to be more enjoyable than you think, and simply knowing this will probably help you enjoy your exercise even more.