Category: Positive psychology

New study fails to find any psychological benefits of volunteering, but that doesn’t mean you should stop

The London 2012 Olympic VolunteersBy Alex Fradera

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.

Continue reading “New study fails to find any psychological benefits of volunteering, but that doesn’t mean you should stop”

We know what will make us happy, why do we watch TV instead?

By Christian Jarrett

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?

Continue reading “We know what will make us happy, why do we watch TV instead?”

What’s it like to be a child and your sibling is diagnosed with cancer?

By Christian Jarrett

When the dreadful news arrives that a child has cancer, understandably the focus of parents and health professionals turns to supporting the sick child as best they can. But also caught up in the nightmare are the child’s siblings. Not only will they likely be consumed by shock and fear, but they must adapt to the cancer journey the whole family has to embark on.

Official health guidance here in the UK and in the USA states that it’s important to provide support to the siblings of children with cancer. Yet the reality is we know relatively little about their experience. A new study in Clinical Child Psychology and Psychiatry helps address this research gap, based on interviews with two brothers and four sisters – now aged 12 to 18 – of children and teenagers with cancer. The results reveal the shock and fear the siblings experienced, and the challenges they’ve faced, but also uncover a silver lining in the form of “post traumatic growth”. Continue reading “What’s it like to be a child and your sibling is diagnosed with cancer?”

It’s possible to learn to be more optimistic

Man standing on rock formationBy Christian Jarrett

Optimists have good reason to be optimistic – research tells us that their sunny outlook means that they are likely to live longer, healthier, happier lives compared with others who have a habit of seeing a darker future ahead. This has led positive psychologists to attempt to teach optimism, so that more people might get to benefit from its apparent positive effects. But can you really learn to see the future more brightly? By combining findings from all the relevant existing optimism intervention trials, published and unpublished, a new meta-analysis in The Journal of Positive Psychology provides us with the best answer available today. There’s reason for hope – it seems we can learn to be more optimistic. But don’t get too carried away. Many interventions only increase optimism a little bit, and probably only for a little while. Continue reading “It’s possible to learn to be more optimistic”

Elite golfers describe their experiences of being in the zone

They talked about two main states: “making it happen” and “letting it happen”

The psychological concept of “flow” has been around for a while and yet it still retains an air of mystery. Most experts agree that it involves an enjoyable sense of being fully absorbed in a task or skill, and that in sporting contexts it often coincides with peak performance. Now further insights into the nature of flow in sport come from a new study of elite golfers published in the Psychology of Sport and Exercise. Christian Swann and his colleagues interviewed 10 male players who’d recently won or performed extremely well in top European competitions. The players described having experienced two similar but distinct kinds of psychological state during their successes: “letting it happen”, which closely resembles formal definitions of flow, and “making it happen”, which seems similar to flow in some ways, but not others.

Most previous research on the relevance of flow to peak sports performance has come from interviews in which top athletes reflect on their entire careers. This study has the advantage that the golfers were interviewed within just a few days of a specific exceptional performance. The researchers studied these performances, including specific shots, and used this as a basis to probe the golfers’ psychological states during periods when they’d displayed brilliant skill.

Although the golfers described both the “letting it happen” and “making it happen” states as being “in the zone”, there were also important differences. “Letting it happen” was more likely to occur earlier in a competition, and tended to result from a sequence of good play. This built the players’ confidence until they became absorbed in effortless play. “I didn’t have any negative thoughts,” said one player. “Everything I saw was positive”. They lost sense of where they were and their goals became open-ended: “let’s see just how well I can do”.

The other state, “making it happen”, tended to occur later in the competitions as players scented victory. This state involved intense concentration and seemed to produce exceptional play, rather than be caused by it. It was also associated with specific goals and a keen sense of the situation, including the current score and what the player needed to do to seal their win: “This was it, this was my time now. This is where I can win”. The descriptions of conscious effort and heightened awareness of the situation distinguish this state from typical flow states.

Swann and his team said they hoped their findings could help “provide a refined understanding of the psychological states and processes underlying exceptional performance in sport”. However, they acknowledged the limitations of their qualitative approach: “while we have presented our interpretations of the data, others could have coded them differently and may well have arrived at alternative conclusions,” they said.

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Swann, C., Keegan, R., Crust, L., & Piggott, D. (2016). Psychological states underlying excellent performance in professional golfers: “Letting it happen” vs. “making it happen” Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 23, 101-113 DOI: 10.1016/j.psychsport.2015.10.008

further reading
Does your heart rate hold the secret to getting in “the zone”?
Sports psychologists understand surprisingly little about “the yips”
Speed matters when it comes to imagining the perfect putt
Social flow – how doing it together beats doing it alone

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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Twin study raises doubts about the relevance of "grit" to children’s school performance

Grit is in vogue. US psychologist Angela Duckworth’s TED talk on grit is one of the most popular recorded. And her forthcoming book on the subject, subtitled “the power of passion and perseverance” is anticipated to be a bestseller. On both sides of the pond, our governments have made the training of grit in schools a priority.

To psychologists, “grit” describes how much perseverance someone shows towards their long-term goals, and how much consistent passion they have for them. It’s seen as a “sub-trait” that’s very strongly related to, and largely subsumed by, conscientiousness, which is known as one of the well-established “Big Five” main personality traits that make up who we are.

The reason for all the interest in grit, simply, is that there’s some evidence that people who have more grit do better in life. Moreover, it’s thought that grit is something you can develop, and probably more easily than you can increase your intelligence or other attributes.

But to a team of psychologists based in London and led by behavioural genetics expert Robert Plomin, the hype around grit is getting a little out of hand. There just isn’t that much convincing evidence yet that it tells you much about a person beyond the Big Five personality traits, nor that it can be increased through training or education.

Supporting their view, the researchers have published an analysis in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology of the personalities, including grit, and exam performance at age 16 of thousands of pairs of twins. Some of the twins were identical meaning they share the same genes, while others were non-identical meaning they share roughly half their genes just like non-twin siblings do. By comparing similarities in personality and exam performance between these two types of twin, the researchers were able to disentangle the relative influence of genes and the environment on these measures.

The main finding is that the participants’ overall personality scores were related to about 6 per cent of the variation seen in their exam performance. Grit specifically was related to just 0.5 per cent of the differences seen in exam performance. Given the small size of this relationship, the researchers said “we believe that these results should warrant concern with the educational policy directives in the United States and the United Kingdom.”

Also relevant to the hype around grit, the researchers found that how much grit the participants had was to a large extent inherited (about a third of the difference in grit scores were explained by genetic influences), and that none of the difference in grit was explained by environmental factors that twin pairs shared, such as the way they were raised by their parents and the type of schooling they had (this leaves the remaining variance in grit either influenced by so-called “non-shared environmental factors” – those experiences in life that are unique to a person and not even shared by their twin who they live with – or unexplained). This is a disappointing result for grit enthusiasts because it suggests that the experiences in life that shape how much grit someone has are not found in the school or the home (at least not for the current sample). Bear in mind, though, that this doesn’t discount the possibility that a new effective home- or school-based intervention could be developed.

The researchers concluded that once you know a child’s main personality scores, knowing their amount of grit doesn’t seem to tell you much more about how well they’ll do at school. This study doesn’t rule out the idea that increasing children’s grit, if possible, could be beneficial, but the researchers warned that “more research is warranted into intervention and training programs before concluding that such training increases educational achievement and life outcomes.”

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Rimfeld, K., Kovas, Y., Dale, P., & Plomin, R. (2016). True Grit and Genetics: Predicting Academic Achievement From Personality. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology DOI: 10.1037/pspp0000089

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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Would you really be happier if you were better looking?

By guest blogger David Robson

As shallow as it may be, most of us probably have the sneaking suspicion that we would be happier if we had more attractive facial features and a lither, more athletic body. We fork out cash on cosmetics, gym memberships and plastic surgery thanks to this belief, after all. But are we falling prey to a well-known psychological illusion?

While previous research suggests our looks do influence our lives – from what we earn to how happy we are – a new paper in the Journal of Happiness Studies shows that we probably have an exaggerated view of these benefits.

The paper was inspired by previous examples of the “focusing illusion” – the idea that when we are forced to think about one aspect of our lives, it tends to dominate our feelings and assumes a disproportionate importance in that moment.

In one early example, Fritz Strack at the University of Mannheim and his colleagues asked participants about their love life and their general happiness. The results turned out to depend on the ordering of the questions: if the participants were asked about their love life first, there was a fairly strong correlation between the number of romantic dates they’d had and their wellbeing. But if the question about happiness came first, the apparent connection between romance and wellbeing vanished.

The same turns out to be true for wealth and health: when we are primed to think about these attributes, their impact on our immediate happiness is temporarily intensified. The eminent psychologist Daniel Kahneman summarises these results as “nothing in life is as important as you think it is, while you are thinking about it”.

We live in a media culture that tells us being good looking is a virtual prerequisite for a happy life, but it would make sense that the true importance of our physical attractiveness, like other attributes, is subject to the focussing illusion. To test this idea, Lukasz Kaczmarek and colleagues at Adam Mickiewicz University in Poland set up a simple experiment asking 97 students to take two questionnaires measuring their life satisfaction (they rated their agreement with statements such as “the conditions of my life are excellent”) and “body satisfaction” (this involved rating whether they were pleased or not with various aspects of their appearance, including their face, physical build and body parts). Crucially, as in the previous research on the focussing illusion, the ordering of the questionnaires was randomised – half the participants started by rating their faces and bodies, the other half began by rating their life in general.

The results were exactly as expected: people with more confidence in their looks tended to be somewhat happier than those who thought they were less beautiful (body satisfaction explained about 19 per cent of the variation in life satisfaction overall) but only if they took the body satisfaction survey first, not second. Otherwise, the link between body satisfaction and life satisfaction was very weak – in other words, the results suggest that, generally speaking, people pleased with their appearance are barely any happier than those who are not. It seems it is only when reminded to think about our appearance that our body satisfaction is relevant to our happiness, just as the focussing illusion predicts.

Admittedly, the experiment involved a relatively small sample, and it would be premature to conclude that the benefits of beauty are purely illusory: multiple studies (recently reviewed by Tonya Frevert and Lisa Slattery Walker) have found that more beautiful people are given better grades at school, earn more money and tend to be perceived as kinder and more intelligent – the so-called “what is beautiful is good effect”. All of which should contribute at least a little to overall life satisfaction. Given that these differences may snowball as people progress in their careers, the students tested in the current study may have been too young to have benefited from (or borne the brunt of) these subtle, yet significant, prejudices that come with the way we look. This makes me wonder whether the focussing illusion for appearance would be as strong among a more diverse range of participants.

Even so, this new research leaves us with plenty of food for thought. For psychologists studying wellbeing, it is yet more evidence that they need to pay attention to the order in which they ask their questions. As Kaczmarek and his colleagues point out, a study that measures life satisfaction first should eliminate the focussing illusion while helping to identify the factors with more concrete, enduring effects.

For the rest of us, the results might encourage a re-think on our pursuit of beauty – and its cost. There’s nothing unhealthy about taking pride in the way we look, but it’s clear that no amount of expensive cosmetics is going to buy you perfect happiness. So before you consider dishing out yet more money while striving for physical perfection, you might certainly consider whether it’s something that will really make a difference to your life – or are you just chasing a mirage?

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Kaczmarek, L., Enko, J., Awdziejczyk, M., Hoffmann, N., Białobrzeska, N., Mielniczuk, P., & Dombrowski, S. (2014). Would You Be Happier If You Looked Better? A Focusing Illusion Journal of Happiness Studies, 17 (1), 357-365 DOI: 10.1007/s10902-014-9598-0

further reading
Mental health problems worsen after cosmetic surgery
It doesn’t always pay to be pretty
The downside of being good-looking AND wealthy
Men feel more physically attractive after becoming a father
Body image – it’s ‘healthy’ people who are deluded

Post written by David Robson (@d_a_robson) for the BPS Research Digest. David is BBC Future’s feature writer.

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There are at least 216 foreign words for positive emotional states and concepts that we don’t have in English

One criticism levelled at positive psychology is that it takes an overly Western-centric view of the lighter side of human experience. Addressing that problem, Tim Lomas at the University of East London has begun a deep investigation into all the non-English words for positive emotions and concepts that don’t have a direct translation in English.

Publishing his initial findings in the The Journal of Positive Psychology, Lomas’ hope is not only that we might learn more about the positive psychology of other cultures, but that hearing of these words might enrich our own emotional lives. Of course there is a long-running debate about how much words influence our thoughts and emotions. Few people these days would advocate the idea that you can’t feel an emotion if you don’t have a word for it. But Lomas argues that at a minimum, if you don’t have a way of identifying a specific emotion or feeling, it “becomes just another unconceptualised ripple in the ongoing flux of subjective experience.”

Lomas’ method was to trawl websites devoted to “untranslatable words” (i.e. words that don’t have a single corresponding word in English), then to do some googling and finally to consult colleagues and students. This way he ended up with a list of 216 untranslatable words for positive emotional states and concepts. To find approximate English definitions of the words he used online dictionaries and academic references. Here are some examples of the untranslatable positive words that Lomas has organised into three main categories:

Words relating to feelings, including the subcategories of positive and complex feelings (definitions are taken from Lomas’ paper):

Gula – Spanish for the desire to eat simply for the taste
Sobremesa – Spanish for when the food has finished but the conversation is still flowing
Mbukimvuki – Bantu for “to shuck off one’s clothes in order to dance”
Schnapsidee – German for coming up with an ingenious plan when drunk
Volta – Greek for leisurely strolling the streets
Gokotta – Swedish for waking up early to listen to bird song
Suaimhneas croi – Gaelic for the happiness that comes from finishing a task
Iktsuarpok – Inuit for the anticipation felt when waiting for someone
Vacilando – Greek for the idea of wandering, where the act of travelling is more important than the destination
Gumusservi – Turkish for the glimmer that moonlight makes on water

Words relating to relationships, including the subcategories of intimacy and more general prosociality:

Nakama – Japanese for friends who one considers like family
Kanyininpa – Aboriginal Pintupi for a relationship between holder and held, akin to the deep nurturing feelings experienced by a parent for their child
Gigil – Philippine Tagalog for the irresistible urge to pinch or squeeze someone because you love them so much
Kilig – Tagalog for the butterflies in the stomach you get when interacting with someone you find attractive
Sarang – Korean for when you wish to be with someone until death
Myotahapea – Finnish for vicarious embarrassment
Mudita – Sanskrit for revelling in someone else’s joy
Karma – the well known Buddhist term for when ethical actions lead to future positive states
Firgun – Hebrew for saying nice things to someone simply to make them feel good
Asabiyyah – Arabic for a sense of community spirit

Words relating to character, including the subcategories of resources and spirituality:

Sitzfleisch – German for the ability to persevere through hard or boring tasks (literally “sit meat”)
Baraka – Arabic for a gift of spiritual energy that can be passed from one person to another
Jugaad – Hindi for the ability to get by or make do
Desenrascanco – Portuguese for the ability to artfully disentangle oneself from a troublesome situation
Sprezzatura – Italian for when all art and effort are concealed beneath a “studied carelessness”
Pihentagyu – Hungarian for quick witted people who come up with sophisticated jokes and solutions (literally “with a relaxed brain”)
Kao pu – Chinese for someone who is reliable and responsible and gets things done without causing problems for others
Prajna – Sanskrit for intellectual wisdom and experiential insight
Wu Wei – Chinese for “do nothing” (literally) but meaning that one’s actions are entirely natural and effortless [check out the recent Psychologist magazine article on this concept]
Bodhi – Sanskrit for when one has gained complete insight into nature

Lomas is continually updating his list online and he welcomes any suggestions. He says compiling the list is just the start of this project – as a next step he suggests that each word now deserves its own paper “explicating and analysing them in rich detail”.

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Lomas, T. (2016). Towards a positive cross-cultural lexicography: Enriching our emotional landscape through 216 ‘untranslatable’ words pertaining to well-being The Journal of Positive Psychology, 1-13 DOI: 10.1080/17439760.2015.1127993

further reading
How language reflects the balance of good and bad in the world
How we see half the world through the prism of language

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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People who have experienced more adversity show more compassion

In parallel with the difficulties caused by trauma, such as depression and ill health, some people experience positive psychological changes, such as a renewed appreciation for life and increased resilience – a phenomenon psychologists term “post traumatic growth”. According to a new study in the journal Emotion, we can add another positive outcome related to adversity – compassion. The more adversity in life a person has experienced, the more compassion they tend to feel and show toward others.

Daniel Lim and David DeSteno at Northeastern University first surveyed 224 people via Amazon’s Mechanical Turk website: just over 60 per cent were female, and their ages ranged from 22 to 74. The participants answered questions about the adversity they’d experienced in life, including injuries, bereavements, disasters, and relationship breakdowns. They also completed measures of their empathy and compassion, and the survey ended with a chance to donate some of their participation fee to charity. The more adversity participants had experienced (the nature of the adversity didn’t matter), the more empathy they said they had, and in turn, this greater empathy was associated with more self-reported compassion, and more actual generosity, as revealed by the amounts the participants chose to donate to charity.

To test this adversity-compassion link further, the researchers conducted an experiment: they first tricked 51 students into thinking they were taking part in an emotion recognition study. While in the lab, they saw another student participant – actually an actor – taking part in a really boring task, even though he’d told the researcher he was feeling ill and had a doctor’s appointment to get to. The participants had the chance to help complete the boring task the ill student was working on – whether they chose to help, and how much they helped, was used as a measure of their compassion. The next day, the participants answered questions about the adversity they’d experienced in life, as well as their empathy and compassion. Again, students who’d lived through more adversity reported having greater empathy, and in turn this was related to higher self-ratings of compassion, and crucially, it was also related to actually showing more compassionate behaviour towards the ill student.

The researchers caution that they’ve only shown that experiencing past adversity correlates with, rather than causes, greater compassion. And they acknowledge that of course everyone responds differently to adversity, and that people’s psychological responses evolve over different time frames. However, they say their results do support the notion that “adversity, on average, likely fosters compassion and subsequent prosociality.” They also see sound theoretical reasons why this might be the case – compassion can be seen as a “forward-looking coping response” that helps to strengthen social ties, to the benefit of the compassionate person and those whom they help. The new findings also chime with other related research: for example, a 2011 study found that people who have suffered more themselves show greater altruism and sympathy for disaster victims.

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Lim, D., & DeSteno, D. (2016). Suffering and Compassion: The Links Among Adverse Life Experiences, Empathy, Compassion, and Prosocial Behavior. Emotion DOI: 10.1037/emo0000144

further reading
The adaptive mind: Children raised in difficult circumstances show enhanced mental flexibility in adulthood
Why is poverty associated with mental health problems for some people, but not others?
Poverty shapes how children think about themselves

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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It’s better to have two passions in life than one

As long as you don’t become obsessive and defensive about it, there’s a wealth of evidence to show that having a passion in life is good for you psychologically – people with a so-called “harmonious passion” (but not so much those with an “obsessive passion”) tend to be happier, to enjoy more positive emotions and be more satisfied with life, as compared with people who don’t have a passion. As we look ahead to the new year, a study published in the Journal of Happiness Studies poses a simple question: given how beneficial it is to have one harmonious passion, what’s the effect of having two?

Benjamin Schellenberg and Daniel Bailis didn’t go into this research with any firm predictions: they reasoned that perhaps the effect of having two passions would be additive, so people with two would show even more psychological benefits than those with just one. But on the other hand, they considered it plausible that having two passions could get a little complicated – juggling the two might get stressful and each might detract from the other.

To test this, the researchers surveyed 1,218 undergrads (including 878 women) about their most favourite activity and their second favourite. The students answered questions about these activities to reveal whether they were truly passions (for instance, doing something a lot would indicate that it was a passion), and if so, whether it was a harmonious passion or an obsessive passion (here, having difficulty controlling the urge to do the activity would be one sign that a passion was obsessive). The students also filled out a range of questionnaires about their moods and well-being and life-satisfaction.

Overall, 31 per cent of the sample had one passion (about half of these students had a harmonious passion, the other half had an obsessive passion), and 54 per cent of the sample had two passions (roughly a third of this group had two harmonious passions, another third had two obsessive and the remainder a mix). Consistent with past research, having a harmonious passion or two was associated with greater happiness and wellbeing than having an obsessive passion (or two), or with having no passion (15 per cent of the sample had no passions).

Focusing on just those students who had either one harmonious passion or two, the researchers found that having two was better than having one, in terms of enhanced happiness, wellbeing and positive moods. Of course it’s possible that people with two passions simply spend more time on enjoyable activities than those with one passion, but actually the researchers found having two passions was associated with greater well-being and happiness gains even when the total amount of time invested across two passions was the same as the time invested by others in one passion.

“Having a passion in life may be important in the pursuit of happiness, but it may be best to have multiple passions,” the researchers said. They said future research was needed to explore the optimal number of passions to have beyond two, and to study what leads people to develop multiple harmonious passions in the first place. Before you sign up for a new hobby this January, bear in mind a problem with this research is its cross-sectional design (the fact it only took measures at one point in time). This means we don’t know if happier people who are more satisfied with their lives are simply more likely to have multiple passions, as opposed to multiple passions causing extra happiness.

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Schellenberg, B., & Bailis, D. (2015). Can Passion be Polyamorous? The Impact of Having Multiple Passions on Subjective Well-Being and Momentary Emotions Journal of Happiness Studies, 16 (6), 1365-1381 DOI: 10.1007/s10902-014-9564-x

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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