A formula for happiness

We now know from twin studies that nearly half of our happiness is genetically inherited from our parents. Another 40% is dependent on the singular events, and that happiness is usually short-lived. It may come from achieving a goal or getting a bonus. The remaining 10%, however, is something that has a sustainable effect and you can control. That 10% depends on three factors: family, friends and work.

It is not surprising that family and friends contribute. But does work really? Apparently so. And it’s not the money from work that helps but the earned success at work.

So Franklin D. Roosevelt may have been right: “Happiness lies not in the mere possession of money; it lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort.” Decide the non-monetary currency you value (people, social contribution, self-development or something else) and then pursue that full-heartedly at work.

Further reading: Arthur C. Brooks in The New York Times

Media more stressful for some than witnessing Boston bombs

Those who experience a terrorist attack firsthand are prone to suffer from acute stress. That much is obvious. But does living that experience repeatedly through the media’s coverage of the event cause even more stress?

This is the question Roxane Cohen Silver of the University of California Irvine and her colleagues have asked in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing. And the answer seems to be that those who followed media coverage for long enough did indeed have a greater chance of suffering from symptoms of high acute stress, sometimes even more than those who were present at the site.

The April 2013 bombing was the first major terrorist attack in the US since September 2001. The changed nature of traditional media and the introduction of social media in the intervening period presented an opportunity for researchers to understand how people cope depending on their exposure to such events.

For the study, just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, they conducted an internet-based survey of nearly 5,000 Americans in the two to four weeks after the bombing. About 1% of respondents were present at the site of the event, a further 9% had someone close who was near the site and some 9% were also directly affected by the aftermath (because of Boston lockdown or other such reasons).

Contrasting this subgroup’s answers with those who were exposed to the event through the media, be it television, radio or via the internet, gave a clear result – acute stress occurs even among those who were not directly present at the event.

What was surprising was that if a person spent more than six daily hours exposed to bombing-related coverage, he or she was nine times more likely to report symptoms of high acute stress. It did not matter whether this person was directly exposed on the day of the event or whether the person lived in Boston or New York. While only 5% of the respondents reported suffering from those symptoms, there was a direct correlation between acute stress symptoms shown and the number of hours of bombing-related media exposure.


Andrew Smith, professor of psychology at Cardiff University, said, “These results don’t surprise me entirely. But one has to be cautious about the simplistic conclusion drawn here.” And indeed the study has many caveats.

First, Silver said, the study’s conclusions are not causal. So they cannot be certain that media coverage led to increase in acute stress symptoms. But a study following the September 2001 attacks did give similar results, in which those exposed to 9/11-related TV reported post-traumatic stress symptoms.

Second, there is a good chance that people who suffered from acute stress might have been the people who consumed media coverage as a way of coping with the experience. Sometimes this is beneficial but repeated exposure can push the viewer into a “self-perpetuating cycle of distress”, writes Silver. She tried to remove those biases by comparing the mental health histories from before the bombings of all those respondents whose data was available, and that is why she considers these findings robust.

Third, and this may be the biggest limitation, the study lacks a control group, where a similarly sized group of individuals on whom the bombing may not have had the same influence were asked to fill out the same questionnaire. Such an excercise could run into other problems such as differences between various cultures’ ability to deal with stress.

Finally, Neil Ferguson, a political psychologist at Liverpool Hope University, points out that the measurement Silver used to measure acute stress may not be water-tight. The SASRQ (Stanford Acute Stress Reaction Questionnaire) does not differentiate between stress-related questions from dissociation-related questions. This matters because dissociation, which involves detaching yourself from an event consciously or unconsciously, can be either a coping mechanism or a stress-inducing mechanism.

Perception matters

Based on the results, Ferguson said, “those who were less likely to be well-educated, employed and well-off financially were also more likely to be suffering from acute stress symptoms following the bombing and bombing-related media”. Which in itself isn’t surprising, but it is something worth factoring in when hinting at a causal link between media coverage of the event and acute stress symptoms.

To be doubly sure, however, Silver compared data of those exposed to 9/11 attacks, superstorm Sandy and the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings, either directly or via the media. She found that, in case of the 9/11 attacks and the Sandy Hook shootings, media exposure was associated with reports of acute stress. But in the case of superstorm Sandy, it wasn’t.

Brooke Rogers, lecturer on risk and terror at King’s College London, said, “This is a good example of how public perception of risk affects how we deal with a stressful event. Research has shown that public perception of risk depends on factors like fairness, ability to control events, trust in institutions that deal with the aftermath, familiarity to the event and if the event is natural or man-made.”

In case of superstorm Sandy, the event was considered to be a natural disaster, which no one had control over. Storms are something Americans are more familiar with. Also, having dealt with events like this before, people have more trust in the authorities.

“We must also remember that one of the main findings of the article is the tremendous resilience populations show,” Rogers said. Nearly 95% of the population was able to find a way of coping with the aftermath of the bombing.

Smith pointed out that there are many studies which have looked at stress caused by an event or by the media coverage of an event, but none till now have looked to compare which of those two correlate to more stress.

Despite the caveats, the study’s main conclusion is worth remembering. In Silver’s words: “Media outlets should recognise that repeatedly showing gruesome, distressing images is not in the public interest.”The Conversation

First published in The Conversation.

Image: rantes

We suffer from the what’s new syndrome

The idea behind meditation is to sit in a comfortable pose with your eyes close and back straight, and then empty your mind of any thoughts. Sounds easy of course, but getting rid of thoughts is difficult. To aid the process, the form of meditation I have been taught involves focusing on breathing. The process is a rhythmic one and there is much to learn about something we don’t consciously think about much.

I start by getting rid of any thoughts I’ve been holding on to. This could be about an email, a person or a chore. I consider it and then let it go. Within a few minutes, I am truly staring into the dark (minus magic lights of the eye or phosphene). Then I start focusing on my breath.

You can consider many things: the pace of breathing, which parts of your body when you breath, how much does each part move, what sensation does breathing cause in different parts, how much detail can you gather from each of those parts, what is the temperature of the air as you breathe it in and out, etc.

But soon enough I run out of things to learn about breathing. Usually this starts about 12-15 minutes in. And that is the most vulnerable time of my meditation session. If I let an interesting thought in, down I go the rabbit hole. By the time I realise that, I’ve lost the peace and quiet that comes from meditation.

Why do I hit that wall every time I meditate? How can I overcome it?

I think I hit that wall because my mind has had enough of the breathing and its related experiences. Now it wants something new. Anything new. Something worth thinking about or reminiscing or observing or experiencing.

The world of new awaits
The world of new awaits.

I don’t think this is a problem of our modern day lives with the continuous social media feeds, email and app notifications. (I could be wrong, but I haven’t come across evidence to prove that). I think it’s something to do with human beings love for the new.

In any form distraction is hard to deal with. While meditating, the mundaneness of the activity makes it easier to get distracted. We all suffer from what I provocatively call the what’s new syndrome.

That’s just a new name for something psychologists have studied for quite sometime. They call it novelty-seeking behaviour. Its genetic roots and relations to brain chemistry have linked the trait with problems like “attention deficit disorder, compulsive spending and gambling, alcoholism, drug abuse and criminal behaviour”.

Researchers separate people in three categories: neophobes , neophiles and, on the extreme, neophiliacs. A recent study suggests that neophiliacs are the ones most like to suffer from disorders. But, if these people can combine their neophiliac nature with persistence and “self-transcendence” (losing yourself in something you love), then that may be the perfect cocktail for success.

I might be a neophiliac, given that I enjoy working as a journalist. But I don’t think people can be cleanly classified into three categories. I might be a neophiliac when it comes to news, but I hate changing houses. My interest in new people waxes and wanes based on an algorithm that I haven’t yet cracked. And I certainly fixate on things, like certain foods or computer games, for quite a while before moving on.

All this is to say that there must be a mixture a neophobe, a neophile and a neophiliac in me. And I suspect that might be the case for others too.

How then can it help me solve my meditation problem? Perhaps I have to channel some of neophobe nature into hating new thoughts for a little while. I know I can be persistent, so may be I have a chance at achieving this.

Religion and intelligence

More than 400 years before the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, Greek playwright Euripedes wrote in his play Bellerophon, “Doth some one say that there be gods above? There are not; no, there are not. Let no fool, led by the old false fable, thus deceive you.”

Euripides was not an atheist and only used the word “fool” to provoke his audience. But, if you look at the studies conducted over the past century, you will find that those with religious beliefs will, on the whole, score lower on tests of intelligence. That is the conclusion of psychologists Miron Zuckerman and Jordan Silberman of the University of Rochester and Judith Hall of Northeastern University, who have published a meta-analysis in Personality and Social Psychology Review.

New meta-analysis checks the correlation between intelligence and faith,  Ars Technica, 11 August 2013.

This story set the news agenda that day. It received over 150,000 reads and 600 comments in just one day. It was then picked up by The Independent, Yahoo News, Huffington Post and Daily Mail.

Image credit: Sebastian Bergmann

Psychology holds the key to solving world’s problems

If you think hard, you’ll realise the problem lies in people’s thinking. Credit: Mutiara Karina (flickr)

We have reached, in terms of technical solutions, if not a plateau, at least a point of diminishing marginal returns. The technology for cutting carbon emissions, for storing nuclear waste, for supporting forays into Alzheimer’s disease research and for taking science education to students in the developing world already exists.

In a post for the Lindau blog, Ashutosh Jogalekar suggests that, at a meeting of Nobel Laureates meant to inspire the young, there should be a place for psychologists. That is because, as he explains,

…while technological solutions can be challenging enough, changing people’s minds is a truly herculean task, often spread over several generations and entire social movements.

And this thought has often troubled me. Technology has developed rapidly in the past few centuries, but human psychology has remained the same for thousands of years.

We know today that there are certain things that humans will be predictably doing wrong. These biases and heuristics affect us all and force us to make these mistakes. Two psychologists received the economics Nobel for their work in this area and that work has have also hinted at some solutions to these problems. After all, as Ashutosh puts it,

Science and technology can only take us so far. Ultimately nothing changes until people and politicians’ thought processes change, and no number of sound technical fixes will work if people refuse to believe in their benefits and change their behavior.

Dealing with climate change is a prime example of this. For many years, there has existed the technology to do something but not the political will. The trouble is, as many have said before, even after it is too late to do something about the climate, we will be seeking technological fixes. Of course we still need to improve the efficiency of solar cells and to understand the dangers of geoengineering, but all those tweaks and minor developments will happen if, say, the world adopts carbon-trading and rewards green solutions over polluting ones.

Psychology is often looked as a soft science. In recent years, it drew attention because of malpractice of a few scientists. At the moment, though, it seems to also be one of the most powerful weapons we have to deal with the world’s problems. Yet, few look at psychology from that perspective.