Earthquakes! Murder! Genocide! Environmental destruction! Lions! Tigers! Bears! Oh, my! The media – from news to television series to popular novels – often feeds us a continuous diet of violence, destruction and suffering. What’s the effect of this?
Research has shown that the more television a person watches, the more violent they judge the world to be and the less happy they become. News broadcasters are masters at pulling our emotional strings with stories of tragedy and violence that feed off our fears. Novelists and movie-makers come up with some pretty outrageous ways people can treat one another (yes, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I’m talking about you!). While this keeps us tuned in and buying tickets – it comes at a significant cost to our emotional well-being – that fear, sadness and anger really register in us and make it difficult to reach that 3:1 postivity ratio that can lead us to living a flourishing life.
Several years ago, I made the conscious decision to stop listening to NPR during my commute. Instead of getting riled up about the most recent political decisions, I decided to listen to books about how to be happier in my life. I kept up-to-date on the outside world from a 10-minute look at CNN.com each day where I could consciously decide which stories got my full attention. My worry that I wouldn’t be as educated about the world was put aside when I saw the results of another set of studies: it turns out that people who watch less TV are more accurate judges of the degree of risk we all might encounter each day. TV gives us a sensationalized and one-sided version of news that makes the world feel significantly less safe than it is.
And it’s not just about news. Other forms of media – video games, movies and even fictional books – can have the same effect. Personally, I saw my own negativity skyrocket this past spring when I got sucked into an epic fantasy series with grand battles of good vs. evil. I was so engaged in the story that it started taking over my mindspace even when I wasn’t reading it. I started blowing off my daily gratitude journaling and meditation to spend more time reading; I even rushed through story time with my kids to get to ‘my time’ with the books. This constant feeding of conflict, narrow escapes and evil deeds kept me in an adrenaline-infused negative space. And that leached into other areas of my life. I started being more suspicious of everyone – empathy and kindness fading to distrust — and kept seeing what was likely to go wrong in every area of my life. After about a month, my world view became bleak and I felt the fear of failure get a strong hold on me. When I finished up the series, it took me a couple months to dig myself out of this negativity trap I’d fallen into. That a series of fictional books was able to have such an effect on my real life was a shock.
This has been a difficult post for me to write. I don’t like how preachy this topic sounds –”Halo is bad for you!” or “Watch less TV” – but our elders who tried to get us outside and doing anything more active were on to something. We do take on the emotions of what media we consume – both real and fictional. So if video games or tv is a good way for you to decompress, you don’t have to completely remove them from your life. But notice how you really feel during and after these experiences and ask if it is how you want to spend your time. If you are serious about upping your ratio, reducing violent media exposure is a relatively easy way to lower needless negativity.
Stay tuned over the next couple weeks as we talk about how to make long-term changes in your life – whether it’s starting an exercise routine, bringing on a gratitude practice or watching less tv. I’ll be sharing scientifically proven ways to implement new habits into your life.
The Happiness Coach
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Losing weight and getting sexy, it turns out, isn’t the only reason to tie on your running shoes. Regular exercise is another powerful tool for living a happier life. And it doesn’t take much to see a real difference. In recent studies, moderate exercise of 30 minutes three times per week can be as effective as our best anti-depressant medications (yes, Prozac, we’re talking about you!).
Moderate exercise releases dopamine, serotonin and norepinephrine – the brain’s happiness chemicals — and has been shown to lift mood for up to 12 hours. Exercise is also a healthy way to distract yourself from your problems when you are stuck in a negative rumination cycle.
Exercise can easily be combined with other happiness boosting activities. If the weather is nice, go outside and walk or run through a park or at least near some trees in the neighborhood; good weather and exposure to nature both increase mood in addition to the benefit you get from exercise. If you can exercise with others or even just smile as you pass people on the street (both forms of social interaction, another key happiness booster), you’ll get a double shot of happiness. I often make a game of smiling and saying hi to everyone on my runs – their mirror neurons make it hard for them not to respond in kind. And it always gives me a boost to see others smiling – especially when I helped cause it.
Exercise doesn’t have to be a grind at the gym either. Any activity that gets your heart rate up gives you the benefit. Is there a sport you loved to play when you were younger? Find a team and make the time to do it. Do you like gardening or taking a walk? Make the time in your busy schedule. Consider walking during your lunch hour – you can even bring a coworker along if you need some time brainstorming or checking in on a project. Get in the habit of taking the stairs instead of the elevator or park your car at the back of the lot and walk a little more.
In our exercise-obsessed culture, it’s hard not to see exercise as one more “should.” We already spend so much time beating ourselves up over going to the gym so we can lose weight or “be healthier.” Instead see if you can put exercise in the same category as other things that make you happy – listening to good music, savoring a glass of wine, catching up with a friend. Take on the perspective that exercise is simply another tool to help improve your mood and generate more happiness.
Struggling with how you can regularly fit exercise into your life? In a couple weeks, I’ll talk about how happiness habits are formed. For now, play with this theory. How do you feel on days you get some exercise compared to the days you don’t?
The Happiness Coach
If you’d like to receive my weekly “Happiness Infusion” emails directly to your inbox, just fill in your name and email address at the top right of this page. Then look every Thursday morning for you weekly dose!
Also, I’m also looking for more ways to give the gift of happiness. I LOVE to give a 30-60 minute talk that summarizes the BEST of the science of happiness. If you have a group/club/company or association of 10 or more people in San Diego County that would appreciate a dynamic and passionate speaker, send me a note at karpo3(at)Gmail(dot)com and I will make it happen!
Or “The Happiness Tipping Point”
One thing that science has shown — and all of us have experienced — is that when we feel a positive emotion, it often leads to other positive emotions. When we’re happy, we naturally focus on the good things in our lives and feel grateful for what we have, which further increases our happiness. When happy, we approach other people with a smile and a sense of trust which makes them want to help us, and again our happiness increases. This upward spiral of positive emotions can help us live the life we want.
Negative emotions follow a similar pattern. We’ve all had experiences where a frustration at work causes self-doubt which leads to not doing our best. Sometimes, we can bring this frustration home and overreact angrily to a family member or friend. This can lead to guilt which further compounds our negative feelings. Because negative emotions have a strong physiological component, these negativity spirals can knock us down for hours or even days.
Researchers have studied this interplay of positive and negative emotions and have recently discovered a tipping point in our emotional life. A tipping point is a place where a small change can have a disproportionately large effect. A good example of a tipping point is ice and water. At -1ºC H20 is solid ice but raise the temperature just two degrees and it turns into flowing water. In psychology this magic number is expressed as a positivity ratio — the number of positive emotions you feel over a given time divided by the number of negative emotions you feel in that same time period. This graph illustrates this idea:
Below 3:1 the effect of increases in positivity on our overall sense of well-being are relatively small. Our positive emotions here are more fleeting and susceptible to being squashed by negative emotion. But above 3:1, we’re in a world of many upward spirals that feed on each other and keep our overall happiness high. Above this ratio, setbacks are easily dealt with or seen as longer-term challenges rather than insurmountable blocks to what we want. In short, above 3:1, we enter what scientists call flourishing; a state of optimal human functioning that is marked by creativity, growth, productivity and resilience.
This 3:1 ratio was first discovered by Marcial Losada through an in-depth study of 60 business teams. He and his assistants carefully observed and recorded each team in an hour-long business meeting and coded every single statement as positive or negative (among other dimensions). Later he evaluated each team on profitability, customer satisfaction and evaluations by superiors/peers/subordinates. Those teams that were independently shown to be high performing – highly profitable and well regarded by those with whom they did business — had positivity ratios around 6:1 (the number of positive to negative interactions in this case). By contrast, low performing teams had positivity ratios well below 1:1 and mixed performance teams had ratios around 2:1. Losada developed equations that modeled this nonlinear dynamic system and found that the tipping point that transformed a business team from middling to flourishing was 2.9013 : 1, which for simplicity we round to 3:1.
Losada joined with Barbara Fredrickson, one of the leading researchers in positive psychology, to evaluate this positivity ratio in individuals. They conducted a series of analyses and found that this same 3:1 ratio is a tipping point that pushes individuals into flourishing. They showed that people with ratios higher than 3:1 feel more alive, creative and resilient. They have a palpable sense of personal growth and of making a positive difference. Below 3:1, the people in these experiments are in a state of languishing where their life is rather ordinary. They get by, but are hardly growing and not moving toward what they want most in life.
The great news here is that most people have positivity ratios around 2:1, not far from the magical 3:1 number. Using tested positive psychology tools and habits for increasing our share of positive emotions and decreasing gratuitous negativity, getting to a 3:1 ratio is feasible. If you can increase your ratio, it will open you up to a flourishing, more engaged and happier existence. Stay tuned next week as I share one of the simplest and most powerful tool for increasing your happiness.
So, are you curious about your own positivity ratio? You can test it on Fredrickson’s website, click on “Take the Test”. Try it out for a few days and see where you are. I tracked my own positivity ratio for several months earlier this year. I found it to be a powerful way to bring more awareness to my day-to-day emotional state.
I also highly recommend Fredrickson’s book, Positivity. It is full of the most recent and powerful science in positive psychology and it is presented in a warm and accessible way that non-scientists can understand.
The Happiness Coach
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In my talks and workshops, inevitably there is a point when I have to pause while people absorb a particularly surprising fact from the research on happiness. What do people find so shocking? It’s what determines our happiness. [Hint: it’s not buying new shoes…]
Researchers have shown that:
- 50% of our happiness is based on our genes. The random set of genes you received from your biological parents defines your overall range of happiness. Some of us won the genetic lottery, are blessed with sunny dispositions and naturally see the good in life. Others of us have a tendency towards pessimism and glass-is-half-empty thinking. Some scientists describe this as a basic happiness “set point.”
- (Here’s the shocker) Only 10% of our happiness comes from external circumstances. Your financial resources, your career, the climate where you live, your health, whether you have a life partner, how hot you look – all these things determine just 10% of your ongoing level of happiness. (Think about how upset this fact makes marketers trying to get us to buy our way into happiness!) Why? It’s due to adaptation. No matter what good things or bad things happen to you – a promotion at work, a new car, getting married to the love of your life — you adapt and after a time (often not very long) it no longer carries much emotional benefit. Think about the last time you worked hard to accomplish something or bought something you really wanted. How long did the buzz last? How long before those positive emotions were replaced with the desire for the next thing? In one well-documented study, researchers found that both lottery winners and people who had become paraplegic returned to their original baseline level of happiness within one year of their life-changing event. Striving to achieve and acquire, while a fine way to spend your time, is not a path to sustainable increases in happiness.
- So guess what? That remaining 40% of our happiness comes from our intentional activity: what we do and how we think. Forty percent of our happiness is therefore IN OUR CONTROL. Researchers have been actively testing what activities and thought patterns add to our happiness and which ones reduce it. Study after study has shown that as people integrate these activities into their lives and make new habits, they sustainably increase their happiness.
This is what excites me most about this work. This is why I write this newsletter, speak publicly and coach my clients about this material. Change IS possible. We can sustainably increase our own happiness and many of these new habits and activities take just a few minutes a day.
In future newsletters, I’ll introduce you to many of these tips and techniques for you to try out in your own life.
The Happiness Coach
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“There’s a SCIENCE of Happiness?” is a question I get all the time from people who have always thought of happiness as something based on luck or life circumstance or even Prozac.
For the last century, psychological science has been focused primarily on fixing what was broken — helping depressed or anxious people get to a functional place. But in 1998, the American Psychological Association expanded the mission of psychological science to also include what makes life worth living. As a result top psychologists and neuroscientists started rigorous studies in people who are happy, well-balanced and making a positive difference in the world. They uncovered what habits and ways of looking at life were core to these people's emotional success then systematically tested them in more typical populations.
These scientists have discovered how each of us can increase our level of happiness in an enduring way. More importantly, the studies have shown that increasing our happiness isn’t just a “frivolous” pursuit that is about “feeling better,” but that living our lives in a more positive emotional state makes us more creative, more resilient, healthier and more successful at everything we do. Increasing our positive emotions can transform us from a languishing state of “getting by” to truly thriving in our health, careers and relationships.
Through weekly “Happiness Infusion” emails, I share key ideas and tips from this exciting new science with you. I share powerful conclusions backed by controlled studies published in peer-reviewed scientific journals. My goal is to make these fully accessible to those with little scientific training and succinct enough that a two-minute read will get you something thought-provoking or useful in YOUR life.
P.S. Sign up for your weekly "Happiness Infusion" emails here: