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Dec 12 16

Technology and Well-Being

by Beth

Technology can be bad for our well-being. The constant distractions of text messages and emails can increase our stress levels and prevent us from being mindful, which can hurt both our productivity and our relationships. Task-switching can reduce productivity by up to 40%. And researchers like Sherry Turkle at MIT have shown how digital distractions negatively impact the quality of our social interactions. Social media has been linked to depression. Social comparison can lead to envy, making us feel worse about ourselves. And cyber bullying is certainly a big problem. Using technology at night is especially bad for your well-being as it prevents you from sleeping well.

But technology can be used to improve our well-being. There are apps with activities to boost emotional well-being like Happify and to cultivate mindfulness like Headspace. Social media can help you stay connected to friends and loved ones. It can also provide opportunities to support causes in order to experience the benefits of generosity. Facebook’s “social good” team created the “donate” button to make charitable giving easier and the On This Day project where pictures from the past pop up, hopefully triggering happy memories. Wearable technologies like Fitbit can improve physical well-being by encouraging people to move more.

The key is to be saavy with your technology use. Understand the downsides so that you can take steps to minimize the negative consequences. Research shows that constantly checking email increases stress, so try checking yours less often. Turn off notifications when you need to focus or are having a conversation. Limit the time you spend on social media. Log off when you are working and consider removing social media apps from your phone. Put technology away 30 minutes before going to bed. Be intentional about using technology in ways that enhance your well-being. To learn more about how technology can be designed and developed to support psychological well-being and human potential, check out Positive Computing.

Nov 18 16

Cheers to Compassionate Engineers

by Beth

Facebook is getting a lot of heat right now for contributing to the spread of fake news during the presidential campaign. While this is an important issue that Facebook and other social media sites will have to address, I’d like to highlight something Facebook is doing right. Facebook has a Compassion team that works to make life’s difficult moments a little easier and online interactions more humane.

Compassion engineers build products that help people handle everything from bullying, to breakups, to the loss of a loved one. The team turns to academic research and interviews with Facebook users to better understand what people facing these different situations may need and how to encourage compassion among users.

After a break up, it can be painful to see pictures of your ex constantly popping up. And that can happen a lot if you have friends in common. So the Compassion team has designed an eraser-like tool that lets you minimize how many of those pictures you see. And it lets you hide your own postings of the two of you.

The Compassion team also tries to facilitate more empathetic interactions among users. In the past, if you didn’t like a picture that someone posted of you, you could ask them to take it down and hope they complied. Now the system asks why you don’t like the photo with options like 1) it’s a bad photo of me, 2) it’s annoying, or 3) it shouldn’t be on Facebook. This language is then incorporated into the request to remove the picture. Including how the person feels about the picture has made it much more likely that the picture is taken down.

In a similar fashion, teens who report feeling harassed now have more specific options to describe their situation. This reflection helps them better understand their experience and data shows that since these changes were made, teens are more likely to reach out to an adult when they experience harassment.

So cheers to Facebook and their compassionate engineers. It is good to know that they are working to make our online interactions more compassionate. We sure do need their help!

(Photo: Magoz)

Nov 4 16

Focus on What Can You Control

by Beth

According to a survey of 3,500 adults by the American Psychological Association, 55% of Democrats and 59% of Republicans say the 2016 presidential election is a significant source of stress. One thing that makes elections especially stressful is the fact that the outcome is beyond our control. Worrying about things we have no control over is one of the biggest sources of stress.

I am a worrier my nature, but I’ve been trying very hard to keep the serenity prayer in mind lately. “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” I alone cannot control the outcome of this election. Worrying about what will happen if things don’t turn out the way I’d like is a waste of my time and hurts my well-being.

But accepting the fact that I can’t control the outcome of the election doesn’t mean that I can’t do anything to make a difference. There are things that I can control that could have an impact on the election. I can donate my money, volunteer my time, and vote. Acceptance isn’t resignation; it is choosing to focus my thoughts and energy on what I can do, rather than wasting them worrying about what I can’t do. Recognizing what is outside of my control and accepting that allows me to dedicate my resources to that which I can control.

There will still be plenty to worry about when the election is over, regardless of who wins. But worry doesn’t help anyone, especially you. Accept that there are things you can’t control and focus instead on what you can do. You can’t keep it from raining on the parade, but you can bring an umbrella!

Oct 22 16

Calling for a Media Revolution

by Beth

I’m done. I can’t take so much negativity! The 2016 presidential campaign has been so divisive it makes it hard for anyone to stay positive. That’s why I was excited to learn about the transformative journalism movement. Positive psychologists Michelle Gielan and Shawn Achor have partnered with Arianna Huffington to encourage journalists to adopt a more positive, solutions-focused approach to news coverage.

The idea that negativity sells has dominated thinking in journalism for too long. The truth is, people share positive stories more than negative ones. And their attitude toward a brand is more positive when it’s located next to a positive article. So advertisers are better off linking their brand to good news stories.

Research shows that negative stories cause people to feel hopeless, whereas positive stories do just the opposite. They inspire and motivate us. If you are exposed to 3 minutes of negative news in the morning, you are 27% more likely to report at the end of the day that it was a bad day. Start your day with 3 minutes of good news and you will be 88% more likely that afternoon to feel like you had a good day.

Negativity is bad for our well-being. People are tired of it. Many are trying to find ways to laugh about the campaign. Have you seen the #TrumpBookReport tweets? Or “Weird Al” Yankovic moderating the final debate? Others are trying to help with things like an app offering meditations for “emergency election stress”.

We can work together to bring about a media revolution. We have a choice of where we get our news. Let’s turn off the negativity and support media outlets that also highlight transformative stories. Let’s choose to read and share news that is uplifting. The Washington Post publishes The Optimist, a weekly newsletter “dedicated to stories of pluck and awe”. The What’s Working section of The Huffington Post and both highlight positive stories. aspires to be “our nation’s GOOD economic news service”. Please share others! We can create change by choosing more balanced media sources and refusing to tune in to negativity.

Sep 29 16

Use Fact-Checking to Stay Motivated

by Beth

The way we view things impacts our behavior. We are more motivated to take action when we are positive and optimistic. Positive emotions open us up to see alternative solutions to a problem and the belief that we can find a solution spurs us to act.

In her book, Broadcasting Happiness, Michelle Gielan suggests fact-checking as a strategy for shifting from a negative to a positive focus. Proactively looking for facts that fuel hope can empower you to persevere when you’re discouraged. Gielan describes three steps for fact-checking your story:

  • Isolate the stressful thought – identify the specific cause of your worry
  • List the facts that support this story – find facts that back up your worry, making sure to include only facts, not emotions
  • List fueling facts that illuminate a new story – imagine a positive story and look for facts to support it

I’m stressed right now because I feel I have too many commitments in the coming month and not enough time to get everything done. The specific cause of my worry is a writing deadline that I’m not sure I will meet. Facts to support this are that I have been traveling a lot recently, so I haven’t started the project yet. I also have multiple speaking engagements in the coming weeks that will take time to prepare and deliver.

But let me look for facts to support the story that I will meet the deadline. Despite my other commitments, I found time on my calendar to schedule 60 to 90 minutes each weekday to write. This gives me around 25 hours of writing time over the next month, which should be enough. One of my strengths is discipline, so I’m pretty good about sticking to a schedule and I’ve rarely missed a deadline. Whew! I feel better already and am going to get to work.

The next time you feel discouraged, see if fact-checking can help move your focus from paralyzing facts to activating ones. Shifting to a more optimistic mindset will motivate you to take the next step toward your goal.

Sep 23 16

Extreme Work Hours: An American Crisis

by Beth

Something must be done  about the amount of time Americans work. According to a 2014 Gallup poll, the average full-time employee works 47 hours per week. Almost 40 percent of employees work more than 50 hours each week and 18 percent work more than 60 hours. White-collar employees, who have more flexibility over their work schedule, typically work more hours than those with less control.

Extreme work hours are hurting our productivity and our health. Continue reading here . . .

Aug 24 16

The Best Gift is to Give

by Beth

As I was checking out of a hotel a few days ago, the receptionist asked me to wait a minute because she couldn’t find the charge for my parking. When she realized they had forgotten to charge me she said, “You know what? It’s my birthday, so I’m going to give you the parking for free!” Wasn’t that nice? It sure was a great start to my day!

It reminded me of the Spanish birthday tradition of giving to others. Children take bags of candy to school on their birthdays to share with their friends. Adults invite friends and family out to dinner. It struck me as a bit odd when I first moved to Madrid, because I was used to others giving me things on my birthday. But the truth is, giving to others is a great birthday gift. Studies consistently support the idea that “it is better to give than to receive.” Giving makes us happy!

In one study, researchers gave students at the University of British Columbia an envelope with either $5 or $20. Half of the students were instructed to spend the money on themselves and the other half were instructed to spend the money on someone else. The students who gifted the money were happier and the results were the same for both amounts of money. In a much larger study of people from 136 countries, researchers also discovered a relationship between spending money on others and happiness. The effect was found even in very poor countries. So it seems that people everywhere experience emotional benefits from giving to others.

A few weeks ago one of my friends spent her entire Saturday making sandwiches and distributing them to people at a shelter in Washington D.C. They were celebrating her friend’s birthday. She had asked a group of people to bring sandwich makings to her home where they assembled 200 lunches and then took them to the shelter to hand out. What a great way to celebrate her birthday. Think of how many people she made happy!

Aug 4 16

Olympics Bring Us Awe and Inspiration

by Beth

The 2016 Olympic Games start tomorrow in Rio. I can’t wait! The Olympics are fun to watch for many reasons. I especially like the feelings of awe and inspiration that I experience as the athletes demonstrate their impressive skills.

Awe is a feeling of being overwhelmed with greatness. It’s a collective emotion that helps bond us together. Studies have shown that people who experience more awe are more generous and helpful to others. That’s because awe shifts our attention away from ourselves and to something bigger. UC Berkley professor Dacher Keltner has a great talk on the health and well-being benefits of awe.

Nature is a great source of awe. The ocean, mountains, sunsets, and the night sky can all bring us a sense of wonder. Art, music, and religion can also inspire awe. Awe comes from experiencing something astonishing. That’s where the Olympics come in. Watching Olympic athletes compete is pretty awesome (which, by the way, means causing or inducing awe).

How often have you heard people refer to athletic performances as awe-inspiring? Most Olympic athletes have spent their entire lives preparing for this moment. We will witness stunning achievements. Records will be broken. We will be amazed by the superhuman feats we observe. The Opening Ceremony and panoramic images of Rio de Janeiro may also be sources of awe.

Seeing people do their best inspires us to want to do our best, too. We are motivated to be better, to push ourselves to achieve our goals, to make a difference in the world, to be awesome. The hard work and dedication it takes to become an Olympic athlete is truly inspiring!

I hope you find time to tune in to the Olympics to be inspired and to savor moments of awe. Wouldn’t it be great if we all watch the Olympic Games and are motivated by the performances we see to be more generous and to strive to be our very best?

Please come back here to share the moments from the 2016 Olympic Games that you find most awe-inspiring.

And if you can’t wait until tomorrow, you can watch some amazing Olympic moments right now in the video for Katy Perry’s Olympic song “Rise”. Let the chills begin!

Jul 19 16

Want to Be More Resilient? Just Breathe

by Beth

When we experience a stressful event, our sympathetic nervous system takes over. In this fight-or-flight state, our bodies release adrenaline, which gives us the energy we need to respond to the situation. When the threat is gone, our parasympathetic nervous system kicks in, allowing our bodies to rest and digest. Imagine a gazelle running away from a lion. Once it is safe, it immediately goes back to grazing.

Resilience is the rapidity with which we recover from adversity. How fast we would return to grazing were we gazelles. The problem many of us face today is that we are in a constant fight-or-flight state. Our brains perceive overflowing inboxes, client complaints, long commutes, and tight deadlines as potential threats, meaning our sympathetic nervous systems stay activated, giving our bodies few opportunities to recover.

The good news is that you can activate your parasympathetic nervous system to return to a state of calm any time you want. It’s really simple! All you have to do is breathe. In her book, The Happiness Track, Emma Seppälä explains how you can use breathing practices to restore your resilience. Slow breathing activates the vagus nerve, which slows down your heart, lungs, and digestive system. Long exhales are particularly useful for calming you down.

You can think of the sympathetic nervous system as the gas and the parasympathetic nervous system as the brakes. We need both. Some stress is good, helping us to perform better. But chronic stress is harmful to our bodies.

You can tap into your natural resilience by taking long, deep breaths in order to calm down. The next time you are feeling stressed, take a moment to close your eyes and bring your attention to your breath. Breathe deep. This will activate your parasympathetic system, giving your body a chance for rest and restoration.

Is resilience really that easy? It can be! Emma explains how breathing has helped veterans overcome post-traumatic stress disorder and how we can impact our emotions through our breathing patterns in her TED Talk below.

Jul 8 16

Summertime Smiles

by Beth

Summertime makes me happy, and I bet many of you feel the same way. I prefer warm weather to cold weather, so that’s one reason why I like summer so much. But there are a number of other reasons why we tend to be happier in the summer:

Time abundance – Time scarcity, or the sense that you never have enough time, is one of the biggest sources of stress in our lives. For many of us, summertime feels less rushed, less busy. Offices often have shorter hours during summer months. Taking time off for a vacation gives us a chance to enjoy some free time. And for working parents, getting a break from the hectic schedule of school and after school activities can be a welcome slowdown.

Time to connect – Social connections are our number one source of happiness. Summer vacations give many of us the opportunity to spend time with family members who live far away. Longer days and less hectic schedules also provide more time for get-togethers with friends.

Time outside – When our bodies absorb UV rays from sunshine, serotonin, a feel-good hormone, is produced. Sunlight exposure also reduces melatonin production, which is a hormone that makes us feel sleepy. So long, sunny days make us feel happier and more energized. Being in nature also boosts our mood and reduces stress. Exposure to trees, plants, and water has a wonderful calming effect. Spending time outside will make you feel both energized and relaxed.

Time to play – Summer weather seems to bring out the kid in us all, from playing paddleball at the beach or tug-of-war at a picnic to splashing in the pool, dancing at an outdoor concert, or sliding down a waterslide. The exercise we get when we play also boosts our mood. It’s easy to find ways to move more when it’s warm outside. Whether it’s riding bikes, long walks on the beach, a backyard game of badminton, canoeing, or tennis, those endorphins we generate are keeping us happy.

Make the most of summer’s happiness boost! Enjoy the extra time by spending it outdoors, connecting with friends and family, and having a good ‘ole time.