Being kind to yourself is a surefire way to improve your mental health and reach your goals, a growing body of work suggests. Now research has revealed an easy way to boost this self-compassion—by showing kindness to others.
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We now have the scientific evidence to back up those claims. Research conducted by Greg Feist of San Jose State University found that when people let their focus shift away from others around them, they're better able to engage in "metacognition," the process of thinking critically and reflectively about your own thoughts.
Where things get tricky, though, is figuring out what to do in order to encourage metacognitive thought in the first place. When we're routinely overwhelmed with outside noise, carving out space for unstructured daydreaming takes planning, structure.
Sometimes the most productive periods of contemplation come to us unawares and don't last very long—but that doesn't mean they aren't useful.
A recent series of ground-breaking neuroscience studies suggest that empathy and altruism are deeply rooted in human nature.
Each year, people in the United States give billions of dollars to charity. Every day, people volunteer their time to help complete strangers. Routinely, we hear of selfless acts where people put their own lives in danger to help someone else.
Economists and evolutionary psychologists have struggled to explain why people act in such altruistic ways. Typical explanations suggest that these behaviors involve suppressing our true, selfish nature and must instead be motivated by external factors, such as the possibility of future rewards or to avoid negative consequences, like appearing selfish to a potential love interest.
But what if helping others is an innate part of being human? What if it just makes us feel good to give?
In her latest book, author, technology critic, and clinical psychologist Sherry Turkle's central argument is that the easy, streamlined, emotionally risk-free technologies that entertain and keep people “in touch” without human interaction have diminished our capacity for empathy and self-reflection. Turkle is not just your grouchy friend from high school who won’t use Facebook because she’s “old school,” either. Her thesis is thoroughly researched and supported by legit academic studies suggesting not only that our smart phones are turning us into a——-; they are also making us less happy.
Turkle looks at how the unintended consequences of constant connectivity with little human connection have sullied our interactions in the areas of work, school, and our communities; and have removed opportunities for therapeutic solitude. But no aspect of the emotional distance and dissatisfaction wrought by the lure of social media and digital communication is as bleak as Turkle’s assessment of how our lack of conversation has impacted family life.
As grownups facing bulging inboxes, overflowing calendars, and a whole range of adult responsibilities, playing around isn't something we do much of, to say the least. But new research is tapping into the relationships between play, performance, and productivity—and showing us there may be real value to taking a break from our work to, well, go out and play.
Stuart Brown, founder of the National Institute for Play, has spent his career studying play and its positive effects on adults.
"During play, the brain is making sense of itself through simulation and testing," Brown writes. "Play activity is actually helping sculpt the brain. In play, we can imagine and experience situations we have never encountered before and learn from them."
Playing, in other words, has a direct role in creativity. "The genius of play is that, in playing, we create imaginative new cognitive combinations," Brown continues. "And in creating those novel combinations, we find what works."
Most complex problems adults face in life as well as work require creative solutions, even if we don't see them that way. Not only can play help jumpstart that creative problem-solving process, it can shake us out of the cognitive habits that are holding back our performance at so many other levels.
The meditation-and-the-brain research has been rolling in steadily for a number of years now, with new studies coming out just about every week to illustrate some new benefit of meditation. Or, rather, some ancient benefit that is just now being confirmed with fMRI or EEG.
The practice appears to have an amazing variety of neurological benefits – from changes in grey matter volume to reduced activity in the “me” centers of the brain to enhanced connectivity between brain regions. Below are some of the most exciting studies to come out in the last few years and show that meditation really does produce measurable changes in our most important organ.
Skeptics, of course, may ask what good are a few brain changes if the psychological effects aren’t simultaneously being illustrated? Luckily, there’s good evidence for those as well, with studies reporting that meditation helps relieve our subjective levels of anxiety and depression, and improve attention, concentration, and overall psychological well-being.
Putting off a work or school assignment in order to play videogames or water the plants might seem like nothing more serious than poor time-management.
But researchers say chronic procrastination is an emotional strategy for dealing with stress, and it can lead to significant issues in relationships, jobs, finances and health.
In August, researchers from Stockholm University published one of the first randomized controlled trials on the treatment of procrastination. It found a therapy delivered online can significantly reduce procrastination.
Psychologists also are studying other ways people might be able to reduce procrastination, such as better emotion-regulation strategies and visions of the future self.
Scientists define procrastination as the voluntary delay of an action despite foreseeable negative future consequences. It is opting for short-term pleasure or mood at the cost of the long-term. Perhaps we didn’t finish preparing a presentation on the weekend because we had house guests. That is just intentional delay based on a rational decision, says Timothy Pychyl (pronounced pitch-el), a psychology professor at Carleton University, in Ottawa, who has published extensively on the topic.
Most of us today live in cities and spend far less time outside in green, natural spaces than people did several generations ago. City dwellers also have a higher risk for anxiety, depression and other mental illnesses than people living outside urban centers, studies show.
These developments seem to be linked to some extent, according to a growing body of research. Various studies have found that urban dwellers with little access to green spaces have a higher incidence of psychological problems than people living near parks and that city dwellers who visit natural environments have lower levels of stress hormones immediately afterward than people who have not recently been outside.
By charting new pathways in the brain, mindfulness can change the banter inside our heads from chaotic to calm.
Not too long ago, most of us thought that the brain we’re born with is static—that after a certain age, the neural circuitry cards we’re dealt are the only ones we can play long-term.
Fast-forward a decade or two, and we’re beginning to see the opposite: the brain is designed to adapt constantly. World-renowned neuroscientist Richie Davidson at the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, along with this colleagues, want us to know three things:
1) you can train your brain to change, 2) that the change is measurable, and 3) new ways of thinking can change it for the better.
It’s hard to comprehend how this is possible. Practicing mindfulness is nothing like taking a pill, or another fix that acts quickly, entering our blood stream, crossing the Blood Brain Barrier if needed in order to produce an immediate sensation, or to dull one.
But just as we learn to play the piano through practice, the same goes for cultivating well-being and happiness. Davidson told Mindful last August that the brain keeps changing over its entire lifespan.
There’s a reason the restaurant kids’ menu often comes with an outline of illustrations and a bundle of crayons. Many times, coloring inside, or somewhere in the vicinity of, the lines is all it takes to channel and calm a child’s chaotic energy. Turns out, the same thing goes for grown-ups. With her new line of coloring books, local art therapist Lacy Mucklow aims to relieve and restore weary men and women with the wonder of such focused play.
“We see the joy and excitement that children have when they color a book with cartoon characters that they love to see, and we tend to get away from doing things like that when we are adults, due to added responsibilities, a tight schedule, or even thinking that coloring is only for kids,” Mucklow, 39, of Springfield, Va., said in an email. And yet, “we need to schedule self-care or ‘me’ time to unwind.”
The books follow best-sellers in the positive psychology movement, which espouses a path to happiness through redirected thinking and “natural ways to calm yourself down.”
Empathy is a quality that is integral to most people's lives - and yet the modern world makes it easy to lose sight of the feelings of others. But almost everyone can learn to develop this crucial personality trait.
Human beings are naturally primed to embrace this message. According to the latest neuroscience research, 98% of people (the exceptions include those with psychopathic tendencies) have the ability to empathise wired into their brains - an in-built capacity for stepping into the shoes of others and understanding their feelings and perspectives.
The problem is that most don't tap into their full empathic potential in everyday life.
You can easily find yourself passing by a mother struggling with a pram on some steps as you rush to a work meeting, or read about a tragic earthquake in a distant country then let it slip your mind as you click a link to check the latest football results.
Music can energize, soothe or relax us. And it can also help reduce pain. Researchers found that listening to a favorite song or story helped children manage pain after major surgery.
We all know that listening to music can soothe emotional pain, but Taylor Swift, Jay-Z and Alicia Keys can also ease physical pain, according to a study of children and teenagers who had major surgery.
The analgesic effects of music are well known, but most of the studies have been done with adults and most of the music has been classical. Now a recent study finds that children who choose their own music or audiobook to listen to after major surgery experience less pain.
If the rise of distraction is caused by technology, then technology might reverse it, while if the spiritual theory is true then distraction is here to stay. It’s not a competition, though; in fact, these two problems could be reinforcing each other. Stimulation could lead to ennui, and vice versa.
A version of that mutual-reinforcement theory is more or less what Matthew Crawford proposes in his new book, “The World Beyond Your Head: Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). Crawford is a philosopher whose last book, “Shop Class as Soulcraft,” proposed that working with your hands could be an antidote to the sense of uselessness that haunts many knowledge workers. (Kelefa Sanneh reviewed it for this magazine, in 2007.) Crawford argues that our increased distractibility is the result of technological changes that, in turn, have their roots in our civilization’s spiritual commitments. Ever since the Enlightenment, he writes, Western societies have been obsessed with autonomy, and in the past few hundred years we have put autonomy at the center of our lives, economically, politically, and technologically; often, when we think about what it means to be happy, we think of freedom from our circumstances. Unfortunately, we’ve taken things too far: we’re now addicted to liberation, and we regard any situation—a movie, a conversation, a one-block walk down a city street—as a kind of prison. Distraction is a way of asserting control; it’s autonomy run amok. Technologies of escape, like the smartphone, tap into our habits of secession.
How to get the most cancer-fighting antioxidants in your guac (and then keep it from turning brown).
You've probably heard that avocados are full of good stuff, including cancer-fighting antioxidants. But you might not know how to get the most health benefits out of your nachos.
The aforementioned antioxidants are mostly found in the dark green layer right up against the skin of the fruit. So if you're digging the meat out with a spoon, you're probably missing out. The video at the top of this post shows a better method.
Pamir Kiciman's insight:
Make sure you watch the video at the top of this article for the whole scoop!
The scientifically backed way to become more mindful, more relaxed, and more engaged is to start practicing meditation.
"Twenty-three percent of teens have anxiety. Children as young as 6 and 7 have learning disorders. Suicide is the third leading cause of death among teenagers—and you know all of it is stress related." Those are troubling stats, but here's a more hopeful one: In one San Francisco high school horrifyingly nicknamed "Fight School," there was a 75% decrease in suspensions after the kids were introduced to "Quiet Time."
Mindfulness helps students cope with academic stress and the pressures of life outside the school gates.
In recent years, medical science has discovered the extent to which mindfulness can help treat a range of mental conditions, from stress to depression. While most studies have focused on adults, new research shows mindfulness can improve the mental, emotional, social and physical health and wellbeing of young people. Incredibly, neuroscientists have found that long-term practice alters the structure and function of the brain to improve the quality of both thought and feeling.
It's no surprise, therefore, that teachers are becoming increasingly interested in the potential benefits of mindfulness for students.
Pamir Kiciman's insight:
Have posted similar articles here and will continue to do so, as mindful kids are the solution. (Not sure why the accompanying photo seems to be showing kids giving Reiki, which isn't dissimilar!)
Practiced meditators tend to have distinct differences in eight brain areas compared with non-meditators.
The most dramatic difference is an increase in tissue in the anterior cingulate cortex — an area of the brain known to be involved in maintaining attention and controlling impulses. Other studies have found that meditators have thicker tissue in several other regions of the cortex implicated in attention control and body awareness. Extremely long-term meditators (in one study, Buddhist monks), meanwhile, appear to have stronger connections between various brain areas, which could further contribute to focus.
Interestingly, regular meditation has been associated with a reduction in the size of the right amygdala, a region of the brain linked to the processing of negative emotions, especially sadness and anxiety.
Some studies suggest that meditators have reduced activity in the insula — a brain region responsible for the perception of pain — which could explain why they report feeling lower levels of pain when exposed to the same painful stimuli (say, putting their hands in a bucket of ice-cold water) than non-meditators. Results in this area, though, are somewhat mixed.
Although the fine details of how these changes occur are still a mystery, they reflect a broader fact about the brain: a phenomenon called neuroplasticity. In general, the neural circuits that you use most are reinforced and strengthened over time, and those you don't use gradually atrophy.
Worrying can get the better of almost anybody. Work stresses, personal concerns, and sometimes even irrational thoughts can seep into your mind and interfere with your ability to concentrate on ordinary tasks. Unfortunately, stopping those worries isn't easy--there's no "off switch" that can shut your worried thoughts down. However, there are a handful of habits that, once integrated into your life, can force your worries to leave and free up your mind to focus on more positive, productive things.
Empathic concern offers the foundation for what’s been called a “caring classroom,” where the teacher embodies and models kindness and concern for her students, and encourages the same attitude among the students. Such a classroom culture provides the best atmosphere for learning, both cognitively and emotionally.
Learning in general happens best in a warm, supportive atmosphere, in which there exists a feeling of safety, of being supported and cared about, of closeness and connection. In such a space children’s brains more readily reach the state of optimal cognitive efficiency—and of caring about others.
Such an atmosphere has particular importance for those children at most risk of going off track in their lives because of early experiences of deprivation, abuse, or neglect. Studies of such high-risk kids who have ended up thriving in their lives—who are resilient—find that usually the one person who turned their life around was a caring adult.
Many educators are introducing meditation into the classroom as a means of improving kids’ attention and emotional regulation.
The body of scientific research illustrating the positive effects of mindfulness training on mental health and well-being—at the level of the brain as well as at the level of behavior—grows steadily more well-established: It improves attention, reduces stress, and results in better emotional regulation and an improved capacity for compassion and empathy. Brain-imaging studies at Harvard and Mass General Hospital have shown that long-term mindfulness training can help thicken the cortical regions related to attention and sensory processing, and may offset thinning of those areas that typically comes with aging.
Mindfulness is widely considered effective in psychotherapy as a treatment not just for adults, but also for children and adolescents with aggression, ADHD, or mental-health problems like anxiety. (It remains to be seen whether mindfulness alone is a sufficient replacement for other therapies. In a review last year of 47 different randomized clinical trials, The Journal of the American Medical Association suggested that mindfulness training wasn’t any more effective than other types of therapy, like drugs.)
In 1984, a researcher named Roger Ulrich noticed a curious pattern among patients who were recovering from gallbladder surgery at a suburban hospital in Pennsylvania. Those who had been given rooms overlooking a small stand of deciduous trees were being discharged almost a day sooner, on average, than those in otherwise identical rooms whose windows faced a wall. The results seemed at once obvious—of course a leafy tableau is more therapeutic than a drab brick wall—and puzzling. Whatever curative property the trees possessed, how were they casting it through a pane of glass?
That is the riddle that underlies a new study in the journal Scientific Reports by a team of researchers in the United States, Canada, and Australia, led by the University of Chicago psychology professor Marc Berman. The study compares two large data sets from the city of Toronto, both gathered on a block-by-block level; the first measures the distribution of green space, as determined from satellite imagery and a comprehensive list of all five hundred and thirty thousand trees planted on public land, and the second measures health, as assessed by a detailed survey of ninety-four thousand respondents. After controlling for income, education, and age, Berman and his colleagues showed that an additional ten trees on a given block corresponded to a one-per-cent increase in how healthy nearby residents felt. “To get an equivalent increase with money, you’d have to give each household in that neighborhood ten thousand dollars—or make people seven years younger,” Berman told me.
Mindfulness is best known for its positive effects on practitioners’ brains and bodies. My research suggests it may also encourage compassion toward others.
How do you cultivate compassion? How do you ensure that at the end of the day, it’s your kindness and generosity for which you’ll be remembered? It’s a good question, for as much as we all agree that compassion is a virtue to be admired, as a society, we don’t seem to be very effective at instilling it. In fact, research by Sarah Konrath at the University of Michigan suggests we’re actually getting worse on this score.
Mindfulness meditation has lately been promoted for its abilities to enhance the brain and heal the body, but many of its most experienced teachers argue that its fundamental purpose involves the soul. As Trungram Gyaltrul Rinpoche, one the highest lamas in the Tibetan tradition, recently pointed out to me, meditation’s effects on memory, health, and cognitive skills, though positive, were traditionally considered secondary benefits by Buddhist sages. The primary objective of calming the mind and heightening attention and focus was to attain a form of enlightenment that would lead to a deep, abiding compassion and resulting beneficence.
Yet for all the emphasis meditation instructors place on kindness, solid evidence linking mindfulness to compassion has been lacking.
A few years ago, my research group at Northeastern University set out to change that. If meditation was indeed capable of fostering compassion—a quality this world seems at times to have in short supply—we wanted to find proof.
A study finds that wild environments boost well-being by reducing obsessive, negative thoughts.
A group of researchers from Stanford University thought the nature effect might have something to do with reducing rumination, or as they describe it, “a maladaptive pattern of self-referential thought that is associated with heightened risk for depression and other mental illnesses.” Rumination is what happens when you get really sad, and you can’t stop thinking about your glumness and what’s causing it: the breakup, the layoff, that biting remark. Rumination shows up as increased activity in a brain region called the subgenual prefrontal cortex, a narrow band in the lower part of the brain that regulates negative emotions. If rumination continues for too long unabated, depression can set it.
For many Americans, an NPR poll suggests, walking is their most consistent exercise. But how much can a moderately paced walk really help your health?
Researcher Church says walking has many tangible effects on health — lower blood pressure, lower cholesterol, and an overall lower risk of heart disease.
"The majority of benefits of physical activity — in this instance, walking — occur above the shoulders," he says. The walkers reaped benefits like less anxiety and fewer symptoms of depression. They also discovered something many of us yearn for: more energy.
Bibliotherapy is a very broad term for the ancient practice of encouraging reading for therapeutic effect. The first use of the term is usually dated to a jaunty 1916 article in The Atlantic Monthly, “A Literary Clinic.” Today, bibliotherapy takes many different forms, from literature courses run for prison inmates to reading circles for elderly people suffering from dementia. Sometimes it can simply mean one-on-one or group sessions for “lapsed” readers who want to find their way back to an enjoyment of books.
Berthoud and Elderkin trace the method of bibliotherapy all the way back to the Ancient Greeks, “who inscribed above the entrance to a library in Thebes that this was a ‘healing place for the soul.’ ” The practice came into its own at the end of the nineteenth century, when Sigmund Freud began using literature during psychoanalysis sessions. After the First World War, traumatized soldiers returning home from the front were often prescribed a course of reading.
Reading has been shown to put our brains into a pleasurable trance-like state, similar to meditation, and it brings the same health benefits of deep relaxation and inner calm. Regular readers sleep better, have lower stress levels, higher self-esteem, and lower rates of depression than non-readers.
More and more people in education agree on the importance of learning stuff other than academics. But no one agrees on what to call that "stuff".
There are least seven major overlapping terms in play. New ones are being coined all the time. This bagginess bugs me, as a member of the education media. It bugs researchers and policymakers too.
"Basically we're trying to explain student success educationally or in the labor market with skills not directly measured by standardized tests," says Martin West, at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. "The problem is, you go to meetings and everyone spends the first two hours complaining and arguing about semantics."
West studies what he calls "non-cognitive skills." Although he's not completely happy with that term.
The problem isn't just semantic, argues Laura Bornfreund, deputy director of the education policy program at the New America Foundation. She wrote a paper on what she called "Skills for Success," since she didn't like any of these other terms. "There's a lot of different terms floating around but also a lack of agreement on what really is most important to students."
As Noah Webster, the great American lexicographer and educator, put it back in 1788, "The virtues of men are of more consequence to society than their abilities; and for this reason, the heart should be cultivated with more assiduity than the head."
Yet he didn't come up with a good name, either.
So, in Webster's tradition, here's a short glossary of terms that are being used for that cultivation of the heart.