Thursday, May 28, 2015

Want More Happiness in Life? Just Give Up

Who hasn't heard "where there's a will, there's a way"?

Usually when someone wants you to do something you don't.   Save $100 every month from your paycheck (my husband).   Lose that 10 pounds.  Tell your partner you'll be home on time -- even though you never are (again, my husband).

Now a study is saying there’s more than one way to gain a sense of control over your life, according to new research from Johns Hopkins University, as reported by

The traditional view of a life in control is one in which an individual has taken actions to ensure success in both the near and long terms, says study author Erik G. Helzer, an assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School. This is “primary control” ― the attempt to win mastery by striving for goals and asserting one’s will upon circumstances.

But, Helzer argues in a recently published paper, another method, “secondary control,” has been given short shrift in both the scientific literature and the attitudes of Western societies. Secondary control can be described as a mindset in which one accepts and adapts to the fact that much of life can’t be bent to human will.

Each method of control operates in a unique way and contributes significantly to a person’s sense of well-being, Helzer explains, adding that his paper breaks new ground by examining the role of secondary control in everyday life and not merely in the usual context of clinical studies involving people who use the method as a coping strategy after major traumas.

Study participants were asked a series of questions that measured their satisfaction with life, their mood at the time of the study, and the extent to which they agreed with statements reflecting primary or secondary control.

In a central finding, the researchers saw that both methods of control were associated with positive present mood in the test subjects, but only primary control was linked to negative mood, according to Does that mean that you can be happier if you take a secondary control view of life?

Researchers say yes.  Someone who takes a more "big-picture," reflective view of life could “succeed in promoting feelings of daily happiness, warmth, and peace,” even in the face of negative experiences, Helzer says.

I suppose it's all about perspective -- you know, that half-full cup?  OK, I'm late this time.  But maybe tomorrow I won't be.

True, this would be great if we all could do that.  And who hasn't felt better after sitting quietly for a moment, or even just taking a deep breath?   Now all we need to know is exactly how we can do this when we're sitting in five miles of back-up and were supposed to be home (ahem) a half-hour ago.

"This Won't Hurt a Bit." Oh Yes, It Will

We've all been there.  The nurse coming toward us with the needle, or, as in my recent ase, the resident saying "This won't hurt" as he yanks the broken bone in your wrist to try to put it back in place.

Why do these people say this, and why does it hurt so much more when they say it?

A new study has found that when this happens -- your expectations violated, and not in a good way -- it's because our expectations of pain affect the experience of pain, according to Fadel Zeidan, Ph.D., assistant professor of neurobiology and anatomy at Wake Forest Baptist and first author of the study, at “This effect shows us how important it is to manage people’s expectations when it comes to pain," he says.


Previous studies have shown that the expectation of intense pain can make pain feel worse while the expectation of milder pain can actually make it hurt less. It all has something to do with areas of the brain but all I know is, I don't want to feel pain and when I'm around healthcare professionals, I often do.

Subjects in the study were trained to expect mild or intense levels of pain when showed visual cues of the words “low” and “high.” Different levels of heat were applied to the participants’ legs with thermal probes, some high and some low. 

Then the participants underwent functional neuro-imaging scanning to measure their brain activity while they received the different levels of heat following both correct and incorrect cues.  Individuals felt intense pain when the cue was "high" and the unpleasantness was indeed very strong.  But when they saw "low," the pain went down, even if it actually was intensified.

And guess what?  Participants felt much more pain when they were given the "high" cue, than when they were given the "low," even when the pain was fierce.

These findings demonstrate that the powerful influence of expectations on the subjective experience of pain can be dramatically altered when there is a substantial difference between expected and experienced pain, Zeidan says.

“Knowing how vital trust is to the doctor-patient relationship, we hope these findings will help physicians and other caregivers have a better understanding of the importance of how what patients expect affects their experience of pain,” he adds.

So are you not going to brace when the nurse brandishes the needle?  Probably not.  But maybe just think in your head of a cool, clear lake where the breeze is mild -- aw, never mind.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Nature or Nurture? They Both Make You Who You Are

Nature or nurture?

Turns out we're a little of both.

Recently scientists decided to see if who we really are is more what's inside us or what happens to us outside in the world.  Guess what?  Both.

As someone who is prone to pessimism, I was long ago counseled to change the way I looked at things rather than bumping my head up against things I cannot control. 

It took a very long time but finally I began to see that not winning a statewide writing award didn't mean I was a bad writer, just that, this particular time, people wrote articles and essays that were better than mine. Then, when it turned out I did win, I had almost forgotten about it.  (I won first place.)

Of course, it's not easy to look at the dark side of life and be optimistic.  But I wouldn't call trying to hold on to perspective -- because that's what it is -- a bad thing.

I remember in fourth grade, when my son didn't get the "star" teacher and I was convinced that his future was over.  It took me a while to accept that he was where he needed to be, and that wherever he was, he would do fine. He's now a straight-A student so I guess it worked out.  (Forgive me for bragging.)

Some of it has to do with religion -- or spirituality, if you will.  I'm not a particularly religious person but when I was going through some really difficult times -- cancer, to name one -- I put myself in the hands of what I perceived as God.  At first I thought, what, are you crazy?  But over time I began to see what a relief it was not to obsess over each blood test and biopsy but to take a deep breath and know that, somehow, some way, I would be okay.

I've now been cancer-free for almost 10 years but some of my friends weren't so lucky and that was hard to reconcile with my new faith that everything works out for the best.  Clearly, it doesn't.  But maybe what we're given is the ability to deal with it.  I don't believe you get what you can handle.  I don't believe that at all because children aren't meant to be mowed down in their elementary school classrooms or people burned to death because they went to work at the wrong time.

I guess it all does get back to being able to handle whatever happens to you in your life, and the ways you work out to deal with it.  Which brings us back to personality.  What, really, shapes you?

Are you the genes you were born with or the circumstances that happen to you?  As you might guess, it turns out to be both.    The study found that our personalities and the situations we encounter predict our behavior independently and simultaneously at any given moment.

This all has particular meaning for me.  Though he was born to me, my son has the genes of another woman.  He also has my husband's genes and is the spitting image of him.  But I have always felt sad that none of who I am will carry on into him (though, as it turns out, the very act of carrying him determines which genes "turned on" in him).  

Interestingly, however, my son is a writer and I can't count on one hand the number of people who say he looks just like me.  In some ways this frees me from having to judge him harshly (did he get that from me?), and myself, too. And, of course, I am his mother (though even that I doubted, in the beginning).  Now there is no question.

Obviously, who he is comes from him.  But his environment also has a lot to do with it.  So is it nature or nurture?  I guess, a little of both. 

So, what it comes down to, it seems, is that both who you are and what happens to you in life is what makes you who you are.

Is my son more a product of his genes, or the life I have given him as his mom?  You know what?  I don't care.  All I do know is that I love him, more than I ever loved anyone, and nature or nurture, that's all that matters. 

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Want to Be a Little More Generous? Experience Awe

Did you know that all it takes for you to want to do something for someone else is to feel awe?

That’s according to a new study, as reported by  Awe can inspire altruism.

Say what?  

Inducing a sense of awe in people can promote altruistic, helpful and positive social behavior according to research published by the American Psychological Association.

"By diminishing the emphasis on the individual self, awe may encourage people to forgo strict self-interest to improve the welfare of others," says Paul Piff, PhD, assistant professor of psychology and social behavior at the University of California, Irvine.

So does that mean if we go on a tour of the Grand Canyon, we'll want to pay for dinner for all the others in the group?  Well, not exactly.

What is awe?  Different things to different people.  I've experienced it as a double rainbow through the window of a restaurant where I was eating with my young son (he felt it even more). Watching him, as a teenager, give a brief speech to electrical engineers.  Learn that my op eds about parenting touch many others. 

 In the study, article, over 1,500 people from across the United States were asked to complete a questionnaire that measured how predisposed they were to experience awe. The subjects were then asked to participate in a game where they were given 10 raffle tickets and had to decide how many, if any, to share with another participant who did not have any tickets. Researchers found a significant association between the tendency to experience awe and generosity, newswise says.

In another part of the study, researchers asked groups of people to watch a video or gaze at something in their environment designed to elicit awe, a neutral state or another reaction, such as pride or amusement. The participants then engaged in an activity designed to measure what psychologists call pro-social behaviors or tendencies (behavior that is positive, helpful and intended to promote social acceptance and friendship.) In every experiment, awe was significantly associated with pro-social behaviors.

Researchers said they believe that awe induces a feeling of being diminished in the presence of something greater than oneself. It is this diminished sense of self that shifts focus away from an individual's need and toward the greater good, they wrote.

Makes sense.   Sometimes illness, or another's tragedy, can do that, too.

"When experiencing awe, you may not, egocentrically speaking, feel like you're at the center of the world anymore," Piff says. "By shifting attention toward larger entities and diminishing the emphasis on the individual self, we reasoned that awe would trigger tendencies to engage in pro-social behaviors that may be costly for you but that benefit and help others."



Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Believe in Pure Evil? You're More Likely To Support Death Penalty For Boston Marathon Massacre Killer

Makes sense.  Those who believe in pure evil support harsher criminal punishment, according to a new study as reported at

Approximately 200 participants were given a summary of a case in which a murderer confessed to his crime. Researchers then asked each participant about his or her support for different types of sentences, such as jail time with community service, jail time with the opportunity for parole, jail time without the possibility for parole and other options.

"We found that as people's beliefs in pure evil increased, they were more likely to support sentences like life in prison without parole and even the death penalty," Kansas State University Donald Saucier, associate professor of psychological sciences, says. "We found that this actually happened through our participants perceiving the murderer as a demon and feeling that there was some need for retribution for the murder committed."

Many people in my Connecticut hometown felt that a 15-year-old murderer should fry.  While I certainly don't condone his behavior, I knew the kid when he was younger and he was not a bad kid -- at least, not then.  I'm thinking of writing him a letter of support because I know something happened -- he got in with the wrong crowd, had no one looking out for him, was sent to a school for juvenile delinquents long before he became one.  Plenty of people (including my son, who was his friend) think I'm crazy but I don't see this kid as evil.  Yes, an innocent man was stabbed to death for allegedly spilling coffee on him (and then apologizing), but this kid was a victim of crime, too.  No one loving him enough to set him straight.

The study found that when researchers changed the murderer's characteristics to be consistent with stereotypes about evil -- interested in the occult, taunting neighborhood children and wearing all black -- people were harshest. The characteristics also were changed so the murderer was less stereotypically evil. This included having the murderer be relatively quiet, having a family and being interested in camping.

"People who saw the stereotypically evil person versus the non-stereotypically evil person recommended greater sentences," Saucier says. "But, if they believed in pure evil, it didn't matter the characteristics; they were more likely to support the death penalty or life in prison. The belief in pure evil overrode our stereotypically evil person."

Now we get to the Boston Massacre killer, for whom the death penalty has been proposed.  I know what he did was heinous but I'm pretty much against the death penalty for anyone (though there's a small part of me that thinks maybe, just the same).

Researchers say the perception of evil may help explain how a court jury or judge is likely to assign punishment for a crime. While a belief in pure evil probably would not prompt a guilty verdict, it may influence the jury's sentence, Saucier says. For example, sentencing in the very trials of Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and Colorado movie theater shooter James Holmes could be influenced by jury members' belief in pure evil.

Saucier says it's likely that life experience more than religion is what influences a belief in pure evil. When investigating whether a religious upbringing was linked to a belief in pure evil, researchers found that people's belief in pure evil didn't necessitate a belief in pure good and vice versa.

"This belief may change based on traumas, victimization and the celebrations of human success in our life," Saucier says. "We think it's a dynamic variable and influences our social interaction and social perceptions."

Monday, May 18, 2015

More Empathetic? Yes, If You're Attracted to Men

This probably won't surprise too many of us.  But women are more empathetic than most, but not all, men.

A fascinating new study has revealed that men and women attracted to men are more empathetic than men and women attracted to women, according to a new study from the Department of Psychology at the University of Haifa. “People attracted to a particular gender, whether they are heterosexual or homosexual, have common social tools, and thus exhibit the same level of empathy,” says Professor Simone Shamay-Tsoory of the Department of Psychology at the University of Haifa who conducted the study, according to

Sociologists claim that empathy plays an important role in the development of human society in that it contributes to peoples’ understanding of others and causes them to take the latter’s feelings into account.

Behavioral and brain studies show that activities related to empathy are regulated differently in men and women, based on preferences that are acquired through social interaction and which use different areas of the brain. According to Professor Shamay-Tsoori, past studies have demonstrated that women are superior in tasks involving empathy, such as non-verbal communication and attention to changes in tone of voice and facial expression.

 The study revealed that sexual orientation is related to the level of empathy: based on self-reporting, heterosexual women showed the highest level of empathy, followed by gay men, then lesbian women, and finally heterosexual men.

A similar picture arose from analysis of brain activity, which was also conducted. During the empathic task, it was found that, among other things, the area of the TPJ (Temporal Parietal Junction) related to the perception of the other, was more active in subjects attracted to men compared to those attracted to women.

“The results of the research suggest that differences in empathy between people are monitored by a person’s sexual preference. Sexual attraction determines the person with whom we have a close and intimate relationship, so it is reasonable that the gender of the person to whom we are attracted will affect our ability to empathize,” concludes Professor Shamay-Tsoori.

Want Your Next Plane Ride to be Less Noisy? Drink Tomato Juice

It's been a while since I've flown (about 14 years!) but did you know that when you're in the air and it's too noisy, eating a meal that's savory (and has tomatoes) will dull the sound?  Of course, that's only when you get a meal.

While examining how airplane noise affects the palate, Cornell University food scientists found sweetness suppressed and a tasty, tender tomato surprise: umami, according to

A Japanese scientific term, umami describes the sweet, savory taste of amino acids such as glutamate in foods like tomato juice, and according to the new study, in noisy situations – like the 85 decibels aboard a jetliner – umami-rich foods become your taste bud’s best buds.

“Our study confirmed that in an environment of loud noise, our sense of taste is compromised. Interestingly, this was specific to sweet and umami tastes, with sweet taste inhibited and umami taste significantly enhanced,” says Robin Dando, assistant professor of food science. “The multi-sensory properties of the environment where we consume our food can alter our perception of the foods we eat.”

 Hmm, wonder if this can help you lose weight?

Anyway, the study may guide reconfiguration of airline food menus to make airline food taste better. Auditory conditions in air travel actually may enhance umami, the researchers found. In contrast, exposure to the loud noise condition dulled sweet taste ratings.

Airlines acknowledge the phenomenon. German airline Lufthansa had noticed that passengers were consuming as much tomato juice as beer. The airline commissioned a private study released last fall that showed cabin pressure enhanced tomato juice taste.

Taste perception depends not only on the integration of several sensory inputs associated with the food or drink itself, but also on the sensory attributes of the environment in which the food is consumed, the scientists say.

“The multi-sensory nature of what we consider ‘flavor’ is undoubtedly underpinned by complex central and peripheral interactions,” said Dando. “Our results characterize a novel sensory interaction, with intriguing implications for the effect of the environment in which we consume food.”