TIME psychology

10 Ways a Little Kindness Can Change Your Life

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Eric Barker writes Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

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TIME psychology

How to Be a Better Person: 7 Steps Backed By Research

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Eric Barker writes Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

  • Research also shows little things can make a difference:
  1. Play music with positive lyrics.
  2. Clean smells and the odor of cookies both make you behave better.
  3. Keep the area warm.
  4. Get outside in nature.
  5. Read fiction.

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This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

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TIME psychology

Humor Can Improve Your Life: 5 Secrets Backed By Research

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Eric Barker writes Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

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This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

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TIME psychology

2 Things That Lead to a Happy Life, Backed By Research

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Eric Barker writes Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

I’ve posted a number of times about two nearly-lifelong studies: the Terman Study (covered in The Longevity Project) and the Grant Study (covered in Triumphs of Experience.)

While different in some respects, both followed a sample of people from youth until death and provided insights into what makes for a happy life.

What two big ideas do they both strongly agree on?

 

1) A Happy Childhood Matters More Than You Think

The Grant Study found being happy when you’re old is tied to having had a warm childhood:

Vaillant concludes that a loving childhood is one of the best predictors of mid and late-life riches: “We found that contentment in the late seventies was not even suggestively associated with parental social class or even the man’s own income. What it was significantly associated with was warmth of childhood environment, and it was very significantly associated with a man’s closeness to his father.”

The Terman Study realized that “Parental divorce during childhood was the single strongest social predictor of early death.”

Via The Longevity Project: Surprising Discoveries for Health and Long Life from the Landmark Eight-Decade Study:

The long-term health effects of parental divorce were often devastating— it was indeed a risky circumstance that changed the pathways of many of the young Terman participants. Children from divorced families died almost five years earlier on average than children from intact families. Parental divorce, not parental death, was the risk. In fact, parental divorce during childhood was the single strongest social predictor of early death, many years into the future.

Sadly, our own childhoods are not something we can change, but this is something to keep in mind if you are or will be raising kids.

2) Relationships are the Most Important Thing

What was the Terman study’s most important recommendation for a longer life?

…connecting with and helping others is more important than obsessing over a rigorous exercise program.

Read that sentence again. It wasn’t receiving help from others, it was giving it:

Via The Longevity Project: Surprising Discoveries for Health and Long Life from the Landmark Eight-Decade Study:

We figured that if a Terman participant sincerely felt that he or she had friends and relatives to count on when having a hard time then that person would be healthier. Those who felt very loved and cared for, we predicted, would live the longest. Surprise: our prediction was wrong… Beyond social network size, the clearest benefit of social relationships came from helping others. Those who helped their friends and neighbors, advising and caring for others, tended to live to old age.

The Grant Study found that “the capacity to love and be loved was the single strength most clearly associated with subjective well-being at age eighty.”

Via Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being:

Vaillant’s insight came from his seminal work on the Grant Study, an almost seventy-year (and ongoing) longitudinal investigation of the developmental trajectories of Harvard College graduates. (This study is also referred to as the Harvard Study.) In a study led by Derek Isaacowitz, we found that the capacity to love and be loved was the single strength most clearly associated with subjective well-being at age eighty.

“Vaillant was asked, ‘What have you learned from the Grant Study men?’ Vaillant’s response: ‘That the only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people.‘”

Vaillant’s other main interest is the power of relationships. “It is social aptitude,” he writes, “not intellectual brilliance or parental social class, that leads to successful aging.” Warm connections are necessary—and if not found in a mother or father, they can come from siblings, uncles, friends, mentors. The men’s relationships at age 47, he found, predicted late-life adjustment better than any other variable, except defenses. Good sibling relationships seem especially powerful: 93 percent of the men who were thriving at age 65 had been close to a brother or sister when younger. In an interview in the March 2008 newsletter to the Grant Study subjects, Vaillant was asked, “What have you learned from the Grant Study men?” Vaillant’s response: “That the only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people.”

The Grant Study realized there was a single yes/no question that could predict whether someone would be alive and happy at age 80:

“Is there someone in your life whom you would feel comfortable phoning at four in the morning to tell your troubles to?”

Via Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being:

Is there someone in your life whom you would feel comfortable phoning at four in the morning to tell your troubles to? If your answer is yes, you will likely live longer than someone whose answer is no. For George Vaillant, the Harvard psychiatrist who discovered this fact, the master strength is the capacity to be loved.

More on the Terman study here. More on the Grant Study here.

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This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

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TIME psychology

How to Find Happiness: 3 Secrets From Science

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Eric Barker writes Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

You’ve probably read a lot of stuff on the internet about how to find happiness… but you’re still not jumping for joy.

Some of the tips feel corny… so you don’t actually do them. Others stop working after a while so you stop following through.

What gives? Isn’t there a solution that really works and keeps working?

I’m with you. I want answers. Who has them? Sonja does. So I gave her a call.

Sonja Lyubomirsky is a professor at University of California at Riverside and one of the leading experts on happiness. She’s the author of two great books on the subject:

Okay, let’s find out why all these tips we see again and again may not be working — and what will make you happier.

 

What’s The Best Version Of You?

A lot of what you read about becoming happier sounds downright corny. Counting your blessings, doing good for others… all those cliches your wise grandmother told you to do.

But here’s the thing: the cliches are often true. Grandmom knows a lot. Here’s Sonja:

Psychologists often have to confirm the obvious, or what your grandma might tell you. It happens to be the case that in most of what I study, the folk wisdom is correct. People who are randomly assigned to be grateful once a week for six weeks, they actually do become happier and their relationships are improved. People who do acts of kindness get various benefits.

But if it feels corny — even if it works — you often don’t follow through. So what addresses that very real issue?

Sonja says that the best method is the one that clicks for you. Maybe you’re already showing gratitude. Maybe you’re the most gratitudinous person on the planet. (Yeah, I made that word up.)

But there’s an area of your life that could use a boost, something that will move the needle and that’s where to start. Here’s Sonja:

You have to find the strategy that works for you. You pick one thing that you think you’ll feel natural doing, that you want to try, that you think you’ll enjoy. For me, it’s savoring. I don’t think I savor enough. So now when I’m with my kids I just enjoy being with them and try not think about what I have to do tomorrow. Everyone can choose something like that. For someone else it might be starting an exercise program. For another person, it might be trying to improve a friendship you’ve kind of let go; you haven’t really called that person in a while. Choose one goal and then just take small steps towards it.

So don’t feel like you have to do something that sounds silly to you. But what is going to click for you?

Ask: “What’s my vision of my best possible self?”

When your life is perfect, what is it like? And that can tell you what’s really important to you and what your values are.

Research shows that thinking about your best possible self doesn’t just clarify goals — it can also make you happier just by thinking about it. Here’s Sonja:

Imagine your life in ten years and that your goals have been accomplished. You’re living your best possible life. Think about that in different domains. I did this once with students and they said to me, “I didn’t even know what my goals were.” So they were forced to articulate their goals. Some people said to me things like, “Yeah, I didn’t think my goals were feasible until I wrote about them,” and they realized there were concrete steps they could take.

(For more on what makes the happiest people on Earth so happy, click here.)

Great. But I have bad news. That happiness trick is going to stop working after a while.

Huh? Why?!? Don’t worry: it’s not your fault…

 

“Hedonic Adaptation”

That’s just a fancy way of saying: You can take ANYTHING for granted.

Yes, anything. Researchers looked at people who suffered terrible accidents and ended up in wheelchairs. Guess what? Eventually, they adapted and were happy again. Hooray!

But researchers also looked at lottery winners… Yup, people eventually adapted to that too. Ugh.

We all take things for granted. We never experience something and then BOOM — we’re happy for the rest of our lives.

When we say “I’ll be happy when X happens” we’re just not telling the truth. That great job, that dream wedding, that beautiful baby — none of them is the final key to happiness we think it will be. Here’s Sonja:

“I’m not happy now, but I’ll be happy when I have a baby, when I move to that city where I’ve always wanted to live, or when I get that job, when I have that career I want… then I’ll be happy.” Actually, our happiness really lies inside of us, and so people who aren’t happy at their current job probably won’t be happy at their next job either. We carry ourselves from one job to another. The idea is that most people are not really aware of the power of hedonic adaptation. Yes, that job or relationship or that move is going to make you happy… but it’s not going to make you happy for as long or as intensely as you think it will, because we adapt.

(For more on what the most successful people have in common, click here.)

Depressing, I know. But we ain’t done. Not by a long shot. Here’s what you can do about it…

 

New! Different! Surprising!

Habits are awesome for getting things done and they make our lives much more efficient.

But because of hedonic adaptation, habits can be a big problem for happiness — you can get in a rut.

But there’s a solution. Actually, there are three:

  • Novelty: Try a new angle. Watching Netflix on the couch feeling stale? Go to the movies.
  • Variety: Try different strategies. Gratitude isn’t doing it anymore? Try savoring.
  • Surprise: Not sure how something will turn out? Awesome. Grab that special someone and take tango lessons. Or sumo wrestling classes.

To beat hedonic adaptation, we need to keep things fresh. Here’s Sonja:

Novelty, variety and surprise can prevent or slow down adaptation. So, with relationships, let’s say you get married and you get a happiness boost. Studies show that it takes about two years for people’s happiness levels to go back to what they were before the wedding. That doesn’t mean that you’re not happy with your marriage, but we get used to it to some extent. So we want to introduce some variety and novelty and surprise to the marriage in a positive way. Don’t watch Netflix every Friday night; mix it up. Do different things with your partner. The kind of things that can lead to more surprises, again in a positive way. Same thing with a job. Open yourself up to new opportunities, challenges, taking risks, learning new things, and meeting new people.

When I talked to one of the leading experts on love, Arthur Aron, he said the same thing: doing something new and exciting has enormous power to spice up a relationship — and make you happier.

I know, I know, you need a concrete answer of what to do. But you also need something tailored for you. Well, here’s a great way to find that:

Ask yourself: “What would I do if this were my last month?”

When you feel like good things are going to end, it dramatically shifts your perspective. You take advantage of opportunities. You do the things you know you love. You get off the couch and see those people who mean so much to you.

And she’s done the research — answering this question has power. Here’s Sonja:

We asked students at George Mason University in Virginia to pretend that it was their last month before they move far away. Every week they’re supposed to do something to savor their last time with friends or family. To go on that hike that they’ve always wanted to go on, to go to the restaurant again that they really love, etc. And they got happier. They increased in measures of flourishing, positive emotions, and well-being.

(For more on how to stop being lazy, click here.)

Okay, lots of stuff here and we don’t want this to be yet another internet happiness list that doesn’t produce results. Let’s round this up into something you can use…

 

Sum Up

Research-backed happiness wisdom from Sonja:

  • Ask “What’s the best version of me?“: This can tell you what you value and what’s missing in your life. Now you know what interests you and can get you closer to that perfect, happy life.
  • New! Different! Surprising!: You can and will take anything for granted. So spice up the things that make you happy by adding novelty, variety or surprise.
  • Ask “What would I do if this were my last month?”: If you felt you’d never be able to do that fun thing again or see that special someone again, you’d get off your butt. So ask the question — and then do that stuff.

Happiness doesn’t have to be complicated. Research shows simple things like hugs really do make us happier. And as Bil Keane once said:

A hug is like a boomerang – you get it back right away.

I’ll be sending out a PDF with more joy-inducing tips from Sonja in my next weekly email. (Including the answer to the one thing you do all the time that killshappiness.) To make sure you get it, sign up for my weekly email here.

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This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

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TIME psychology

10 Secrets About Sexual Satisfaction, Backed by Science

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Eric Barker writes Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

  • Here’s a list of scientific factors associated with sexual satisfaction.
  • What women look for in one night stands and long term relationships is very different.
  • Age difference has a big effect on how sexually satisfied husbands and wives are.
  • Here‘s a list of what keeps men and women sexually satisfied over time.
  • Increasing the amount of good sex you have is more about self-esteem than getting kinky.

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This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

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TIME Family

4 New Parenting Tips That Will Make Your Kids Awesome

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Eric Barker writes Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

Parenting tips are everywhere but most have zero legitimate research behind them. So what does science have to say? And how can you remember what’s important so you actually use it?

Remember to WACC your kids.

No, I’m not saying to hit your kids. “WACC” is a good acronym to help you keep in mind 4 things that come up in the research again and again:

  • Work on yourself
  • Autonomy
  • Communicate
  • Community

These four things can make a big difference in whether you end up saving college money or bail money.

Let’s break down the how and why on these parenting tips so that your kids end up healthy, smart and happy.

Sign up here for TIME’s weekly roundup of the best parenting stories from anywhere.

 

1) Work On Yourself

This is what many of the parenting books ignore — and it may be the most important.

Want happy kids? Then make sure you’re keeping yourself joyful. Happy parents make for happy kids and parental depression causes child behavior problems.

Via Raising Happiness: 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents:

Extensive research has established a substantial link between mothers who feel depressed and “negative outcomes” in their children, such as acting out and other behavior problems. Parental depression actually seems to cause behavioral problems in kids; it also makes our parenting less effective.

And this is not merely due to genetics.

Via Raising Happiness: 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents:

…although the study did find that happy parents are statistically more likely to have happy children, it couldn’t find any genetic component.

So other than feeling good about you own life, what’s key here? That ol’ work-life balance.

In fact, what’s the #1 thing kids wish for when it comes to parents? They wish you were less tired and stressed.

Via The Secrets of Happy Families: Improve Your Mornings, Rethink Family Dinner, Fight Smarter, Go Out and Play, and Much More:

In a survey of a thousand families, Ellen Galinsky, the head of the Families and Work Institute and the author of Mind in the Making, asked children, “If you were granted one wish about your parents, what would it be?” Most parents predicted their kids would say spending more time with them. They were wrong. The kids’ number one wish was that their parents were less tired and less stressed.

Your stress isn’t just your stress — it’s their stress too. When you’re stressed out it hurts your children’s intelligence and immune systems.

Via The Secrets of Happy Families: Improve Your Mornings, Rethink Family Dinner, Fight Smarter, Go Out and Play, and Much More:

…Studies have shown that parental stress weakens children’s brains, depletes their immune systems, and increases their risk of obesity, mental illness, diabetes, allergies, even tooth decay.

Yup, you are a role model. So the first step to taking good care of your kids is taking care of you.

Via 100 Simple Secrets of Happy Families:

Studies of young adults find that more than seven out of ten regularly measure themselves against their parents in terms of either their career or relationship status. – Glasman 2002

(For more on the research-backed ways to raise happy kids, click here.)

Okay, so you’re taking good care of yourself. What else do many of the parenting tips miss?

 

2) Autonomy

Tiger moms and helicopter parents: your children thrive when they have some room to be individuals.

Kids do better when they make plans themselves or at least have a say.

You should even allow them to pick their own punishments. It creates greater motivation to obey the rules.

Via The Secrets of Happy Families: Improve Your Mornings, Rethink Family Dinner, Fight Smarter, Go Out and Play, and Much More:

Scientists at the University of California and elsewhere found that kids who plan their own time, set weekly goals, and evaluate their own work build up their prefrontal cortex and other parts of the brain that help them exert greater cognitive control over their lives. These so-called executive skills aid children with self-discipline, avoiding distractions, and weighing the pros and cons of their choices. By picking their own punishments, children become more internally driven to avoid them. By choosing their own rewards, children become more intrinsically motivated to achieve them. Let your kids take a greater role in raising themselves.

Which kids say they like going to school? The ones who get to pick which extracurricular activities they’re involved in.

Via 100 Simple Secrets of Happy Families:

Children who regularly participate in structured extracurricular activities (including clubs and sports teams) of their own choosing are 24 percent more likely to report that they like going to school. – Gilman 2001

You don’t have to overschedule kids or be involved in every moment of their lives. Unstructured play has huge positive effects on children.

Via Raising Happiness: 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents:

Researchers believe that this dramatic drop in unstructured playtime is in part responsible for slowing kids cognitive and emotional development… In addition to helping kids learn to self-regulate, child-led, unstructured play (with or without adults) promoted intellectual, physical, social, and emotional well-being. Unstructured play helps children learn how to work in groups, to share, negotiate, resolve conflicts, regulate their emotions and behavior, and speak up for themselves.

(For more scientific tips on how to make your kids smarter, click here.)

So everybody always talks about communicating with kids… but what’s that actually mean?

 

3) Communication

You know much real conversation happens at family dinner? 10 minutes.

I interviewed Bruce Feiler, author of the New York Times bestseller, The Secrets of Happy Families and he said the research shows most of the talk at the dinner table is “Take your elbows off the table” and “Please pass the ketchup.”

So what’s the best way to make use of those 10 minutes? Here’s Bruce:

So number one, the first big thing to be aware of is that parents do two-thirds of the talking in that ten minutes. And that’s a problem. So your first goal should be to flip that and let the kids do more of the talking. So that would be issue number one. Number two, I would say a great thing to do in that ten minutes is to try to teach your kid a new word every day. There’s a tremendous amount of evidence out there that one of the biggest determinants of success in school has to do with the size of vocabulary.

And I asked Bruce what he would recommend if he could only give one piece of advice.

He said: “Set aside time to talk about what it means to be a part of your family.”

Ask yourself: “What are your family values?” In business-speak: Develop a mission statement for your family.

Here’s Bruce:

Initiate a conversation about what it means to be a part of your family. Sit down with them and say “Okay, these are our ten central values. This is the family we want to be. We want to be a family that doesn’t fight all the time.” or “We want to be a family that goes camping or sailing” or whatever it might be.

Research shows whether a kid knows their family history was the number one predictor of a child’s emotional well-being. Here’s Bruce:

…researchers at Emory did this study that showed that the kids who know more about their family history had a greater belief that they could control their world and a higher degree of self-confidence. It was the number one predictor of a child’s emotional well-being.

Not having family dinner together? You might want to start. It has huge benefits.

Via The Secrets of Happy Families: Improve Your Mornings, Rethink Family Dinner, Fight Smarter, Go Out and Play, and Much More:

A recent wave of research shows that children who eat dinner with their families are less likely to drink, smoke, do drugs, get pregnant, commit suicide, and develop eating disorders. Additional research found that children who enjoy family meals have larger vocabularies, better manners, healthier diets, and higher self-esteem. The most comprehensive survey done on this topic, a University of Michigan report that examined how American children spent their time between 1981 and 1997, discovered that the amount of time children spent eating meals at home was the single biggest predictor of better academic achievement and fewer behavioral problems.Mealtime was more influential than time spent in school, studying, attending religious services, or playing sports.

Doesn’t work for your family’s schedule? It doesn’t have to be dinner. And it doesn’t have to be every night.

Via The Secrets of Happy Families: Improve Your Mornings, Rethink Family Dinner, Fight Smarter, Go Out and Play, and Much More:

Many of the benefits of family mealtime can be enjoyed without sitting down together every night. Even the folks at Columbia University’s center on addiction, the ones responsible for a lot of the research on family dinner, say having joint meals as infrequently as once a week makes a difference.

I know what some of you are thinking: isn’t all that talking going to mean more fighting? Yes. And that’s a good thing.

Moderate conflict with teens produces better adjustment than none.

Via NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children:

University of Rochester’s Dr. Judith Smetana, a leader in the study of teen disclosure, confirms that, over the long term, “moderate conflict with parents [during adolescence] is associated with better adjustment than either no-conflict or frequent conflict.”

When I interviewed Po Bronson, author of the bestseller NurtureShock, he said more arguing means less lying:

In families where there is less lying to the parents, there is more arguing. Arguing is the opposite of lying. Arguing is the way the kid decides not to lie. “I could lie to my parents and just do it. Or I can tell the truth and argue it out.” Those are the choices the teen has.

And what’s a quick trick for getting your kid to be honest? Po has an answer.

Say: “I’m about to ask you a question. But before I do that, will you promise to tell the truth?”

Via NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children:

In Talwar’s peeking game, sometimes the researcher pauses the game with, “I’m about to ask you a question. But before I do that, will you promise to tell the truth?” (Yes, the child answers.) “Okay, did you peek at the toy when I was out of the room?” This promise cuts down lying by 25%.

(For more on how to have a happy family, click here.)

Final tip. What else do you need to do? Well, really, it has nothing to do with you…

 

4) Community

Tons of research shows religious families are happier. Why is that?

Further study has shown it’s the friends that a religious community provides. A community of ten supportive friends makes families happier.

Via The Secrets of Happy Families: Improve Your Mornings, Rethink Family Dinner, Fight Smarter, Go Out and Play, and Much More:

The most comprehensive study ever done on this topic, in 2010, gives some clues about why this might be. After examining studies of more than three thousand adults, Chaeyoon Lin and Robert Putnam found that what religion you practice or however close you feel to God makes no difference in your overall life satisfaction. What matters is the number of friends you have in your religious community. Ten is the magic number; if you have that many, you’ll be happier. Religious people, in other words, are happier because they feel connected to a community of like-minded people.

What influences your kids more than you do? Their peer group.

We usually only talk about peer pressure when it’s a negative but research shows more often than not, it’s actually a positive. Here’s what Po had to say:

The same kids who were very vulnerable to peer pressure turn out to have great grades, do well in high school, and go to college. As they get older in life they have great relationships with their best friends, their partners, and their parents. It turns out that thing that makes a kid in seventh grade very attuned to the thoughts and feelings of others around them is what makes them feel peer pressure. It turned out that peer pressure was dragging kids toward risk behaviors but it is also dragging them to do well at school, to care what their teachers thought, to care what their parents thought, to care what the school thought, and to care what society thinks. These kids that are invulnerable to peer pressure turn out to have low GPAs. Their motivation to study just wasn’t strong enough. It was entirely based upon themselves because they didn’t care what society thought.

And your kids need more family in their lives than just their parents and siblings.

Via 100 Simple Secrets of Happy Families:

Studies of boys and girls find that the presence of a trusted nonparental adult increases feelings of support and life satisfaction by more than 30 percent. – Colarossi 2001

If you had to make sure one family member was consistently there for the young ones, who should it be?

Grandmom. Scores of studies show the incredible benefits that grandmom brings, like teaching kids to cooperate and to be compassionate.

Children who spend time with their grandparents are more social, do better in school and show more concern for others.

Via The Secrets of Happy Families: Improve Your Mornings, Rethink Family Dinner, Fight Smarter, Go Out and Play, and Much More:

Countless studies have shown the extraordinary benefits grandmothers have on contemporary families. A meta-analysis of sixty-six studies completed in 1992 found that mothers who have more support from grandmothers have less stress and more well-adjusted children… So what are these grandmothers actually doing? They’re teaching children core social skills like how to cooperate, how to be compassionate, how to be considerate. Researchers at Brigham Young University in Utah interviewed 408 adolescents about their relationship with their grandparents. When grandparents are involved, the study found, the children are more social, more involved in school, and more likely to show concern for others.

(For more of the latest research on good parenting skills, click here.)

Time to round all this up and add in that last ingredient that makes your kids love you back.

 

Sum Up

Remember to WACC your kids:

  • Work on yourself: Increasing your own happiness and reducing your stress have big effects on your kids.
  • Autonomy: Want them to be successful adults? Make sure they have a say in what they do — starting now.
  • Communicate: Family meals make a big difference. Tell them their family history. More arguing means less lying.
  • Community: Their peers have more influence they you do. Make sure Grandmom is around if you want compassionate children.

One last thing you need to keep in mind if you want a close relationship with the kiddos:

Love. Don’t just be guider, protector and enforcer. Kids are nearly 50% more likely to feel close to those who show them affection.

Via 100 Simple Secrets of Happy Families:

People are 47 percent more likely to feel close to a family member who frequently expresses affection than to a family member who rarely expresses affection. – Walther-Lee 1999

They’re the next generation. They have the potential to be better than we are, so give them every chance. As Dr. Seuss said:

“Adults are obsolete children.”

Join over 190,000 readers. Get a free weekly update via email here.

This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

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How To Stop Being Lazy And Get More Done – 5 Expert Tips

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Here Are 3 Awesome Secrets to Happier Memories, Backed By Research

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Eric Barker writes Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

You can’t trust your memory.

Memory is fluid. Every time you recall something you’re essentially rewriting it in your head.

Yet you’re prone to stubbornly trusting this copy of a copy of a copy — even if it no longer resembles the original:

Robert Burton describes an experiment in his book On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You Are Not, which everyone with a strong opinion should read. Immediately after the Challenger explosion in 1986, the psychologist Ulric Neisser asked 106 students to describe in writing where they were when they heard, who they were with, how they felt, what their first thoughts were. Two-and-a-half years later, the same students were assembled and asked to answer the same question in writing. The new descriptions were compared with the originals. They didn’t match. People had changed facts about where they were, who they were with, what they felt, what they thought. When confronted with the original essays, people were so attached to their new memories they had trouble believing their old ones. In fact, most refused to revise their memories to match the originals written at the time. What struck Burton was the response of one student: “That’s my handwriting, but that’s not what happened.”

Eyewitness testimony? Often worthless:

Via Why We Make Mistakes: How We Look Without Seeing, Forget Things in Seconds, and Are All Pretty Sure We Are Way Above Average:

Between 1989 and 2007, for instance, 201 prisoners in the United States were freed through the use of DNA evidence. Of these, 77 percent had been mistakenly identified by eyewitnesses.

But memory isn’t just something to use when taking tests in school. It’s tightly coupled with happiness:

What does one of the foremost experts on happiness say is the biggest cause of unhappiness? My main takeaway from Harvard professor Daniel Gilbert’s bestselling book Stumbling on Happiness was:

Much of our unhappiness springs from the fact that we’re terrible at accurately remembering how things made us feel in the past, so we make bad choices regarding the future.

Ever eat too much, drink too much, or stay up too late, say “I shouldn’t do this because it makes me feel terrible”… and then do it again?

Ever dread Mondays, going to the gym or get-togethers… and then realize they’re really not that bad?

Via Stumbling on Happiness:

We overestimate how happy we will be on our birthdays, we underestimate how happy we will be on Monday mornings, and we make these mundane but erroneous predictions again and again, despite their regular disconfirmation.

So what are the solutions here?

1) Keep a list of what makes you very happy and very unhappy

Stop trusting your memory. Write things down. Feelings are fleeting. Keep a list of things that make you very happy and very sad.

2) Look at how other people react

Gilbert also has a suggestion that is quick and easy: Look at other people, what they do, and how they react in the moment:

This trio of studies suggests that when people are deprived of the information that imagination requires and are thus forced to use others as surrogates, they make remarkably accurate predictions about their future feelings, which suggests that the best way to predict our feelings tomorrow is to see how others are feeling today.

Sorry, you’re not a unique snowflake. We’re more similar to others than we are different. Don’t fight this, embrace it. It can be the key to a much happier life:

The irony, of course, is that surrogation is a cheap and effective way to predict one’s future emotions, but because we don’t realize just how similar we all are, we reject this reliable method and rely instead on our imaginations, as flawed and fallible as they may be.

3) Use your brain’s errors to make memories happier

Yes, your brain is imperfect, but it’s often imperfect in the same ways. You can use it’s errors to your advantage.

Daniel Kahneman, Nobel Prize winner and author of Thinking, Fast and Slow, has shown that your brain consistently remembers only two things about an event:

  1. The emotional peak
  2. The end

Via The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less:

Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman and his colleagues have shown that what we remember about the pleasurable quality of our past experiences is almost entirely determined by two things: how the experiences felt when they were at their peak (best or worst), and how they felt when they ended. This “peak-end” rule of Kahneman’s is what we use to summarize the experience, and then we rely on that summary later to remind ourselves of how the experience felt.

So how can you game the system with this information and have happier memories?

Structure events so that the peak is great and the ending is great.

Make sure tomorrow has one thing that will be amazing and that the day ends on a positive note. This is what leads to feeling good about your life in retrospect.

Your brain is not a perfect computer. What you will remember is not the same as what happened.

But you can game it so your memories are better than what happened. And happy memories are one of the secrets to feeling good about your life.

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This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

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TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

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5 Things You Need to Know About Alcohol, Backed By Research

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Eric Barker writes Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

Join over 190,000 readers. Get a free weekly update via email here.

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TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

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How Hope Can Improve Your Life, Backed By Research

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Eric Barker writes Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

There’s a scientific reason to have hope

Everyone says “have hope.” Is that just silly pollyanna optimism?

No. Actually there’s a science to hope.

Via Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined:

In 1991, positive psychologist Charles Snyder and colleagues came up with “hope theory.” According to their theory, hope consists of agency and pathways. The person who has hope has the will and determination to achieve goals and a set of various strategies at their disposal to reach their goals. Put simply: Hope involves the will to get there and different ways to get there.

Hope is “not just a feel-good emotion.” Hope is predictive.

Those without hope avoid bigger challenges, quit earlier, and act helpless.

Via Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined:

These results suggest that hope, as defined by Snyder and colleagues, is not just a feel-good emotion, but a dynamic cognitive motivational system. According to hope theory, emotions follow cognitions, not the other way around. Hope-related cognitions are important: Snyder and his colleagues proposed that a person’s level of hope leads him or her to choose learning or performance goals. According to their theory, those lacking hope typically adopt performance goals and choose easy tasks that don’t offer a challenge or opportunity for growth. When they fail, they quit. They act helpless and feel a lack of control over their environment. They don’t believe in their capacity to obtain the kind of future they want. In other words, they have no hope.

Hope isn’t just wishful thinking. It’s related to positive outcomes.

People who scored higher in hope had higher GPA’s and did better academically.

Via Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined:

Whether measured as a trait or as a state, hope is related to positive outcomes. In one study, researchers looked at the impact of hope on college academic achievement over the course of six years. Hope was related to a higher GPA six years later, even after taking into account the original GPA and ACT entrance examination scores of the participants. High-hope students (relative to low-hope students) were also more likely to have graduated and were less likely to be dismissed from school due to bad grades.

Hope doesn’t just make you a better student, it also makes you more creative.

Via Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined:

In more recent research, Liz Day and her colleagues found that hope was related to academic achievement above and beyond IQ, divergent thinking (the ability to generate a lot of ideas), and conscientiousness. In that study, hope was measured as a trait. In a recent undergraduate thesis study, Rebecca Görres found that situational hope was related to divergent thinking. In her study, participants who were instructed to think hopefully (e.g., “What motivates you to pursue your goal?,” “What are your alternative pathways to reach your goal?”) were better at making remote associations, generated a higher quantity of ideas, and added more details to their ideas compared to those who weren’t instructed to think hopefully. The link between hope and divergent thinking makes sense, considering that divergent thinkers are good at coming up with lots of different ideas (see Chapter 12) and hope involves coming up with a number of different strategies for obtaining a goal.

As I’ve posted before, hope predicts achievement better than intelligence, grades or personality.

It actually predicts law school GPA better than the LSAT.

Via Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined:

In another study, Kevin Rand and his colleagues found that hope, but not optimism, predicted grades in law school above and beyond LSAT scores and undergraduate grades. Interestingly, LSAT scores were not a significant predictor of law school GPA. It appears that law school performance might be better predicted by a twelve-item measure of hope than completion of a standardized entrance exam!

Okay, okay, so hope is a good thing.

(For more on how to be successful and happy, click here.)

I know what you’re asking: How can I be more hopeful?

How you can have hope

As I’ve posted before, research shows that both hope and despair can be self-fulfilling prophecies.

A simple exercise before a challenge can increase your level of hope — and your results.

Via Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined:

A recent study by Duckworth, Heidi Grant Halvorson, Benjamin Loew, Oettingen, and Gollwitzer asked a group of high school students preparing for the high-stakes, standardized Preliminary SAT (PSAT) to complete a thirty-minute written intervention that involved mental contrasting (vividly imagining the goal and writing down possible obstacles) with implementation intentions (coming up with two if-then contingency plans if an obstacle presents itself). They found that students undergoing the intervention completed more than 60 percent more practice questions on the PSAT compared to a placebo control group who were instead asked to write about an influential person or event in their life.

So let’s break this down. Before a big challenge:

  1. Imagine your goal.
  2. Write down anything that might stop you from achieving it.
  3. Come up with a few contingency plans to address those obstacles.
  4. Rule the world.

Just doing those three things can increase your level of hope and dramatically improve how well you perform.

This little bit of planning not only addresses real issues, it improves your feeling of control over the situation.

(For more on how to stop being lazy and get more done, click here.)

You now have a reason to believe you’ll do well. That’s hope.

One More Thing

Life’s not all about “improving performance.”

Hope also makes you happier.

Via Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined:

So how does hope stack up against other psychological resources? Philip R. Magaletta and J. M. Oliver measured hope, self-efficacy, and optimism and found that hope stood head and shoulders above the other vehicles. They also found specific effects: The will component of hope predicted well-being independent of self-efficacy, and the ways component of hope predicted well-being independent of optimism.

Better performance, creativity and happiness.

Give it a shot. It can work. C’mon, have a little hope.

Join over 195,000 readers. Get a free weekly update via email here.

This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

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TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

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