TIME psychology

How to Find Happiness in Today’s Hectic World

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Eric Barker writes Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

Trying to find happiness in a world so busy and complicated can seem impossible.

What’s weird is that in so many ways our lives are objectively better than our grandparents’ lives were. We have more… yet we often feel worse. Don’t you wonder if life was happier when it was simpler? I do.

Who has the explanation for this? And more importantly, who has answers on how to fix it? I don’t. But I know someone who does.

So I gave Barry Schwartz a call. He’s a professor at Swarthmore College and the author of the bestseller, The Paradox of Choice.

Barry’s work explains why more choice can actually make us miserable and what we can do to simplify our lives and become happier. His fantastic TED talk on the subject has been viewed over 7 million times.

Here’s what you’ll learn in the post below:

  • Why a world of so many choices can make us unhappy.
  • Why always wanting the best can be a path to clinical depression.
  • How gratitude and relationships can be the key to fixing these dilemmas.
  • The one sentence you need to remember to start on a path to a simpler, happier life.

Less really is more. Here’s why.

The Paradox of Choice

Economics tells us that more choice is better. And for most of human existence that has been true.

But research is showing that more choice is not always better. Overflowing email inboxes, 500 television channels and 175 different kinds of salad dressing at the grocery store don’t make life drastically better — it’s paralyzing. Here’s Barry:

The standard way of thinking about this is that more choice will help some people and hurt no one. But it turns out that when people have too many options, instead of being liberated by all these choices, they’re paralyzed. They can’t choose at all. And if they overcome paralysis, they make worse decisions.

What happens when your employer gives you more choices for your 401K? I’ll tell you what: for every 10 options given the likelihood that you pick any of them goes down by 2%.

And if your employer matches your contribution, not picking can mean giving up as much as $5000. More choices can make people poorer. Here’s Barry:

How does the number of 401K choices people have influence the likelihood that they’ll participate? What Sheena Iyengar found is that the more options people had, the less likely they were to choose any. Employers were thinking they were doing their employees a favor by throwing options at them. In fact, what they were doing is decreasing the chances that they would choose at all. Often, by not choosing one, people were passing up significant matching money from the employer. It’s like taking a match and lighting it to a $5,000 bill but that’s what people were doing.

More options in the dating market should mean you’re more likely to meet the perfect person, right? Wrong.

In a study of speed dating people were more likely to find a match when they had only 6 choices instead of 12. Here’s Barry:

It would seem like you’d make more matches when you saw 12 people than when you saw 6 but what they found is the reverse. There were more matches made when people saw 6 people than when they saw 12 people.

New York has more single people than any city but research shows this makes it harder to find a spouse there.

And the scary thing is that choice doesn’t just paralyze us — it also makes us unhappy. Seeing more options makes you more likely to second guess yourself and experience regret. Here’s Barry:

Even if you manage to overcome paralysis and choose well, you end up less satisfied because it’s so easy to imagine that one of the options you rejected would have been better than the option that you chose. That’s what the research has shown. It doesn’t happen all the time. It doesn’t happen with all people but it happens at least some of the time with most people.

(For new Harvard research on how to be happier and more successful, click here.)

Okay, fancy studies on 401k’s and dating are nice but maybe that doesn’t seem relevant to you day to day. The problem goes deeper than that. A lot deeper.

How Choices Are Making Your Life Unhappy

Work-life balance is a huge issue these days. But it’s hard to put your finger on exactly why. Our lives are far more flexible. Shouldn’t that promote happiness?

But years ago, when you left work, you were done. Now with technology, we can work anywhere at any time. Every minute you spend with friends or playing with your kids is a minute you could be working.

So you need to decide. That decision didn’t exist in the past. But having it in the back of your head all the time is enormously stressful. Here’s Barry:

These days, when you come home, your work comes with you. In fact, no matter where you go, your work comes with you. You’re at a ballgame, your work is in your pocket, right? What that means is not necessarily you want to work all the time but you have to make a decision not to work. There’s no constraint. “Should I play with my kid or should I answer these emails?” That was not an issue 30 years ago. You’re home; of course you play with your kid. No decision. Now, there’s a decision to be made.

Do you feel like you’re procrastinating more? You probably are. It’s not because we’ve all gotten lazier. More decisions at every turn makes it harder to choose. And so we put things off because it’s just too much.

The proliferation of choices is even giving you an identity crisis. In the modern era we have more freedom to be who we want to be. And in many ways that’s great. But it also means more decisions.

When there weren’t many choices, what you picked didn’t say much about you. But now everything, including the clothes you wear, can and does say something about you. So it has stakes attached. And that’s stressful too. Here’s Barry:

If all there is is Levi’s, then what jeans you wear doesn’t tell the world about who you are. But suppose there are a thousand different kinds of jeans… now what you wear is a statement about who you are because there’s so much more opportunity for you to shape your image to the world. The result of this, I believe, is that it makes even relatively trivial consumer decisions more high stakes because when you buy jeans, you’re not just covering your body, you are also making a statement to the world about who you are.

And all these high stakes decisions at every turn are making us unhappy. Yes, we’re richer. Yes, we have more options. And depression is exploding in the developed world.

Via The Paradox of Choice:

…the rate of serious clinical depression has more than tripled over the last two generations, and increased by perhaps a factor of ten from 1900 to 2000.

(To learn how to stop being lazy and get more done, click here.)

What underlies all this? We love choices but they can make us miserable. If we understand the psychology better can we address the problem? Yes.

“It’s All Your Fault.”

In his book, The Paradox of Choice, Barry discusses a number of reasons why so many choices can hurt well-being but let’s focus on one here:

“It’s all your fault.”

When the world doesn’t give you much choice and things don’t work out the way you want, it’s the world’s fault. What else could you have done?

But when you have 100 options and you don’t choose well the burden shifts because you could have picked better. If you’re unhappy with your choice now it’syour fault. And whether you’re cognizant of it or not, that can make you sad. Here’s Barry:

It’s very hard to blame the world when you make decisions in an environment in which there are essentially unlimited options. It’s easier to blame the world when you make bad choices in a world where there are limited options. Blaming yourself for bad results is one of the hallmarks of clinical depression. If your life sucks, you’re sad. If your life sucks and it’s your fault, you’re clinically depressed. The environment we operate in just makes it impossible for people not to blame themselves for anything that doesn’t work out as well as they hoped it would.

Who suffers the most in a world of so much choice? Ironically, it’s the people who strive to get the best.

“Satisficers” (those who settle for “good enough”) are happier. “Maximizers” (people who explore every option to make the best decision) end up doing better — but feeling worse.

Students who were maximizers in trying to get the best job after graduation ended up better off — they got salaries that were 20% higher. But they ended up more unhappy with their jobs than satisficers did. Here’s Barry:

We found that people who are satisficers are generally more optimistic, happier, and less regretful than people who are maximizers. We did a study of college seniors looking for jobs and found that maximizers got better jobs but felt worse about the jobs they got than satisficers did. People who score as maximizers score as borderline clinically depressed.

We’re constantly told to never settle. But in a world of limitless choice, that presents a nearly insurmountable hurdle to being happy.

(For more on how Navy SEALs, astronauts and samurai make great decisions under pressure, click here.)

So more choices can make us miserable. But is there anything we can do about it? Yes, there is.

3 Things That Will Make You Happier

Barry offers a number of solutions in his book. Here are three to get you started:

1) Keep an “attitude of gratitude”

There’s tons of research on the power of gratitude to make us happier.

We have a natural tendency to see the negative. But by making an effort to note the good things that happen in life we can fight the regret that so many choices often creates. Here’s Barry:

We tend to focus much more on the aspects of decisions that disappoint us than on the aspects of decisions that satisfy us. The idea behind the attitude of gratitude is, and there’s a little empirical evidence to support this, that you can actually cultivate an attitude toward your decisions and your experiences that counteracts this negativity bias. You can get into the habit of identifying what’s good in the mundane everyday experiences that you have. I think it’s like a muscle that you need to build up with exercise. You practice by forcing yourself to focus on the positive aspects of your experiences and over time, this becomes more and more automatic, the muscle gets stronger and the negativity bias is overcome.

(The best way to build that attitude of gratitude is here.)

2) Be a satisficer — with maximizer friends

In some areas, being a “maximizer” and not settling for less can certainly be valuable. But most decisions are in trivial areas, and the downside of choosing wrong isn’t worth feeling overwhelmed and making yourself unhappy.

So be a “satisficer” and choose the “pretty good” option quickly. I can already hear some people complaining: “But then I’ll miss out! I won’t get the best.” But there’s a way to have both.

Be a satisficer and rely on your maximizer friends to choose for you. Here’s Barry:

Whenever you need a new laptop, call up one of your maximizer friends and say, “What laptop did you buy?” And you buy that laptop. Is it going to be the perfect laptop for you? Probably not. Is it going to be a good enough laptop for you? Absolutely. It takes you five minutes to make a decision instead of five weeks and it’s a “good enough” decision. You need a place to eat in a city that you’re visiting, so call another friend who’s been to that city. Just go to the restaurant he tells you to go to. I don’t think you can delegate all of the decisions in life in this way but you can certainly delegate a hell of a lot of them. What’s best for your friend won’t be best for you but chances are it will be good enough for you. I think this is a great way to reduce the clutter and the paralysis that afflicts people. Just ask for advice and follow it.

3) Be a chooser, not a picker

Picking from 100 options is a nightmare. So don’t look at all the options. First, ask what’s important to you. Then choose the first one you see that has all those elements. Here’s Barry:

A better thing to do is just sit down and ask yourself what do I care about in a car and then, having articulated that, you go and buy the first car you see that satisfies your standards with respect to the things you care about.

You need constraints. Limitations. We think we always want freedom but that’s just not true.

What does the research say makes us happier than anything else? Strong relationships.

But relationships constrain us. You don’t move to another city because your spouse doesn’t want to go there. You don’t take that fancy job because the hours would mean you wouldn’t have time to see your friends or your kids.

Barry says what we often fail to realize is that those constraints are welcome. They make decisions easier. They make life simpler. They make it “not your fault.” And so they make us happier.

(To learn a shortcut to bonding with a romantic partner on a deeper level, click here.)

We need to satisfice more and maximize less. So what’s one sentence you can keep in mind to simplify your life and remind you of how to find happiness in a world of overwhelming choice?

The Most Important Thing To Remember

“Good enough is almost always good enough.”

Here’s Barry:

The single most important piece of advice I can give is: Remember that good enough is almost always good enough. If people go through life looking for good enough results, the choice problem will take care of itself. Go through your day getting a good enough cup of coffee and a good enough toasted bagel and so on and so on and life will look much sunnier.

You’ll be happier if you stop trying to make all your choices perfect and you just focus on what’s really important.

That’s good enough.

This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

Join over 161,000 readers. Get a free weekly update via email here.

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The 8 Things The Happiest People Do Every Day

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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.

TIME psychology

Here’s What Your Voice Tells Others About You

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Eric Barker writes Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

People judge you by your voice in many ways.

Via Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior:

The result: speakers with higher-pitched voices were judged to be less truthful, less emphatic, less potent, and more nervous than speakers with lower-pitched voices. Also, slower-talking speakers were judged to be less truthful, less persuasive, and more passive than people who spoke more quickly. “Fast-talking” may be a cliché description of a sleazy salesman, but chances are, a little speedup will make you sound smarter and more convincing. And if two speakers utter exactly the same words but one speaks a little faster and louder and with fewer pauses and greater variation in volume, that speaker will be judged to be more energetic, knowledgeable, and intelligent. Expressive speech, with modulation in pitch and volume and with a minimum of noticeable pauses, boosts credibility and enhances the impression of intelligence.

When you hear a woman’s voice talking about relationships you trust it more than a man’s voice, even if the content is the same. You like a forceful male voice more than a forceful female voice, again, even when the content is the same.

Via Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior:

Those who had female-voiced tutors for the love-and-relationships material rated their teachers as having more sophisticated knowledge of the subject than did those who had male-voiced tutors, even though the two computers had given identical lessons… students who heard a forceful male-voiced computer tutor rated it as being significantly more likable than those who heard a forceful female-voiced tutor, even though, again, both the male and the female voices had uttered the same words.

Women find men with deep voices sexier.

Via Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior:

…women miraculously tend to agree: men with deeper voices are rated as more attractive. Asked to guess the physical characteristics of the men whose voices they hear in such experiments, women tend to associate low voices with men who are tall, muscular, and hairy-chested— traits commonly considered sexy.

And men with deeper voices have more kids.

Via Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior:

The researchers found that while the pitch of women’s was not a predictor of their reproductive success, men with lower-pitched voices on average fathered more children.

Men subconsciously know the connection between voice and dominance. When they feel powerful in a group they deepen their voice and when they feel weak they raise it, unknowingly.

Via Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior:

And the researchers found that when the participants believed they were physically dominant— that is, more powerful and aggressive— they lowered the pitch of their voices, and when they believed they were less dominant, they raised the pitch, all apparently without realizing what they were doing.

This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

Join over 161,000 readers. Get a free weekly update via email here.

Related posts:

New Harvard Research Reveals A Fun Way To Be More Successful

The 8 Things The Happiest People Do Every Day

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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.

TIME psychology

Here Are the 3 Steps for Getting People to Pay Attention to You

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Eric Barker writes Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

In her excellent book 100 Things Every Presenter Needs to Know About People, Susan Weinschenk lays out a research backed 3 step process that really impressed me:

1) Start with what you know they believe.

If you start your presentation with the opposite of what they believe, they may turn you off right away. For example, if you start a presentation to me by saying how amazing Android phones are or that Android phones are superior to iPhones, then you’ve likely lost me already. But if you start with an idea I agree with or know about— for example, how amazing iPhones are— then you have a chance of getting through to me.

2) Surprise people.

One way to get past people’s filtering is to present them with information or an experience that they did not expect. For instance, I recently heard that over 50 percent of smartphone sales are Androids and only 33 percent are iPhones. That surprised me and made me stop and think, “Perhaps I should find out more about Android phones.”

3) Set up a situation of cognitive dissonance.

In 1956, Leon Festinger wrote a book called When Prophecy Fails. In it, he describes the idea of cognitive dissonance, which is the uncomfortable feeling a person gets when they are presented with two ideas that they believe might both be true. For example, if I believe that I am a person who cares about others but I don’t give money to charitable causes, then I now have cognitive dissonance. The two ideas conflict with each other, and the cognitive dissonance will make me feel uncomfortable. I can either deny one of the ideas (for example, I can deny that I’m a caring person or deny that I didn’t give any money to charity this year) or change my behavior to get rid of the dissonance (for example, I might now be interested giving a donation to the charity I hear a presentation on).

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.

TIME psychology

Do You Like Romantic Movies More When It’s Cold Outside?

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Eric Barker writes Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

Are romance movies more desirable when people are cold? Building on research on (bodily) feeling-as-information and embodied cognition, we hypothesize that physical coldness activates a need for psychological warmth, which in turn leads to an increased liking for romance movies. Four laboratory experiments and an analysis of online movie rental data provide support for our hypothesis. Specifically, studies 1A and 1B show that physical coldness increases the liking of and willingness to pay for romance movies. Study 2 shows that the effect of physical coldness on liking of romance movies only occurs for people who associate romance movies with psychological warmth. Study 3 shows that people correct for the influence of physical coldness on their liking of romance movies when physical coldness is made salient. In study 4, using data on online movie rentals and historical temperature, we found a negative relationship between weather temperature and preference for romance movies.

Source: “Warm It Up With Love: The Effect of Physical Coldness on Liking of Romance Movies” from Journal of Consumer Research

This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

Join over 161,000 readers. Get a free weekly update via email here.

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5 things you didn’t know about love

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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.

TIME psychology

7 Secrets Top Athletes Can Teach You About Being the Best at Anything

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Eric Barker writes Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

We’d all like to be better at what is most important to us.

Top athletes know the secrets to constant improvement but most of us don’t hang out with gold medalists or top coaches and we’re not familiar with the sports research. So I called a guy who is.

David Epstein is the author of the New York Times bestseller The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance.

It’s an excellent read whether you’re a sports fan or not and covers a lot of the science on how we can get better at anything. In this post you’ll learn:

  • The one word that top students and top athletes both use to get better.
  • The thing babies can teach us about learning.
  • How being difficult to deal with can boost your learning ability.
  • The quality all prodigies have in common.
  • The question that accelerates learning.
  • How to leverage your unique abilities to be your best.

And a lot more. Let’s get to it.

Don’t Let Anyone Say You Don’t Have Talent

You get told you don’t have natural talent at something. Or you’re not smart enough. Not fast enough. So you get discouraged and quit.

But new research is showing some abilities don’t make themselves visible until challenges get hard enough. Here’s David:

Once things get hard enough, people start to be differentiated and see some skills that they probably didn’t even know they had. Those skills were only activated once they got into the right spot and the challenges got difficult.

There’s a new factor in sports research called “trainability.” Some people may not have natural talent but they may be highly trainable.

They start out below average but improve far faster. When we measure these people on day one they get told they “don’t have it.” But after a few weeks or months they’re blowing away the so-called naturals. The lesson? Hang in there.

(For more on what the most successful people do that makes them great, click here.)

So talent’s not as big an issue as you may have thought. But where should you focus your energy?

What Do You “Rage To Master”?

What do prodigies have in common? Ellen Winner at Boston College calls it the “rage to master.” It’s an insatiable desire to get better at something specific. Here’s David:

I love some of the work done by Ellen Winner at Boston College on prodigies. She coined this term “rage to master.” It’s the obsessive desire to improve at something.

We think of prodigies as little miracle kids. And yeah, when you look at tests of working memory they score off the charts. But that’s the only metric they all have in common. So they don’t have completely alien super-brains.

A huge part of why they’re so good is they found the thing they had natural talent for and relentlessly applied themselves. And that’s something we can all do. Here’s David:

Real prodigies basically all score in the 99.9th percentile of working memory but after that they score really, really differently. It suggests that while they have some horsepower, they also have individualized unique strengths that have made them good for what they do. They aren’t just interchangeable. They gravitated toward unique strengths that they have.

(To learn how you can go from dreaming to doing, click here.)

So you know what you’re passionate about and you’re working hard. What’s the best way to get started? You’ll be surprised…

Don’t Follow Instructions. Learn Like A Baby.

When did you learn the most and learn the fastest? There’s no debate: it’s when you were a baby. You didn’t get clear instructions from anybody on anything and yet you learned some of the most complex things in the world, like walking and talking.

This process (“implicit learning”) isn’t just for babies. We’re often too focused on executing very specific steps and so we don’t take the time to fumble around and make mistakes like when we were kids.

As adults we think we don’t have time for it but it’s one of the reasons we don’t learn as well as when we were little. Here’s David:

Allowing implicit learning early in whatever we’re learning, whether it’s chess, whether it’s looking at market patterns, whatever it is, is very important. You don’t want too much explicit coaching early on. You want to learn like a baby. Babies are immersed and they’re given immediate feedback and they have to strive and try. Only later do you formally teach them things like grammar.

And it’s not just speculation. Research with young surgeons is showing the power of learning like a baby. Here’s David:

On the first try those given explicit instructions were better, but very very quickly the ones who started with more implicit-style learning surpassed them in surgical speed and accuracy.

(To learn about grit and resilience from a Navy SEAL, click here.)

What’s the main question you should be asking yourself when trying to improve?

Ask “What’s Most Important Here?”

In The Sports Gene, David tells the story of what happened when top baseball batters went up against a female softball pitcher.

She struck every single one of them out. How did she do it?

Because the old advice of “keep your eye on the ball” is dead wrong. In fact, it’s impossible — a baseball moves too fast. It’s not about reaction time. It’s about the subtle cues a batter sees in a pitcher’s body before they throw the ball.

But baseball batters aren’t used to how softball pitchers move. They get all the cues wrong and strike out.

If you don’t know what the important part of what you’re trying to learn is then you’re like a batter trying to keep their eye on the ball. You’re focused on improving the wrong thing. Here’s David:

The hallmark of expertise is figuring out what information is important. And in many cases, these are things that are implicitly learned that the performer themselves would not be able to tell you. They will tell you something that causes their success and in many cases they’ll be wrong. We’ve had to do some pretty complicated studies to figure out what it is they actually do.

(To learn how to find the best mentor for you, click here.)

If you’re smart, you’re getting help with whatever you’re trying to get better at. What’s the best way to deal with your teacher? It’s probably not what you’d expect…

Be A Pain In The Behind

The Groningen talent studies have been following kids in the classroom and in a variety of sports for 15 years now. What do the ones who go on to get the best grades or become pro athletes have in common?

They didn’t merely do what they were told. They questioned coaches and teachers. They pushed back. They asked if this was the right activity for them to be doing. Here’s David:

The kids that outdid their peers in the classroom and the kids that went on to become pros in a variety of sports had behavioral traits in common. The kids who went to the top in soccer, for example, they displayed what the scientists called “self-regulatory behavior.” It’s a 12-year-old who’s going up to their trainer and saying, “I think this drill is a little too easy. What is this working on again? Why are we doing this? I think I’m having a problem with this other thing. Can I work on that instead?”

(To learn how to make your kids smarter, click here.)

So you’re asking questions. You’re engaged. Now how do you apply that to the skill you’re working on?

Find Your “Optimal Push”

The kids who questioned their teachers got to know themselves better. So they were better judges of what they could and couldn’t do.

This allowed them to best practice at a level where they were always stretching themselves but not so much that the task was impossible. This is called “optimal push.”

Knowing your “optimal push” means you don’t plateau — you just keep getting better. And when you screw up you’ll learn more from your mistakes. Here’s David:

“Optimal push” is something that’s a little harder than what you’ve ever done but not so hard it’s out of your reach. When the other kids plateau, these kids don’t. And that’s on the playing field and in the classroom. The kids who had these self-regulatory skills get more out of their mistakes than their peers do. Their failures are not wasted opportunities; they draw something from them.

(To learn how to apply “the craftman’s mindset” to your work, click here.)

Let’s say you’re doing everything mentioned thus far. Awesome. If you had to sum up the most important thing to focus on in just one word, what would it be?

The #1 Thing Is Reflection

David asked the head of the Groningen talent studies if she could sum up in one word the thing that all the top kids (in school or any sport) all had in common.

She said “Reflection.” They think about what they did and ask themselves if it’s working. Here’s David:

When they do something, whether it’s good or bad, they take time for reflection. They asked themselves “Was it difficult enough? Was it too easy? Did it make me better? Did it not?” It sounds simple and sounds facile, but I think we don’t do it. We naturally gravitate toward increasing comfort in everything we do in our jobs. We become more efficient and we fall prey to that efficiency. That’s a disaster. When all your efforts are things that you can do easily and without thinking about them, you’re not going to improve.

(To learn how the lessons of ancient thinkers can improve your modern life, click here.)

Let’s pull everything together and bust one more big myth about being the best at anything.

Enough Reading. Time For Doing.

Here’s what you can learn about learning from David:

  1. Don’t Let Anyone Say You Don’t Have Talent
  2. What Do You “Rage To Master”?
  3. Don’t Follow Instructions. Fumble Around.
  4. Ask “What’s Most Important Here?”
  5. Be A Pain In The Behind
  6. Find Your “Optimal Push”
  7. The #1 Thing Is Reflection

Some of you might think the above doesn’t really apply to you. It’s too late to start something. Or you’re too old to learn.

Wrong. The latest research says you’re never too old to learn. You can teach an old dog new tricks. Here’s David:

I think what the science is saying at this point is that a lot of the limitations that were placed on older learners and older athletes didn’t have any empirical backing. As we get older we trade a more flexible brain for one that is more efficient. We see that in sports and we see that in other cognitive skills. Experience and efficiency make up for some of the raw horsepower that we may lose as we age.

It’s never too late to be great.

This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

Join over 161,000 readers. Get a free weekly update via email here.

Related posts:

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

6 Things The Most Productive People Do Every Day

New Harvard Research Reveals A Fun Way To Be More Successful

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.

TIME psychology

The Two Word Trick For Becoming More Creative

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Eric Barker writes Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

In order to innovate in a way that is both practical and effective you need to make “little bets.”

What’s a little bet?

A small experiment that tests a theory. It’s just big enough to give you the answer you need but not so big that it wastes too much precious time, money or resources.

Rather than going all-in on the first idea you have and risk losing everything, a little bet allows you to break out of your comfort zone and try something new knowing that if it doesn’t work out you can quickly recover and try something else.

Little Bets

The best book on the subject is the aptly titled Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries. Peter Sims explains why it’s such a strong concept:

Little Bets is based on the proposition that we can use a lot of little bets and certain creative methods to identify possibilities and build up to great outcomes. At the core of this experimental approach, little bets are concrete actions taken to discover, test, and develop ideas that are achievable and affordable. They begin as creative possibilities that get iterated and refined over time, and they are particularly valuable when trying to navigate amid uncertainty, create something new, or attend to open-ended problems. When we can’t know what’s going to happen, little bets help us learn about the factors that can’t be understood beforehand. The important thing to remember is that while prodigies are exceptionally rare, anyone can use little bets to unlock creative ideas.

It’s an excellent book but what really struck me was when I saw this same underlying principle popping up again and again in different arenas.

In Business

In Eric Ries’ acclaimed bestseller The Lean Startup he makes it clear that little bets, or “experiments”, are critical to moving a business forward in a safe fashion:

…if you cannot fail, you cannot learn.

He tells the story of how Nick Swinmurn, founder of Zappos, tested his theory that selling shoes on the web would work.

Swinmurn could have started the company, raised venture capital, aligned partners and then found out if it was a terrible idea. Instead he went to local shoe stores and took pictures:

His hypothesis was that customers were ready and willing to buy shoes online. To test it, he began by asking local shoe stores if he could take pictures of their inventory. In exchange for permission to take the pictures, he would post the pictures online and come back to buy the shoes at full price if a customer bought them online.

Zappos began with a tiny, simple product. it was designed to answer one question above all: is there really sufficient demand for a superior online shopping experience for shoes?

And, obviously, it worked.

The Arts

So little bets make sense for formal things like businesses but can they help someone in a more creative arena?

The more creative an artist is the more likely they are to use this method:

Via Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries

In a study of thirty-five artists, Getzels and Csikszentmihalyi found that the most creative in their sample were more open to experimentation and to reformulating their ideas for projects than their less creative counterparts.

Howard Gardner studied geniuses like Picasso, Freud and Stravinsky and found a similar pattern of analyzing, testing and feedback:

Via Creating Minds: An Anatomy of Creativity Seen Through the Lives of Freud, Einstein, Picasso, Stravinsky, Eliot, Graham, and Ghandi:

Creative individuals spend a considerable amount of time reflecting on what they are trying to accomplish, whether or not they are achieving success (and, if not, what they might do differently).

Chris Rock makes “little bets” in order to improve his comedy:

Via Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries:

For a full routine, Rock tries hundreds (if not thousands) of preliminary ideas, out of which only a handful will make the final cut… By the time Rock reaches a big show— say an HBO special or an appearance on David Letterman— his jokes, opening, transitions, and closing have all been tested and retested rigorously. Developing an hour-long act takes even top comedians from six months to a year.

Everyday Life

What about for normal people with normal lives? It works for the rest of us too.

In Cal Newport’s book So Good They Can’t Ignore You he recommends little bets for someone trying to develop their skills and create a career:

The important thing about little bets is that they’re bite-sized. You try one. It takes a few months at most. It either succeeds or fails, but either way you get important feedback to guide your next steps. This approach stands in contrast to the idea of choosing a bold plan and making one big bet on its success.

As Dan Pink explains in his excellent career guide The Adventures of Johnny Bunko:

There is no plan.

Life is too complicated to be able to predict the future. All-in bets on your career are too risky. You need to make little bets and experiment.

Keep in mind that feedback is critical. If you want to test a theory or master a subject you need solid feedback and you need it fast. This is what the best mentorsprovide. So have some system in place that will tell you whether or not the little bet is meeting your goal.

Picking a “Little Bet”

Okay, so which bets do you make? How do you use them to get where you want to go?

Peter Sims lays out a straightforward process for coming up with little bets and how to best execute them to learn and get results.

Via Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries:

  • Experiment: Learn by doing. Fail quickly to learn fast. Develop experiments and prototypes to gather insights, identify problems, and build up to creative ideas, like Beethoven did in order to discover new musical styles and forms.
  • Play: A playful, improvisational, and humorous atmosphere quiets our inhibitions when ideas are incubating or newly hatched, and prevents creative ideas from being snuffed out or prematurely judged.
  • Immerse: Take time to get out into the world to gather fresh ideas and insights, in order to understand deeper human motivations and desires, and absorb how things work from the ground up.
  • Define: Use insights gathered throughout the process to define specific problems and needs before solving them, just as the Google founders did when they realized that their library search algorithm could address a much larger problem.
  • Reorient: Be flexible in pursuit of larger goals and aspirations, making good use of small wins to make necessary pivots and chart the course to completion.
  • Iterate: Repeat, refine, and test frequently armed with better insights, information, and assumptions as time goes on, as Chris Rock does to perfect his act.

What’s a little bet you can try today?

This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

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The Most Proven Technique For Increasing Long Term Happiness

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Eric Barker writes Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

This technique has been proven again and again and again. Here it is, explained by its originator, University of Pennsylvania professor Martin Seligman.

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

Every night for the next week, set aside ten minutes before you go to sleep. Write down three things that went well today and why they went well. You may use a journal or your computer to write about the events, but it is important that you have a physical record of what you wrote. The three things need not be earthshaking in importance (“ My husband picked up my favorite ice cream for dessert on the way home from work today”), but they can be important (“ My sister just gave birth to a healthy baby boy”).

Next to each positive event, answer the question “Why did this happen?” For example, if you wrote that your husband picked up ice cream, write “because my husband is really thoughtful sometimes” or “because I remembered to call him from work and remind him to stop by the grocery store.” Or if you wrote, “My sister just gave birth to a healthy baby boy,” you might pick as the cause “God was looking out for her” or “She did everything right during her pregnancy.”

Writing about why the positive events in your life happened may seem awkward at first, but please stick with it for one week. It will get easier. The odds are that you will be less depressed, happier, and addicted to this exercise six months from now.

This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

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7 Science-Based Tips To Make You Sexier On Valentine’s Day

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Eric Barker writes Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

1) Definitely stare deep in their eyes

Oliver Burkeman’s Help! How to be slightly happier and get a bit more done pointed me to evidence that staring into each other’s eyes really does increase attraction:

In two studies, subjects induced to exchange mutual unbroken gaze for 2 min with a stranger of the opposite sex reported increased feelings of passionate love for each other.

2) Still early in the relationship? Talk about travel, not movies.

Via Quirkology: How We Discover the Big Truths in Small Things

When talking about movies, less than 9 percent of the pairs wanted to meet up again, compared to 18 percent when participants spoke about the top topic—travel.

3) Want to look more attractive?

How long does it take to determine if someone is hot? Thirteen milliseconds. Really: thirteen milliseconds.

Via Do Gentlemen Really Prefer Blondes?: Bodies, Behavior, and Brains–The Science Behind Sex, Love, & Attraction:

To find out exactly how quickly we can tell if a person is hot or not, neuroscientists Ingrid Olson and Christy Marshuetz devised a sneaky experiment. They exposed men and women to a series of pre-rated faces, some gorgeous and other homely, and asked them to rate their appearance. The twist was that the faces flickered on the screen for only thirteen milliseconds — a flash so fast that the exasperated viewers swore they didn’t see anything. Yet when forced to rate the faces they thought they didn’t see, the judges were uncannily accurate.

So you don’t have a lot of time but there are some things you can do:

4) Forget dinner. Go somewhere exciting for Valentine’s Day.

The research points again and again to how important thrills are:

  • Think a pleasant evening is all it takes? Researchers did a 10 week study comparing couples that engaged in “pleasant” activities vs “exciting” activities. Pleasant lost.

The fun moments are more powerful than the bad moments: “…how you celebrate is more predictive of strong relations than how you fight.”

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

Shelly Gable, professor of psychology at the University of California at Santa Barbara, has demonstrated that how you celebrate is more predictive of strong relations than how you fight.

5) Go ahead and babytalk

Research shows it’s a good thing:

Individuals who had babytalked to friends or romantic partners tended to be more secure and less avoidant with regard to attachments in general. Within a particular romantic relationship, indicators of intimacy and attachment accounted for about 22% of the variance in babytalk frequency. Partner’s babytalking was the strongest predictor, accounting for about 42% of the variance. Communication intentions accompanying babytalk paralleled the hallmarks of attachment, especially affection and play. These and other results suggest that babytalk functions in the process of intimate personal connection.

6) Best Valentine’s Day gift?

Studies show people like your gifts more when you stop being so creative and just get them what they want.

Dan Ariely, author of the excellent Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions, adds to that saying:

In summary, I think that the best gifts circumvent guilt in two key ways: by eliminating the guilt that accompanies extravagant purchases, and by reducing the guilt that comes from coupling payment with consumption. The best advice on gift-giving, therefore, is to get something that someone really wants but would feel guilty buying otherwise.

Wanna go even further and be doubly sure they’ll like that present? Wrap it. And guys? Flowers work.

(Did you receive a lousy gift for Valentine’s Day? Here are pro tips on how to act like you’re not horribly disappointed.)

7) Ask the right questions

Arthur Aron studies what makes people connect quickly and deeply and has found it can be a matter of just asking the right questions.

Via Sam Gosling’s book, Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You:

Arthur Aron, a psychologist at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, is interested in how people form romantic relationships, and he’s come up with an ingenious way of taking men and women who have never met before and making them feel close to one another. Given that he has just an hour or so to create the intimacy levels that typically take weeks, months, or years to form, he accelerated the getting-to-know-you process through a set of thirty-six questions crafted to take the participants rapidly from level one in McAdams’s system to level two.

But how effective can this be really? In under an hour it can create a connection stronger than a lifelong relationship.

Via Click: The Magic of Instant Connections:

What he found was striking. The intensity of the dialogue partners’ bond at the end of the forty-five-minute vulnerability interaction was rated as closer than the closest relationship in the lives of 30 percent of similar students. In other words, the instant connections were more powerful than many long-term, even lifelong relationships.

(You can read some of Aron’s questions used here.)

Is all this making you a little crazy?

That’s okay. Love could be classified as a mental illness:

Via Fascinate: Your 7 Triggers to Persuasion and Captivation:

In the book Love Sick: Love as a Mental Illness, Frank Tallis writes that if we take the symptoms of falling in love and “check them against accepted diagnostic criteria for mental illness, we find that most ‘lovers’ qualify for diagnoses of obsessional illness, depression or manic depression.” Other symptoms include insomnia, hyperactivity, and loss of appetite. Ah, ain’t love grand?

This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

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5 Research-Based Tips on How to Pick the Best Valentine’s Day Gift Ever

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Eric Barker writes Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

  • Afraid of how much Valentine’s Day is going to cost you? Relax. Giving really is better than receiving and studies show money CAN buy happiness.
  • Did you receive a lousy gift for Valentine’s Day? Here are pro tips on how to act like you’re not horribly disappointed. And frankly, getting women lousy gifts on V Day might be a smart idea.

This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

Join over 165,000 readers and get a free weekly update via email here.

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How To Be A Good Kisser – 10 Tips From Scientific Research

Recipe For A Happy Marriage: The 7 Scientific Secrets

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8 Ways That Money Can Buy Happiness

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Eric Barker writes Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

Another paper from Harvard happiness expert Daniel Gilbert (author of the bestseller Stumbling on Happiness) spells out 8 ways we can spend our money to increase happiness:

1) “Buy more experiences and fewer material goods.”

This means more amusement parks and vacations. Fewer cars and new TV’s:

Asked which of the two purchases made them happier, fully 57% of respondents reported that they had derived greater happiness from their experiential purchase, while only 34% reported greater happiness from their material purchase. Source: “If Money Doesn’t Make You Happy Then You Probably Aren’t Spending It Right” from Journal of Consumer Psychology

Why? We quickly take material goods for granted. Research shows this happens more slowly with experiences. Also, we anticipate and remember experiences more, savoring them for longer and squeezing more enjoyment from them.

2) “Use their money to benefit others rather than themselves”

Yup, giving is better than receiving:

Dunn, Aknin, and Norton (2008) asked a nationally representative sample of Americans to rate their happiness and to report how much money they spent in a typical month on (1) bills and expenses, (2) gifts for themselves, (3) gifts for others, and (4) donations to charity. The first two categories were summed to create a personal spending composite, and the latter two categories were summed to create a prosocial spending composite. Although personal spending was unrelated to happiness, people who devoted more money to prosocial spending were happier, even after controlling for their income.

And:

Researchers approached individuals on the University of British Columbia (UBC) campus, handed them a $5 or $20 bill, and then randomly assigned them to spend the money on themselves or on others by the end of the day. When participants were contacted that evening, individuals who had been assigned to spend their windfall on others were happier than those who had been assigned to spend the money on themselves.

And:

The benefits of prosocial spending appear to be cross- cultural. Over 600 students attending universities in Canada and in the East African nation of Uganda were randomly assigned to reflect on a time they had spent money on themselves or on others (Aknin et al., 2010). Participants felt significantly happier when they reflected on a time they had spent money on others, and this effect emerged consistently across these vastly different cultural contexts—even though the specific ways in which participants spent their money varied dramatically between cultures.

Why? Giving improves social relationships and our relationships are key to happiness. Giving makes us feel the relationships will continue, which bolsters well-being.

3) “Buy many small pleasures rather than fewer large ones”

When it comes to happiness, frequency beats intensity:

Indeed, across many different domains, happiness is more strongly associated with the frequency than the intensity of people’s positive affective experiences (Diener, Sandvik, & Pavot, 1991). For example, no one finds it surprising that people who have sex are happier than people who don’t (Blanchflower & Oswald, 2004), but some do find it surprising that the optimal number of sexual partners to have in a twelve-month period is one. Why would people who have one partner be happier than people who have many? One reason is that multiple partners are occasionally thrilling, but regular partners are regularly enjoyable. A bi-weekly ride on a merry-go-round may be better than an annual ride on a roller coaster.

Why? One reason is that we’re less likely to adapt and take for granted all these little things regularly affecting us than we are the one, big rare event:

One reason why small frequent pleasures beat infrequent large ones is that we are less likely to adapt to the former. The more easily people can understand and explain an event, the quicker they adapt to it (Wilson & Gilbert, 2008), and thus anything that makes a pleasurable event more difficult to understand and explain will delay adaptation. These variables include novelty (we’ve never experienced the event before), surprise (we didn’t expect it to happen), uncertainty (we’re not entirely sure what the event is), and variability (the event keeps changing). Each of these variables makes an event harder to understand and as a result we pay more attention to it and adapt more slowly.

4) “Eschew extended warranties and other forms of overpriced insurance”

Research shows we deal with bad events much more effectively than we think. Often we buy insurance to make us feel better, not because we couldn’t actually afford to replace the item.

Warranties are acknowledged to be a poor investment:

With price tags reaching as high as 50% of a product’s original cost, extended warranties sold by retailers and manufacturers provide huge benefits to the seller and are widely acknowledged to be bad bets for the buyer (Berner, 2004; Chen, Kalra, & Sun, 2009).

5) “Delay consumption”

Anticipating pleasure can sometimes be more enjoyable than the event itself. By delaying good things we increase happiness:

But there is a second reason why consume now, pay later is a bad idea: it eliminates anticipation, and anticipation is a source of free happiness. The person who buys a cookie and eats it right away may get X units of pleasure from it, but the person who saves the cookie until later gets X units of pleasure when it is eventually eaten plus all the additional pleasure of looking forward to the event. Research shows that people can reap substantial enjoyment from anticipating an upcoming event even if the event itself is not entirely enjoyable. Examining three different vacations ranging from a trip to Europe to a bicycle trip through California, Mitchell et al (1997) found that people viewed the vacation in a more positive light before the experience than during the experience, suggesting that anticipation may sometimes provide more pleasure than consumption simply because it is unsullied by reality. Not surprisingly, then, people who devote time to anticipating enjoyable experiences report being happier in general (Bryant, 2003).

6) “Consider how peripheral features of their purchases may affect their day-to-day lives”

The farther things are in the future, the more abstractly we view them. Buying a summer cottage seems great — because at a distance we don’t think about repairs, a leaky roof, and mosquitoes.

We do better when we consider how our purchases will affect our future use of time and our day-to-day lives:

Thus, in thinking about how to spend our money, it is worthwhile to consider how purchases will affect the ways in which we spend our time. For example, consider the choice between a small, well-kept cottage and a larger ―fixer upper‖ that have similar prices. The bigger home may seem like a better deal, but if the fixer upper requires trading Saturday afternoons with friends for Saturday afternoons with plumbers, it may not be such a good deal after all.

7) “Beware of comparison shopping”

Looking at lots of different options can mislead us as to the importance of various features. We end up thinking small differences may have a big impact when the truth is that most of the options will end up having no difference in our enjoyment of the item six months from now:

From this perspective, comparison shopping may focus consumers’ attention on differences between available options, leading them to overestimate the hedonic impact of selecting a more versus less desirable option. To the extent that the process of comparison shopping focuses attention on hedonically irrelevant attributes, comparison shopping may even lead people to choose a less desirable option over a more desirable option.

8) “Pay close attention to the happiness of others.”

You’re not the unique snowflake you think you are. Popular things are often popular for a reason and we do ourselves a disservice by ignoring what brings others pleasure because, very likely, we may enjoy it too:

Research suggests that the best way to predict how much we will enjoy an experience is to see how much someone else enjoyed it. In one study, Gilbert, Killingsworth, Eyre, and Wilson (2009) asked women to predict how much they would enjoy a speed date with a particular man. Some of the women were shown the man’s photograph and autobiography, while others were shown only a rating of how much a previous women had enjoyed a speed date with the same man a few minutes earlier. Although the vast majority of the participants expected that those who were shown the photograph and autobiography would make more accurate predictions than those who were shown the rating, precisely the opposite was the case. Indeed, relative to seeing the photograph and autobiography, seeing the rating reduced inaccuracy by about 50%.

This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

Join over 161,000 readers. Get a free weekly update via email here.

Related posts:

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

6 Things The Most Productive People Do Every Day

New Harvard Research Reveals A Fun Way To Be More Successful

 

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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