TIME psychology

How to Be Compassionate: 3 Research-Backed Steps to a Happier Life

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Eric Barker writes Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

Science points to a crazy number of benefits from being more compassionate:

Not too shabby.

Which raises a good question: if it does all this great stuff, why the heck aren’t we more compassionate?

The World Is Working Against You

Our lives are a lot more focused on numbers and economics than love and compassion these days. Everything is dollars and cents, hours and minutes.

Economics is an incredibly powerful tool but when you assign a price to everything and dismiss feelings, you can enter dangerous territory. Homo economicus is a sociopath.

I’m sure some of you think this is naive or silly. That things have always been like this. You’re wrong, by the way.

The Google Ngram viewer is an amazing tool that allows us to look at how often terms have been mentioned in books over the past few hundred years. (Big thanks to my friend Spencer Glendon for his insight here.)

How does “economic” fare against “moral” and “compassion” lately? Um, well…

economic-moral-compassion

Are we focused on our compassionate ethical duties to one another? Or the stuff we want want want?

i-want-i-must

Are we thinking more about principles and charity — or markets?

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(For more on how giving can make you more successful, click here.)

There aren’t many forces pushing back, reminding us to be compassionate in today’s market-driven world.

What does the research say still teaches us compassion?

Grandmom does. Seriously. But Grandmom, as awesome as her oatmeal cookies are, can’t fight the whole world by herself.

So what do we do?

The Solution Is All in Your Head (Kinda)

Here’s what’s interesting: research shows compassion is contagious. When we feel it toward one person we’ll extend it to others around us even without realizing it.

This idea might be new to you and me but Buddhists have known it for over 1000 years. (I’m late to the party on a lot of stuff, frankly. Still not caught up on Mad Men, either.)

Buddhists call it “metta” (there’s actually some funky punctuation to it but there’s no way I’m gonna find that on my keyboard so just roll with me here). More commonly it goes by the name “loving-kindness meditation.” Buddhists use it to increase compassion.

Here’s the problem: LKM is pretty much the ground zero of self-help corniness. What does Buddhism say are some of the benefits of loving-kindness meditation?

Via Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness:

Devas [celestial beings] and animals will love you.

Devas will protect you.

External dangers [poisons, weapons, and fire] will not harm you.

You will be reborn in happy realms.

My first reaction? I think we’re done here. Thank you for calling.

Scientists have recently figured out something about LKM though: it actually works.

No, you’re not gonna be immune to fire and poison and, no, woodland elves will not build you a treehouse. But as for that compassion part? Yeah, it really does the job.

Via Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation:

The researchers also found that both meditating groups showed greater thickening of the insular cortex, a part of the brain associated with regulating emotions, and more activity in the amygdala, the part of the brain that assesses the emotional content of incoming stimuli, than did the non-meditating control group. The investigators concluded that the practice of lovingkindness meditation trains the brain to make us more empathic and more capable of reading subtle emotional states.

And that’s far from one isolated piece of research. A 2012 Harvard study showed:

Overall, these results are consistent with the overarching hypothesis that meditation may result in enduring, beneficial changes in brain function, especially in the area of emotional processing.

No, you don’t have to convert to Buddhism or believe in funky celestial beings. It’s an effective secular exercise for your compassion muscle.

(For more on the benefits of mindfulness meditation and how to do it, click here.)

So we have the answer right? Loving-Kindness Meditation to the rescue. But how do we do it?

The “How To”

Like I said, the process comes off as way corny — but it makes sense.

How do you feel when you think about loved ones? Warm and fuzzy. Why keep pictures of your kids or your partner on your desk or in your wallet? Even more fuzzies.

That’s the goal here, really. We want to broaden the fuzzy. Fuzzy momentum, if you will. Extend the fuzzy feelings from those you already are compassionate toward to neutral and even to difficult people.

The best instructions I’ve found (that have no scientific jargon or mentions of woodland spirits) come from 10% Happier, the great book by Dan Harris:

1. This practice involves picturing a series of people and sending them good vibes. Start with yourself. Generate as clear a mental image as possible.

2. Repeat the following phrases: May you be happy, May you be healthy, May you be safe, May you live with ease. Do this slowly. Let the sentiment land. You are not forcing your well-wishes on anyone; you’re just offering them up, just as you would a cool drink. Also, success is not measured by whether you generate any specific emotion. As Sharon says, you don’t need to feel “a surge of sentimental love accompanied by chirping birds.” The point is to try. Every time you do, you are exercising your compassion muscle. (By the way, if you don’t like the phrases above, you can make up your own.)

3. After you’ve sent the phrases to yourself, move on to: a benefactor (a teacher , mentor, relative), a close friend (can be a pet, too), a neutral person (someone you see often but don’t really ever notice), a difficult person, and, finally, “all beings.”

Yes, it sounds silly but studies show it works.

Don’t get too worried about details. It’s not a magic spell and this ain’t Hogwart’s. You can customize it. The important thing is wishing others well and expanding that feeling from those you feel strongly about to a wider and wider circle of people.

(For my interview with Good Morning America anchor and meditation-skeptic-turned-believer Dan Harris, click here.)

Time to round this up and build a path forward.

Enough Reading. Time For Doing.

Give loving-kindness meditation a shot. Or you can go straight to the next step and help others. Support. Give.

Volunteering makes us happier. Too busy? Ironically, studies show giving our time to others makes us feel less time-strapped.

Seriously too busy? Then show a little compassion by buying lunch for a friend. It’ll make you happier too.

Via Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending:

By the end of the day, individuals who spent money on others were measurably happier than those who spent money on themselves — even though there were no differences between the groups at the beginning of the day. And it turns out that the amount of money people found in their envelopes — $5 or $20 — had no effect on their happiness at the end of the day. How people spent the money mattered much more than how much of it they got.

The great TEDx talk by Harvard professor Michael Norton explains it here.

Whatever you do, the key word here is exactly that: do. It’s not think compassion and you will act more compassionate. It’s act more compassionate and you will feel more compassionate.

Meditation expert Sharon Salzberg recounts an old story that sums it up better than any research abstract.

Via Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation:

A grandfather (occasionally it’s a grandmother) imparting a life lesson to his grandson tells him, “I have two wolves fighting in my heart. One wolf is vengeful, fearful, envious, resentful, deceitful. The other wolf is loving, compassionate, generous, truthful, and serene.”

The grandson asks which wolf will win the fight.

The grandfather answers, “The one I feed.”

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.

TIME Careers & Workplace

9 Ways Daily Mindfulness Will Help You Succeed

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Long story short, enjoy the journey

startupcollective

Many of us are drawn to the peace and happiness promised by a life of mindfulness, but we often abandon it in our daily lives because practicing mindfulness can seem at odds with our desire to succeed.

But it doesn’t have to be.

Here are nine simple ways that incorporating mindfulness into your busy work life can actually help you succeed:

  1. Forgive and forget. Workplace politics are draining, and a waste of time. Don’t let yourself get sucked into drama. Save your mental energy for your own success by forgiving those who slight you, forgetting who said what about whom, and moving on to more important things.
  2. Breathe before you blast. Try not to shoot off emails when you’re angry. Take a deep breath first and reflect on what’s behind your anger. Anger-driven emails almost always do more harm than good, to sender and receiver alike.
  3. Stop being ‘judgy.’ Mistakes are an opportunity to learn, not an excuse to look at yourself or others with negativity. Assessing mistakes from a neutral perspective allows you and your team to grow from them. Harping on them only serves to bring you (and those around you) down.
  4. Do what you want. Mindfulness gurus often talk about the idea of “intention.” But what does intention really mean? It means to make sure you know why you’re doing what you’re doing. And to do what you want. If you feel like you are wasting time in your current occupation, stop doing it and start something new.
  5. Salute the sun. Starting your morning with a quiet mind will help you be more effective throughout the day. Carve out time in the mornings — before the day’s madness ensues — to do a few sun salutations, eat a leisurely breakfast, go for a jog or engage in whichever activity helps you to still your mind.
  6. Salute your enemies. The word “namaste” means “I bow to the divine in you.” Having respect for your enemies will help you learn from their strengths and be more objective about your own weaknesses. So salute your enemies. You may find yourself with fewer of them if you do.
  7. Take victory in stride. It’s important to celebrate milestones. But don’t get addicted to them. If you let yourself become too attached to your victories, you will be less able to cope with defeat. And the ability to persevere through failure is essential to success.
  8. Sleep more. According to the Dalai Lama, “Sleep is the best meditation.” Get more of it.
  9. Enjoy the journey. Life is short, and you will spend most of it working. Work can either be depressing, or it can be an incredible ride. It’s up to you. The more you enjoy what you do, the better you will be at it.

This article was originally published on StartupCollective.

TIME

Why Your Friend’s Weepy Wedding Toast Was Scientifically Accurate

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Marriage increases lifetime happiness, says new study Manuel Orero Galan--Getty Images/Moment RF

Marrying your best friend could help you live happily ever after

Finally Julia Roberts can get the scientific recognition she deserves. Turns out, she was totally right in My Best Friend’s Wedding: being married to your best friend actually does make you happy (sorry, Julia; congratulations, Cameron Diaz).

According to a study recently published in the National Bureau of Economic Research, married couples who said their spouse was their best friend reported significantly higher rates of life satisfaction than less friendly couples. About half of married or co-habitating couples said their partner was their best friend, and they get almost twice as much “additional life satisfaction” from the relationship than other couples. This finding was consistent even when the researchers controlled for age, gender, income, and health, and was still higher for married buddies than cohabitating couples who said they were best friends.

The benefit of having your spouse be your best friend was much higher for women than for men, but women were also less likely to say that their spouse was their BFF (perhaps because women tend to have lots of close female friendships, while men tend to have fewer).

Marriage rates have declined by almost 60% since 1970, and in 2013 the U.S. marriage rate was the lowest in 100 years (only 31.1 marriages per 1,000 married women). But according to researchers Shawn Grover and John F. Helliwell, who compiled the study on marriage and happiness for the NBER, marriage is strongly correlated with increased happiness, even in less fun periods of life like middle age (this is not to say that middle-aged married people are super happy, they’re just happier than unmarried middle-aged people). They found that even when controlling for the possibility that naturally happy people may be more likely to get married in the first place, marriage comes with a significant increase in life satisfaction. And that increase in life satisfaction endures past the newlywed phase and often result in increased happiness in the long term.

And while marriage is increasingly becoming a “luxury good,” more common among the rich and college-educated, Grover and Helliwell controlled for income in their research, which means that the well-being that comes from marriage isn’t the same as the well-being that comes from wealth.

 

MONEY retirement planning

5 Secrets to a Happy Retirement

Hammock underneath palm trees
Keep a smile on your face once your working years are over. Jason Hindley—Prop Styling by Keiko Tanaka

Sure, a fat nest egg and good health help. But there are less obvious ways to make sure your post-work life is a happy one.

Retirement ought to be a happy time. You can set your own schedule, take long vacations, and start spending all the money you’ve been saving.

And for many retirees that holds true. According to the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, people tend to start life happy, only to see their sense of well-being decline in adulthood. No surprise there: Working long hours, raising a family, and saving for the future are high-stress pursuits.

Once you reach age 65, though, happiness picks up again, not peaking until age 85. In a recent survey of MONEY readers, 48% retirees reported being happier in retirement than expected; only 7% were disappointed.

How can you make sure you follow this blissful pattern? Financial security helps. And good health is crucial: In a recent survey 81% of retirees cited it as the most important ingredient for a happy retirement. Some of the other triggers are less obvious. Here’s what you can do to make your retirement a happy one.

1. Create a predictable paycheck. No doubt about it: More money makes you happier. Once you amass a comfortable nest egg, though, the effect weakens, says financial planner Wes Moss. For his recent book, You Can Retire Sooner Than You Think: The 5 Money Secrets of the Happiest Retirees, Moss surveyed 1,400 retirees in 46 states. The happiest ones had the highest net worths, but Moss found that money’s power to boost your mood diminished after $550,000.

“Once you reach a certain level, more money doesn’t buy a lot more happiness,” says Moss. Similar research based on the University of Michigan Health and Retirement Study found a dropoff in happiness with extreme wealth; after you’ve amassed some $3.5 million in riches, more money doesn’t increase your happiness as much.

Where your income comes from is just as important as how much savings you have, says Moss. Retirees with a predictable income—a pension, say, or rental properties—get more enjoyment from spending those dollars than they do using money from a 401(k) or an IRA.

Similarly, a Towers Watson happiness survey found that retirees who rely mostly on investments had the highest financial anxiety. Almost a third of retirees who get less than 25% of their income from a pension or annuity were worried about their financial future; of those who receive 50% or more of their income from such a predictable source, just under a quarter expressed the same anxiety.

You can engineer a steady income by buying an immediate fixed annuity. According to ImmediateAnnuities.com, a 65-year-old man who puts $100,000 into an immediate annuity today would collect about $500 a month throughout retirement.

2. Stick with what you know. People who work past 65 are happier than their fully retired peers—with a big asterisk. If you have no choice but to work, the results are the opposite. On a scale of 1 to 10, seniors who voluntarily pick up part-time work rate their happiness a 6.5 on average; that drops to 4.4 for those who are forced to take a part-time job.

The benefit of working isn’t just financial. It’s also a boon to your health—a key driver of retirement happiness. The physical activity and social connections a job provides are a good antidote to an unhealthy sedentary and lonely lifestyle, says medical doctor turned financial planner (and Money.com contributor) Carolyn McClanahan.

A 2009 study published in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology found that retirees with part-time or temporary jobs have fewer major diseases, including high blood pressure and heart disease, than those who stop working altogether, even after factoring in their pre-retirement health.

Switching careers in retirement, though, isn’t as beneficial. Retirees who take jobs in their field reported the best mental health, says lead researcher Yujie Zhan of Canada’s Laurier University, perhaps because adapting to a new work environment and duties is stressful.

3. Find four hobbies. Busy retirees tend to be happier. But just how active do you have to be? Moss has put a number on it. He found that the happiest retirees engage in three to four activities regularly; the least happy, only one or two. “The happy retiree group had extraordinarily busy schedules,” he says. “I call it hobbies on steroids.”

For the biggest boost to your happiness, pick a hobby that’s social. The top pursuits of the happiest retirees include volunteering, travel, and golf; for the unhappiest, they’re reading, hunting, fishing, and writing. “The happiest people don’t do things in isolation,” says Moss.

That’s no surprise when you consider that people 65 and older get far more enjoyment out of socializing than younger people do.

4. Rent late in life. In retirement, as in your working years, owning a home brings you more joy than renting does. But as time goes on, that changes. Michael Finke, a professor of retirement and personal financial planning at Texas Tech University, analyzed the satisfaction of homeowners vs. that of renters from age 20 to 90-plus and found a drop late in life, particularly after homeowners hit their eighties.

The hassles of homeownership build as you age, Finke notes, and a house can be isolating. Most people want to stay put in retirement. Yet, says Finke, “you need to plan for a transition to living in an environment with more social interaction and less home responsibility.”

5. Keep your kids at arm’s length. Once you suddenly have a lot more time on your hands, your closest relationships can have a big impact on your mood. According to an analysis by Finke and Texas Tech researcher Nhat Hoang Ho, married retirees, particularly those who retire around the same time, report higher satisfaction than nonmarrieds—but only if the couple get along well. A poor relationship more than erases the positive effects of being married.

Children don’t make much of a difference, with one twist. Living within 10 miles of their kids leaves retirees less happy. “People overestimate the amount of satisfaction they get from their kids,” says Finke. The reason is unclear—could being a too accessible babysitter be the problem?

TIME advice

What Reese Witherspoon Would Tell Her 20-Something Self

Reese Witherspoon attends the premiere of "Inherent Vice" on Dec. 10, 2014 in Hollywood, California.
Reese Witherspoon attends the premiere of "Inherent Vice" on Dec. 10, 2014 in Hollywood, California. Jason LaVeris—Getty Images/FilmMagic

"Every day you have to choose to find and cultivate your own happiness"

Who here doesn’t love Reese Witherspoon? She’s smart, she’s gorgeous, she’s related to one of the founding fathers of our country, (John Witherspoon) and she’s passionate about getting strong female characters on screen. This is evident in her latest film, Wild, which comes out this month. The 38-year-old Witherspoon is not only starring in it, but also producing it as well. “Other than one studio, literally one, nobody was developing anything with a female lead,” Witherspoon recently told The New York Times. So in 2012 she started a production company, Pacific Standard, focused on fixing this issue. Their first project was a little film you may have heard of called Gone Girl, and the second is Wild.

Witherspoon is already getting Oscar buzz (this would be number two) for her role as Cheryl Strayed in Wild. She plays a woman going through major struggles after losing her beloved mother. After spiraling into drug addiction and ruining her marriage, Cheryl decides to hike the very daunting Pacific Crest Trail–by herself. This is off the beaten path (very literally) from the typical romcom fare we’ve seen her in in the last few years (This Means War was good, Reese, but a little unrealistic).

MORE Why it Pays to Be a Good Girl (Thanks, Reese Witherspoon!)

Although Witherspoon seems like an invincible powerhouse today with her work in front of and behind the camera–and not to mention that she’s the mother of three kids–she was once an unsure-of-herself-20-something. She recently opened up to Glamour about what she would tell herself then, and it’s pretty golden.

“All those things that you’re worried about aren’t important,” Witherspoon says. “You’re going to be okay. Better than okay. You’re going to be great. Spend less time tearing yourself apart, worrying if you’re good enough. You are good enough. And you’re going to meet amazing people in your life who will help you and love you.”

MORE Rebecca Minkoff Proves That Being a Nice Girl Can Work (Even in Fashion)

“I don’t think I realized [in my 20s] that no one else makes you whole,” she continues. “You have to take responsibility for your own happiness. That took me until I was about 31 to know. It wasn’t easy to realize that, ‘Oh, wait, I’m purely responsible [for my life]‘—no relationship, no children, no nothing is going to make you a happy person. Every day you have to choose to find and cultivate your own happiness.”

For more insight into what successful people thought about in their 20s, read this.

This article originally appeared on Levo.com.

TIME health

6 Ways Your Phone is Hurting Your Health and Happiness

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Research suggests that your phone could be doing more harm than good

More than 1.8 million smartphones are sold daily and the average American spends well over three hours a day on the phone. We stay plugged in while we eat, sleep, and even while we use the bathroom. It’s safe to say we’re addicted to our phones. But staying connected at all times is taking a serious toll.

Texting destroys your posture.

“Text neck” is a real condition, and it’s not pretty. Peering down at your phone while you text, read, or surf the web puts an unnecessary strain on your spine, according to recent research published in the National Library of Medicine. When standing upright, the average head places 10 to 12 pounds of force on the cervical spine, but just a 15-degree tilt increases that weight to 27 pounds, and a 60-degree one to 60 pounds. The extra spine stress can lead to earlier wear and tear on your spine, and even require surgery in the worst cases.

Your phone could be making you sick.

If your phone is basically your fifth limb, even those who wash their hands regularly could be carrying around a lot more germs than they think. The Wall Street Journal conducted an experiment in which it tested eight random phones from its office. Every single one carried high levels of a bacteria suggesting fecal contamination. Many phones even carry more germs than a toilet seat.

Those earbuds might be damaging your hearing.

Turn down the volume. Thirty-five percent of adults and almost 60 percent of teenagers listen to personal music devices at loud volumes. When more than 30 percent of Americans older than 20 have suffered some loss of high-frequency hearing, those are scary numbers. Whether or not cranking the tunes will actually affect your hearing depends on the individual. Some people have more sensitive ears, and those earbud listeners could notice hearing loss after listening for only a couple hours each day, Time reports. While it all depends on your phone’s volume and how you’re personally affected by sound, the safest bet is to turn down the music.

Texting affects your balance.

You should never text and drive, and you shouldn’t text and walk either. Cell phone and walking-related emergency room visits are on the rise, according to research from Ohio State University. The most common offenders? Sixteen to 25-year-olds. “The role of cell phones in distracted driving injuries and deaths gets a lot of attention and rightly so,” co-author Jack Nasar said in a statement. “But we need to also consider the danger cell phone use poses to pedestrians.”

Texting while walking not only distracts, but can also knock you off balance. Australian researchers examined the speed and patterns of people walking while texting and found that they showed a slower walking speed and that they veered from a straight line. So, while you definitely shouldn’t drive while you text, you shouldn’t walk while you type away either.

Cell phones can hurt relationships.

Even though texting may seem like a quick and easy way to stay connected to the ones you love, research suggests that texting too much can actually hurt your relationship. Brigham Young University researchers found that texting to apologize or resolve conflicts resulted in a lower relationship quality for women. And receiving too many texts left men with a lower relationship quality. But it’s not all bad, expressing affection through texts enhanced the relationship for both men and women. So, go ahead and text over “I love yous” regularly—but leave the arguments and in-depth conversations for the next time you see each other.

You probably lose sleep over your phone.

Almost 75 percent of 18-to-44-year-olds sleep with their phones only an arm’s reach away. Unfortunately, the blue light emitted from electronics, like laptops and cell phones, can have a terrible effect on our sleep. Artificial light at night stops our body from producing the chemicals that make us tired, and instead leaves us feeling more awake, The Huffington Post reports.

Plus, the constant pings, buzzing, and light from incoming texts and emails can hurt our sleep patterns. A Swedish study showed that the feeling of being constantly plugged in can cause stress that cuts into sleep and can even increase the risk of depression in some cases. In other words, the best way to get a good night’s sleep is to keep your phone far away from your bed.

This article originally appeared on RealSimple.com.

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TIME psychology

One Simple and Easy New Year’s Resolution Guaranteed to Make You Happier

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Nataly Kogan is the co-founder and CEO of Happier, a digital wellness company.

You don't have to set huge goals that require a lot of work and willpower

Apparently 45% of Americans make New Year’s resolutions. Losing weight, getting organized, and spending less money are the top three, according to a study in the Journal of Clinical Psychology.

These — and others, like falling in love, staying fit, and spending more time with family — are great. But they are huge goals that require a lot of work and willpower. I’m not against that. But I feel like we are all working really hard as it is, so I would like to offer a resolution that is really simple but one that can make your life more awesome:

Add more joy.

Instead of saying you want to lose weight, eat more foods that bring you joy. French fries may taste great, but you feel guilty afterwards and that’s the opposite of joy. What food makes you feel awesome when and after you eat it? My bet is it’s something healthy, so add more of it.

Get rid of stuff that doesn’t bring you joy. There’s a fascinating Japanese decluttering method based on a really simple principle of asking if an item brings you joy. If not, get rid of it; you can donate it and perhaps it can find an owner who will find joy in it.

Pause to enjoy something really small every day. Savor the coffee you’re drinking and don’t multi-task by checking your email or cleaning up in your kitchen. Listen to a song you like. Go for a short walk. Research shows that savoring and appreciating small daily experiences has a greater impact on how happy you feel than big things like going on vacation or getting a promotion.

Make one person smile. Yes, you’ve heard this before, but what if you actually commit to doing this once a day? Say thank you and mean it. Text a friend and tell them why you appreciate them. Tell a joke to make someone laugh. It doesn’t take a lot, and research shows it’s one of the simplest ways to feel happier yourself.

We’re all really busy, hurrying through our lives and to-dos and obligations. Instead of adding big projects like losing weight or getting organized to your already long to-do list, how about being kinder to yourself in this coming year and focusing on feeling a bit more joy.

If you do, I think you’ll find that the benefits are pretty significant and may including losing weight, getting organized, or accomplishing many more of your other big goals.

Nataly Kogan is the co-founder and CEO of Happier, a digital wellness company that combines bite-sized courses with digital tools and a community to help people learn and practice simple ways to be happier daily.

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

5 Simple Things That Will Make Your Life Better

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Eric Barker writes Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

1) Want to be happy?

It’s more about perspective than anything else. Write down three good things that happen to you every day.

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?”

(More on happiness here: Things that are proven to make you happier.)

2) Want to be more creative?

Expose yourself to as many different perspectives as possible and get them crashing around in your head.

Via Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation:

The patterns are simple, but followed together, they make for a whole that is wiser than the sum of its parts. Go for a walk; cultivate hunches; write everything down, but keep your folders messy; embrace serendipity; make generative mistakes; take on multiple hobbies; frequent coffeehouses and other liquid networks; follow the links; let others build on your ideas; borrow, recycle, reinvent. Build a tangled bank.

(More on creativity here: The four principles that will lead you to breakthrough creativity.)

3) Want better friendships?

Stay in touch every two weeks and make sure that the good moments outnumber the bad.

Via The Ape in the Corner Office: How to Make Friends, Win Fights and Work Smarter by Understanding Human Nature:

It turned out that the fifteen high-performance teams averaged 5.6 positive interactions for every negative one. The nineteen low-performance teams racked up a positive/negative ratio of just .363. That is, they had about three negative interactions for every positive one…

Also:

Curiously, the magic number also seems to have a close parallel in the ratio of positive behaviors…and negative behaviors…among monkeys and apes. Thus the five-to-one ratio begins to look suspiciously like a basic primate need.

(More here: 5 ways to strengthen your friendships.)

4) Want a better romantic relationship?

Add some visceral excitement. Roller coasters beat counseling. It’s called “misattribution of emotions” — thrills become associated with the people we share them with — even if they had nothing to do with them.

Via Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior:

When the men who crossed the wooden bridge saw the research assistant, most of them looked at her and saw just that, a studious research assistant. But for the men who crossed the rope bridge, anxiety and adrenaline translated into a heightened romantic interest in the assistant. Their physiological reactions affected their perceptions. …The bridge’s ability to enhance the men’s romantic attraction earned it the moniker “the love bridge” within the psychological community.

(More here: This simple thing kills many relationships.)

5) Want to be more productive?

Religiously use checklists. They’re simple and they work.

What happens when you consistently use checklists in an intensive care unit? People stop dying.

Via The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right:

The proportion of patients who didn’t receive the recommended care dropped from seventy per cent to four per cent; the occurrence of pneumonias fell by a quarter; and twenty-one fewer patients died than in the previous year. The researchers found that simply having the doctors and nurses in the I.C.U. make their own checklists for what they thought should be done each day improved the consistency of care to the point that, within a few weeks, the average length of patient stay in intensive care dropped by half.

(More here: 6 things that will make you more productive.)

This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree. Join over 145,000 readers and get a free weekly email update here.

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TIME health

6 Surprising Reasons Gratitude Is Great for Your Health

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Miguel Salmeron—Getty Images

There are millions of reasons to feel grateful. Acknowledge them all, big and small, every day, and you just may put yourself on the path to better health

This article originally appeared on RealSimple.com.

Count your blessings. Say “thank you.” Consider yourself lucky. They’re directives our parents gave us so we would grow into decent people with decent manners. It turns out, the same advice helps make our brains and bodies healthier, too. “There is a magnetic appeal to gratitude,” says Robert Emmons, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis, and a pioneer of gratitude research. “It speaks to a need that’s deeply entrenched.” It’s as if we need to give thanks and be thanked, just as it’s important to feel respected and connected socially. From an evolutionary perspective, feelings of gratitude probably helped bind communities together. When people appreciate the goodness that they’ve received, they feel compelled to give back. This interdependence allows not only an individual to survive and prosper but also society as a whole. It’s easy, in these modern times, to forget this, however. We’re too busy or distracted, or we’ve unwittingly become a tad too self-entitled. We disconnect from others and suffer the consequences, such as loneliness, anger, or even a less robust immune system.

“Gratitude serves as a corrective,” says Emmons, who is the author of Gratitude Works! But by gratitude, he doesn’t mean just uttering a “Hey, thanks” or shooting off a perfunctory e-mail. He means establishing a full-on gratitude ritual, whether it’s a morning meditation of what you’re thankful for, a bedtime counting of blessings, or a gratitude journal (see How to Give Thanks, right). This concerted, consistent effort to notice and appreciate the good things flowing to us—from the crunch of autumn leaves to the holiday spirit—changes us for the better on many levels, say gratitude experts. Here’s how.

1. You’ll feel happier.

In a seminal study by Emmons, subjects who wrote down one thing that they were grateful for every day reported being 25 percent happier for a full six months after following this practice for just three weeks. In a University of Pennsylvania study, subjects wrote letters of gratitude to people who had done them a major service but had never been fully thanked. After the subjects personally presented these letters, they reported substantially decreased symptoms of depression for as long as a full month.

(MORE: 7 Quick Stress-Busters for When You Have a Full House)

2. You’ll boost your energy levels.

In Emmons’s gratitude-journal studies, those who regularly wrote down things that they were thankful for consistently reported an ever increasing sense of vitality. Control subjects who simply kept a general diary saw little increase, if any. The reason is unclear, but improvements in physical health (see below), also associated with giving thanks, may have something to do with it. The better your body functions, the more energetic you feel.

3. You get healthier.

A gratitude practice has also been associated with improved kidney function, reduced blood-pressure and stress-hormone levels, and a stronger heart. Experts believe that the link comes from the tendency of grateful people to appreciate their health more than others do, which leads them to take better care of themselves. They avoid deleterious behaviors, like smoking and drinking excessive alcohol. They exercise, on average, 33 percent more and sleep an extra half hour a night.

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4. You’ll be more resilient.

When we notice kindness and other gifts we’ve benefited from, our brains become wired to seek out the positives in any situation, even dire ones. As a result, we’re better at bouncing back from loss and trauma. “A grateful stance toward life is relatively immune to both fortune and misfortune,” says Emmons. We see the blessings, not just the curses.

5. You’ll improve your relationship.

A 2012 Journal of Personality and Social Psychology study of more than 300 coupled people found that those who felt more appreciated by their partners were more likely to appreciate their partners in return and to stay in the relationship nine months later, compared with couples who didn’t feel appreciated by each other. Christine Carter, a sociologist at the Greater Good Science Center, at the University of California, Berkeley, notes that gratitude can rewire our brains to appreciate the things in our relationships that are going well. It can calm down the nervous system and counter the fight-or-flight stress response, she says. You can’t be grateful and resentful at the same time.

(MORE: One More Reason to Enjoy a Cup of Coffee)

6. You’ll be a nicer person.

People can’t help but pay gratitude forward. When appreciation is expressed, it triggers a biological response in the recipient’s brain, including a surge of the feel-good chemical dopamine, says Emmons. So when you express gratitude toward a spouse, a colleague, or a friend, he or she feels grateful in return, and the back-and-forth continues. What’s more, thanking your benefactors makes them feel good about the kind acts that they’ve done, so they want to continue doing them, not only for you but also for others.

(MORE: The One Emotion That Lasts The Longest)

Inspired? Research has shown that one of the best ways to home in on the people and the experiences we appreciate is through writing in a gratitude journal. Recording our thoughts, by hand or electronically, helps us focus them, explains Emmons, who says that he, too, does this exercise to remind himself “how good gratitude is. It gives us time to understand better the meaning and importance of people and events in our lives.” Here are strategies for maximizing the benefits:

1. Go for depth rather than breadth. This will help you truly savor what you appreciate, and keep your journal from becoming simply a list of nice thoughts. (Journals like that tend to get abandoned.)

2. Write consistently. But it’s OK if you can’t do it every day. Once or twice a week is enough to boost happiness.

3. Write freely. Don’t sweat the grammar and the spelling. No one else will see this journal unless you want someone to.

4. Don’t think of this as just one more self-improvement project. Rather, it’s an opportunity to reflect on other people and the above-and-beyond things that they’ve done for you, says Emmons. In other words, “it’s not all about us,” he says. “This may be the most important lesson about trying to become more grateful.”

(MORE: 19 Small Changes You Can Make to Improve Your Health)

TIME psychology

The One Word That Sums Up Everything You Need to Do to Be Happier

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Eric Barker writes Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

That word is “PERMA.” It’s an acronym for:

  • Positive Emotion
  • Engagement
  • Good Relationships
  • Meaning
  • Accomplishment

Martin Seligman is a professor at the University Pennsylvania and one of the foremost experts on the study of happiness. He gave the following talk in 2011 explaining “PERMA”, the research behind it, and how we can use it to improve our lives. I’ll break it down after the video.

For the longest time the model of happiness we’ve had has followed how we look at health: If you’re sick, we try to make you not-sick. If you’re depressed, we try to make you not-depressed.

But can’t we do more than merely eliminating suffering? Can’t we try to go from normal to happier? Can we flourish?

Seligman explains that the things we need to do to be happier are all tied up in PERMA. So let’s break down what Seligman has to say.

P: Positive Emotion

We need 3 positive things for every negative thing in order to thrive.

Via Rainy Brain, Sunny Brain: How to Retrain Your Brain to Overcome Pessimism and Achieve a More Positive Outlook:

Psychologist Barbara Frederickson is an expert on flourishing and has been an advocate of finding ways to bring more positive emotions into our lives. In her research she discovered a critical 3 to 1 ratio, indicating that we need to have three positive emotions for every negative one in order to thrive.

And:

Frederickson has found out that if we really want to prosper, we shouldn’t try to eliminate negative emotions, rather, we should work on keeping the ratio at three positive for every one negative. Most of us, she has found, have two positive experiences for every negative. This gets us by, but it is effectively languishing.

This also ties in to what Seligman explains is one of the most powerful happiness boosting exercises: 3 blessings.

This technique has been proven again and again. Seligman explains it in his book 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?”

E: Engagement

This is what is often called flow. It’s when you’re so wrapped up in what you’re doing that the world fades away:

Flow is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity… The hallmark of flow is a feeling of spontaneous joy, even rapture, while performing a task although flow is also described… as a deep focus on nothing but the activity – not even oneself or one’s emotions.

When do you usually feel flow? It’s when you’re challenged but not beyond your skill level. Passive activities don’t create flow. Neither do overwhelming challenges.

There are a handful of things that need to be present for you to experience flow:

Via Top Business Psychology Models: 50 Transforming Ideas for Leaders, Consultants and Coaches:

  • Clear goals that, while challenging, are still attainable.
  • Immediate feedback.
  • Knowing that the task is doable; a balance between personal skill level and the challenge presented.
  • Strong concentration and focused attention.
  • The activity is intrinsically rewarding.

More on creating flow here.

R: Relationships

Seligman talks about a relatively recent discovery in what makes good relationships. Often it’s not how you fight, it’s how you celebrate:

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.

He also covers the type of speaking that improves relationships. It’s called “active-constructive.”

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

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

M: Meaning

Meaning comes from belonging to and serving something that is bigger than you are.

Can we build meaning in our lives? Yes. Seligman explains one exercise is to write your own obituary. What do you want your legacy to be?

Via Richard Wiseman’s excellent book 59 Seconds: Change Your Life in Under a Minute:

Asking people to spend just a minute imagining a close friend standing up at their funeral and reflecting on their personal and professional legacy helps them to identify their long-term goals and assess the degree to which they are progressing toward making those goals a reality.

Via Shiny Objects: Why We Spend Money We Don’t Have in Search of Happiness We Can’t Buy:

In the past I’ve encouraged my students to draft their obituary as part of an extra-credit exercise, asking them to write it as they wished it to appear after a long life. I know it sounds morbid, but this assignment is an excellent way to expose the gap between how people live their lives and how they want to be remembered. It’s a sobering experience at any age. The real benefit, of course, is that the writer gets to confront any such inconsistencies before it’s too late. I can’t tell you how many students have told me that this experience was a real wake-up call for them— one that I hope has changed many lives. We all must ask ourselves, if our obituaries were written today, would we be happy with what was written?

9 minutes in to his famous Stanford commencement speech Steve Jobs discusses the importance he placed on thinking about death during life:

“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life.”

A: Achievement

What has research shown is most tied to success? Seligman says it’s “grit“. Perseverance.

Via Dan Pink’s excellent book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.

The best predictor of success, the researchers found, was the prospective cadets’ ratings on a noncognitive, nonphysical trait known as “grit”—defined as “perseverance and passion for long-term goals.”

Researchers have found that grit is more predictive of success than IQ in a variety of challenging environments from Ivy League schools to military academies to the National Spelling Bee.

More about grit (and how to be “grittier”) here.

Want to learn more about how to use these ideas to be happier? Check out this post.

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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