TIME psychology

The Most Effective Way To Change Your Behavior and Improve Your Life

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Eric Barker writes Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

Changing your environment is the easiest and most powerful way to change your behavior.

Altering the things in your home and your office and carefully picking the people you spend time with will bring you greater and more effortless results than anything else.

But you’re an objective, self-determined, independent, unique snowflake, you say? No, you’re not.

The reason you’re often so good a predicting other people’s behavior and so bad at predicting your own is because when forecasting other people’s actions you always take context into consideration. With yourself, you assume you’re objective.

We are often lazy creatures of habit, strongly influenced by the world around us. We don’t even use our leisure time to do what we really enjoy, we do what’s easiest. And without a prod we don’t do the ethical thing, we do what’s convenient.

But the predictability of our reliance on context points to a remarkably effective method for improving one’s life:

Manipulate your environment so as to make what you should do easy and what you shouldn’t do hard.

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This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

Related posts:

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

How To Get People To Like You: 7 Ways From An FBI Behavior Expert

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 Careers & Workplace

How to Read the 3 Signs Telling Your Purpose in Life

Start by listening to your life

There are no billboards or flashing neon that light the way toward finding your calling or purpose.

Very few people instinctively know what they want to do with their life.

For many years I knew I wanted to be an entrepreneur, but I didn’t know exactly what I wanted that to be or look like. I know that’s the case for many individuals who don’t want to work for someone else.

In his latest book, The Art of Work, bestselling author and blogger, Jeff Goins offers some unconventional advice to help you abandon the status quo and kick start a life work that’s packed with passion and purpose.

In an interview with Goins, he shared three actionable tactics that anyone can use to identify their calling.

1. Listen to your life.

According to Goins, the best place to begin charting your future is by taking a look at your past.

“One of my favorite quotes is from Parker Palmer when he says, ‘Before I can tell my life what I want to do with it, I need to listen to my life to tell me who I am,” said Goins.

The elevator speech for this tactic is being more self aware about what you’ve accomplished or not accomplished in the past. The intent is to look for a unifying thread or pattern that’s consistent throughout your past experience that’s also consistent with your passion and skills.

That unifying pattern or thread should energize you once you recognize it. Goins says this retrospection will also identify those activities in the past that you should avoid as you move forward because they drained you or amplified weaknesses.

“I don’t believe your past necessarily dictates your future but it should inform it,” said Goins.

2. Accidental apprenticeships.

The reality is that nobody achieves success or realizes their life purpose by themselves. It’s a process that requires and demands a team of mentors providing guidance.

According to Goins, that kind of help is all around us — we just don’t always see it.

“Every story of success is a story of community. Some people will help you willingly, while others may contribute to your education on accident. If you are wise, you can use it all,” said Goins. “Even though each of us has a unique journey, it’s full of teachers who can help along the way. Your job is not to seek them out necessarily, but to recognize them when they appear, because oftentimes they’re closer than you think.”

3. Prep for painful practice.

There’s a myth that once you know what it is that you’re supposed to pursue, achieving that purpose will be easy because it plays to your strengths and passion. That’s not the case.

“The paradox is it’s difficult to achieve the level excellence that your calling should merit, but that struggle for mastery is also invigorating and fulfilling. It’s tough and not everybody realizes that until they’re in it,” said Goins.

Just as with professional athletes, musicians or artisans, expect to intentionally hone your craft to the point of exhaustion. Otherwise, mastery will elude you.

“Grinding it out is not fun. Painful practice is not fun, but it’s necessary to both clarify your purpose and achieve it,” said Goins.

The key is finding where your abilities and personal drive intersect the needs of others. According to Goins you can find that juncture by answering the following three questions:

  1. What do I love?
  2. What am I good at?
  3. What does the world need?

Once that sweet spot is identified you won’t have a job or even a career. You’ll have a life purpose.

This article originally appeared on Entrepreneur.com

More from Entrepreneur.com:

TIME Innovation

How to Go From Evaluation to Inspiration

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The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

Inspiration can be activated, captured, and manipulated

We live in a culture saturated with evaluation.

In school, we learn to take tests. We take the tests, and depending on the outcome, either feel really smart or really stupid. We then prepare for college entrance exams. And then graduate entrance exams. And then occupational entrance exams. Then on the job, we are constantly being evaluated, evaluated, evaluated. With all this evaluating, we have little time left for inspiration. We have little time left to explore the full range of possible roles in life, and see which really activates us.

This matters.

In a culture obsessed with measuring talent, ability, and potential, we often overlook the important role of inspiration in enabling potential.

Inspiration awakens us to new possibilities by allowing us to transcend our ordinary experiences and limitations. Inspiration propels a person from apathy to possibility, and transforms the way we perceive our own capabilities. Inspiration may sometimes be overlooked because of its elusive nature. Its history of being treated as supernatural or divine hasn’t helped the situation. But as recent research shows, inspiration can be activated, captured, and manipulated, and it has a major effect on important life outcomes.

Inspiration has three main qualities. Psychologists Todd M. Thrash and Andrew J. Elliot have noted these core aspects of inspiration: evocation, transcendence, and approach motivation.

  1. Inspiration is evoked spontaneously without intention. People are usually inspired by something, whether it’s an inspiring role model, teacher, or subject matter. Which is all the more reason why we ought to create the conditions for inspiration.
  2. Inspiration is transcendent of our more animalistic and self-serving concerns and limitations. Such transcendence often involves a moment of clarity and awareness of new possibilities for oneself as well as others. As Thrash and Elliot note, “The heights of human motivation spring from the beauty and goodness that precede us and awaken us to better possibilities.” This moment of clarity is often vivid, and can take the form of a grand vision, or a “seeing” of something one has not seen before (but that was probably always there).
  3. Inspiration involves approach motivation, in which the individual strives to transmit, express, or actualize a new idea or vision. According to Thrash and Elliot, inspiration involves both being inspired by something and acting on that inspiration.

Inspired people share certain characteristics. Thrash and Elliot developed the “Inspiration Scale,” which measures the frequency with which a person experiences inspiration in their daily lives. They found that inspired people were more open to new experiences, and reported more absorption in their tasks. Openness to experience often came before inspiration, suggesting that those who are more open to inspiration are more likely to experience it. Additionally, inspired individuals weren’t more conscientious, supporting the view that inspiration is something that happens to you and is not willed. Inspired individuals also reported having a stronger drive to master their work, but were less competitive, which makes sense if you think of competition as a non-transcendent desire to outperform competitors. Inspired people were more intrinsically motivated and less extrinsically motivated, variables that also strongly impact work performance.

Inspiration was least related to variables that involve agency or the enhancement of resources, again demonstrating the transcendent nature of inspiration. Therefore, what makes an object inspiring is its perceived subjective intrinsic value, and not how much it’s objectively worth or how attainable it is. Inspired people also reported higher levels of important psychological resources, including belief in their own abilities, self-esteem, and optimism. Mastery of work, absorption, creativity, perceived competence, self-esteem, and optimism were all consequences of inspiration, suggesting that inspiration facilitates these important psychological resources. Interestingly, work mastery also came before inspiration, suggesting that inspiration is not purely passive, but does favor the prepared mind.

Inspiration is not the same as positive affect. Compared to the normal experiences of everyday life, inspiration involves elevated levels of positive affect and task involvement, and lower levels of negative affect. Inspiration is not the same state as positive affect, however. Compared to being in an enthusiastic and excited state, people who enter an inspired state (by thinking of a prior moment they were inspired) reported greater levels of spirituality and meaning, and lower levels of volitional control, controllability, and self-responsibility for their inspiration. Whereas positive affect is activated when someone is making progress toward their immediate, conscious goals, inspiration is more related to an awakening to something new, better, or more important: transcendence of one’s previous concerns.

Inspiration is the springboard for creativity. Inspired people view themselves as more creative and show actual increases in self-ratings of creativity over time. Patent-holding inventors report being inspired more frequently and intensely than non-patent holders, and the higher the frequency of inspiration, the higher the number of patents held. Being in a state of inspiration also predicts the creativity of writing samples across scientific writing, poetry, and fiction (as judged by a panel of fellow students) independent of SAT verbal scores, openness to experience, positive affect, specific behaviors (e.g., deleting prior sentences), and aspects of the product quality (e.g., technical merit).

Inspired writers are more efficient and productive, and spend less time pausing and more time writing. The link between inspiration and creativity is consistent with the transcendent aspect of inspiration, since creativity involves seeing possibility beyond existing constraints. Importantly, inspiration and effort predict different aspects of an activity. Individuals who exerted more effort writing spent more of their time pausing, deleted more words, wrote more sentences per paragraph, and had better technical merit and use of rhyming in poems, but their work was not considered more creative.

Inspiration facilitates progress toward goals. In a recent study conducted by Marina Milyavskaya and her colleagues, college students were asked to report three goals they intended to accomplish throughout the course of the semester. They then reported on their progress three times a month. Those who scored higher on the Inspiration Scale displayed increased goal progress, and their progress was a result of setting more inspired goals. Therefore, people who were generally more inspired in their daily lives also tended to set inspired goals, which were then more likely to be successfully attained.

Importantly, the relationship between inspiration and goal progress was reciprocal: goal progress also predicted future goal inspiration. As the researchers note, “this suggests that goal progress and goal inspiration build on each other to form a cycle of greater goal inspiration and greater goal pursuit.” Finally, inspired individuals reported experiencing more purpose in life and more gratitude.

Inspiration increases well-being. In another study, those who were exposed to Michael Jordan’s greatness experienced higher levels of positive affect, and this increase in positive affect was completely explained by their score on the Inspiration Scale. This inspiration was not transitory though, predicting positive well-being (e.g., positive affect, life satisfaction) three months later! Inspiration was more strongly related to future than to present satisfaction. The extent to which inspiration lasted was explained by self-reported levels of purpose and gratitude in life.

These findings show that inspiration matters a lot, which may cause someone to feel pressure to become inspired and helpless to do so considering the evocative and spontaneous nature of inspiration. The writer Elizabeth Gilbert rightly expresses this concern in her inspiring TED talk. I agree with Gilbert that one should not put pressure on oneself to become inspired. These key scientific findings suggest that inspiration is not willed– it happens. Knowing this should free you from the pressure to make inspiration happen.

This does not mean that inspiration is completely outside your control. Contrary to the view of inspiration as purely mythical or divine, I think inspiration is best thought of as a surprising interaction between your current knowledge and the information you receive from the world.

There are things you can do to increase the likelihood of inspiration occurring. Research shows quite clearly that preparation (“work mastery”) is a key ingredient. While inspiration is not the same as effort, effort is an essential condition for inspiration, preparing the mind for an inspirational experience. Openness to experience and positive affect are also important, as having an open mind and approach-oriented attitude will make it more likely that you will be aware of the inspiration once it arrives. Small accomplishments are also important, as they can boost inspiration, setting off a productive and creative cycle. Another incredibly important, and often overlooked trigger of inspiration is exposure to inspiring managers, role models, and heroes.

To become personally inspired, the best you can do is set up the optimal circumstances for inspiration. As a society, the best we can do is assist in setting up these important circumstances for everyone. An easy first step is simply recognizing the sheer potency of inspiration, and its potential impact on everything we do.

It’s time to shift from a culture of evaluation to a culture of inspiration.

I personally can attest to the power of inspiration. As a child in special education, I had no identity, purpose, or passion. I was thoroughly uninspired. Until one day, a special education teacher questioned my place in the school hierarchy, causing me to question my own perceived and self-imposed limitations. That moment changed everything.

This article was originally published by The Aspen Institute on Medium

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

A Philosopher’s Guide to Happiness

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Shane Parrish writes Farnam Street

Happiness: A Philosopher’s Guide is worth reading. Frederic Lenoir explores what the greatest thinkers — Aristotle, Plato, Chuang Tzu, Voltaire, Spinoza, Schopenhauer, Kant, and Freud — have to add to the ongoing conversation on happiness.

The question of happiness is forever being discussed: eventually it gets worn down and loses its edge. But although it’s become so common- place, and seems so simple, it’s still an enthralling question, one that involves a whole skein of factors not easy to untangle. … [T]he pursuit of happiness isn’t a pointless quest. We really can be happier if we think about our lives, if we work on ourselves, if we learn to make more sensible decisions, or indeed if we alter our thoughts, our beliefs, or the way we imagine ourselves and the world.

***
On why there is no recipe for happiness:

Another difficulty arises from the notably relative character of happiness: it varies with each culture and each individual, and, in every person, from one phase of life to the next. It often takes on the guise of things we don’t have: for someone who is ill, happiness lies in health; for someone who is unemployed, it’s in work; for some single people, it lies in being a couple—and, for some married people, in being single again! These disparities are heightened by a subjective dimension: artists are happy when practicing their art, intellectuals when handling concepts, romantics when they are in love.

Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, shed considerable light on this point when he noted in Civilization and Its Discontents:

In this, [the individual’s] psychical constitution will play a decisive part, irrespectively of the external circumstances. The man who is pre-dominantly erotic will give first preference to his emotional relationships with other people; the narcissistic man, who inclines to be more self-sufficient, will seek his main satisfactions in his internal mental processes; the man of action will never give up on the external world on which he can try out his strength.

***
The origins of the word

In Greek, the word for happiness, eudaimonia, can be taken to mean “having a good daimon.” These days, we would say “having a guardian angel,” or “being born under a lucky star.” In French, bonheur comes from the Latin bonum augurium: “good omen” or “good fortune.” In English, happiness comes from the Icelandic root happ, “luck” or “chance,” and there is indeed a large element of “luck” in being happy, if only because happiness is, as we shall see, to a large degree based on our sensibility, on our biological inheritance, on the family and social environment in which we were born and grew up, on the surroundings in which we develop and on the encounters that mark our lives.

***
The philosophical journey and the path to wisdom

We are conditioned but not determined by various factors to be more or less happy. So, by using our reason and will, for example, we have the ability to increase our capacity for happiness (though the success of our quest is not thereby guaranteed). Because they shared this conviction, many philosophers have written books purportedly on “ethics,” devoted to what will encourage us to lead the best and happiest lives imaginable. And isn’t this philosophy’s main rationale? Epicurus, a sage from Athens who lived shortly after Aristotle, points out that “in the study of philosophy, pleasure accompanies growing knowledge; for pleasure does not follow learning; rather, learning and pleasure advance side by side.” This quest for a “good” or “happy” life is called wisdom.

[…]

So it is a philosophical journey, in this broader sense, that I would like to propose to the reader. There is nothing linear about the route, which won’t be following the chronological order of the authors’ lives or the emergence of concepts: this would be conventional and boring. It is, instead, a ramble, the most exciting imaginable, with many questions and concrete examples on the way.

***
The intellectual distrust of happiness

The essayist Pascal Bruckner offers another view: “I love life too much to wish to be permanently happy.” Indeed, there is a movement against the pursuit of happiness, which I’ve discussed before. Lenoir, however, adds to this conversation and speaks to a reason for the intellectual mistrust in happiness: vulnerability.

I think that there is another reason why certain academics and intellectuals mistrust this theme and are reluctant to tackle it—a reason that they find difficult to admit to: to discuss it properly, we have to expose ourselves on a personal level. We can discourse ad nauseam about language, hermeneutics, the theory of knowledge, epistemology or the organization of political systems without this necessarily involving us intimately. Things are completely different when it comes to the question of happiness, a question that, as we shall see, affects our emotions, our feelings, our desires, our beliefs and the meaning we give to our lives. It’s impossible to give a lecture or a talk on this subject without a member of the audience asking, “What about you? What’s the meaning of your life? What system of ethics do you follow? Are you happy? Why?” A lot of people find these questions embarrassing.

In the end, happiness is a philosophical pursuit. Happiness: A Philosopher’s Guide is a great place to start your inquiry.

This piece originally appeared on Farnam Street.

Join over 60,000 readers and get a free weekly update via email here.

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 Ways to Spend Your Money That Will Make You Happier

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Eric Barker writes Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

Can Money Buy Happiness?

Yes. But you might be surprised by the ways you should spend it.

Harvard professor Michael Norton and co-author Elizabeth Dunn have a new book out, Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending, that details the research on the 5 best ways to turn your dollars into lasting smiles. What are they?

1) Buy Experiences

Via Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending:

“…57 percent of Americans reported that the experiential purchase made them happier than the material purchase, while only 34 percent reported the opposite. This difference was more pronounced among women, young people and those living in cities and suburbs. But the same basic pattern emerged even for men, the elderly, and country dwellers. In study after study, people are in a better mood when they reflect on their experiential purchases, which they describe as “money well spent.”

(For more on the science of being happier and more successful, click here.)

2) Make It A Treat

Via Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending:

“…knowing you can’t have access to something all the time may help you appreciate it more when you do… When you love a television show — say,The Office — you might think the best way to maximize your happiness is to buy the DVD set and watch all the episodes straight through. Getting rid of the commercials and eliminating the weeklong wait between episodes seems sensible. But research suggests that taking breaks between episodes can increase your enjoyment. Perhaps most amazingly, commercials can improve the experience of watching television. Even entertaining shows can start to drag after five to seven minutes, decreasing our enjoyment. Commercials disrupt that adaptation process, so when the show comes back on, we can fall in love with Jim and Pam all over again.”

(For more on how ancient philosophy can make you happier, click here.)

3) Buy Time

Via Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending:

People who feel they have plenty of free time are more likely to exercise, do volunteer work, and participate in other activities that are linked to increased happiness. Although money can be used to buy “free time,” in part by outsourcing the demands of daily life such as cooking, cleaning and even grocery shopping, wealthier individuals report elevated levels of time pressure… Wealthier individuals tend to spend more of their time on activities associated with relatively high levels of tension and stress, such as shopping, working and commuting.

(To learn how to stop being lazy and use your time more productively, click here.)

4) Pay Now, Consume Later

Via Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending:

Delay can enhance the pleasure of consumption not only by providing an opportunity to develop positive expectations, but also by enhancing what we call the “drool factor.” The very best stimulus for studying the drool factor? Chocolate. In a recent experiment, college students chose whether they wanted a Hershey’s Kiss or a Hershey’s Hug. They either ate their chosen chocolate immediately or waited thirty minutes. When students had to wait for their candy, they enjoyed it more and expressed more interest in buying additional Hershey’s chocolates. Even though they didn’t learn anything new about the chocolates, the delay provided an opportunity to build visceral desire, to drool a bit.

(To learn what research says about how millionaires really become millionaires, click here.)

5) Invest In Others

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.”

(For more on how nice guys can finish first, click here.)

More from Michael Norton’s TEDx talk here:

To learn more check out Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending.

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

This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

Related posts:

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

How To Get People To Like You: 7 Ways From An FBI Behavior Expert

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 space

Life in Space? The Odds Just Went Up

A different kind of Europeans: The discolored cracks of the Jovian moon Europa could suggest life
NASA/JPL A different kind of Europeans: The discolored cracks of the Jovian moon Europa could suggest life

A new study reveals new promise on Jupiter's most intriguing moon

If ever there was a time to disobey HAL, the coolly sociopathic computer that stole the show in both 2001: A Space Odyssey and the 2010 sequel, it’s now. At the end of that second movie, the universe unfolds before a group of astronauts exploring the Jupiter system, and as they marvel at it, HAL gives them a simple warning: All these worlds are yours—except Europa. Attempt no landing there.

That’s a rule that’s getting harder not to break. Europa is one of the four large moons of Jupiter, and easily its most compelling. Its entire surface is covered in a thick rind of water ice, with what is almost certainly a deep, globe-girdling ocean of liquid water underneath. Now, a study published in Geophysical Research Letters offers new evidence that the ocean could be home to—or at least hospitable to—extraterrestrial life.

MORE: See The Trailer For TIME’s Unprecedented New Series: A Year In Space

It’s not easy to keep water in a liquid state out in the cosmic provinces where Europa lives. The little world’s surface temperature averages -280º F (-173º C), with the sun little more than a very bright match head 483 million mi. (779 million km) away. But you don’t need sunlight to generate warmth when you’ve got what’s known as tidal flexing.

As Europa circles Jupiter, its large sister moons, Io, Ganymede and Callisto, do the same in their own orbital lanes. The moons periodically pass one another like cars on a race track, and as they do, they tug—and slightly stretch—one another gravitationally. All that flexing generates internal heat, and in Europa’s case, that keeps its ocean liquid and relatively warm.

Multiple space probes and Earthly telescopes have photographed a webwork of cracks all over Europa’s surface, the result of fracturing and refracturing caused by the constant pulsing. When the cracks appear, subsurface water percolates—or even bursts—to the surface. A lot of those cracks turn a dark yellow-brown over time, and that raises intriguing possibilities.

The discoloration is likely caused by the particular chemistry of the water as it is exposed to the harsh radiation of space. But just what that chemistry is was unknown. It could be sulfur, it could be magnesium or it could, tantalizingly, be salt, giving the Europan oceans the same warm, amniotic conditions as Earth’s own.

To test this idea, planetary scientist Kevin Hand and co-author Robert Carlson, both of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., built what they called “Europa in a can.” Starting with both straight sodium chloride—or table salt—and a combination of water and salt, they chilled both test samples down to the same temperature as Europa’s surface and bombarded them with radiation similar to the environment of Jovian space. The radiation bath continued for varying lengths of time—all on the order of tens of hours. Direct radiation for that long, Hand and Carlson calculated, was the equivalent of about a century’s worth of the more diffuse radiation of space.

Over time, the samples did what the researchers suspected they’d do, which was turn precisely the yellow-brown color of the Europan fractures—with longer radiation exposure producing darker shades. But since human eyeballs are not the most precise ways to measure such things, the researchers also compared the electromagnetic spectra of their lab samples to the spectra of the Europa cracks, taken from images captured by NASA’s Galileo Jupiter probe. The two lined up perfectly.

“This work tells us the chemical signature of radiaton-baked sodium chloride is a compelling match to spacecraft data for Europa’s mystery material,” said Hand in a statement that accompanied the release of the study.

None of this means Europa is home to life, but it goes a long way to making the case that its environment is right for it—a critical first step. Before too long, the mystery may be probed from close up. Last year, the White House included a request for $30 million to study a mission to Europa, as part of NASA’s fiscal 2016 budget.

The plan would involve sending an unmanned probe to orbit Jupiter and make perhaps 45 flybys of Europa, during which it would remotely study the moon’s anatomy and chemistry, and perhaps fly through some of the plumes of water vapor that erupt from its fractures, analyzing their composition. Last February, JPL held a workshop to conduct preliminary planning for the mission and polled planetary scientists around the world to ask what instruments they think should be included on the spacecraft.

The Jupiter trip, if it’s green-lit at all, won’t happen soon. The earliest a Europa probe would probably launch would be 2022, arriving at the Jovian system sometime around 2030. But Europa has time. It’s been there, like Earth, for more than four billion years. If, like Earth too, the moon has incubated life over those long epochs, it’ll still be waiting for us when we arrive.

TIME psychology

This Is the Key to Happiness, According to Psychotherapists

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Eric Barker writes Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

The story you tell yourself about your life.

When your vision of your life story is inadequate, depression can result.

Psychotherapists actually help “rewrite” that story and this process is as, if not more, effective than medication.

Via The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human:

According to the psychologist Michele Crossley, depression frequently stems from an “incoherent story,” an “inadequate narrative account of oneself,” or “a life story gone awry.” Psychotherapy helps unhappy people set their life stories straight; it literally gives them a story they can live with. And it works. According to a recent review article in American Psychologist, controlled scientific studies show that the talking cure works as well as (and perhaps much better than) newer therapies such as antidepressant drugs or cognitive-behavioral therapy. A psychotherapist can therefore be seen as a kind of script doctor who helps patients revise their life stories so that they can play the role of protagonists again— suffering and flawed protagonists, to be sure, but protagonists who are moving toward the light.

What other effects do stories have on your life?

Stories bring meaning

Stories can help you add meaning to your life. Reflect on the different ways your life could have gone, and the possible “life stories” that could have resulted. Believing that the way things did work out was “meant to be” and appreciating the benefits of that journey can both add a deeper feeling of meaning to your life.

This same reasoning is why some people believe in fate. Feeling that things were “meant to be” and that there is meaning in tragedy allows people to cope

Watching tragic movies and plays is enjoyable because it makes us feel gratitude that our lives, by comparison, are not that bad.

Stories give meaning to groups too

Any group must have a story as well. This is what creates team morale. Groups that take a second to think about a world without them, to think of the good they bring not existing, develop a greater commitment and passion for their cause.

Stories clarify our future goals

Want to quickly find out what is really important to you? Imagine your funeral. What stories do you want others to tell about your life? Now go make those stories true.

A bad story can be dangerous

As in the first example where a problematic vision of your life can trigger depression, the wrong stories can have a negative effect on your life.

Stories warp our vision of the world. Fundamentally, our brains may not be able to tell the difference between the real and the story.

This can be good — it can increase empathy and make us kinder to others. Or it can be bad:

In Appel’s study, people who mainly watched drama and comedy on TV — as opposed to heavy viewers of news programs and documentaries — had substantially stronger “just-world” beliefs. Appel concludes that fiction, by constantly exposing us to the theme of poetic justice, may be partly responsible for the sense that the world is, on the whole, a just place.

This is despite the fact, as Appel puts it, “that this is patently not the case.” As people who watch the news know very well, bad things happen to good people all the time, and most crimes go unpunished. In other words, fiction seems to teach us to see the world through rose-colored lenses. And the fact that we see the world that way seems to be an important part of what makes human societies work.

We become like the fictional characters we watch. We must be careful what stories we take in and believe.

Stories can help us change ourselves

Timothy Wilson, author of Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change, has talked about how personally story-editing our lives can lead us to not only feel better, but also reinvent ourselves:

The idea is that if we want to change people’s behaviors, we need to try to get inside their heads and understand how they see the world—the stories and narratives they tell themselves about who they are and why they do what they do…As Kurt Vonnegut famously wrote, “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” People who do volunteer work, for example, often change their narratives of who they are, coming to view themselves as caring, helpful people. Well-designed studies have shown that teen girls who participate in community service programs do better in school and are less likely to become pregnant.

You must have a story

So you must have a story that you tell yourself about your life and it must be a good one. To assemble one or fix the one you have:

  • Explore story-editing if your vision of life doesn’t seem to fit.

Join over 180,000 readers. Get a free weekly update via email here.

This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

Related posts:

New Harvard Research Reveals A Fun Way To Be More Successful

The 8 Things The Happiest People Do Every Day

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

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.

MONEY Taxes

Is Your Tax Refund Too Big?

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Getting a big check from the IRS is exciting, but it might not be the best for your long-term financial health.

Taxpayers getting back money from the government this year have received an average refund of $2,893 so far, according to March 26 data from the Internal Revenue Service. That’s a nice bump up in cash flow, and a lot of people look forward to it as a chance to splurge, pay down debt or add to their savings.

But those people could have had that money all year, had they withheld less of their paycheck. Getting a big refund means you essentially gave the government an interest-free loan, when you could have put the money in a savings or retirement account to earn interest. You may see that money as a windfall, but you should really see it as the government making good on a year-long IOU.

There’s no right or wrong answer to how much of a refund you should aim to get, because it’s very much a matter of personal preference, and it can also be tricky to estimate. No matter how you choose to deal with your taxes, it’s worthwhile to regularly evaluate your withholdings. Here’s why.

Your Life Changes

About 82% of taxpayers receive refunds, but even if you’ve consistently gotten one, a significant life change may affect how much you receive or if you get one at all. Marriage, divorce, the birth or adoption of a child, or a drastic income change should trigger a review of how much you have withheld from your paycheck.

You Should Look for Patterns

Beyond re-evaluating your tax situation in the wake of a noteworthy life event, your tax-filing history will give you a good idea of when you should consider changing how much is withheld from your paycheck. It can be a difficult thing to estimate, because as much as you want may want to avoid owing the Internal Revenue Service in April, getting too much in return may not be the best for your long-term financial health.

“A good place to be is owing a little bit or getting a little bit back,” said Elliott Freirich, a certified public accountant in Chicago. But where exactly is that “good place”? “There’s no right answer. It’s a gray area, but I would tell people if they could kind of keep (their refund) under $1,000. … It’s not like it would go away and they would never have it if they reduce their withholding.”

Know Your Own Saving/Spending Habits

Some people feel that way — that they wouldn’t be disciplined enough to set aside the money they would otherwise get from a large refund.

“It’s sort of like forced savings,” said Jorie Johnson, a certified financial planner in New Jersey. She said she suggests her clients re-evaluate their withholding if their refund exceeds $5,000. “I encourage them to use half of their refund toward their IRA, if they haven’t already maxed it out, and the other half on themselves, as a reward — that’s assuming they don’t have any debt.”

Consider the big picture: Do you look forward to a large tax refund but struggle to meet your savings goals on a monthly basis? If you’re trying to work your way out of debt or regularly find yourself financing your lifestyle while also getting a large refund check every tax season, that’s a sign you need to revisit your withholding (you might need to re-evaluate your spending habits, too).

Remember that withholding is just an estimate of what you’ll owe, and it may take you a few years of consistent tax outcomes to confidently adjust that estimate to meet your tax needs without owing or receiving a large sum come tax time.

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This article originally appeared on Credit.com.

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