TIME psychology

5 Things Your Clothes Are Saying About You

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Eric Barker writes Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

Some findings about clothes from psychological research:

  1. Different color clothing says different things about you. Most interesting is that studies show red has some pretty unique effects. For the most part, red seems to mean sex. Research shows it makes men more attractive to women. It makes women more attractive to men. It helps hitchikers get picked up. (More on the odd and interesting effects of red here.)
  2. Dressing young can make you healthier. Glasses make you look smarter but less attractive. How a female celebrity dresses can tell you how short her marriage will be.
  3. You like brand name clothes because they make you seem high status and (hopefully) this will cause people to treat you better.
  4. Dark clothes = neurotic. Formal dress = conscientious. Messy and unconventional clothing = open to new things. Cleavage and expensive clothes = narcissism in women.
  5. You trust doctors more when they wear the white coat. You like musicians’ music more when they dress the way you expect them to. By the same token, what you wear affects how you act: when research subjects wore lab coats they acted more attentive and careful. So choose your clothes wisely when you need to perform at your best.

This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

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Related posts:

An easy way for women to be more attractive to men and men to be more attractive to women

10 things science can teach us about being sexy as hell

10 ways science explains why James Bond is so irresistible to women

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 How to Know Who Your Real Friends Are

Fackbook Acquires WhatsApp For $16 Billion
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Eric Barker writes Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

Look at your phone texting and calling patterns. Scientists are realizing they give powerful insights about relationships.

Via Sciencemag.org:

Just by analyzing the calling patterns, the researchers could accurately label two people as friends or nonfriends more than 95% of the time. But the results, published online today in theProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, show that the mobile phone data were better at predicting friendship than the subjects themselves. Thirty-two pairs of subjects switched from calling each other acquaintances to friends in the traditionally gathered survey data. These are most likely new relationships that formed during the course of the study, say the researchers, and they left a clear signal in the mobile phone data. Friends call each other far more often than acquaintances do when they are off-campus and during weekends. The pattern is so distinct that the researchers spotted budding friendships in the phone data months before the people themselves called themselves friends.

There’s another great article in the WSJ by Robert Lee Hotz about how scientists are using phone data to study our behavior — and learning more than they ever thought they could:

…at MIT, scientists who tracked student cellphones during the latest presidential election were able to deduce that two people were talking about politics, even though the researchers didn’t know the content of the conversation. By analyzing changes in movement and communication patterns, researchers could also detect flu symptoms before the students themselves realized they were getting sick.

“Phones can know,” said Dr. Pentland, director of MIT’s Human Dynamics Laboratory, who helped pioneer the research. “People can get this god’s-eye view of human behavior.”

Of course, companies are very interested in this data:

Cellphone providers are openly exploring other possibilities. By mining their calling records for social relationships among customers, several European telephone companies discovered that people were five times more likely to switch carriers if a friend had already switched, said Mr. Eagle, who works with the firms. The companies now selectively target people for special advertising based on friendships with people who dropped the service.

And some of the results are downright unnerving:

After analyzing more than 16 million records of call date, time and position, the researchers determined that, taken together, people’s movements appeared to follow a mathematical pattern. The scientists said that, with enough information about past movements, they could forecast someone’s future whereabouts with 93.6% accuracy.

The pattern held true whether people stayed close to home or traveled widely, and wasn’t affected by the phone user’s age or gender.

A few other interesting tidbits:

  1. Overall, our phones make us happier. (There’s even an app for that.)
  2. They may be making us more selfish, however. Our phones can fulfill our need for human contact, making us less inclined to go out of our way to help others.
  3. These devices can distract us so much we don’t notice the world around us — even if it contains unicycling clowns. (To be fair, people may actually like us better when we are distracted during a conversation.)
  4. We’ve become so addicted to our phones that two-thirds of users report hearing “phantom ringing.”
  5. We rely so much on these devices that a third of people under 30 can’t remember their home phone numbers — if they have one at all.
  6. 5% of relationships were ended by text message. People even get divorced via text. (iPhone users are more promiscuous, by the way.)
  7. By stripping away the emotional information in faces and intonation, text messaging might be simulating autism.
  8. That said, text message reminders have effectively encouraged saving, reduced smoking and increased voting.

This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

Join over 135,000 readers. Get a free weekly update via email here.

Related posts:

How To Make Your Life Better By Sending Five Simple Emails

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

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

These Books Can Teach You to Be the Best at Anything

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Eric Barker writes Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

After my post What does it take to become an expert at anything? a number of people have written, curious about where to learn more on the subject.

A few of the best sources I pulled from are below, with links and descriptions:

Bounce: Mozart, Federer, Picasso, Beckham, and the Science of Success

“Backed by cutting-edge scientific research and case studies, Syed shatters long-held myths about meritocracy, talent, performance, and the mind. He explains why some people thrive under pressure and others choke, and weighs the value of innate ability against that of practice, hard work, and will.”

Check it out here.

Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To

“Dr. Sian Beilock, an expert on performance and brain science, reveals inChoke the astonishing new science of why we all too often blunder when the stakes are high. What happens in our brain and body when we experience the dreaded performance anxiety? And what are we doing differently when everything magically “clicks” into place and the perfect golf swing, tricky test problem, or high-pressure business pitch becomes easy?”

Check it out here.

Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries

“Based on deep and extensive research, including more than 200 interviews with leading innovators, Sims discovered that productive, creative thinkers and doers—from Ludwig van Beethoven to Thomas Edison and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos—practice a key set of simple but ingenious experimental methods—such as failing quickly to learn fast, tapping into the genius of play, and engaging in highly immersed observation—that free their minds, opening them up to making unexpected connections and perceiving invaluable insights.”

Check it out here.

The Little Book of Talent: 52 Tips for Improving Your Skills

“It is an easy-to-use handbook of scientifically proven, field-tested methods to improve skills—your skills, your kids’ skills, your organization’s skills—in sports, music, art, math, and business. The product of five years of reporting from the world’s greatest talent hotbeds and interviews with successful master coaches, it distills the daunting complexity of skill development into 52 clear, concise directives.”

Check it out here.

Mindset: The New Psychology of Success

“World-renowned Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck, in decades of research on achievement and success, has discovered a truly groundbreaking idea–the power of our mindset. Dweck explains why it’s not just our abilities and talent that bring us success–but whether we approach them with a fixed or growth mindset.”

Check it out here.

Nine Things Successful People Do Differently

“Decades of research on achievement suggests people at the top of their game tend to reach their goals because of what they do—not because of who they are. In this short, provocative, and useful HBR Single, motivational psychologist Heidi Grant Halvorson translates the psychological secrets of these winning human beings for your use. ”

Check it out here.

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking

“Passionately argued, impressively researched, and filled with indelible stories of real people, Quiet shows how dramatically we undervalue introverts, and how much we lose in doing so. Taking the reader on a journey from Dale Carnegie’s birthplace to Harvard Business School, from a Tony Robbins seminar to an evangelical megachurch, Susan Cain charts the rise of the Extrovert Ideal in the twentieth century and explores its far-reaching effects.”

Check it out here.

Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else

“According to distinguished journalist Geoff Colvin, both the hard work and natural talent camps are wrong. What really makes the difference is a highly specific kind of effort-“deliberate practice”-that few of us pursue when we’re practicing golf or piano or stockpicking. Based on scientific research, Talent is Overrated shares the secrets of extraordinary performance and shows how to apply these principles.”

Check it out here.

The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born. It’s Grown. Here’s How

“Drawing on cutting-edge neurology and firsthand research gathered on journeys to nine of the world’s talent hotbeds—from the baseball fields of the Caribbean to a classical-music academy in upstate New York—Coyle identifies the three key elements that will allow you to develop your gifts and optimize your performance in sports, art, music, math, or just about anything.”

Check it out here.

This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

Join over 135,000 readers. Get a free weekly update via email here.

Related posts:

How To Make Your Life Better By Sending Five Simple Emails

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

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

How to Find The Perfect Job for You

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Eric Barker writes Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

Should you follow your passion?

It may not be that easy unless we can all be athletes and artists:

Via So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love:

In fact, less than 4 percent of the total identified passions had any relation to work or education, with the remaining 96 percent describing hobby-style interests such as sports and art.

Chase money? Income doesn’t affect job satisfaction at all and job satisfaction affects income more than you might think. Happiness is only about what you earn when you get paid by the hour.

And money isn’t everything. There’s also sleep.

What topped the list of the most sleep-deprived professions?

  1. Home health aides
  2. Lawyers
  3. Police officers
  4. Physicians

So what should you do? Let’s look at the big picture.

Job satisfaction is key because work is often a bigger source of happiness than home, ironically. Enjoying our jobs has a great deal to do with how much control we feel we have and whether we’re doing things we’re good at. Social factors are huge too.

Happy feelings are associated with “the fulfillment of psychological needs: learning, autonomy, using one’s skills, respect, and the ability to count on others in an emergency.”

What do we know about the happiest and unhappiest jobs?

It’s interesting to compare these jobs with the list of the ten most hated jobs, which were generally much better paying and have higher social status. What’s striking about the list is that these relatively high level people are imprisoned in hierarchical bureaucracies. They see little point in what they are doing. The organizations they work for don’t know where they are going, and as a result, neither do these people.

What makes for a satisfying job?

…the strongest determinants of job satisfaction are relations with colleagues and supervisors, task diversity and job security.

Using your “signature strengths” — those qualities you are uniquely best at, the talents that set you apart from others — makes you stress less:

The more hours per day Americans get to use their strengths to do what they do best, the less likely they are to report experiencing worry, stress, anger, sadness, or physical pain…

You want to experience “flow”. It’s when you’re so wrapped up in what you’re doing that the world fades away.

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:

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

And you want to be someplace where you’re treated like a partner — not an underling.

Via Gallup:

Learning something new and interesting daily is an important psychological need and one of the most prevalent attributes that people in communities with high wellbeing have in common. A key element in work environment wellbeing, being treated as a partner rather than as an underling lays a foundation for higher employee engagement and productivity, as well as better emotional and physical health.

Any specific jobs to avoid? Lawyers are miserable.

Martin Seligman, psychology professor at UPenn and author of Authentic Happiness, clues us in as to just how unhappy lawyers are:

Researchers at John Hopkins University found statistically significant elevations of major depressive disorder in only 3 of 104 occupations surveyed. When adjusted for sociodemographics, lawyers topped the list, suffering from depression at a rate of 3.6 times higher than employed persons generally. Lawyers also suffer from alcoholism and illegal drug use at rates far higher than non-lawyers. The divorce rate among lawyers, especially women, also appears to be higher than the divorce rate among other professionals. Thus, by any measure, lawyers embody the paradox of money losing its hold. They are the best-paid professionals, and yet they are disproportionately unhappy and unhealthy. And lawyers know it; many are retiring early or leaving the profession altogether.

Job satisfaction isn’t just about your job. Try to make yourself happier: overall happiness causes job satisfaction more than job satisfaction causes overall happiness.

Happiness makes us successful – yes, that’s causation, not correlation. (Employers should try to make their employees happier too: happy employees make for rich companies.)

And unless you’re really desperate, you might want to think twice about settling. People with no job are happier than people with a lousy job.

American workers who are emotionally disconnected from their work and workplace — known as “actively disengaged” workers — rate their lives more poorly than do those who are unemployed. Forty-two percent of actively disengaged workers are thriving in their lives, compared with 48% of the unemployed. At the other end of the spectrum are “engaged” employees — American workers who are involved in and enthusiastic about their work — 71% of whom are thriving.

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This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

Join over 135,000 readers. Get a free weekly update via email here.

Related posts:

How To Make Your Life Better By Sending Five Simple Emails

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

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

An Infant’s Brain Maps Language From Birth, Study Says

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The infant's brain retains language that it hears at birth and recognizes it years later, even if the child no longer speaks that language.

A new study study reveals that an infant’s brain may remember a language, even if the child has no idea how to speak a word of it.

The finding comes from a new study performed by a team of researchers from McGill University’s Department of Psychology and Montreal’s Neurological Institute who are working to understand how the brain learns language.

As it turns out, the language that an infant hears starting at birth creates neural patterns that the unconscious brain retains years later, even if the child completely stops using the language. The study offers the first neural evidence that traces of so-called “lost” languages remain in the brain.

Because these lost languages commonly occur within the context of international adoptions—when a child is born where one language is spoken and then reared in another country with another language—the researchers recruited test subjects from the international adoption community in Montreal. They studied 48 girls between the ages of nine and 17 years old. One group was born and raised speaking only French. The second group was bilingual, speaking French and Chinese fluently. And the third was Chinese-speaking children who were adopted as infants and later became French speakers, but discontinued exposure to Chinese after the first few years of life. They had no conscious recollection of the Chinese language. “They were essentially monolingual French at this point,” explained Dr. Denise Klein, one of the researchers, in an interview with TIME. “But they had been exposed to the Chinese language during the first year or two of their life.”

The three groups were asked to perform a Chinese tonal task–”It’s simply differentiating a tone,” said Klein. “Everybody can do it equally.” Scans were taken of their brains while they performed the task and the researchers studied the images. The results of the study, published in the November 17 edition of the scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), showed that the brain activation pattern of the adopted Chinese who “lost” or completely discontinued using the language, matched the brain activation patterns for those who continued speaking Chinese since birth—and was completely different from the group of monolingual French speakers.

The researchers interpret this to believe that the neural pathways for the Chinese language could only have been acquired during the first months of life. In layman’s terms, this means that the infant brain developed Chinese language patterns at birth and never forgot them, even though the child no longer speaks or understands the language.

“We looked at language that was abruptly cut off, so we could see what happens developmentally in that early period,” said Klein. “The sound of languages are acquired relatively early in life, usually within the first year. We’ve learned through a lot of seminal work that is out there that children start out as global citizens who turn their heads equally to all sounds and only later start to edit and become experts in the languages that they’re regularly exposed to.” The question for the researchers was whether the brains of the Chinese-born children who no longer spoke their native language would react like a French speaker or like a bilingual group.

To see what neural pathways might still exist in a brain and to see what a brain might remember of the mother tongue, the researchers used Chinese language tones, which infants in China would have been exposed to before coming to live in French-speaking Montreal. “If you have never been exposed to Chinese, you would just process the tones as ‘sounds,’” said Klein. However, if someone had been previously exposed to Chinese, like the bilingual Chinese-French speakers, they would process the tone linguistically, using neural pathways in the language-processing hemisphere of their brain, not just the sound-processing ones. Even though they could have completed the task without activating the language hemisphere of their brain, their brains simply couldn’t suppress the fact that the sound was a language that they recognized. Even though they did not speak or understand the language, their brains still processed it as such.

The results were that the brain patterns of the Chinese-born children who had “lost” their native tongue looked like the brains of the bilingual group, and almost nothing like the monolingual French group. This was true, even though the children didn’t actually speak any Chinese. “These templates are maintained in the brain, even though they no longer have any knowledge of Chinese,” said Klein, who was not surprised that these elements remained in the brain.

As with most scientific research, this finding opens the door to even more questions, particularly as to whether children exposed to a language early on in life, even if they don’t use the language, will have an easier time learning that language later in life. Don’t go rushing to Baby Einstein quite yet, though. “We haven’t tested whether children who are exposed to language early, re-learn the language more easily later,” said Dr. Klein, “But it is what we predict.”

What the study does suggest though is the importance of this early phase of language exposure. “What the study points out is how quite surprisingly early this all takes place,” said Klein. “There has been a lot of debate about what the optimal period for the development of language and lots of people argued for around the ages of 4 or 5 as one period, then around age 7 as another and then around adolescence as another critical period. This really highlights the importance of the first year from a neural perspective.”

“Everything about language processing follows on the early ability to do these phonological discriminations,” said Klein. “You become better readers if you do these things.”

While Klein isn’t an expert in the field of language acquisition, she does surmise that the more languages you are exposed to the better for neural pathway development, but she hasn’t fully tested that hypothesis. She mentioned other studies that show that early exposure to multiple languages can lead to more lingual “flexibility” down the road. Before you clean out Berlitz and build a Thai-Kurdish-German-Mandarin language playlist for your infant, Klein doesn’t recommend loading kids up with “thousands of languages.” She explains: “I don’t think bombarding somebody with multiple languages necessarily improves or changes anything.” Klein thought ensuring future lingual flexibility could come from exposure to just two or three languages at an early age.

To that end, Klein does think it’s important to develop these neural templates early in life, which she considers similar to wiring a room—put in the plugs, ports and outlets first and if you need to add a light later, you won’t have to start from scratch. Luckily there are no products required to develop a language template in the brain: simply talking to your baby in your native tongue is enough to develop those all-important neural pathways. If you want to invest in Baby Berlitz, well, the studies aren’t in yet, but it can’t hurt.

TIME psychology

What Are the 5 Steps for Changing Bad Habits Into Good Ones?

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Eric Barker writes Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

Ironically, studies show saying “I’ll never do that again” makes you even more likely to do that again.

About 40% of the actions we perform in a day are habits. So we’re on autopilot almost half the time.

Let’s round up the research on bad habits and good habits and learn the best way to turn one into the other.

Awareness

The first step is awareness. That cigarette doesn’t magically appear in your mouth. Noticing yourself acting habitually is a big first step. We have to get off autopilot to make changes.

It might be too hard to cut back on your habits at first. That’s okay. Try reducing the variability in the habit. In other words, don’t even try to quit smoking; try to smoke the same number of cigarettes each day. This little effort toward self-control led to a decrease in smoking over time.

Find Your Triggers

Now that you’re noticing when you do your habits, focus on what triggers them. Stress? Friends? Identifying your triggers is key.

Replace

Getting rid of habits is hard. Assigning new habits to established triggers is far easier. What are you going to do now when that trigger arises? Establish something new to take the place of the old habit.

“If-then” scenarios are one of the most powerful tools for resisting triggers. Establish a plan: “If I’m tempted to ______ then I will _______ instead.” Rather than scrambling to resist with willpower, research shows people perform dramatically better when they already have an established “if-then” process ready. More on “If-then” here.

Use baby steps, focus on consistency above all else and reward yourself for “small wins“. Savoring these little achievements day by day is one of the reasons behind the effectiveness of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Manipulate Your Context

Don’t rely on willpower. The importance of self-control is one of the biggest myths about habit change. Instead, manipulate your environment so you don’t have to exert self-control. Throw out the donuts. Hide the booze. This has been shown to be surprisingly powerful.

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

If you can make good habits take 20 seconds less time to perform and bad habits 20 seconds longer, you’ll likely see big changes in your behavior. Reminders to do the right thing (like signs or even text messages) can be a big help.

And context isn’t just the inanimate objects. Friends are one of our biggest influences and can be a potent tool for habit change.

More on the power of context here.

Don’t Give Up

Changing habits takes an average of 66 days (establishing competency at new skills takes approximately 8 weeks as well) so hang in there and don’t get discouraged. More tips are here.

The research says these are some good daily habits and these are solid weekly habits.

Best books on the subject are The Power of Habit and Willpower. I highly recommend them both.

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 Mental Health/Psychology

The Most Surprising Tool for Transforming Your Body

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Mindset is the greatest fitness motivator

Want to know one of the best workout secrets I’ve learned? Attitude is everything. You’re either mentally in the game or you may as well be sitting on the sidelines. Not only does your attitude help motivate you, it’s the only tool that guarantees lasting results.

Ask any professional athlete: So much of their training is mental preparation. If pro athletes are not mentally pumped and focused on winning, they’re almost guaranteed to lose. But for those of us who aren’t pro athletes, no amount of encouragement from a trainer—or even an upcoming high school reunion—will help you achieve long-lasting results. But your attitude can.

Attitude, along with a motto, helps maintain a focus that is everlasting. It’s a simple theme that translates from pro sports to even the simplest children’s book. For example, in The Little Engine That Could, a long train gets stuck up a mountain only to be rescued by a much smaller engine who continuously repeats, “I think I can, I think I can.” Yes, the train was small, but mental prowess saved the day.

Here are 6 ways to improve your attitude and help you get in shape and stay there.

Get a motto and use it

Mindset is a powerful tool that can motivate and encourage big changes, along with lasting results. With the aid of a motivating motto, that little train did something none of the larger engines could achieve. The power of words can drive a person to completely change herself.

HEALTH.COM: 24 Motivational Weight Loss and Fitness Quotes

Value your mistakes

Altering your outlook will guarantee results if you stick with it. And if you get derailed from your goals of eating healthy and regularly working out (like many of us do), shrug it off and learn from your mistakes. Treat yourself with the same compassion you would offer a close friend. You’re human, cut yourself some slack—no one is perfect. If you happen to skip a workout or end up eating more pizza than you planned, dust yourself off and start fresh. Tomorrow is a new day.

Celebrate your victories

Remember that it’s important to set realistic goals when beginning a new workout regime. Celebrate the minor triumphs; one day they will become big ones. In my book, Strong Is The New Skinny, I encourage people to start a brag box where you can stash mementos and reminders of your greatest accomplishments (i.e. your first 5K race number). Your very own personalized brag box will be your greatest asset on days when you’re feeling unmotivated or like you’ve fallen off the wagon.

HEALTH.COM: 20 Ways to Stick to Your Workout Routine

Invest in yourself

No one will take care of you like you. So take care of yourself. Imagine the best version of yourself: physically, mentally, and emotionally. Keep that image alive in your mind as you continue to pursue your fitness goals.

Update your strategy

Just because you think of yourself as Xena, Princess Warrior once, won’t mean that every time you look in the mirror, you’ll see a powerful warrior glancing back. Sometimes you need to shake things up and re-strategize. Back in 2013, shortly after having a baby, I received a great opportunity to create and appear in a new Weight Watchers fitness DVD series–an experience I could not pass up. The only problem was I had just had a baby five months prior. I needed to motivate and fast! What did I do? I instantly took action. Besides eating wholesome foods, I changed my outlook, confident I could achieve my goal. The idea is to fake it till you make it, genuinely feeling strong and powerful until you ultimately get there.

HEALTH.COM: 14 Reasons You’re Always Tired

Visualize the new you

Take a minute and imagine how you’d look, move, and feel if you already had the strong, fit body you’ve always wanted. Stand tall, walk, run, or dance with assurance. Adopting a posture that suggests confidence can literally change our feelings, our behavior, and even our hormone levels, according to the research of Harvard Business School social psychologist, Amy Cuddy.

Not only did I improve my posture, but I also posted pre-baby photos all around my house in an effort to motivate myself back into shape. Everywhere I looked, I had visual reminders reaffirming that I, just like the Little Engine that could, was going to make it.

HEALTH.COM: The 25 Best Diet Tricks of All Time

This article originally appeared on Health.com

TIME psychology

How to Deal With Anxiety, Tragedy or Heartache — 4 Steps From Research

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“You don’t remember me, but I was in your experiment a year ago. I just wanted to thank you. It changed my life.”

James Pennebaker has had a number of people say this to him over the years.

In the early 80’s he came across a study showing that people who experienced personal traumas but didn’t discuss them were more likely to get sick.

He wondered if just writing about their emotional upheavals could help people recover. And the research he did changed lives.

In the 30 years since, hundreds of studies have documented the effectiveness of expressive writing.

It helped with anxiety, tragedy, heartache… It even gave relief to those coping with cancer, heart disease, chronic pain, and AIDS.

People who write about their problems gain a host of benefits including feeling happier, sleeping better, and even getting better grades.

Via Expressive Writing: Words That Heal:

Across multiple studies, people who engage in expressive writing report feeling happier and less negative than they felt before writing. Similarly, reports of depressive symptoms, rumination, and general anxiety tend to drop in the weeks and months after writing about emotional upheavals (Lepore 1997). Other studies found improvement in overall well-being and improved cognitive functioning (Barclay & Skarlicki 2009).

I wanted to learn more, so I gave the man himself a call.

Jamie Pennebaker is a professor at the University of Texas at Austin and the author of a number of books including:

Expressive Writing: Words That Heal

The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us

In this post you’ll learn how writing can help you overcome emotional hardships and the best way to use it to help you get past tough times.

Let’s get started.

Can Just 20 Minutes of Writing Change Your Life?

Bottling up your problems is stressful. People who keep their struggles a secret go to the doctor 40% more often than those who don’t.

Via Expressive Writing: Words That Heal:

…among those who had traumas, those who kept their traumas secret went to physicians almost forty percent more often than those who openly talked about their traumas (Pennebaker & Susman 1988). Later research projects from multiple labs confirmed these results. Adults whose spouses had committed suicide or died suddenly in car accidents were healthier in the year following the death if they talked about the trauma than if they didn’t talk about it… Not talking about important issues in your life poses a significant health risk.

Some of us talk to friends or see a therapist when life gets hard. But not everyone.

It’s risky. Talking about your problems can mean feeling judged. You’re putting yourself on the line when you’re most vulnerable.

But writing lets you get many of the benefits of talking about your problems without the risk.

Here’s Jamie:

…in an ideal world, it works very similar to talking to a friend. The killer problem is when you talk to a friend or even a therapist, you’re putting yourself on the line. For it to work that other person has to be completely accepting, and the reality is we don’t tell our friends a lot of really deep and personal things because we think it might hurt the relationship. That’s the beauty of writing. You don’t have to worry about other people looking down on you or feeling nervous about putting yourself out there.

But what is it about writing that calms the mind and helps us heal emotionally?

There are no solid answers but there’s plenty of research showing the human mind needs meaning — a story to make sense of what has happened.

Only then can it rest. Writing forces you to organize your thoughts into a coherent structure. It helps you make sense of life.

Here’s Jamie:

One thing is that writing helps to organize our experiences…What we find is that people who benefit tend to increase their use of words to suggest thinking. They’re using certain cognitive words. These include causal words like “because,” “cause and effect.” They include insight words: “understand,” “realize” “no” and so forth.

Not only do people who use expressive writing feel better afterward, but that relief has real world benefits.

Those who wrote about the stress of being laid off were more likely to find jobs.

Via Expressive Writing: Words That Heal:

Eight months after writing, fifty-two percent of the emotional writing group had new jobs compared with only twenty percent of the time management participants. The two groups went on the same number of interviews. The only difference was that the expressive writers were offered jobs (Spera, Buhrfeind, & Pennebaker 1994).

(For more on how to overcome regret, click here.)

So writing helps us open up when it doesn’t feel like there’s anyone we can talk to. And it makes sense of the things that shake up our lives.

So what’s the best way to actually do it? There are 4 steps:

1) Ask “How Long Has It Been?”

If you’re upset in the days immediately after a breakup or the death of a loved one, that’s natural.

But when you’re still feeling distressed months later, that’s when you need help and writing can really make a difference.

2) Commit To 20 Minutes For Four Days

Commit to writing about what’s bothering you for 20 minutes on four consecutive days.

This is what the bulk of the research shows provides the best benefits. You can do more if you want; this is a minimum.

Via Expressive Writing: Words That Heal:

What if you want to keep writing after twenty minutes ? Then keep writing. The twenty-minute rule is an arbitrary minimum. That is, plan to write for at least twenty minutes each day with the understanding that you can write more, but you shouldn’t write less… What if you find that you enjoy writing and want to continue past four days? Do it. Many people find that once they begin writing, they realize they have many issues to think about. Write for as many days as you need — just think of the four days as a minimum.

When’s the best time to do it? End of the workday seems to be a good time for many people.

Via Expressive Writing: Words That Heal:

Across multiple studies, we have had the most success with people writing at the end of their workday. If you have children and need to feed them, then after they have gone to bed might be a good time. The operative rule, however, is for you to have some free time after writing to let your mind reflect on what you have written.

(To learn more about what the words you use say about you, click here.)

Got it on your calendar? Good. Here’s what to do.

3) Write Write Write

Just write about what’s bothering you for 20 minutes straight.

Don’t worry about grammar or spelling. Don’t worry about what anyone might think. You can delete it or throw it out when you’re done writing.

Just write about what’s troubling you and don’t hold back.

Here’s Jamie:

Find a place you won’t get disturbed, and I want you to sit down and just begin writing about the thing that’s bothering you. Don’t worry about grammar or sentence structure or spelling. Just write. This is for you and for you alone. Plan to tear up what you’ve done when you finish. It’s not a letter to somebody. It’s not something for you to show someone to convince them that you are right. This is for you alone.

Longhand or typing doesn’t matter. Research even shows talking into a voice recorder works too.

Here’s Jamie:

You can write about the same event on each of the four days or you can write about different events. All that is entirely up to you. Just explore your very deepest thoughts and fears. That’s the basic idea.

(To learn about all the other issues writing can help you with, click here.)

In general, just doing the writing for 20 minutes for four days is enough to provide people with noticeable relief. But let’s go for bonus points.

There are a number of things Jamie has seen that correlate with better results.

4) Stuff That Can Help The Process

When writing, it’s helpful to tie the issue into other areas of your life. How does the problem relate to your work? Your family? Your relationships?

Here’s Jamie:

Let’s say you’re having problems because of a failed love. You may find once you begin writing that it’s related to other topics. You might tie this event to other areas in your life. Your childhood, your relationship with your parents, your relationship with other people… You might tie it to work, you might even link it to who you want to be in the future, who you’ve been in the past and who you are now.

People tend to benefit most from expressive writing if they openly acknowledge emotions.

Via Expressive Writing: Words That Heal:

Emotional experience is part of a trauma. The ability to feel and label both the negative and the positive feelings that occurred during and following the trauma is important.

Constructing a story is powerful.

Via Expressive Writing: Words That Heal:

Creating a narrative, including a coherent beginning, middle, and end, is a well-documented part of trauma treatment and holds much promise for benefits from writing about trauma.

Switch perspectives. Those who benefit the most can see the event through other people’s eyes.

Via Expressive Writing: Words That Heal:

People who have experienced a trauma initially see it from one perspective — their own. Indeed, when individuals first write about a massive upheaval, they first describe what they saw, felt, and experienced. Recent studies indicate that people who benefit the most from writing have been able to see events through others’ eyes.

You’re not writing an accident report for an insurance company. Don’t be distant. Make your writing personal.

Via Expressive Writing: Words That Heal:

A guiding principle of expressive writing is that you express yourself openly and honestly. People who write in a cold, detached manner and who quote Shakespeare, Aristotle, or Henry Ford may be fine historians and may even write a great editorial in the local newspaper. But impressive writing is not the point of expressive writing. People who benefit the most from writing are able to find a voice that reflects who they are.

(To learn more about how to improve your writing skills in general, click here.)

Let’s round up the info and see what Jamie recommends about how to best fit this into our lives.

Sum Up

Here’s how to use writing to overcome the things that upset you:

  1. Has enough time passed? Are you suffering longer than you should? Then writing can help.
  2. Commit to four days of 20 minutes a day. Most people write at the end of their workday.
  3. Write nonstop for 20 minutes about what’s bothering you.Don’t worry about errors or what anyone might think. This is for you.
  4. Tying in other areas of your life, acknowledging emotions, telling a story, switching perspectives and making it personal are all associated with better recovery.

You don’t need to wait until you’re getting divorced or somebody dies to use this. You can write whenever you think it might help. It’s literary ibuprofen.

Via Expressive Writing: Words That Heal:

Think of expressive writing as a tool always be at your disposal, or like having medicine in your medicine cabinet. No need to take the medicine when you are healthy, but when you are under the weather, you can always turn to it.

The science and the numbers are great but I have one more thing to add: I’ve used this myself.

A few months ago someone I cared about deeply betrayed my trust. No apology afterward. No concern for my feelings.

It made it hard for me to trust anyone afterward. I was second-guessing the motives of everyone in my life.

After writing for just 20 minutes it felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders. The rage stopped surging up. The rumination died down.

Chaos in your life doesn’t need to mean chaos in your head.

Okay, this blog post is over, folks. So maybe now’s the time to stop reading and start writing.

This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

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TIME psychology

Extraterrestrials on a Comet Are Faking Climate Change. Or Something

Just to be clear: This is a comet, not a spacecraft
Just to be clear: This is a comet, not a spacecraft ESA

Jeffrey Kluger is Editor at Large for TIME.

Conspiracy theories never die, but that doesn't mean we can't get smarter about dealing with them

You’ve surely heard the exciting news that the European Space Agency successfully landed a small spacecraft on the surface of Comet 67P—or perhaps we should say “Comet 67P.” Because what you probably haven’t heard is that the ostensible comet is actually a spacecraft, that it has a transmitting tower and other artificial structures on its surface, and that the mission was actually launched to respond to a radio greeting from aliens that NASA received 20 years ago.

Really, you can read it here in UFO Sightings Daily, and even watch a video that seals the deal if you have any doubt.

None of this should come as a surprise to you if you’ve been following the news. Area 51, for example? Crawling with extraterrestrials. The Apollo moon landings? Faked—because it makes so much more sense that aliens would travel millions of light years to visit New Mexico than that humans could go a couple hundred thousand miles to visit the moon. As for climate change, vaccines and the JFK assassination? Hoax, autism and grassy knoll—in that order.

Conspiracy theories are nothing new. If the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and the myriad libels hurled at myriad out-groups over the long course of history indicate anything, it’s that nonsense knows no era. The 21st century alone has seen the rise—but, alas, not the final fall—of the birthers and the truthers and pop-up groups that seize on any emerging disease (Bird flu! SARS! Ebola!) as an agent of destruction being sneaked across the border from, of course, Mexico, because… um, immigration.

The problem with conspiracy theories is not just that they’re often racist, foster cynicism and erode the collective intellect of any culture. It’s also that they can have real-world consequences. If you believe the fiction about vaccines causing autism, you will be less inclined to vaccinate your kids—exposing them and the community at large to disease. If you believe climate change is a hoax, you just might become the new chairman of the Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee, as James Inhofe, Republican of Oklahoma soon will be, thanks to the GOP’s big wins on Nov. 4.

That’s the same James Inhofe who once said, It’s also important to question whether global warming is even a problem for human existence… In fact, it appears that just the opposite is true: that increases in global temperatures may have a beneficial effect on how we live our lives.” It’s the same James Inhofe too who wrote the 2012 book, The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future. So, not good.

Clinical studies of conspiracy theory psychology have proliferated along with the theories themselves, and the top-line conclusions the investigators have reached make intuitive sense: People who feel powerless are more inclined to believe in malevolent institutions manipulating the truth than people who feel more of what psychologists call “agency,” or a sense of control over their own affairs.

That’s why the CIA, the media, the government and the vaguely defined “elite” are so often pointed to as the source of all problems. That’s why the lone gunman is a far less satisfying explanation for a killing than a vast web of plotters weaving a vast web of lies. (The powerlessness explanation admittedly does not account for an Inhofe—though in his case, Oklahoma’s huge fossil fuel industry may be all the explanation you need.)

Psychologist Viren Swami of the University of Westminster in London is increasingly seen as the leader of the conspiracy psychology field, and he’s been at it for a while. As long ago as 2009, he published a study looking at the belief system of the self-styled truthers—the people who claim that the 9/11 attacks were carried out by the U.S. government as a casus belli for global war.

He found that people who subscribed to that idea also tested high for political cynicism, defiance of authority and agreeableness (one of the Big Five personality traits, which also include extraversion, openness, conscientiousness and neuroticism). Agreeableness sounds, well, pleasantly agreeable, but it can also be just a short hop to gullible.

In 2012, Swami conducted another study among Malaysians who believe in a popular national conspiracy theory about Jewish plans for world domination. Swami found that Malaysians conspiracists were likelier to hold anti-Israeli attitudes—which is no surprise—and to have racists feelings toward the Chinese, which is a little less expected, except that if there were ever a large, growing power around which to build conspiracy theories, it’s China, especially in the corner of the world in which Malaysia finds itself.

The antisemitic Malaysians also tended to score higher on measures of right-wing authoritarianism and social domination—which is a feature of almost all persecution of out-groups. More important—as other studies have shown—they were likelier to believe in conspiracy theories in general, meaning that the cause-effect sequence here may be a particular temperament looking for any appealing conspiracy, as opposed to a particular conspiracy appealing to any old temperament. People who purchased Jewish domination also liked climate change hoaxes.

Finally, as with so many things, the Internet has been both potentiator and vector for conspiracy fictions. Time was, you needed a misinformed town crier or a person-to-person whispering campaign to get a good rumor started. Now the fabrications spread instantly, and your search engine lets you set your filter for your conspiracy of choice.

None of this excuses willful numbskullery. And none of it excuses our indulgence in the sugar buzz of a sensational fib over the extra few minutes it would take find out the truth. If you don’t have those minutes, that’s why they invented Snopes.com. And if you don’t have time even for that? Well, maybe that should tell you something.

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 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Happier at Work

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Martin Barraud—Getty Images/Caiaimage

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

Research shows there are simple, concrete things you can do to feel more positive

Most people I meet assume that if anyone on the planet is happy at work, I am. Their assumption is easy to understand: I co-founded and run a company called Happier. I make a living by helping other people find more joy in their lives — which is one of the simplest ways to increase your own happiness. I must feel happy all the time!

But: I don’t. Being an entrepreneur is the absolute hardest thing I’ve done professionally. Every day is a psychological battle to not let the overwhelming stress, long hours, uncertainty and emotional rollercoaster of being in a start-up beat me down.

Which means that to be happier at work, I’ve had to become intentional about it. Like working out or eating healthy, being happier is something you have to work on. It’s a skill that takes practice. The good news is that a growing body of research shows there are simple, concrete things you can do that will help you feel more positive at work and they don’t require huge changes.

Start the day on a good note

How you feel in the morning affects how you feel at work for the rest of the day. In one study, researchers analyzed the moods and performance of customer service representatives. Those who were in a good mood in the morning were more productive during the day and reported having more positive interactions with customers.

Make it a point to do something in the morning that makes you feel good.

Take a few minutes to savor your morning coffee (or tea or hot chocolate or whatever you like to drink before the workday starts). This means actually pausing to enjoy it, focusing on what you feel as you drink it and taking a few minutes to do it — not gulping it down as you rush to your desk.

Get some fresh air. Every morning I go for a brisk walk. Rain or shine, I get out there before the day gets going. It’s probably one of the best habits that help me deal with daily work stress. And there’s research to back this up: just 20 minutes of fresh air has been found to boost happiness and feelings of well-being.

Make fewer decisions

One of the hardest aspects of my job as a CEO of a startup is making dozens of decisions daily, often with little or incomplete information.

Decision fatigue is real: each decision you make depletes your cognitive resources, making each future decision more difficult. This can quickly exhaust you and make you feel run down.

So how can you make fewer decisions?

Put some parts of your day on autopilot. For example, have the same thing for lunch or breakfast for a week, then change it up. You’ve just removed a bunch of decisions from your day. (Steve Jobs said that he wore the same outfit daily so that he wouldn’t spend energy deciding what to wear).

Take yourself out of a few decisions. Before weighing in on something at work, ask yourself if (1) it’s high impact and (2) you have a strong opinion about it. If you say no to both then this might be a great opportunity to not weigh in on a decision.

Help a colleague

Helping others makes you happier. And helping your colleagues makes you happier at work.

For example, one study found that people in their mid-30s who had earlier rated helping others at work as important reported feeling happier when asked three decades later. Helping your co-workers seems to create a virtuous cycle; according to another study, happier workers help their colleagues 33% more than those who aren’t happy.

You don’t have to do anything huge or heroic to help. Grab your colleague’s favorite beverage on your way back from getting coffee. Ask them if they need help on a project. Offer to do something simple, like type up notes after a meeting.

The tougher part is making this a regular part of your day instead of something you do only once in a while. One simple way to do this is to put a reminder on your calendar. If you think this is cheesy, give it a shot. You might be surprised at how effective this small habit can become. (And feel free to call it something that makes you smile, like “Time to be awesome, yo!”)

Make progress and acknowledge it

One of the best books about being happier at work I’ve read is called The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work, by Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer. The authors studied motivation in the workplace and found that one of the most powerful causes of positive employee morale and happiness at work was feeling like you’re moving forward and making meaningful progress.

I can attest to this. Even on really bad days, if I can point to a few things that I accomplished, I feel better.

Try this: Before you start your workday, write down three small things you will get done. Do them, preferably before you open your email or take a phone call. Cross them off your list. At the end of the day, go back and look at your list and acknowledge that you made progress.

If you have a huge project ahead of you, it’s hard to feel like you’re making progress unless you break it up into smaller parts. On some days, those parts may have to be tiny. When I sat down to write this article, I only had time to write the title before having to run and take care of something family-related. The next day when I opened the document, instead of feeling bad for not having gotten more done, I felt great that I’d made a start and had a good title to work with.

End your workday with a simple gratitude pause

Here’s the bad news: Our brains are better at remembering the bad than the good. For example, one study found that the negative impact of setbacks at work was three times as powerful as the positive impact of making progress.

We’re conditioned by evolution to seek out what’s wrong and focus on it: this helps us protect ourselves from danger, which is good, but it makes it more difficult to be happier.

The good news is that you can train your brain to better remember the positive things. In other words, you can fight your natural negativity bias.

The simplest way to do this is to think of something you appreciate about your day and write it down. Many studies have shown that when people do this regularly, they report feeling more optimistic and better about their lives overall.

Since you’re likely busy, create a simple gratitude ritual at the end of your day that will be hard to skip. The best way to do this is to connect it to something you already do. For example, my ritual is thinking of something good that happened during the day before I turn my key in the ignition as I start my commute home.

If you share something positive about your day with someone else, even better. Research shows that discussing positive experiences with others enhances how good you feel about them and increases their after-effect.

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.

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