TIME psychology

How to Find Happiness: 3 Secrets From Science

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Eric Barker writes Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

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

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

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

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

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

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


What’s The Best Version Of You?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


“Hedonic Adaptation”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


New! Different! Surprising!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Sum Up

Research-backed happiness wisdom from Sonja:

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

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

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

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

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

This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

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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 Research

5 Fashion Choices That Are Bad for Your Health

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It might be worth retiring a few of these trends

Fashion can be fun, but it can also take a toll. New research published Monday revealed that it’s possible for skinny jeans to cause nerve damage. Curious what other fashion dangers you’re wardrobe is causing?

Skinny jeans
As TIME reported Monday, a case report published in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry chronicles the woeful tale of a 35-year-old woman whose legs went numb while she was wearing skinny jeans. “Her legs and ankles had become so swollen that emergency room staff had to cut her jeans off. Her ankles and toes were weak, but the rest of her legs, including her knees and hips, were working normally,” Alice Park wrote. The perils of tight pants have been noted by health experts as far back as 1993, as the Wall Street Journal reports, internist Dr. Octavio Bessa coined the term “tight-pants syndromein a medical journal after reporting several men coming in with symptoms like abdominal discomfort. When Bessa compared the size of the pants to the abdominal girth, he found there was often a discrepancy. Men needed to loosen up. Tight pants are currently a trend among both men and women, and perhaps it’s not worth the fashion points.

High heels
Foot doctors say the higher the heel on the shoe the more weight is pushed forward onto the balls of the feet, which can cause pain. A 2014 review concluded that high heeled shoes alter that natural position of the foot and ankle and can cause a “chain reaction” of issues that can eventually bother the spine. As the New York Times recently pointed out, other research suggests wearing high heels less often could prevent ankle injury among women.

The Kardashian clan are “obsessed” with using corsets to “train” their waists. (Basically using a corset to squeeze your weight into submission). There’s essentially no evidence the process works, but efficacy aside, wearing corsets can be painful, make it hard to breathe, and could possibly result in rib damage according to some experts.

Neck ties
A small amount of evidence suggests wearing a neck tie that’s too tight could elevate intracranial pressure (though the study found that the raised levels were still within normal range), and possibly increase blood pressure in the eyes to unsafe levels. A couple studies by no means make neck ties a risk factor for serious health problems, but those who choose to don them may want to give themselves some breathing room.

Body piercings
A 2012 Northwestern University study reported that bacterial infections affect about 20% of body piercings. Other issues that can arise, the authors report, include things like medical procedure interference and allergies. Using proper utensils when undergoing a piercing and knowing how to keep piercings clean can prevent problems.

TIME psychology

10 Secrets About Sexual Satisfaction, Backed by Science

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Eric Barker writes Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

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

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 Research

Babies in Womb Prefer a Mother’s Touch to Her Voice, Study Finds

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A new study shows fetuses respond to touch more than noise

When it comes to mother-baby connections, new research suggests a mother’s touch during pregnancy elicits the greatest response.

In a recent study published in the journal PLOS ONE, researchers looked at what behaviors resulted in the greatest response from fetuses: a mother’s voice, a mother’s touch or nothing. The researchers brought 23 healthy pregnant women who were between the 21st and 33rd week of gestation into a dark room, and had them try three different behaviors.

In one, the mothers were instructed to read to their unborn child, either Little Three Pigs or Jack and the Beanstalk. In another, the mothers stroked and rubbed their abdomen. In a third, control situation, the mothers laid with their arms at their sides.

While the women performed the behaviors, the researchers used sonography to track the response of their fetus. They found that when mothers rubbed their bellies, fetuses had more arm, head, and mouth movements than when the women did nothing or when they spoke to the baby.

“Although it is speculative to suggest, it might well be that the increases in arm movements in response to maternal touch are also directed responses towards the source of the stimulation,” the authors write, suggesting that the movements are indeed responsive and intentional.

The fetuses were also more likely to touch themselves in the 3rd trimester compared to the 2nd trimester. The researchers believe this may because the skin of the fetuses becomes increasingly more sensitive.

The new study is a very small sample size, so definitive conclusions can’t be made. But the findings add to research that suggests that communicating with the unborn baby really does some good.

TIME medicine

Scientists Find a Gene That Regulates Sleep

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It's a study in flies but it could have implications for us, too

Flies, it turns out, sleep about as much as young children do. Males need about 12 hours a day, while females can do with about 10 hours. To find out which genes might be responsible for guiding how much slumber flies get a night, Kyunghee Koh did a massive experiment that you can only do with fruit flies.

She and her team at Thomas Jefferson University reported in the journal Current Biology that they took 3,000 flies, introduced random mutations in them and then monitored how well they slept. That allowed them to zero in on the genes that most directly affected slumber, and they found one, taranis, that may become an important target for sleep-related research even in people.

Flies with abnormal forms of taranis only get about 25% of their daily sleep; removing the gene keeps the flies buzzing almost non stop.

Koh’s team found that taranis works with a couple of other proteins to balance sleeping and waking. Normally, taranis and cyclin A pair up to keep the activity of another enzyme down. That enzyme generally keeps the flies awake. So when all three are working in concert, taranis and cyclin A shut down the enzyme so flies can get 10 to 12 hours of sleep. But when taranis is mutated, it doesn’t do its job as well, and the enzyme keeps the flies alert and unable to sleep.

It turns out that taranis has a related gene in mammals that may work in similar ways. The gene typically controls the way cells divide, “We don’t know yet whether these genes have a role in sleep in mammals or humans, but our hope is that somehow these genes we find in flies may have similar roles in people, and might ultimately give us some novel drug targets to help us sleep better,” says Koh.

TIME Research

Rising Birth Rates a Good Sign for the Economy

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First increase since the recession

The number of children born in the U.S. increased in 2014 for the first time since the Great Recession, a sign that some women may be feeling financially stable enough to start a family.

The National Center for Health Statistics released a study Wednesday showing that both the number of births and the fertility rate in the U.S. increased by 1% in 2014, the first rise since 2007, when both demographic markers began dropping.

Last year, the U.S. birth rate had fallen to a 15-year low, according to NCHS data, with the number of births decreasing from 4.3 million in 2007 to 3.9 million in 2013, a 9% drop. Based on 2007 birth rates, University of New Hampshire demographer Ken Johnson estimates that there were 2.3 million fewer babies born between 2008 and 2013 than there would have been if the birth rate remained stable.

The falling birth rate has been one of the indirect consequences of the recession and of particular concern for demographers. Low birth rates over the long term, barring an influx of immigrants, can mean a population decline that leads to a smaller tax base and fewer people to financially support programs like Social Security and Medicare as the population ages.

Demographers have been trying to determine whether the economy forced women to merely delay childbirth or forego starting a family altogether. The latest numbers, while preliminary, suggest that women may just have been delaying.

The birth rate for women aged 30-34, many of whom were graduating from college and looking for jobs when the recession hit, rose 3% in 2014 and has steadily increased since 2011. The rate for women aged 35-39 increased by 3% while the rate for those aged 40-44 rose 2%.

For women aged 20-24, however, the birth rate decreased by 2%, and it remained steady for those aged 25-29, suggesting that many millennials are still putting off starting a family.

“We won’t know how significant this is unless it continues for the next few years,” said William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution, of the overall rise in birth rates. “But it’s a glimmer of hope that demographic responses are reacting to an improving economy.”

TIME Research

The Teen Birth Rate Is Now At an All-Time Low

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Elizabeth Renstrom for TIME

Here's what's driving the drop in teen parenting

The teen birth rate has hit a new record low, according to federal data released on Wednesday.

Researchers from the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics looked at birth certificates for the year 2014 from all 50 states, the District of Columbia and U.S. territories and found that the teen birth rate is the lowest ever recorded. And, for the first time in seven years, the general fertility rate in the U.S. increased.

Among teens from ages 15 to 19, the birth rate dropped 9% in 2014 to 24.2 births per 1,000 women. Since 1991, the researchers report that the birth rate for this age group has dropped 61%.

MORE: The Best Form of Birth Control

Overall, the number of U.S. births in 2014 increased 1% from the year prior. The number of women in their twenties having babies dropped 2% to a record low, while the number of women in their thirties and forties giving birth rose.

The national teen pregnancy rate has also been on a record decline. Data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has shown pregnancy rates among teenagers have been consistently dropping for the last two decades, and there was a 10% drop in a year from 2012 to 2013.

Some data suggests that teens are less sexually active than the past, and those that are having sex are using birth control more often. Some experts speculate that increased access to affordable birth control and better sex education have also played a role.

MORE: The Trouble With Sex Ed in the Internet Age

Teens may also be using better, more effective contraceptives, with an increasing (though still low) number of young people from ages 15 to 19 using long-acting reversible contraceptive methods like the IUD or implant. There’s also been a notable increase in the use of the birth control pill among the age group, as well as usage of more than one method.

Birth control methods like the IUD and implant are significantly more effective than other methods, including the pill and condom. The failure rate for the IUD is as low as 0.2% while the pill is 9% and the condom is 18%. New data released on Tuesday revealed that when women are counseled about all of their options, they are more likely to choose the most effective methods, and that can lead to notable declines in unintended pregnancies.

Some indirect factors could also be influencing the latest birth statistics, suggest researchers at the Guttmacher Institute. Women, for instance, are both getting married and having children later in life.

Though teen births are decreasing, the U.S. still has one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the developed world.

TIME Research

Birth-Control Counseling Cuts Pregnancy Nearly in Half

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Elizabeth Renstrom for TIME

It also makes women more likely to choose the most effective contraceptives

Counseling women on the best forms of birth control cuts the rate of unintended pregnancy, according to a new study.

Not all birth control options are equally effective. The intrauterine device (IUD) and implant—referred to as long acting reversible contraception (LARC)—are more effective than the pill or condom. The failure rate for the IUD is as low as 0.2%; for the pill, that rate is 9%. (It’s even higher for a condom, at 18%.) Yet only 7.2% of the population uses LARC.

That number may increase with better counseling, suggests the new study published in the journal The Lancet. Researchers found that when women are counseled about the effectiveness for various forms, they choose LARC more often and have fewer unintended pregnancies.

The researchers looked at 40 Planned Parenthood clinics in the United States and assigned 20 of the clinics to receive training on counseling and insertion for IUDs and implants. The other 20 offered standard care. More than 1,500 women ages 18 to 25 who visited the clinics—and who didn’t want to get pregnant in the next year—were enrolled in the study.

After following them for a year, the researchers found that the women who went to a clinic with LARC training were more likely to report getting counseling compared to the women in the control group. They were also more likely to choose an IUD or implant and were less likely to get pregnant during the study period. The rate of unintended pregnancy for the women in the intervention group was nearly half that of the control group (8 women out of 100 in the intervention group, compared to 15 per 100 women in the control group).

The study authors conclude that counseling may strengthen a woman’s perception of her control over her pregnancy risk, and she therefore may choose more effective contraceptives.

“Unintended pregnancy has been one of those basic health issues that has persisted as a stubborn problem in the U.S., especially among 18-25 year olds,” says study author Cynthia Harper, a professor of obstetrics, gynecology & reproductive sciences at the UCSF Bixby Center for Global Reproductive Health. “We’re excited to be able to offer providers an intervention that can help them educate women on the range of FDA-approved contraceptives and to be able to offer the methods with highest efficacy—IUDs and the transdermal implant—along with other more commonly used methods such as the pill.”

Counseling like the kind in the study could take place in places beyond Planned Parenthood clinics, Harper says. “The counseling could be brought to health centers at schools,” she says. “We are also beginning to help develop curriculums for high school students to learn about all of the methods of birth control, including IUDs and implants, so they have the knowledge they need when the time comes for them to make their own birth control choices.”

Read Next: The Best Form of Birth Control

TIME Research

Antibiotics May Be Alternative to Appendectomy Surgery, Study Finds

Getty Images Surgeons removing an appendix in Pretoria, South Africa.

300,000 Americans are affected by acute appendicitis every year

With one in 10 Americans affected by acute appendicitis at some point in their lives—a whopping 300,000 a year—appendectomy surgery has become a routine procedure in the U.S. health care system. But according to a new study, antibiotics may be a strong alternative to surgery in uncomplicated cases of acute appendicitis.

The study, published Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association, consisted of 530 patients with appendicitis ranging in age from 18 to 60 who were split randomly into two groups: 273 of them underwent standard open appendectomy surgery, while the other 257 received antibiotic treatment.

While 272 of the 273 appendectomy surgeries were successful, 186 of the patients treated with antibiotics did not require surgery at all. Those in the antibiotic group who did ultimately require surgery during a one-year follow-up period (70 patients) showed no signs of complications associated with delaying the procedure.

The study, which was conducted from November 2009 to June 2012 in Finland, raises questions about the routinized use of appendectomy surgery to treat appendicitis—but it is not without its critics, who point out that little is known about the causes of appendicitis.

TIME psychology

10 Ways to Read People Like Sherlock Holmes, Backed By Research

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Eric Barker writes Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

The BBC series Sherlock is currently my favorite show on television.

Sherlock Holmes instantly decodes someone’s life story and personality from a quick look at the person and their belongings.

Of course, the show is fiction. But Sherlock Holmes is a great example of expert behavior.

How much of his skill could we possess in real life with knowledge of the research on what factors predict which personality traits — and which signals are reliable?

Here’s a quick rundown on how you too can develop a piercing eye like the great Sherlock Holmes:

  • Look at photos. Does their smile affect their whole face, or just raise the corners of their mouth? The type of smile can tell you how happy someone is — and how happy they’ll be.
  • Left-handed? Goldmine, especially in the area of trust and creativity.

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.

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