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Three key insights to celebrate the holidays meaningfully

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There is plen­ty of evi­dence to con­vince us that social con­nec­tion is key to well-being. But rela­tion­ships are com­pli­cat­ed, bring­ing good and bad into our lives. 

Let us share a few key insights from sci­en­tif­ic stud­ies pub­lished in 2018 on top­ics rel­e­vant to lead­ing a mean­ing­ful life. They won’t solve all of our social problems—but we hope they will help you to bet­ter under­stand your­self and the peo­ple around you.

1. Mindfulness can help you regulate your emotions in real-time

All of us have prob­a­bly lost our cool at one time or another—maybe yelling at the phone com­pa­ny or at a child who mis­be­haved. But these out­bursts are rarely very effec­tive, and they often leave us feel­ing ashamed and regret­ful.

How to han­dle anger bet­ter? Recent stud­ies sug­gest mind­ful­ness could help.

In a study pub­lished in Mind­ful­ness, David DeSteno and his col­leagues ran­dom­ly assigned par­tic­i­pants to either a three-week mind­ful­ness course (train­ing in breath and body aware­ness, open aware­ness of thoughts, and not judg­ing expe­ri­ences) or a con­trol activ­i­ty that involved solv­ing cog­ni­tive puz­zles, pri­or to bring­ing both groups into a lab. There they gave a talk—and then received a scathing review of their per­for­mance from an under­cov­er research assis­tant in the audi­ence. After­wards, researchers asked them to make a condi­ment mix­ture for their crit­ics to sam­ple based on a few ingre­di­ents, includ­ing a very hot pep­per sauce—a way to see how aggres­sive they would be.

The results? Those who’d prac­ticed mind­ful­ness med­i­ta­tion said they were just as angry as non-meditators…but they added sig­nif­i­cant­ly less hot sauce to the mix. Appar­ent­ly, the med­i­ta­tors were more able to feel anger with­out lash­ing out.

Oth­er recent stud­ies sup­port the idea that mind­ful­ness can help us reg­u­late our emo­tions amid social ten­sion. In one, more mind­ful spous­es were able to main­tain low­er blood pres­sure and greater heart rate variability—indicating bet­ter recov­ery from stressors—while dis­cussing mar­i­tal con­flicts than peo­ple who were less mind­ful. Anoth­er found that more mind­ful peo­ple seemed to be less dis­tressed when they were exclud­ed by oth­ers, and their brains showed decreased activ­i­ty in the ven­tro­lat­er­al pre­frontal cor­tex, too—a pat­tern asso­ci­at­ed with exert­ing less cog­ni­tive con­trol over emo­tion­al upsets.

These find­ing sug­gest that mind­ful­ness could help us man­age our anger better—not by sup­press­ing it, but by stay­ing cool while anger pass­es through us. That’s why DeSteno says that mind­ful­ness med­i­ta­tion does “exact­ly what the devel­op­ers of med­i­ta­tion hoped that it would do: increase eth­i­cal behav­ior by pre­vent­ing peo­ple from inflict­ing harm on oth­er peo­ple in a sit­u­a­tion where that’s the nor­ma­tive response.”

2. Beware hubris: You’re probably not as good at empathy as you think you are

Do you con­sid­er your­self to be pret­ty good at iden­ti­fy­ing what oth­er peo­ple are feel­ing? Well, don’t be too con­fi­dent, sug­gest four recent stud­ies.

One study, pub­lished in the Jour­nal of Per­son­al­i­ty and Social Psy­chol­o­gy, ran mul­ti­ple exper­i­ments test­ing how accu­rate­ly peo­ple gauged the feel­ings and thoughts of oth­ers. Some peo­ple were specif­i­cal­ly instruct­ed to try to walk in oth­ers’ shoes, while oth­ers were instead asked to do things like con­cen­trate hard or imi­tate the expres­sion on the oth­er person’s face. The researchers found that the shoe-walk­ers did no bet­ter at accu­rate­ly read­ing anoth­er per­son than any of the oth­er groups—and, in some cas­es, they did worse.

In yet anoth­er recent study, researchers asked some par­tic­i­pants to look at the face of a per­son who was watch­ing an emo­tion­al­ly evoca­tive video—and then guess the emo­tion in the video from the face of the watch­er. Anoth­er group sim­ply watched the video and tried to imag­ine how it would make a stranger feel. You might think that faces are an open book, but the peo­ple who tried to guess the emo­tion in the video from a watcher’s face were more often wrong than those who just watched the same video them­selves.

In these stud­ies, the most con­fi­dent peo­ple were often the least accu­rate at empathiz­ing. The prob­lem is hubris—thinking we under­stand peo­ple bet­ter than we do and jump­ing to unwar­rant­ed con­clu­sions. But there are ways to improve our empath­ic skills. Over the long term, we can work on devel­op­ing our own self-awareness—since, in two oth­er stud­ies this year, more self-aware peo­ple were bet­ter at iden­ti­fy­ing the feel­ings of oth­ers.

In the mean­time, we can bet­ter under­stand others—whether a spouse or some­one on the oth­er side of the polit­i­cal spectrum—if we sim­ply ask them ques­tions and lis­ten care­ful­ly to the answers.

3. Smartphones can make in-person interactions less enjoyable

As smart­phones become ubiq­ui­tous, it seems like it’s becom­ing more and more social­ly accept­able to use them in dif­fer­ent set­tings. But how does this affect our rela­tion­ships with oth­er peo­ple?

study pub­lished in the Jour­nal of Exper­i­men­tal Social Psy­chol­o­gy inves­ti­gat­ed how smart­phones influ­ence in-per­son inter­ac­tions by invit­ing over 300 peo­ple to share a meal with friends or fam­i­ly at a cafe. Some peo­ple kept their phones out next to them, while oth­ers turned their phones on silent and stowed them away. After­ward, they filled out sur­veys about their expe­ri­ence.

Ulti­mate­ly, the peo­ple who dined with­out their phones felt less dis­tract­ed and (in turn) enjoyed the meal more. They were also less bored and in a bet­ter mood. In a sep­a­rate analy­sis, the same team of researchers pinged 123 stu­dents ran­dom­ly dur­ing their dai­ly life—to find out what they were doing, how they were feel­ing, and whether they were using their phones—and the same pat­tern appeared. Peo­ple just didn’t enjoy social­iz­ing as much if they were on their phones.

Phone use pre­vents indi­vid­u­als from ful­ly engag­ing in the present moment,” the researchers write. “Despite their abil­i­ty to con­nect us to oth­ers across the globe, phones may under­mine the ben­e­fits we derive from inter­act­ing with those across the table.”

This seems to be true even for peo­ple who grew up with smart­phones, like the col­lege stu­dents in the study. In fact, anoth­er study pub­lished in Emo­tion this year sug­gests that well-being is declin­ing among teens and that screen time may be to blame. A team of researchers led by Jean Twenge found that teens who spend more time on screens and less time on offline activ­i­ties tend to have reduced well-being. And since 2012, the first year when a major­i­ty of Amer­i­cans owned smart­phones, the rise in screen time has gone hand in hand with decreas­es in teens’ self-esteem and sat­is­fac­tion with life.

There was one hope­ful find­ing in Twenge’s study, though: On an indi­vid­ual lev­el, teens who spent more time inter­act­ing with friends online also spent more time with friends in-per­son. Our online and offline worlds are not always a zero-sum game—but maybe, as the first study sug­gests, it’s best not to com­bine them dur­ing the same meal.

 — ADAPTED FROM ARTICLE BY KIRA M. NEWMAN, JEREMY ADAM SMITH, JILL SUTTIE, AMY L. EVA, JAMES MCCONCHIE over at Greater Good. Based at UC-Berke­ley, Greater Good high­lights ground break­ing sci­en­tif­ic research into the roots of com­pas­sion and altru­ism. Copy­right Greater Good.

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