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Three key insights to celebrate the holidays meaningfully


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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As seen in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, BBC News, CNN, Reuters,  SharpBrains is an independent market research firm tracking how brain science can improve our health and our lives.

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