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Three Insights from the Frontiers of Positive Psychology

future-300x225In late June, the third World Congress on Positive Psychology convened leading scientists to explore the keys to a happy and meaningful life. Here are three of the most striking and practical insights from the conference. Read the rest of this entry »

A Course Correction for Positive Psychology: A Review of Martin Seligman’s Latest Book

(Editor’s Note: we are pleased to bring you this arti­cle thanks to our col­lab­o­ra­tion with Greater Good Science Center).

A Course Correction for Positive Psychology

A review of Martin Seligman’s latest book, Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being.

– By Jill Suttie

As president of the American Psychological Association in 1998, Martin Seligman challenged the psychological community to radically change its approach. For too long, he charged, psychology had been preoccupied solely with relieving symptoms of mental illness; instead, he believed it should explore how to thrive in life, not just survive it. He called for a psychology that would uncover what makes people creative, resilient, optimistic, and, ultimately, happy. The “positive psychology” movement was born.

Yet in his latest book, Flourish, Seligman tries to provide something of a course correction for positive psychology. Read the rest of this entry »

Enhance Happiness and Health by Cultivating Gratitude: Interview with Robert Emmons

Robert Emmons Thanks(Dear reader: Here you have a little gift to continue the Thanksgiving spirit. Enjoy the interview, and thank you for visiting our site.)

Prof. Robert Emmons studies gratitude for a living as Professor of Psychology at UC Davis and is Editor-In-Chief of the Journal of Positive Psychology. He has just published Thanks: How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier, an interdisciplinary book that provides a research-based synthesis of the topic as well as practical suggestions.

Alvaro Fernandez: Welcome. Prof. Emmons, could you please provide us an overview of the Positive Psychology field so we understand the context for your research?

Robert Emmons: Sure. Martin Seligman and colleagues launched what was called “positive psychology in the late 90s as an antidote to the traditional nearly exclusive emphasis of “negative psychology” focused on fixing problems like trauma, addiction, and stress. We want to balance our focus and be able to help everyone, including high-functioning individuals. A number of researchers were investigating the field since the late 80s, but Seligman provided a new umbrella, a new category, with credibility, organized networks and funding opportunities for the whole field.

And where does your own research fit into this overall picture?

I have been researching gratitude for almost 10 years. Gratitude is a positive emotion that has traditionally been the realm of humanists and philosophers, and only recently the subject of a more scientific approach. We study gratitude not as a merely academic discipline, but as a practical framework to better functioning in life by taking control of happiness levels and practicing the skill of emotional self-regulation.

What are the 3 key messages that you would like readers to take away from your book?

First, the practice of gratitude can increase happiness levels by around 25%. Second, this is not hard to achieve – a few hours writing a gratitude journal over 3 weeks can create an effect that lasts 6 months if not more. Third, that cultivating gratitude brings other health effects, such as longer and better quality sleep time.

What are some ways to practice gratitude, and what benefits could we expect? Please refer to your 2003 paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, where I found fascinating quotes such as that “The ability to notice, appreciate, and savior the elements of one life has been viewed as a crucial element of well-being.

The most common method we use in our research is to ask people to keep a “Gratitude Journal”  where you write something you feel grateful for. Doing so 4 times a week, for as little as 3 weeks, is often enough to create a meaningful difference in one level of happiness. Another exercise is to write a “Gratitude Letter” to a person who has exerted a positive influence on one’s life but whom we have not properly thanked in the past, and then to meet that person and read the letter to them face to face.

The benefits seem to be very similar using both methods in terms of enhanced happiness, health and wellbeing. Most of the outcomes are self-reported, but there is an increasing emphasis on measuring objective data such as cortisol and stress levels, heart rate variability, and even brain activation patterns. The work of Richard Davidson is exemplary in that respect, showing how mindfulness practice can rewire some activation patterns in Read the rest of this entry »

Top Ten Tips for Women Who Lead Men

Thinking menEllen recently wrote a nice post titled Top Ten Tips for Men Who Lead Women, and asked for volunteers to offer a complementary perspective. I hope you enjoy!

  1. We men know we are hard to lead, and that can be stressful for you and for us. You should know that stress affects short term memory, so it is important to be able to manage stress well, with meditation or other methods. Check here your level of stress to see how much this point applies to you. Please remember, laughing is good for your brain.
  2. Don’t think too much-we don’t. If we do, we try to find ways to self-talk us out of that uncomfortable state.
  3. Please remember our humble origins. We are tool-using animals, which is why we like playing with all kinds of toys, from a car to that blackberry.
  4. When we are stubborn, you are entitled to remind us that even apes can learn-if you help us see the point. Show us that change is possible at any age. Believe it or not, we can listen.
  5. Especially if we can find common ground: what about chatting about sports psychology?.
  6. Please motivate us to listen and be open minded to learn with wise words. If that doesn’t work, please persevere with nice words. Please don’t ever say that we are worse than pink dolphins-if we feel attacked, we’ll just disengage.
  7. Sometimes we don’t cooperate enough?. Please give us time for our brains to fully evolve, we have been trying for a while!
  8. You can help us grow. For the next leadership workshop, buy us copies of the Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain book. You may think we don’t need this… but at our core we really want to get better at Gratitude and Altruism. We want to be able to play with the ultimate toy: our genes!
  9. If that book is sold out, we could also benefit from reading Damasio’s Descartes Error and discover how emotions are important for good decision-making. Or help us improve our ability to read emotional messages. As long as we believe we can somehow benefit from it, we’ll try!
  10. If you lead someone with Bill Gates-like Frontal Lobes, congratulate him for his brain. If you don’t, encourage him to follow track. Please be patient

Now, any takers for Top Ten Tips for Women Who Lead Women or Men Who Lead Men?

Build Your Cognitive Reserve: An Interview with Dr. Yaakov Stern

Yaakov SternDr. Yaakov Stern is the Division Leader of the Cognitive Neuroscience Division of the Sergievsky Center, and Professor of Clinical Neuropsychology, at the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Columbia University, New York. Alvaro Fernandez interviews him here as part of our research for The SharpBrains Guide to Brain Fitness book.

Dr. Stern is one of the leading proponents of the Cognitive reserve theory, which aims to explain why some individuals with full Alzheimer’s pathology (accumulation of plaques and tangles in their brains) can keep normal lives until they die, while others -with the same amount of plaques and tangles- display the severe symptoms we associate with Alzheimer’s Disease. He has published dozens of peer-reviewed scientific papers on the subject.

The concept of a Cognitive Reserve has been around since 1989, when a post mortem analysis of 137 people with Alzheimer’s Disease showed that some patients exhibited fewer clinical symptoms than their actual pathology suggested. These patients also showed higher brain weights and greater number of neurons when compared to age-matched controls. The investigators hypothesized that the patients had a larger “reserve” of neurons and abilities that enable them to offset the losses caused by Alzheimer’s. Since then, the concept of Cognitive Reserve has been defined as the ability of an individual to tolerate progressive brain pathology without demonstrating clinical cognitive symptoms. (You can check at the end of this interview a great clip on this).

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Key take-aways

– Lifetime experiences, like education, engaging occupation, and leisure activities, have been shown to have a major influence on how we age, specifically on whether we will develop Alzheimer’s symptoms or not.

– This is so because stimulating activities, ideally combining physical exercise, learning and social interaction, help us build a Cognitive Reserve to protect us.

– The earlier we start building our Reserve, the better; but it is never too late to start. And, the more activities, the better: the effect is cumulative.

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The Cognitive Reserve

Alvaro Fernandez (AF): Dear Dr. Stern, it is a pleasure to have you here. Let me first ask you this: the implications of your research are pretty broad, presenting major implications across sectors and age groups. What has been the most unexpected reaction so far?

YS: well…I was pretty surprised when Read the rest of this entry »

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