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For the most part in American culture, intellectual struggle in school children is seen as an indicator of weakness, while in Eastern cultures it is not only tolerated, it is often used to measure emotional strength. (This piece initially aired on Nov. 12, 2012 on Morning Edition.)
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On a holiday Monday, it’s MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I’m Steve Inskeep.
Today in Your Health, how different cultures think about the struggle with schoolwork. Psychologists have taken an interest in what they call intellectual struggle because they say attitudes toward struggle have big implications.
In this encore presentation, NPR’s Alix Spiegel compares learning in the United States with learning in Japan and China.
ALIX SPIEGEL, BYLINE: In 1979, when psychologist Jim Stigler was still a graduate student studying teaching, he went on a trip to Japan to do some research and found himself sitting in the back row of a crowded fourth grade math class.
JIM STIGLER: The teacher was trying to teach the class how to draw three dimensional cubes on paper. And one kid was just totally having trouble with it. His cube looked all cockeyed. So the teacher said to him: You know, why don’t you go put yours on the board? Right there, I thought, that’s interesting. He took the one who can’t do it and told him to go put it on the board.
SPIEGEL: In America, it’s usually the best kid in the class who’s invited to the board. So the kid came up very dutifully, started drawing, but couldn’t make the cube work. Every couple minutes, the teacher would ask the rest of the class whether the kid had gotten it right and the class would shake their heads no. And as this went on, Stigler noticed that he, Stigler – who, by the way, is now a professor at UCLA – anyway, he, Stigler, was getting more and more and more anxious.
STIGLER: I was sitting there starting to perspire because I was really empathizing for this kid. And I thought, this kid is going to break into tears. But then I realized, he didn’t break into tears. He just kept up there. And at the end of the class, he did make his cube look right. And the teacher said to the class: How does that look class. And they all looked up and said: He did it.
SPIEGEL: Then the class broke into applause, and the kid smiled a huge smile and sat down, clearly proud of himself. Which, Stigler says, got him thinking about a lot of things, but in particular about how these two cultures – East and West – approach the experience of intellectual struggle.
STIGLER: From very early ages, we see struggle as an indicator that you’re just not very smart. It’s a sign of low ability. People who are smart don’t struggle, they just naturally get it. It’s our folk theory, whereas in Asian cultures they tend to see struggle more as an opportunity.
SPIEGEL: In Eastern cultures, it’s just assumed that struggle is a predictable part of the learning process. Everyone is expected to struggle. And, in a way, struggling is a chance to show that you have what it takes emotionally to overcome the problem by having the strength to persist through that struggle.
STIGLER: They’ve taught them that suffering can be a good thing.
SPIEGEL: Now, granting that there is plenty of diversity in these two cultures and it’s possible to point to counterexamples within each, the question still remains: Why, in general, do these two cultures see the experience of intellectual struggle so very differently?
Jin Li is a professor at Brown University who, like Stigler, compares East and West. And for the last 10 years, she’s been recording conversations between American mothers and their children and Taiwanese mothers and their children, and then analyzing those conversations to understand how the mothers talk to their kids about learning.
(SOUNDBITE OF A RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: Guess what? We had a Harriet Tubman book.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: You really like Harriet Tubman, too, huh?
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: Mm-hmm.
SPIEGEL: This is one of Li’s recordings. In it, an American mother talks to her eight-year-old son about school. The son is a great student who loves to learn. He tells his mother that he and his friends talk about books even during recess. And the mother responds with this.
(SOUNDBITE OF A RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Do you know that that’s what smart people do – smart grown-ups?
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: I know.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: They just keep…
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: Talk about books.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Yeah. So that’s a pretty smart thing to do, to talk about a book.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: And yeah…
SPIEGEL: It is a small exchange, a moment. But in this drop of conversation, there is a whole world of cultural assumptions and beliefs. Essentially, the American mother, Li says, is communicating to her son that the cause of her son’s success in school is his intelligence – he is smart – which, Li says, is a very common American view.
JIN LI: The idea of intelligence is believed, in the West as a cause. She is telling him there’s something in him, in his mind that enables him to do what he does.
SPIEGEL: But most people in Asian cultures, she says, don’t think this way. Academic success is not as much about whether a student is smart. Academic success is about whether a student is willing to work and to struggle.
LI: It resides in what they do, but not who they are.
(SOUNDBITE OF A RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: (Foreign language spoken)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)
SPIEGEL: This is another conversation, this time between a Taiwanese mother and her nine-year-old son. They are talking about the piano. The boy won first place in a competition and the mother is trying to explain to him why.
(SOUNDBITE OF A RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)
SPIEGEL: You practiced and practiced with lots of energy, she tells him. It really got hard, but you made great effort. You insisted on practicing yourself.
LI: So the focus is on the process of persisting through it, despite the challenges, not giving up, and that leads to the success.
SPIEGEL: So all this is important because the way that you conceptualize the act of struggling with something profoundly affects your actual behavior. Obviously, if struggle indicates weakness to you – for example, a lack of intelligence – it makes you feel bad. So you’re less likely to put up with it. But if struggle indicates strength – the ability to face down challenge – you are much more willing to accept it. And Stigler says in the real world it is easy to see the consequences of these different interpretations.
STIGLER: We did a study many years ago with first grade students. We decided to go out and give the students an impossible math problem to work on. And then we would measure how long they worked on it before they gave up.
SPIEGEL: So the American first graders that Stigler studied…
STIGLER: Worked on it less than 30 seconds on average and then they basically looked at us and said, we haven’t had this.
SPIEGEL: But the Japanese students?
STIGLER: Every one of them worked for the entire hour on the impossible problem and finally we had to stop the session because the hour was up.
SPIEGEL: Now, I don’t mean to imply with any of this that the Eastern way of interpreting struggle – or anything else – is better than the Western way, or vice versa. Each have their strengths and their weaknesses, which both sides know. Westerners tend to worry that their kids won’t be able to compete against Asian kids who excel in many areas but especially in math and science, and Eastern cultures, Jin Li says, have their own set of worries.
LI: Well, our children are not creative, our children do not have individuality. They’re just robots. You hear the educators from Asian countries express that concern a lot.
SPIEGEL: Which led me to this question: Is it possible for one culture to adopt the beliefs of a different culture if we see that that culture is producing better results?
LI: Yes, I think it’s possible but it requires very big effort.
STIGLER: It’s hard to do anything that changes culture, but it can be done. For example, could we change our views of learning and place more of an emphasis on struggle? Yeah.
SPIEGEL: For example, Stigler says, in the Japanese classrooms that he’s studied teachers consciously design tasks that are slightly beyond the capabilities of the students that they teach so that the students can actually have the experience of struggling with something that is just outside their reach. And then once the task is mastered the teachers actively point out to the student that they were able to accomplish it through the student’s hard work and struggle.
STIGLER: And I just think that especially in schools, we don’t create enough of those experiences and we don’t point them out clearly enough.
SPIEGEL: But we can, Stigler says. In the meantime, he and the other psychologists doing this work say there are more differences to map. Differences that might be able to help both cultures see more clearly who they are and how they might help their children.
Alix Spiegel, NPR News, Washington.
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INSKEEP: And that’s Your Health for this Monday morning.
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INSKEEP: It’s MORNING EDITION from NPR News.
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Out Of Our Heads-Philip Shepherd On The Brain In Our Belly
by AMNON BUCHBINDER
I MET PHILIP SHEPHERD when I cast him in a film I was directing. He was amused to learn that I had written a book called The Way of the Screenwriter. He was just finishing a book he’d been working on for eight years, originally titled The Way of the Actor. But, he explained, it had become about much more than acting. I asked what it was now about.
“Everything,” he said.
Good luck getting that published, I thought.
But it did get published three years later, in the fall of 2010, as New Self, New World: Recovering Our Senses in the Twenty-First Century. I bought a copy more out of loyalty than appetite. I’ve read plenty of books about “everything.” Each of them diagnoses the ailment of living and proposes a single cure. I had become skeptical of such unified-field theories, which seem to constitute a retreat from the world’s problems under the guise of trying to solve them. It wasn’t until more than a year later, when illness suddenly gave me ample reading time, that I took Shepherd’s book off the shelf and began to turn the pages.
New Self, New World explores the implications of the little-known fact that we have two brains: in addition to the familiar cranial brain in the head, there is a “second brain” in the gut. This is not a metaphor. Scientists recognize the web of neurons lining the gastrointestinal tract as an independent brain, and a new field of medicine — neurogastroenterology — has been created to study it.
According to Shepherd, there is a good reason that we talk about “gut instinct.” If cranial thinking sets us apart from the world, the thinking in the belly joins us to it. If the cranial brain believes itself surrounded by a knowable world that can be controlled, the brain in our belly is in touch with the world’s mystery. The fact that the second brain has been discovered, forgotten, and rediscovered by medicine three times in the past century suggests how complicated our relationship with our bodily intelligence is.
Although Shepherd feels that his claims are consistent with scientific findings, his primary concerns are cultural and philosophical, and his primary frame is not medical but mythic. Weaving threads from disciplines that are normally treated as separate, his book treats art, religion, and science as facets of a single story. Whether giving a deep reading to an academic article on the implications of brain transplants or parsing the work of the early Greek philosophers, Shepherd reminds us that all human endeavors are modes of encounter with the world, rooted in one or both of our brains. He argues that we, as a culture and as individuals, have become walled off in our heads, losing touch with the intelligence of our bodies. We have reached a point, Shepherd tells us, where the cranial brain’s efforts to solve our problems are the problem. Only by leaving the “tyrant’s castle” of our heads and entering into a profoundly embodied relationship with the mystery and beauty of the world will we successfully turn our planetary crisis into an “initiation.”
The insights Shepherd shares in his book emerged from his own life. Born in 1953, he grew up in a suburb of Toronto, Canada, on the fringe of wilderness and farmers’ fields — and then watched as nature was flattened and paved to make room for more houses. A spring-fed creek nearby was turned into an underground storm sewer. These transformations left him wary of the adult world. When he turned eighteen, he left for England to undertake a solo bike trip across Europe and Asia, eventually to arrive in Japan to study classical Noh theater. Since then he has worked as an actor on stage and in film and television, and also as a director, writer, editor, and communication coach. He’s occasionally made a living using his skills as a carpenter, electrician, and plumber, and he has designed and built several houses, including his own.
After I’d finished reading New Self, New World during the chill of a Toronto winter, I took one of Shepherd’s weekend workshops. With patience and persistence, he guided about fifteen of us through a series of exercises designed to bring our awareness into our bodies and to connect our heads to our “pelvic” intelligence. The outwardly simple yet inwardly challenging exercises took us on a journey deep into the unfamiliar roots of our own sensitivity.
Shepherd lives with his wife and two teenage daughters in a small, car-free community on Ward’s Island in Lake Ontario, a ten-minute ferry ride from downtown Toronto. Our interview took place at my home just outside the city in the other direction. It’s about forty-five minutes from the ferry on a highway by car, but Shepherd arrived on his bike. We sat to talk by a summer pond full of life.
Buchbinder: You’ve said that we have a misguided cultural story about what it means to be human. What does that story tell us?
Shepherd: It tells us that the head should be in charge, because it knows the answers, and the body is little more than a vehicle for transporting the head to its next engagement. It tells us that doing is the primary value, while being is secondary. It shapes our perceptions, actions, and experiences of life. It separates us from the sensations of the body and alienates us from the world. And there is no escaping this story; it’s embedded in our language, our architecture, our customs, and our hierarchies. It’s like the ocean, and we are like fish who swim in it and barely notice it because we’ve lived with it since infancy.
By interpreting reality for us, stories frame and give meaning to our actions. But there’s a danger to living by a story that you can’t question, because you start to mistake the story for reality. And that’s where my work starts — in formulating questions that can expose that story and hold it to account.
Buchbinder: Where did this story come from?
Shepherd: It dates back to the Neolithic Revolution, which was underway in most of Europe by 6,000 BC and gave us a new way of living: agriculture, permanent settlements, domesticated animals. We started taking charge of our environment. When you domesticate an animal, you become like a god to it. You determine with whom it will mate, and you own its babies. You choose what it will eat and when. And you determine the moment of its death.
So at the start of the Neolithic Era humankind was radically altering its relationship with the world. The unforeseen consequence of that, which our culture hasn’t yet begun to appreciate, is that we also began to take control of the self in ways that created within us the same divisions we were creating in our relationship with the world. If you go back to the Indo-European roots of the English language, which date from the Neolithic, you find that the word for the hub of a wheel came from the word for navel. The hub is the center around which the wheel revolves. The metaphor suggests that the center of the self was located in the belly.
The idea of being centered in the belly shows up in many cultures — Incan, Maya. There is a Chinese word for belly that means “mind palace.” Japanese culture rests on a foundation of hara, which means “belly” and represents the seat of understanding. The Japanese have a host of expressions that use hara where we use head. We say, “He’s hotheaded.” They say, “His belly rises easily.” We say, “He has a good head on his shoulders.” They say, “He has a well-developed belly.”
Buchbinder: This isn’t just a semantic issue, is it?
Shepherd: No, it’s deeper. These cultural differences point out that we have lost some choice in how we experience ourselves. Our culture doesn’t recognize that hub in the belly, and most of us don’t trust it enough to come to rest there. Our story insists that our thinking happens exclusively in the head. And so we are stuck in the cranium, unable to open the door to the body and join its thinking. The best we can do is put our ear to the imaginary wall separating us from it and “listen to the body,” a phrase that means well but actually keeps us in the head, gathering information from the outside. But the body is not outside. The body is you. We are missing the experience of our own being.
To get a sense of what we have lost, it helps to appreciate the forces that carried us into the head. The Neolithic Revolution spawned two major changes in our story: the experiential center of the self, which had been located in the belly, began to migrate upward to the head; and the spiritual center of our culture began to migrate from the earth goddess up to the sky god. In mythological ways of thinking, the body and the world of nature generally are associated with the feminine, while the head and the realm of abstract ideas are associated with the masculine.
By around 700 bc, we find the Greek poet Homer making frequent use of the word phren, which translates as both “mind” and “diaphragm.” So by Homer’s day the migration of our thinking was about halfway to the head, balanced between male and female. Some rich developments came out of that ancient Greek culture: the birth of Western science, philosophy, literature, theater. But by 350 bc or so the philosopher Plato locates the center of our thinking in the head. In his dialogue Timaeus the title character explains that the gods made us by fashioning the soul into a divine sphere, the cranium, and then gave it a vehicle, the body, to carry it around. So the head has the spark of divinity, and the body is a machine. That’s been our metaphor ever since.
Our culture has been intolerant of attempts to reclaim this lost center of consciousness. In the early 1900s a Chicago anatomist named Byron Robinson wrote a book called The Abdominal and Pelvic Brain in which he describes the neurology of an independent brain in the gut. His work was quickly forgotten — it had no relevance to our cultural story. Then, in the late 1920s, Johannis Langley mapped out the autonomic nervous system. He said there were three divisions: the sympathetic, the parasympathetic, and the enteric. The enteric nervous system, which governs the gastrointestinal functions, is exactly what Robinson called the “abdominal brain.” Langley’s book became a classic, but the enteric nervous system was widely ignored, and students were taught that the autonomic nervous system has just two divisions.
Finally, in the 1960s, Dr. Michael Gershon rediscovered the brain in the gut. In his book The Second Brain he describes how it took him fifteen years of presenting his research and answering refutations before his fellow neuroscientists capitulated and agreed that the neuromass in the belly is indeed an independent brain. [Gershon is a professor of pathology and cell biology at Columbia University. — Ed.]
Robinson, who first discovered the pelvic brain, was much freer in his assessment of its importance than scientists are today. He talked about it as the “center of life.” I completely agree with that. It is the center of one’s being.
Buchbinder: How does it meet the criteria for being a brain?
Shepherd: We shouldn’t imagine it as a lump of gray matter. The enteric brain is a web of neurons lining the gut. But it perceives, thinks, learns, decides, acts, and remembers all on its own. You can sever the vagus nerve, which is the main conduit between the two brains, and the brain in the gut just carries on doing its job.
So they are both brains, but they are radically different. The enteric brain exists as a network that suffuses the viscera as a whole — which mirrors the way the female aspect of our consciousness feels the world around us as a whole, enabling us to exist in the present. The cranial brain, by contrast, is enclosed in the skull. And that mirrors the way the male aspect of our consciousness can separate itself from the world and create a subject-object relationship, enabling us to think abstractly. These two ways of engaging our intelligence reveal two different versions of the same world.
Buchbinder: Why bring “male” and “female” into it? Why associate “doing” with the male and “being” with the female?
Shepherd: The terms are imperfect, certainly, because people will tend to hear “men” and “women” — but I’m not talking about men and women. I’m talking about the complementary opposites that exist in each of us. Whether you are a man or a woman, there is both a masculine aspect to your consciousness and a feminine aspect. To come into wholeness is to realize the indivisible unity of these parts. At this point in our culture the male aspect has eclipsed the female aspect. I see this in both men and women. We have been taught to mistrust our bodies, to mistrust our intuition, to mistrust any information that is not analytical.
This head-based, masculine perspective gives rise to three serious misunderstandings that drive our culture: we misunderstand what intelligence is, what information is, and what thinking is. Take our understanding of intelligence. We think it’s the ability to reason in an abstract fashion, something you can measure with an IQ test. So we remain blind to the impotence of reason in areas of vital concern to us. You cannot reason your way into being present. You cannot reason your way into love. You cannot reason your way into fulfillment. If you wish to be present, you need to submit to the present, and suddenly you find yourself at one with it. You submit to love. There’s that great quote from the Persian mystic Rumi: “Your task is not to seek love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.”
Buchbinder: If intelligence isn’t abstract reasoning, what is it?
Shepherd: It’s sensitivity — specifically a grounded sensitivity, because a reactive sensitivity isn’t able to integrate information. A sensitivity to music, to the flight of a swallow, to arithmetic relationship, to a child’s tears — all of these are forms of intelligence. And your sensitivity isn’t a static, permanent condition. Anything that increases it increases your ability to live more intelligently. Conversely, the constant noise and distractions of modern life have the opposite effect. The jackhammer you walk past on the street diminishes your intelligence by blunting your sensitivity.
Buchbinder: If this focus on the head began in the Neolithic, are you saying that we need to go back to the Mesolithic? What if the rise of consciousness to the cranial brain was an important part of our development as humans?
Shepherd: Our task at this point isn’t to go back. It’s not a matter of giving up the ability to think consciously or abstractly; it’s a matter of coordinating the two brains. Picture the first astronaut who went into orbit and took a photo of our planet. He brought that unprecedented perspective back home and showed it to people. Suddenly they were newly sensitized to what it means to be a citizen of the planet. They became slightly more intelligent about their relationship with it. I think that new sensitivity contributed to the range of environmental initiatives, such as the Earth Day movement and Friends of the Earth, that sprang forth in the years following that first photo of the earth from space.
That story of the astronaut stands as a metaphor for the evolution of our consciousness, but we are only halfway through the journey. We have left our home in the belly and are now “in orbit” in the head, viewing the world from a new, somewhat remote vantage point. Just as the astronaut gains perspective by separating from the earth, we gain perspective by stepping back from the body, separating our consciousness from its sensations and dulling our awareness of them.
The problem is, we don’t know how to bring those perspectives back home so they can be integrated. Without that integration our abstract perspectives can’t sensitize us to the world. They merely abet our ability to assert control over it. Our culture has a tacit assumption that if we can just gather enough information on ourselves and our world, it will add up to a whole. But when you stand back to look at something, there are always details that are hidden from you. The integration of multiple perspectives into a whole can happen only when, like the astronaut bringing the photo back to earth, we bring this information back to our pelvic bowl, back to the ground of our being, back to the integrating genius of the female consciousness. The pelvic bowl is the original beggar’s bowl: it receives the gifts of the world — of the male perspective — and it integrates them. As you bring ideas down to the belly and let them settle there, they sensitize you to who you are and eventually give birth to insight. Our task is to learn to trust that process.
The central theme of my work is that our relationship with the body shapes our perceptions, which in turn direct the actions we take and guide the theories we generate. The atomic theory began as a philosophical concept that was first expounded by Democritus around the same time Plato declared the head to be the soul’s container and the body its vehicle. Having individuated ourselves from the world, we saw a reality made of individuated bits, a shattered universe of random pieces that have no real relationship with each other. And we still see it that way, because we live in the head. But that’s an alienating impoverishment of reality. Quantum mechanics has revealed that not even an electron exists as an individuated bit. It exists as part of a web of relationships.
Our relationship with the body has similarly affected our politics, our corporate culture, our language, our cultural values — all of human history. Language tells us explicitly that the head should rule. You’d better have a good head on your shoulders. You need to get ahead. The bosses work in corporate headquarters and head up committees. Chief, captain, and capital all come from the Latin word for head, so Washington, DC, is literally the “head” of the U.S. We call the pope the “head” of the Roman Catholic Church. We could call him the “heart” of the Church, to emphasize that it’s an institution based on faith. Or we could call him the “lungs” of the Church, because spirit means “breath.” The Church might look to its original model, Jesus, who did not live from the head. Instead it’s organized as a top-down tyranny, with the pope as its “head.”
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Are Happy People Dumb?
by Shawn Achor
“Happy people are not the smart people.”
I was talking to a stock trader shortly before giving a lecture at a large bank in New York. I think he thought I was a fellow trader, but I felt a little awkward at this turn in the conversation… as my lecture topic was the research case for happiness.
“Happy people are the ones who don’t get it,” he continued. “Happy people just don’t understand how the markets are working or how the company is not working…”
These sentiments are not uncommon. I believe we have a cultural assumption that happy people are anti-intellectual, delusional, or shallow. We’ve all heard the saying that “ignorance is bliss.” But, in truth, society has a fundamental ignorance about bliss.
Here’s part of the problem. Everyone knows someone who is brilliant and unhappy. And everyone knows someone who is successful and not happy. I encountered both types frequently in my research at Harvard and in Fortune 500 companies, and when you see these two types of individuals, it is easy for us to assume that happiness has nothing to do with success or intelligence, or is even antithetical to it.
On the contrary, a decade of research suggests that both of those individuals (smart/unhappy, and successful/unhappy) are actually significantly underperforming what their brain can do. We know this partly because if you raise their levels of positive emotion, their cognitive abilities and success rates go up. The real story of happiness is that every person has a range of potential — in terms of intelligence, athletic ability, musicality, creativity, and productivity — and we are more likely to achieve the upper bounds of our brain’s potential when we’re feeling positive, rather than negative or neutral.
For instance, dopamine, a neurochemical released by our body which helps us experience enjoyment and happiness, has an ancillary benefit: it activates the learning centers of the brain, allowing our brains to become intellectual sponges.
You’ve seen this in the past. If you crammed for a test in school and were stressed about it, you probably do not remember the information even three days later–even if that information would have been helpful at your job or if you had to battle Watson on Jeopardy.
But you probably remember song lyrics from a decade or more ago, and your brain retained that information even if it is useless to you (unless you do a lot of karaoke). You remember that information partly because of the musical patterns and partly because your brain’s learning system was activated by dopamine.
In psychological experiments, a “prime” causes a person to experience an emotion; then we see how that new state affects their performance. You can prime people to become more altruistic by giving them something small yourself. When you prime a four year old child to be happy — by asking them to think of their happiest memory — their spatial memory increases dramatically, allowing them to put blocks together up to 50% faster than children at neutral. Doctors primed to be positive come to the correct diagnosis 19% faster when primed to be positive as opposed to negative. Salespeople have 37% higher levels of sales when optimistic. In fact, a meta-analysis of employees at companies reveals that nearly every single business outcome improves when a brain is positive. Happiness is a significant advantage.
In fact, happiness is the single greatest competitive advantage in the modern economy. Only 25% of your job successes are predicted based upon intelligence and technical skills, though we spend most of our education and most companies hire based upon this category. The “silent 75%” of long-term job success is based upon your ability to positively adapt to the world: optimism, social support creation, and viewing stress as a challenge instead of as a threat.
Perhaps that stock trader meant that happy people are shallow and just don’t realize that there are problems in the world. We often erroneously think that the “deep” people are the ones who brood. The darker the movie, the less redemptive the ending, the more artistic people think it is. The more messed up the painter or the musician’s life, the more creative we assume they were. But this is not true. It requires an incredible amount of depth to be positive and hopeful in the midst of adversity. In truth, negative emotions stem from the most primitive part of the brain that responds to fear and threat. Seeing the negative is easy; formulating a cognitive strategy about how to positively respond to challenge requires much higher-order functioning in the brain.
Researchers like Barbara Fredrickson have found that when we are negative, our brains resort to “fight or flight” thinking about the world. But when we are positive, our brains “broaden and build” allowing us to create new patterns of success and widen the amount of possibilities our brains can process.
If you want to see what your brain is capable of today at work or school, try to raise your level of happiness before tackling a challenge. For a list of suggestions for happiness boosters, check out this video or this list.
Given all the research about the happiness advantage and how positive brains reap higher business outcomes, the conclusion is clear: it is smart to be happy.
Shawn Achor is the founder of Good Think, Inc. and the author of The Happiness Advantage. In 2006, he was Head Teaching Fellow for “Positive Psychology,” the most popular course at Harvard at the time. He holds a Masters from Harvard Divinity School and has spoken in 45 countries to a wide variety of audiences, including bankers on Wall Street, students in Dubai, and CEOs in Zimbabwe.
Stress-Busting Smiles A Genuine Grin Can Help the Heart; Is Polite Faking Enough to See Benefits? - Wall Street Journal
A Genuine Grin Can Help the Heart; Is Polite Faking Enough to See Benefits?
By SUMATHI REDDY
Smiling could be good for your health.
Researchers are finding that wearing a smile brings certain benefits, like slowing down the heart and reducing stress. This may even happen when people aren’t aware they are forming a smile, according to a recent study. The work follows research that established that the act of smiling can make you feel happier.
Some research suggests only a full and genuine smile affects the body in positive ways. Other studies, though, indicate even a polite smile may be beneficial. Frowning also may have a health effect: Preventing people from frowning, such as with the use of Botox, can help alleviate depression, a recent study found.
“You can influence mental health by what you do with your face, whether you smile more or frown less,” says Eric Finzi, a dermatologic surgeon and co-author of the study on frowning.
Kyle Gorjanc, of Brooklyn, N.Y., regularly runs for exercise and long-distance training. After seeing race photos of herself grimacing, Ms. Gorjanc, 32 years old, began about a year ago making a conscious effort to smile when running. “I started by literally forcing myself to smile. Now I think I do it more naturally,” she says.
Smiling has helped her feel less stressed and tired while running, she says. Since the biggest challenge in long-distance running isn’t physical but mental, smiling “ensures that long-distance running will be much, much easier,” says Ms. Gorjanc, a co-founder of an online resource for women runners called Salty Running. “What happens is you actually find things to be happy about instead of just smiling for the sake of doing it,” she says. And of course other people smile back, she says.
A study published in the journal Psychological Science in November found that people who smiled after engaging in stress-inducing tasks showed a greater reduction in heart rate than people who maintained a neutral facial expression. The study, which involved 170 participants, got people to smile unknowingly by making them hold a pair of chopsticks in three different ways in their mouth. One way forced people to maintain a neutral expression, another prompted a polite smile, and a third resulted in a full smile that uses the muscles around the mouth and the eyes.
“We saw a steeper decline in heart rate and a faster physiological stress recovery when they were smiling,” even though the participants weren’t aware they were making facial expressions, says Sarah Pressman, co-author of the study and an assistant psychology professor at University of California, Irvine. Participants making a full smile performed better than the polite-smile group, but the difference wasn’t statistically significant and needs to be studied further, she says.
“We smile because we feel not threatened,” says Dr. Pressman. Over time that message evolved so the muscle activity involved in a smile sends a message to the brain signaling safety, which could translate into lower heart rate and stress levels. Dr. Pressman is currently researching how smiling affects certain stress hormones, such as cortisol, and oxytocin, which is sometimes called the trust hormone. “We’ve already seen it with heart rate; we’re hoping to see it with these other stress levels in the body,” she says.
Some experts believe only a genuine, full smile, confers health benefits. Such a smile, commonly referred to as a Duchenne smile, after the 19th century French neurologist who first described it, activates major muscles around the mouth and the eyes. By contrast, a standard social smile, which is sometimes called a Pan Am smile after the polite expression the former airline’s stewardesses used to greet passengers, activates only the muscles around the mouth. A Duchenne smile “generates the physiology of positive emotion and the changes in the brain” associated with spontaneous enjoyment, says Paul Ekman, a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of California, San Francisco.
Studies have found that the intensity of a person’s smile can help predict life satisfaction over time and even longevity. What’s unclear is whether smiling reflects a person’s overall happiness or if the act of smiling contributes to that happiness. Marianne LaFrance, a psychology professor at Yale University, believes it is a bit of both.
“It’s probably bidirectional,” she says. “People who smile more tend to elicit more positive connections with other people,” which in turn help make you happier and healthier.
Patti Wood, a body-language expert in Atlanta, says politicians, business executives and people preparing for job interviews or who are dating come to her to learn how to smile most effectively and project a positive image. Ms. Wood coaches some clients on getting their whole face involved in a smile. She tells them to bring their cheeks up higher and pull their whole face upward, and she makes sure the eyes show the warmth of a sincere Duchenne smile.
“Every time you’re in the grocery store, practice that smile,” Ms. Wood says she tells clients. “How does that feel? Do I like it? Do I like the results that I get?” Ms. Wood says her rates start at $1,200 for a 3½-hour body-language-training package.
There are a number of other smiles documented in research, including ones reflecting embarrassment, love, desire, disgust and sadness. Researchers map such smiles to study where our emotions come from, their complexity and the impact they have on social relationships.
In the study of frowning, Dr. Finzi injected Botox into the frown muscles of half of a group of 74 people diagnosed with depression, which prevented these patients from frowning. The other half received placebo injections. After six weeks, 27% of the Botox patients went into remission for their depression. That compares with a 7% remission rate for the patients in the control group. Dr. Finzi says the study was presented at a conference in December and is under review for publication.
Richard J. Davidson, director of the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin, says he is exploring whether activating the frowning muscle between the eyebrows, known as the corrugator, is associated with activity in the amygdala, the part of the brain that processes emotions such as fear. “What we find is that there’s correlated activity but that doesn’t mean that the production of the facial expression actually causes these changes in the brain,” he says. “That requires much more research.”
Some experts caution against suppressing facial emotion, be it good or bad. Dacher Keltner, a psychology professor at University of California, Berkeley, says studies have shown that people who use Botox to hide lines on their face feel less pleasure in response to subtle things around them and aren’t able to read other people’s emotions as well.
And what effect do people who smile have on others? Experts say there is a real positive impact. Marco Iacoboni, a lab director at the UCLA Brain Mapping Center, says when people see a smile, so-called mirror neurons fire in their brain and evoke a similar neural response as if they were smiling themselves.
Write to Sumathi Reddy at firstname.lastname@example.org
Holding the sticks in the mouth activates the same muscles we use for smiling.
After engaging in stressful tasks, people reduced their heart rate more quickly if they smiled, a recent study found. Participants held chopsticks in their mouth in different ways to, from left, keep a neutral expression, make a standard smile or form a full smile.
A version of this article appeared February 26, 2013, on page D1 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Stress-Busting Smiles.
Relax! You’ll Be More Productive
By TONY SCHWARTZ
THINK for a moment about your typical workday. Do you wake up tired? Check your e-mail before you get out of bed? Skip breakfast or grab something on the run that’s not particularly nutritious? Rarely get away from your desk for lunch? Run from meeting to meeting with no time in between? Find it nearly impossible to keep up with the volume of e-mail you receive? Leave work later than you’d like, and still feel compelled to check e-mail in the evenings?
More and more of us find ourselves unable to juggle overwhelming demands and maintain a seemingly unsustainable pace. Paradoxically, the best way to get more done may be to spend more time doing less. A new and growing body of multidisciplinary research shows that strategic renewal — including daytime workouts, short afternoon naps, longer sleep hours, more time away from the office and longer, more frequent vacations — boosts productivity, job performance and, of course, health.
“More, bigger, faster.” This, the ethos of the market economies since the Industrial Revolution, is grounded in a mythical and misguided assumption — that our resources are infinite.
Time is the resource on which we’ve relied to get more accomplished. When there’s more to do, we invest more hours. But time is finite, and many of us feel we’re running out, that we’re investing as many hours as we can while trying to retain some semblance of a life outside work.
Although many of us can’t increase the working hours in the day, we can measurably increase our energy. Science supplies a useful way to understand the forces at play here. Physicists understand energy as the capacity to do work. Like time, energy is finite; but unlike time, it is renewable. Taking more time off is counterintuitive for most of us. The idea is also at odds with the prevailing work ethic in most companies, where downtime is typically viewed as time wasted. More than one-third of employees, for example, eat lunch at their desks on a regular basis. More than 50 percent assume they’ll work during their vacations.
In most workplaces, rewards still accrue to those who push the hardest and most continuously over time. But that doesn’t mean they’re the most productive.
Spending more hours at work often leads to less time for sleep and insufficient sleep takes a substantial toll on performance. In a study of nearly 400 employees, published last year, researchers found that sleeping too little — defined as less than six hours each night — was one of the best predictors of on-the-job burn-out. A recent Harvard study estimated that sleep deprivation costs American companies $63.2 billion a year in lost productivity.
The Stanford researcher Cheri D. Mah found that when she got male basketball players to sleep 10 hours a night, their performances in practice dramatically improved: free-throw and three-point shooting each increased by an average of 9 percent.
Daytime naps have a similar effect on performance. When night shift air traffic controllers were given 40 minutes to nap — and slept an average of 19 minutes — they performed much better on tests that measured vigilance and reaction time.
Longer naps have an even more profound impact than shorter ones. Sara C. Mednick, a sleep researcher at the University of California, Riverside, found that a 60- to 90-minute nap improved memory test results as fully as did eight hours of sleep.
MORE vacations are similarly beneficial. In 2006, the accounting firm Ernst & Young did an internal study of its employees and found that for each additional 10 hours of vacation employees took, their year-end performance ratings from supervisors (on a scale of one to five) improved by 8 percent. Frequent vacationers were also significantly less likely to leave the firm.
As athletes understand especially well, the greater the performance demand, the greater the need for renewal. When we’re under pressure, however, most of us experience the opposite impulse: to push harder rather than rest. This may explain why a recent survey by Harris Interactive found that Americans left an average of 9.2 vacation days unused in 2012 — up from 6.2 days in 2011.
The importance of restoration is rooted in our physiology. Human beings aren’t designed to expend energy continuously. Rather, we’re meant to pulse between spending and recovering energy.
In the 1950s, the researchers William Dement and Nathaniel Kleitman discovered that we sleep in cycles of roughly 90 minutes, moving from light to deep sleep and back out again. They named this pattern the Basic-Rest Activity Cycle or BRAC. A decade later, Professor Kleitman discovered that this cycle recapitulates itself during our waking lives.
The difference is that during the day we move from a state of alertness progressively into physiological fatigue approximately every 90 minutes. Our bodies regularly tell us to take a break, but we often override these signals and instead stoke ourselves up with caffeine, sugar and our own emergency reserves — the stress hormones adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol.
Working in 90-minute intervals turns out to be a prescription for maximizing productivity. Professor K. Anders Ericsson and his colleagues at Florida State University have studied elite performers, including musicians, athletes, actors and chess players. In each of these fields, Dr. Ericsson found that the best performers typically practice in uninterrupted sessions that last no more than 90 minutes. They begin in the morning, take a break between sessions, and rarely work for more than four and a half hours in any given day.
“To maximize gains from long-term practice,” Dr. Ericsson concluded, “individuals must avoid exhaustion and must limit practice to an amount from which they can completely recover on a daily or weekly basis.”
I’ve systematically built these principles into the way I write. For my first three books, I sat at my desk for up 10 hours a day. Each of the books took me at least a year to write. For my two most recent books, I wrote in three uninterrupted 90-minute sessions — beginning first thing in the morning, when my energy was highest — and took a break after each one.
Along the way, I learned that it’s not how long, but how well, you renew that matters most in terms of performance. Even renewal requires practice. The more rapidly and deeply I learned to quiet my mind and relax my body, the more restored I felt afterward. For one of the breaks, I ran. This generated mental and emotional renewal, but also turned out to be a time in which some of my best ideas came to me, unbidden. Writing just four and half hours a day, I completed both books in less than six months and spent my afternoons on less demanding work.
The power of renewal was so compelling to me that I’ve created a business around it that helps a range of companies including Google, Coca-Cola, Green Mountain Coffee, the Los Angeles Police Department, Cleveland Clinic and Genentech.
Our own offices are a laboratory for the principles we teach. Renewal is central to how we work. We dedicated space to a “renewal” room in which employees can nap, meditate or relax. We have a spacious lounge where employees hang out together and snack on healthy foods we provide. We encourage workers to take renewal breaks throughout the day, and to leave the office for lunch, which we often do together. We allow people to work from home several days a week, in part so they can avoid debilitating rush-hour commutes. Our workdays end at 6 p.m. and we don’t expect anyone to answer e-mail in the evenings or on the weekends. Employees receive four weeks of vacation from their first year.
Our basic idea is that the energy employees bring to their jobs is far more important in terms of the value of their work than is the number of hours they work. By managing energy more skillfully, it’s possible to get more done, in less time, more sustainably. In a decade, no one has ever chosen to leave the company. Our secret is simple — and generally applicable. When we’re renewing, we’re truly renewing, so when we’re working, we can really work.
Tony Schwartz is the chief executive officer of The Energy Project and the author, most recently, of “Be Excellent at Anything.”