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Negative societal consequencesThe dangerous societal consequences of growing public belief in conspiracy theories are well documented, from decreased civic engagement, to lower support for important issues such as global warming, to outright science denial, prejudice, and racism. In a recent study covering five different countries, we found that higher endorsement of conspiracy theories about COVID-19 (such as the idea that the virus was intentionally created in a military lab) is also strongly associated with lower intentions to get vaccinated and comply with public health guidelines.
Tracing digital footprintsAlthough tons of research has been conducted on why people believe in conspiracy theories, what research so far hasn't looked at is what language conspiracy theorists use online to entice their followers. Are there unique psycho-linguistic features in how actual conspiracy theorists express themselves online that we can discern from data? Most research uses surveys to ask the general public about the degree to which they endorse a particular conspiracy theory. Instead, we decided not to ask any questions and take our research online by observing the actual language that the top conspiracy theorists and their followers use on social media.
The language patterns of conspiracy theoristsIn our new study, we first identified the top conspiracy theorists on Twitter via a simple popularity metric: their number of followers. After all, more followers means greater influence. Even though it's public information, we can't divulge the identities of the conspiracy theorists in question for ethical reasons but you can find a table with redacted Twitter profiles here. Of course, we needed to be able to compare the language used by conspiracy theorists to another group. So our comparison or control group consisted of the top popular science influencers. This is interesting insofar we can now compare how two opposing narratives unfold on social media: science versus conspiracy. In total, we were able to scrape over 16,000 tweets from the influencers and over 160,000 tweets from a random sample of about 1,600 of their followers. Lots of data to look at!
So what were we looking for?
We used a psychological tool known as the Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count (LIWC) dictionary. This dictionary was created by psychologist James Pannebaker who famously said "The words we use in daily life reflect who we are and the social relationships we are in." The dictionary associates words with particular psychological language themes. For example, a category called "cognitive processes" has subcategories that include "certainty" and associated words would include things like "truth." Similarly, the category "negative emotion" has subcategories called "anger" with associated words like "hate." Emotions such as "anxiety" would be associated with words like "nervous" and "afraid." The dictionary also clocks words that are about groups, for example, "we" and "us" versus "they" and "them." We used these categories to see if there are consistent patterns.
The figure below visualizes a snapshot of the social network of the top conspiracy theorists and popular science influencers and their respective following. You can already see that they form relatively polarized "echo chambers" with few linkages between the conspiracy and science influencers. Might they therefore also differ in the language that they use online?
The social network of the top conspiracy (red) and science (blue) influencers and their followers.
We found some notable differences. For example, as compared to scientists, conspiracy theorists scored much higher on their use of negative emotion, especially anger and anxiety, and this pattern was also present among their followers, especially around words that signal anxiety. Conspiracy theorists were not necessarily more likely to use "certain" or "causal" language than scientists but their followers were more focused on past events. Interestingly, conspiracy theorists and their followers were especially likely to focus on language themes related to power, death, and religion, as well as a focus on other groups.
This makes sense: Many conspiracy theories revolve around the death of prominent individuals from Princess Diana, Osama Bin Laden, and John F. Kennedy to rapper Tupac Shakur. Conspiracy theories also frequently involve plots among powerful elites such as Bill Gates, Big Pharma, and international organizations such as the World Health Organization and United Nations who are seen as part of a "New World Order." The main purpose of conspiracy theories is of course to spread anger and fear, especially about the motives of other groups in society, including ethnic minorities, who are often the target of conspiracy theories.
In the figure below, we show a word cloud visualizing the most commonly used nouns and adjectives for the top 10 conspiracy and science influencers. Bigger and bolder representation indicates that the words appeared more frequently in the text. There are clear differences between the two groups, whereas scientists focus on science and topics such as “people,” “time,” “future,” “space,” “world,” “good,” and “earth,” conspiracy theorists focus on “followers,” “trailer” (of conspiracy movies), “Trump,” “Infowars,” “Russia,” “UFOs,” and “report.”
In short, next time you have a conversation and you're lured into a theme of fear, anxiety, and narratives about death and powerful "other" groups, you might be dealing with a conspiracy theorist.
The Language of Conspiracy Theorists | Psychology Today
What children of divorce want most and need most is to maintain strong and healthy relationships with both of their parents. Children have an innate desire to love, and be loved, by their mother and father.
Some parents, however, for a variety of unhealthy reasons, become determined to make their children love them at the exclusion of the other parent. Parental alienation is the maneuvering or manipulation of a child by one parent (alienating parent) to fear, disrespect, and hate his or her other parent (rejected parent) in an effort to disrupt the child’s relationship with that parent. This can lead to long-term or even permanent estrangement of the child from the rejected parent. Parental alienation is unhealthy and traumatic for the child.
Research shows that parental alienation occurs in 11-15% of divorces involving children (Fidler and Bala, 2010). As such, it is a relatively frequent phenomenon that attorneys and judges must face.
Let us be clear from the outset: Reasonable estrangement due to a parent’s real problems is different from alienation. For example, it is reasonable for a child to not want to see a parent if that parent is an alcoholic who regularly drinks around the child. This is not alienation. This is a reasonable reaction by a concerned child.
Common Tactics of Parental Alienation
Parental alienation involves a set of maneuvers and behaviors by the alienating parent. These often include:
• Bad-mouthing the other parent
• Capitalizing on and exaggerating complaints by the child about the other parent
• Limiting phone calls, video calls, texts, and emails between the child and other parent
• Creating the narrative that the other parent is mean, inadequate, and/or dangerous
• Promulgating the belief that the child is a victim of the other parent and must be protected
• Threatening to withdraw affection from the child if the other parent is not rejected
• Belittling and limiting contact with the extended family members of the other parent
• Falsely accusing the other parent of verbal, physical, or sexual abuse of the child or of the alienating parent
Red Flags for Parental Alienation
It is often difficult to determine if parental alienation is occurring. It is perplexing because the maneuvers of alienation are often hidden and actively denied by the suspected parent. The child is often a pawn who is largely unaware of the inappropriateness and unhealthiness of the phenomenon.
There are a number of red flags for identifying the presence of parental alienation. These include:
• Extreme denigration of the rejected parent by the child
• Weak or inadequate reasons for the denigration by the child
• Absence of ambivalence and guilt in the child
• The rejected parent is seen as “all bad.”
• Total alignment with the alienating parent, who is seen as “all good.”
• Claims of “independent thinking” by the child and the alienating parent
• Child’s animosity is spread to extended family members, friends, and others of the rejected parent
Roadblocks in Identifying Parental Alienation
Being able to identify parental alienation in a family has frequent roadblocks. The alienating parent’s attorney often believes his or her client will stonewall the use of a psychological evaluation. The rejected parent’s attorney believes his or her client and does not even consider the possibility that he or she has real problems—and thus it is not alienation. The guardian ad litem (GAL) believes the child, because the child’s statements are powerful and compelling, and does not consider the possibility that parental alienation is lurking and operating behind the scenes.
Many attorneys and judges do not understand the phenomenon of parental alienation. Some deny its presence because it is not a DSM-5 diagnosis. Others turn a blind eye because it is difficult to prove in a court room. Others believe that parental alienation is overblown and exaggerated as a real problem.
Initial Steps to Take
Tackling a case of parental alienation requires having the right attorney. It calls for an attorney who is psychologically minded, verbal, aggressive, and focused on the child’s best interest. In a parental alienation case, there is no room for indecisiveness, lack of clarity, or passivity.
The rejected parent’s attorney should file a motion for a psychological evaluation for both parents and the child. Even if the motion is denied, the rejected parent should pursue a psychological evaluation so that the parental alienation can be exposed.
Documenting examples of the parental alienation is vital. Keeping text messages, emails, pictures, and recordings can help put together the narrative of the parental alienation.
Asking the alienating parent to stop certain maneuvers and behaviors is important. If you do not speak up and ask for change, it will appear that you are condoning the harmful and hurtful process. Put your requests for change in writing.
Parental alienation is a powerfully disruptive and pernicious phenomenon. It must be identified and exposed. It must be attacked and defeated when possible. It can be done.
How to Recognize Parental Alienation | Psychology Today
My husband and I have been in the process of purchasing a home. This new house will be an improvement from our previous dwelling in several ways. We'll finally have luxuries that were out of our reach in the past with greater square footage, an expansive yard for our children to explore, and a close-knit neighborhood, to list a few.
Yet, with all of the wonderful upgrades to look forward to, I have found myself ruminating on the fireplace we decided to go without. And the floorplan with just a little more room that we passed up. And the lot with a slighter bigger yard. I stopped for a moment and recognized that while my standard of living was about to improve, I was stuck on what I wasn't getting. What was going on and how could I get out of this destructive pattern?
Negativity BiasUnfortunately, we humans are susceptible to what psychologists call negativity bias. Our brains are wired to focus on the negative aspects of life compared to the positive. Of course, this bias served our early ancestors well when paying keen attention to risk and danger was a matter of life or death. This attunement kept them safe and thus more likely to pass this trait on to their posterity.
Loss AversionWe also experience loss aversion where we weigh losses nearly twice as much as gains. For example, if you were to lose $100, your pain would be as intense as the joy of finding $200. So while I was looking forward to a covered patio, would I be able to let go of the perks of my old house and neighborhood? Would our new house be enough of an upgrade to improve my level of happiness?
The Hedonic TreadmillLife events often affect well-being short term. Lottery winners are happier temporarily, then return to their previous levels.
The third strike against us is a constant battle with the hedonic treadmill. Psychologists have found that life events that change our level of happiness, typically only affect wellbeing short term. Lottery winners are happier temporarily, then return to their previous levels. Those who lose their job often feel initial sadness, but usually bounce back to their normal state.
There are some exceptions to the hedonic adaptation such as a chronic illness, which may have long-term effects on wellbeing, but many times we overestimate the effects of life events on our happiness. As Nobel prize-winning economist Daniel Kahneman said,
People are exposed to many messages that encourage them to believe that a change of weight, scent, hair color (or coverage), car, clothes, or many other aspects will produce a marked improvement in their happiness. Our research suggests a moral, and a warning: Nothing that you focus on will make as much difference as you think.
Humans are notorious for both intensity and duration biases when it comes to predicting their emotional states. Intensity bias is predicting an emotional response that is larger than the actual response, such as students overestimating their immediate reaction to a poor test grade. Duration bias is overestimating how long an event will affect our emotional state. For example, football fans may overestimate how long the feeling of elation after a team victory will last.
Defending Against Happiness PitfallsHow then can we defend against negativity bias, loss aversion, and the hedonic treadmill? The first step is being aware of these pitfalls. Each time we find ourselves focusing on what we’re giving up, we can take a minute to appreciate the privileges that we do have. Practicing gratitude is one of the most underappreciated tools we have to defend against negativity. The more we engage in optimistic thinking, the more automatic it will become. Our brains are malleable and capable of creating new patterns that can help fend off unhelpful biases.
We can be mentally present during everyday pleasures as we savor a cup of coffee or pause to experience a breathtaking sunrise. As David Kessler said in his latest book, “Finding meaning is not extraordinary, it’s ordinary. It happens all the time, all over the world.”
Experiences often impact our happiness more than things. As psychologist Thomas Gilovich said, "We remember experiences long afterward, while we soon become used to our possessions." We can use our relationships, hobbies, and compassion to bolster happiness and stave off negativity. We can take time to share our new dining room table with a family in need. We can allow our paints and canvases to occasionally clutter up our space. We can use that fresh grass to toss a football around with our little ones.
We can use our relationships, hobbies, and compassion to bolster happiness and stave off negativity.
When I envision my upcoming house, I can focus on the unexceptional countertops, or I can envision them being used to break bread with a new family. I can contemplate on the empty corner where the fireplace should be, or I can imagine my children and their friends snuggled there, giggling through a silly book. I can feel the loss of choosing a relatively small lot of land, but that yard may be where I embrace a brokenhearted friend. I may not have the means for high-end furniture, but maybe that space will be used as a refuge for someone who’s just been rejected by their family.
I may want all the comfort material goods can give, but it is my relationships with others that give them meaning. There is no purpose to a living space without life.
'My Life Is Improving, Why Am I Not Happier?' | Psychology Today
There are many ordinary situations in life that can trigger the fear that something bad is about to happen. Perhaps you’re about to sit down at the computer and take a look at your online statements. Something odd strikes you as you examine a series of recent transactions. You know you returned an expensive household item that stopped working, but you don’t see the credit as appearing on the statement. Without that return being processed, you might go over your credit limit. All of a sudden, you can feel your heart start to pound and you're having trouble breathing. You start to imagine that now, on top of the financial implications of all of this, something is going wrong with your body. The rational idea that the return just hasn’t gone through seems like a remote if not impossible explanation.
If, in reading this scenario, you can vividly imagine that this could happen to you, it’s possible that you have what researchers call a “looming” cognitive style. George Mason psychologist John Riskind, in a 2016 review of his long research career dedicated to this topic, defines this way of viewing the world as a key contributor to maladaptive levels of anxiety. In other words, by taking what is an ambiguous situation and see it as hurtling to the most dire possible outcome, you will invariably become anxious. Your bodily reactions intensify as your mind races to this worst-case scenario.
What differentiates the looming cognitive style from other approaches to anxiety that emphasize dysfunctional thoughts and beliefs is that when things seem to “loom,” your sense of threat starts to hurtle out of control, rapidly escalating. Although it might be somewhat adaptive to try to avoid an actual threat coming your way, when the threat is an imaginary one, your panicky reaction is anything but.
A large body of research based on the looming cognitive style continues to support its role in contributing to anxiety disorders, maintaining further that this cognitive style has trait-like qualities. In a review of 61 previously-published studies whose samples ranged from over 1,000 to over 7,000, National University of Singapore’s Gerard Yeo and colleagues (2020) concluded that the looming cognitive style is “a transdiagnostic vulnerability factor for various anxiety subtypes.”
People with this vulnerability, in the words of the authors, see “excessive or chronic perceptions of threats as rapidly approaching and gaining in magnitude, proximity, or probability.” You don’t want to be caught “flatfooted,” the Singapore team point out, when the danger is real. But when the danger escalates in your mind and your mind only, you’ll become incapacitated by this sense of oncoming doom.
Riskind’s Looming Cognitive Style Questionnaire, which you can see online, provides a way for you to test just how much you are susceptible to these unwarranted exaggerations of threat. Here is one item from this scale, which begins with these instructions:
Read the following scenario, and then “try to vividly imagine it… Concentrate on it and imagine it in as much vivid detail as possible. Then ask yourself the questions that follow, using 5-point scales of from lowest to highest:
Suppose that you are in front of a large audience of strangers. You are speaking about a topic on which you do not know a lot. Some of the people look bored or disinterested, while others look upset. It seems that you could get a very negative audience reaction.
You can see from this questionnaire item that people high in the looming cognitive style view the possibility of bad outcomes as growing and growing even though nothing is really changing about the situation. It’s not like this audience is about to throw things at you because they don’t seem interested or seem upset. It’s that you’re seeing these outcomes as very real possibilities.
In an earlier paper by Koc University’s Ayşe Altan-Atalay (2018), what adds to the negative effects on mental health of the looming cognitive style is “negative mood regulation expectancies,” or the conviction that you can’t control your mood state. Returning to the example of the speaking situation in the Riskind questionnaire, the threat builds and builds in your mind, and as it does, you’re convinced it will get out of control.
The questionnaire measure of this mood regulation ability used in the Altan-Atalay study involved items (reverse scored) such as “When I am upset, telling myself it will pass will calm me down.” As the Turkish authors predicted, the 326 university students (average age 22 years old) who were high in the looming cognitive style and negative mood regulation expectancies also showed the highest level of anxiety on a standard questionnaire measure of this mental state.
Having established the importance of both of these qualities to increasing people’s risk of anxiety and anxiety disorders, the next question becomes what to do about it if you’re someone high in both the looming cognitive style and the belief that you can't control your reactions as you see things getting worse and worse?
As Altan-Atalay point out, reducing “the intensity and uncontrollability of looming scenarios may increase the individuals' beliefs in the usefulness of their coping resources.” When you feel your internal perception of threat rising, according to this view, you can conquer your anxiety by recognizing that the threat really hasn’t changed and that, furthermore, you don’t have to let those feelings overwhelm you.
To sum up, imagining the worst when the worst is a reality in and of itself may be an advisable strategy. However, if you’re constantly letting those looming feelings of doom get in the way of your everyday life, finding more productive outlets of your imagination may just provide an important key to fulfillment.
Do You Tend to Imagine the Worst Out of Every Situation? | Psychology Today
In a business meeting last week, a member of my team asked how we were planning on talking to the community about the upcoming holiday. What holiday? We just finished the holidays. Oh, you mean Valentine’s Day!?!! I then realized Valentine’s Day was just a few days away, and I had nothing prepared. That’s because my husband and I don’t celebrate Valentine’s Day.
Love as Daily Practice
I think the idea of a day of love is fantastic, but, on the other hand, I personally believe in practicing love each and every day. I believe in choosing—and practicing—love every day, not just one day a year. Valentine’s Day is a great day to start from, but I feel love—particularly self-love—should be a daily practice.
Love is not always as easy as just loving yourself. We build up a lot of defenses to avoid getting hurt, and sometimes the hurt we experience makes it difficult to accept ourselves for who we are. Love is a feeling we experience. Love is also an action. The more you take action, the more you can experience feelings of love. SO, while feelings come and go, our job is to experience them as we feel them. Valentine’s Day can be a great reminder to feel that love, and a place to start your daily practice.
Practicing Love Every Day
Identify your top 5 values. These values are the principles that drive you, the reason why you get up and go each day. Write these values down, and place a reminder somewhere you will see it often. When you notice your values list, stop for just a moment, take a deep breath and realign with your values by asking yourself what one step you can take to align yourself with at least one value on your values list today?
Love as a daily practice. Prioritize a time each day for you to connect with the values you’ve identified. You’ll start to see when you are living in alignment with your values, you are doing good for others. Practicing love on the daily with the people in your life can also help you learn to practice love for yourself. The more you take time to act on these practices in your daily life, the more you will experience the feeling of love you’ve connected with them. It can be helpful to schedule 30-40 minutes each day to purposely take action with a value in mind.
Prioritize love as an intention. When you encounter a stressful situation during the day, remember your intention to love. Like we said, love is an action—a daily practice—and it’s also a feeling. The thing about feelings is they are not always present for us, or even obvious. Self-love is the feeling of knowing you are loved, while not always having all those funny tingly love feelings in your stomach. It is knowing, ultimately, you are not alone. Love is about accepting those feelings of belonging and connection will come and go.
Practicing Feeling Love
Accept that feelings of love come and go. Just because you do not feel it in the moment doesn’t mean you’re not loved, or incapable of loving. Find evidence of love in your life. Write it down to help you see the truth of that love.
Practice the Reverse Golden Rule. Treat yourself the way you treat others. You do a lot for people. You show up in a lot of different ways, offering kindness, respect, care, and compassion to family, friends and even co-workers. If you want to experience feeling loved, try treating yourself the way you treat those you love.
Learning to Feel the Love
Feeling love is not as easy as loving yourself. You are deserving of love as you are and allowing someone to love you can help you practice love toward yourself. It’s also OK to learn to love yourself, as it will only make your feelings of love stronger overall.
As an eating disorder specialist, I teach individuals that loving the body and, ultimately, the self, is a feeling that exists on a spectrum. One extreme of this is love, and the other is hate. Daily love exists somewhere in the middle, and, the more steps you take in that middle space, the more steps you will take toward experiencing love.
To move toward love, start with respect. Practicing respect for yourself and the people you are interacting with each day, can foster the feelings love you may feel you are missing.
To move toward love, practice appreciation. Notice things you are grateful for, both about yourself and your loved ones, every day. What can you thank yourself for? What can you thank your loved one—or even the people with whom you casually interact—for, every day?
To move toward love, practice grace. Practice grace toward others, and grace toward yourself, by giving up the idea that love is perfect. Love means you accept the good and the bad, the quirks and the strengths, and that you recognize mistakes—both yours and others—do not define value or worth. Practice giving yourself a break when you mess up in just the same way you would forgive a loved one for making a similar mistake.
The actions of love are imperfect, but the feeling of love is! The more love actions you take each day, toward yourself and others, the more you can consistently experience the joy of love in your life. Be sure to practice love today, Valentine’s Day, and I really want to encourage you to find a way to practice it again tomorrow too!
Love as Daily Practice | Psychology Today
It is an unfortunate and sometimes downright upsetting phenomenon to see mental health used as a scapegoat to divert attention from other topics. Many will likely be able to report seeing this happen in the wake of mass shootings. In those instances, some people who wish to divert the conversation away from a focus on gun control may say something like “this isn’t about gun control, this is about mental health.” They tend to claim that untreated mental illness is the real culprit behind the tragedy and often propose solutions such as registries of people with mental health diagnoses that can be used in gun purchases.
While mental health can and certainly often is a factor here—and we personally are always in favor of conversations that might shine a light on the often-overlooked problem of untreated mental illness in this country—the motivation behind this attention is likely simply to turn attention away from another urgently important but less politically desirable topic.
This kind of diversion tactic unfolded again last spring and summer with calls for schools to reopen amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Then-President Donald Trump, many of his supporters, and others claimed that keeping schools closed was very threatening to mental health and that the mental health-related risks of not reopening posed a greater threat than the COVID-related risks of reopening.
It goes without saying that school and socialization are positive drivers of youth mental health. But is it really fair to say that keeping schools closed poses a dire threat to mental health? More dire than the threat of serious outbreaks of a highly contagious and potentially deadly disease? It is here that we must better understand what the evidence we have actually says.
In general, and perhaps not surprisingly, school attendance is associated with better mental health and emotional well-being. Being in school can lead to a greater sense of connectedness, social support, and, more practically, better access to services. The benefit is often more pronounced for students with special needs and those who have behavioral or emotional issues and thus for whom extensive use of technology as part of virtual schooling might be difficult.
Indeed, any population that is already vulnerable will struggle more with school closure. For all students, schools are central to general development (especially for young children), building social and emotional skills, food security (which has an impact on mental health), and addressing social and racial inequity (which also has an impact on mental health).
Given the mental health benefits of being in school, does it necessarily follow that we need to rush our children back into these potentially unsafe conditions in the midst of a pandemic that threatens all of us? Ultimately the question comes down to one of weighing risks. And to be able to weigh risks, we have to have a clear understanding of what has happened to mental health (and what is likely to happen to mental health) as a result of the pandemic and associated school closures and general lockdowns.
There is some reason to believe that the pandemic is already taking a toll on mental health, especially among teens. One study out of Italy and Spain found that 85 percent of parents perceived changes in their children’s emotional state during quarantine. High school and college students are clued into the possibility of the pandemic’s negative effects on their mental health, with more than half in a recent survey expressing concern about their own mental health as a result of the COVID pandemic. Professionals in California have also reported an uptick in depression and anxiety in the teen population since COVID began.
Despite these reports, it is difficult to know the ultimate impact of COVID-19 and associated quarantine on mental health. It may take years before we understand the relationship and even then, it will be hard to isolate COVID-19 as the cause, especially since mental health issues are already on the rise among teens and young adults.
In cases such as these, we would normally advocate carefully and scientifically weighing the risks against one another to reach a decision about when to keep schools open and when to shut them down. But there is simply too much uncertainty here to be able to do that. We don’t fully understand how contagious the virus is specifically among young people, we don’t know what the role of school opening is in the perpetuation of large outbreaks, and we also don’t know how long the pandemic will even last.
In our view, it is not acceptable at this stage to keep schools open or reopen schools on account of mental health when COVID cases are extremely high. It is likely that many factors are involved in whether or not opening schools in specific communities is a major driver of increased viral transmission. We simply don’t know enough about the relationship between quarantine and mental health to be able to say that the risks of keeping children out of school outweigh the risks of COVID-19 spreading widely in a community. In the end, we need to do everything we can to protect both the physical and mental health of as many people as possible.
Mental Health and School Re-Entry | Psychology Today
The most important thing to realise about being happy is that it is “how” not “what”. Things will not make you happy. Affluenza – coined as the dogged pursuit of “more” is particularly prevalent in Western societies and will often be pursued at the risk of “overload, debt and anxiety”. An awareness of this behaviour can stop us from falling into its clutches – more does not make people happy and Professor Leper of Stanford University found, paradoxically, too much choice actively makes people unhappy. Happiness won’t arrive, it has to be cultivated. Only behaviour and its consequences will make you happy. Being happy requires you to work your “how” muscles and to be aware; you need to consciously focus on the good things and not the bad. This is not to bury your head in the sand, some things need to be faced up to, but you need to focus on those things you can have agency over.
To be happy you need to concentrate on the following
1. Worry only about things you can change. Do as much as you can and then park it. Accept you have done the maximum and then leave it alone. We are not in control of everything!
2. Be pro-active not reactive. If something bothers you, tackle it don’t complain about it. Reactivity is a form of passive/aggressive behaviour – you will never resolve anything just go on being annoyed. In this way, you deny your ability to tackle things which can add to feelings of victimhood and helplessness. Act to change things you don’t like or in turn, forget about them. Resentment or annoyance only affects the person feeling these.
3. Get outside, preferably in nature with trees, flowers, birds, animals – all of these make humans happy. If you can’t, then bring nature to you – a plant or a window box. A view of trees or nature from a hospital bed has been shown to speed up recovery.
4. Contact – we all need human interaction but you must be available for this. If you walk around looking at your shoes you won’t see when someone nods or smiles at you. Make overtures to other humans – say hello on your walk or comment on the weather – be friendly and this will be returned by most people. Join a group, smile, get involved; care about something or someone.
5. Realise that small things are actually the big things. It is the patchwork of small events and comforts that make up our life. A conversation here, a cup of coffee, a glimpse of a robin, the scent of roses, fresh rain on the grass, a hot bath, a good book, a friendly wave. (Add your own small joys). These are the fabric of life but to realise their full impact we must acknowledge and recognise this – work your happiness muscles!
6. Belonging. Humans need to belong to something, to feel part of something bigger. This can be your family, a religious group, a volunteer programme, a book group, your friends, your office, your community, your country. Being part of a community is good for us and embeds us in our life and gives us purpose.
7. Gratitude. Be grateful for what you have. If you think you have nothing, imagine a hurricane takes everything you have and you are naked and alone. Now recognise that is not the case and that you do have some things. Gratitude for what we have and a recognition of that is good for our mental health and makes us happier. Keeping a gratitude diary for a month, where you note three things to be grateful for at the end of each day, has been shown to improve depression and raise happiness.
8. Limit your exposure to social media and news channels. Too much of either has been shown to raise anxiety levels and reduce happiness. Watch comedies and feel-good films and read books with happy outcomes, play music that makes you happy.
9. Look after yourself. If you put the wrong fuel in your car it will run badly. If you miss its service or MOT it won’t run well. Humans are the same. Feed yourself well, get enough rest, take regular, moderate exercise, do things or mix with people who make you laugh – think radiators not drains in terms of who you befriend. Some people are just not a good fit for our personalities and that’s OK but we need to limit our contact with these people.
10. Be kind to yourself and others. Lose that critical voice in your head that tells you off or calls you an idiot. Instead cultivate a nurturing voice, one of encouragement and kindness – the way you would talk to a friend, a beloved pet or a small child. Recognize that life can be hard and kindness goes a long way towards mitigating that.
None of these will guarantee your happiness. We are living in difficult and turbulent times. However, it is well known that what you pay most attention to, is what you will get. Trying not to do something will mean that you concentrate on the negative – try not to think of a pink elephant and it will occupy your thoughts. Try to diet and you will think of food all day long. Give up drinking and you will long for a glass of wine. However think of being healthier or adding fruit to your diet or noticing three positive things in your neighbourhood and that’s what you will focus on. Happiness needs attention in order to flourish. Exercise your “how-to” happiness muscles and you will benefit for as long as you choose to invest in this behaviour.
The 10 Vital Happiness Rules | Psychology Today
Much has been written about how the physical distancing and isolation measures in place to reduce the transmission of COVID-19 have increased loneliness. While this is undoubtedly an important way in which the current pandemic is affecting our social lives, there are others worth considering.
One of these pertains to the effects of fear on social relationships. For many of us, the pandemic has been associated with at least some fears—the fear that we, or our loved ones, will contract the virus; the fear that we will pass it on to others, especially those most vulnerable; the fear that our livelihoods will be affected; and even the fear that can be associated with unwittingly failing to follow unrehearsed social rules (e.g., stay sufficiently far from others, not shaking hands). National reports indeed confirm that feelings of fear, or anxiety, have been unusually high and pervasive in the last year. How might fear affect our social lives?
Social scientists have long demonstrated that fear can lead people to come together in an effort to gather strength and resources to combat or overcome what is feared. Studies have found, for example, that survivors of the 2005 London bombings showed impressive solidarity, stopping to help one another despite the strong fear and distress they were experiencing. In a similar vein, we have seen many examples of communities coming together to support their members in coping with the COVID-19 threat. The mutual aid website, established precisely to facilitate community support of those in need during the pandemic, currently lists 2,060 aid groups in the UK alone. This type of behaviour is beneficial to those who receive help, but also to those who provide help, and indeed helping—or the sense of connection and efficacy it engenders—is one of the ways people are advised to combat anxiety.
While it is comforting to reflect on the positive social consequences of such a distressing feeling as fear or anxiety, it is also important to consider the boundaries of this relationship. Specifically, although coming together has been shown to result from fear, fear can also pull people apart. Most obviously, people will try to distance themselves from those whom they fear, and they often fear those they do not know. For example, people from different racial, religious, or national groups often fear one another. Fear might even cause people to derogate others they would not normally be afraid of, just because they are somehow different or unfamiliar (often referred to as an outgroup)—such as when attacks on individuals with disabilities increased in the UK after a series of terrorist attacks.
Less obviously, however, even incidental fear—or fear that does not directly link to judgements being made—can increase social distance or decrease empathy for others. For example, hearing a scary noise, or watching scary images (or perhaps thinking about the threat of COVID-19), can reduce the empathy one feels for the pain experienced by an outgroup member—i.e., an empathy bias. That is, our ability to draw together with others in the face of threats is both rooted in a sense of common fate and identity and constrained by group boundaries.
Many politicians intuitively know this and build fear into their rhetoric to encourage social tribalism. And they are wise to do so, as messages inciting fear are twice as effective at polarising votes as messages without fear. However, the implications of empathy biases for social policy are not always understood, in particular when it comes to the limitations of relying on the goodwill of communities to address social needs. It is heartening to see so much good and voluntary work being done by communities during the COVID-19 pandemic and one might be tempted to see this as a pure demonstration of human kindness. But where there are communities, there are both insiders and outsiders. As such, responses to threat are bound to favour some, and neglect or even disadvantage others, often those who are the least privileged. So, what current scholarship suggests is that we are bound to leave some people out of our helping efforts.
Acknowledging this is an important step towards preventing further inequality. Goodwill goes a long way, but if we are to be truly kind, it is important to acknowledge the pervasiveness of our biases and to develop measures that proactively prevent, monitor, and address social inequalities, which also touch our most seemingly altruistic efforts, such as helping others.
This article is co-authored with Matthew Richins, Ph.D., who carried out his Ph.D. research on empathic biases under my supervision. Matt has worked for Public Health England and is now a Principal Psychologist at the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl), UK.
This fall, Covid walks have been an important part of my day. They have included family chats, conversations with friends, brainstorms with colleagues, podcasts, nature photography and sometimes simply my own flurry of thoughts on the state of the world.
During these walks, the fresh air rejuvenates me while my steps accumulate. Amidst colder temperatures recently, I have found myself visualizing images of my childhood self comfortable in the snow mounds and angels of Chicago 1979. We can take advantage of the outdoors at all ages, but there seems to be growing awareness that this winter may impinge on outdoor social connections and require further adaptation in the months ahead.
In Life Is In The Transitions, Bruce Feiler discusses that life is filled with transitions; he calculates there are an average of three to five lifequakes and three dozen disruptors in the course of a lifetime, averaging one every twelve to eighteen months. He defines a disruptor as “an event or experience that interrupts the everyday flow of one’s life” and categorizes these into areas of love, work, identity, body, and beliefs. Covid has been a collective transition that has required resilience the past several months. Here are a few ways to support yourself as we move forward:
Honor your grief process. Continue to acknowledge losses and disappointments. We may be grieving losses from earlier in the pandemic or new losses. These can include loss of family members, food security, structured routines, social networks, control, school, traditions, work environments, extracurriculars, freedom, and more. Melissa Sellevaag of the Wendt Center for Loss and Healing explains that the grief we are experiencing around Covid can be complicated by the “collective” nature of it. Many within our community are mourning some degree of loss so that reserves in our support systems may feel stretched currently. In addition to the time you are giving children or aging parents, be sure to give yourself healthy space to reflect on your own grief.
Help others and yourself. Finding ways to continue to connect to peers, loved ones, and the larger community is crucial. Leveraging support systems and accessing networks of friends, family, colleagues, coaches, teachers, and community leaders in person with appropriate public health measures or virtually this winter gives all ages the connectedness we crave in our new schedules. In his new book Finding Meaning, world-renowned grief expert David Kessler proposes meaning as the sixth stage of grief after denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Doing service together as a family not only provides connection to the larger community but can also be a source of meaning. Contactless food and clothing drives, making sewn and non-sewn masks, and virtual tutoring are just a few of the ways to participate in physically distant service. Research shows that altruistic acts not only benefit the recipients of the acts but are also beneficial to the well-being of the givers.
Habits of gratitude. Find moments to be intentional about cultivating gratitude. There is space within us to hold different emotions at the same time. We can be thankful for aspects of our current day and yet also grieve losses we are experiencing. Martin Seligman, the founding father of Positive Psychology, and researchers from the University of Pennsylvania asked people to write down three things they were grateful for. “The three things need not be earthshaking in importance,” he explains in his book Flourish. When people did this for one week, happiness was increased and depressive symptoms were decreased for up to six months.
Hugs. This winter hugs may feel good to your heart in more ways than one. Research shows that hugs are related to higher levels of oxytocin, a hormone secreted by the pituitary gland, and associated with lower blood pressure and lower norepinephrine, the primary neurotransmitter of the cardiovascular system. Squeeze in as many 20 second hugs as you can get because not only do they feel good, they may also be cardioprotective through their effects on blood pressure and the sympathetic nervous system.
Health. Use this winter to set some small, achievable healthy goals for yourself. Reframe the next 3 months as an opportunity to do something positive for your health. A regular exercise routine will not only give you a number of physical benefits, but the release of endorphins will also benefit your mood. Replace your “commute” with a walk or workout routine. Be consistent and keep it simple. In a cross-sectional study of more than 3,000 adults, participants who were physically active pre-Covid showed a reduction of physical activity by one-third during Covid. Not being physically active during Covid was associated with worse mental health. It is important as we head into the winter to plan a routine that will work to keep you moving. Find the best time and space, and do what you can. While on the phone, get up from your chair and walk around. Insert in a yoga stretch between Zoom calls. Explore apps, YouTube channels, virtual studio classes. Use jump ropes, soup can weights or simply your own body to squat and plank. Invite a few friends who give you positive energy to join your wellness accountability group, connect to set collective goals, and record weekly totals to keep yourself and your team inspired.
5 Ways to Support Yourself This Winter | Psychology Today
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I write articles based on my experience as a therapist or a training or conference attendee. Many of these articles are written by others who are experts in their field and I share their information as resources for others.