What Makes you Happy?








Happiness is something we all strive to achieve. Scientists, philosophers, and psychologists have spent countless amount of time, money, and efforts trying to pinpoint the key to true and lasting happiness. There are many schools of thought on how to obtain bliss in our lives and we all seem to think that we know what to do to make ourselves happy, whether it is a bigger house, a promotion, or a beer at the end of a long day at work. Yet, research shows that what we think we know about happiness is often very wrong.

Current, popular outlooks on the subject tell us to focus on the bright side and use techniques like positive visualization, where you mentally picture things working out in a favorable manner. But the reality is that things to not always turn out in our favor. Failure happens. People get sick, fired, cheated on – whether or not you visualize a happy ending. And when these things happen, the people that spent their time not just zeroing in on the bright side fair better than their cheerier counterparts.

Taking a more “negative” path to happiness, requires people to accept that bad things can, and will, happen in their lives. This more honest, and receptive approach allows people be more prepared and level-headed when presented with obstacles. Whereas relentless optimism teaches people to avoid and ignore failures, this approach teaches them to face these hurdles straight on. In this school of thought, one is instructed to think of the worst-case scenario, not the best. In doing this they are able to decrease their anxieties and make them more rational and manageable.


Lets look at an example. First, picture yourself in a relationship. This particular relationship is going through a rough patch and you fear that your partner might be planning on leaving you. We have all been in relationships and know that they can be intense and consuming so it is easy to see how the possibility of a breakup can be very unsettling and upsetting.

Now, instead of putting the possibility of a dissolution of the relationship out of your head to ease your mind as the optimist camp would suggest, vividly imagine it happening. When doing this, people often see that when things go bad, they usually do not go as bad as they had initially thought they would. In the event a breakup did happen, it is highly unlikely that you would never date again, sit home every night and cry, drink yourself into a depression, and becomes a hopeless loser. The reality is, while initially painful, you would get over the breakup. Facing fears puts them into perspective and sets them in a more realistic framework. This is mentally a much safer place to be in than ignoring the breakup as a possibility and then being ambushed by an overload of sudden and intense emotions in the event that it does occur. Dealing with all possible outcomes and consequences and sorting through your emotions ahead of time leads to a better quality of mental health and over all a happier life. People are happier when they do not have ambiguous, unprocessed anxiety nagging them.

In much the same way, the build-it-and-they-will-come concept behind positive fantasies, much like positive visualization, has proved to do more damage than good. Positive fantasies are a form of mental indulgence that people engage in to envision things that they desire in their futures. For example, a law student might fantasize about being the youngest partner in the law firm he hopes to join after graduating. This is thought to be a form of encouragement. By visualizing what you want in your future, it is thought that you will be more driven and focused on getting there. Yet, the research does not support this idea. In 2011, Heather Kappes and Gabriele Oettingen performed a series of experiments to test the effects of positive fantasies on performance. They found that increased time spent on these fantasies was correlated with decreased energy levels and motivation to achieve the envisioned goal. This could be contributed to the mind subconsciously confusing the imagery of achievement with actually having completed the task or goal at hand.

Another place that we fall short in understanding our own happiness is our lack of affective forecasting. Affective forecasting is the ability to accurately assess what it is that will make us feel a certain emotion (Ex: happy, unhappy, angry, love) and to what extent. We are good at knowing what will make us happy in either-or situations. You know you will be happier walking to the subway in 75 degree weather than in 5 degree weather. You know a raise would be more pleasurable outcome to being called into your boss’s office than a getting fired. These assessments we are good at. Where we fall short is accurately predicting the duration and intensity of our future emotional reactions. This is what is known as impact bias.

It seems to be a common belief that once you buy a bigger house/ have kids/ lose 10 pounds you will finally achieve lasting happiness. Much in the same way at the beginning of romantic relationships, people believe that they will stay madly, passionately in love with that person for the rest of their life. Adversely, we believe that if we lost a child, got diagnosed with cancer, or got divorced that we would be devastated indefinitely. The truth of the matter is that all of these are false assumptions. Human beings often incorrectly predict that, both positive and negative emotions, will have a significantly higher intensity and duration then they actually do.

This is largely due to our adaptive ability. Our bodies and minds strive to be in a state of homeostasis and constantly attempt to adapt to the environments and situations we are in. When a crisis occurs it activates psychological and biological defenses that regulate us and set us back at a neutral state. The same process occurs for positive events. When someone is overjoyed, their body is in an extreme state of arousal. Their blood-pressure and heart-rate elevates and they are being flooded with a concoction of hormones. Their body can not maintain this long-term so it adjust to bring itself back to “normal.”

A 2003 study, conducted by Elizabeth Dunn and Timothy Wilson, at the Harvard University, showed impact bias and the effects of adapting to ones surroundings in college students. The students were shown favorable and unfavorable dormitory assignments that they were assigned to for the following year and asked to rate how happy they would be in those rooms. Their happiness was subjectively rated on a 7point Lyker scale. Not surprisingly, students assigned to the “favorable” rooms rated that they would be happier than those assigned to the “unfavorable” rooms.

Checking back in the following year, the researchers asked the students to rate how happy they were. Regardless of the dormitory that they were assigned to, the average happiness level was almost identical across the board. The students predicted the negative, or positive, visual aspects of the rooms would have much more of an impact on their lives and did not account for how quickly they would become accustomed to living there. This can be contributed to focalism, the tendency to overestimate the extent to which one aspect of a situation will have an impact, while underestimating the extent that other elements or events influence our thoughts and feelings.

In much the same way, many people think they would be happier if they made more money. Study after study has proven that beyond the point of being able to comfortably afford the essentials, making more money is not correlated with increased happiness. The reason for this is that we adapt. If someone is making $60,000 a year and now starts making $100,000, initially they will be excited about this pay increase. Yet, very quickly $100,000 a year will become their new normal and they will no longer pay mind to the growth in income. This process happens surprisingly faster than we think it will.

A third commonly held misconception about happiness is that is the big things that matter. A heart-attack seems much more devastating than a constantly achy back, right? Well it turns out the research doesn’t add up to that. When something very bad happens our defenses kick in. As mentioned earlier, as humans we have a unique and powerful set of psychological defenses that are activated in a time of crisis. The problem is that they are not always activated for smaller, nagging issues. A heart-attack is a major problem and will force us to deal with it immediately. More trivial annoyances like a leaky sink or early stages of arthritis are not demanding an instant solution. We may never get around to fixing or dealing with them and overtime they could cause us more grief and stress than larger set-backs.

Another belief commonly held about happiness is that it can be bought and this to a certain extent can be true, but not in the way we traditionally think. When it comes to being happy, having a higher income or the latest and greatest version on something isn’t going to do it. Things don’t equal happiness. So when it comes to money and happiness, research shows that it is best spent on experiences, instead of things, and on others, instead of yourself.

Forty-seven percent of the time the average mind is wandering – during work, talking with friends, even during sex. Happiness on the other hand is found in in-the-moment experiences. Buying things does not stop the mind from wandering but having an event to look forward to or a pleasant experience to reminisce about does. Furthermore, purchasing an item can be exciting but the excitement wears off quickly whereas the memory of a fun trip or rewarding event lasts longer.

So now that we know that we didn’t know all that much about what makes us happy before, where do we go from here? Based on recent studies and empirical evidence, here are some tips to live a happier life:

1) Better Affective Forecasting – Get in touch with how you really feel when you get something that you’ve been wanting. Pay attention to the intensity level and duration of the emotion(s) attached to obtaining it and use that information to make more accurate decisions in the future. If buying that new car didn’t keep you ecstatic nearly as long as you thought it would, maybe the money could have been spent better elsewhere. At least now you’ll know for future purchases.
2) Put Things into Perspective – Now that you know about impact bias, apply it to your everyday life. You’re now aware that in the event that you get fire/ dumped/ evicted/ mugged that it is scarier in your head than it will be in reality. You also know that the secret key to your happiness is not getting married/ promoted/ having kids. Knowing that these things don’t lead to never-ending happiness will help you understand that is has nothing to do with you when the initial grow wears off.
3) Face Life Head On – Optimism is great but it doesn’t make you any happier. So skip the positive visualization and fantasies, take off those rose-colored glasses and look at the world realistically. Decrease your anxieties and put yourself more inline with all of the possible scenarios you might be faced with by accepting that failure is an option and know what to do if it shows up.
4) Pay Attention to the Little Things – Buying your dream home or getting married are wonderful events that you put a lot of time, money, and effort into and they will make you happy but remember they are one time events. The smaller, seemingly inconsequential things that you deal with on a daily basis are just as important. Knowing that these things have a significant impact on your level of happiness opens the door for you to stop brushing them off for “another time.” Deal with the minor annoyances and notice and embrace the small things that make your life more enjoyable.
5) Spend Money on Experiences, Not Things and on Others, Not Yourself – Money doesn’t buy you happiness but what you do with it can put more joy into your life.


What you Feel is What you See



It is commonly believed that we react to what we what we see, hear, and take in from the world around us. We think of the brain as operating as a stimulus – response organ. Why then is it that eyewitness testimony is often inaccurate? How do we account for 10 people watching the same series of events unfold and then having 10 different stories about what had just happened?

One possible explanation is a psychological phenomenon called affective realism. Affective realism is the tendency for one’s feelings to influence what they see, hear, etc. In this manner the brain is acting less on the actual stimulus presented and more as a predictive organ, reacting unconsciously based on past experiences. In this manner one’s emotional state holds more weight in what they experience than the sensory information that they are taking in from the outside world.

A series of five experiments done at Northeast University, by Jolie Baumann and David DeSteno, in 2010, explored this phenomenon further. Their findings showed that object recognition was skewed based on how the participant was feeling. Angry participants where significantly more likely than non-angry participants to misidentify a neutral object in a person’s hand as being a gun. Furthermore, they found that if an individual feels something was likely to be in their environment (ex: a threat), there are increased odds that they will claim that it is there, regardless of if it is or is not actually present. This could explain why, after shooting an unarmed individual, police officers often claim that they had seen a gun in their hand.

This research brings to light the falseness in the common misconception that what we see is what is really there. Much of our realities are subjective and based in perception. The knowledge of this is powerful and will be useful in further studies and training of individuals whos jobs are based in rapid judgments based on sensory data.

What’s Meat Got to do with it?


When you think of what will make you a happier person you may think of many things: exercising more, spending less time at work, taking a vacation, making more money, etc. But I doubt the first thing that pops into your head is what you eat for dinner. Yet, recent studies have shown that individuals that live by a vegetarian diet are happier than their carnivorous counterparts.

The physical health benefits of eating a vegetarian diet are widely known. Vegetarians and vegans live on average 7 years longer than meat-eaters and have lower cholesterol and blood-pressure levels, as well as lower incidences of diabetes, cancer, and cardiovascular disease. But how does what we eat effect our emotions?

Vegetarian quote #2

Recent studies, conducted by Beezhold, Johnston and Daigle, found that vegetarians reported significantly lower levels of depression, anxiety, and stress when compared to non-vegetarians. They found that the key link between diet and mood lies in the consumption of arachidonic acid (AA), an animal source of omega-6 fatty acid. High levels of AA has been linked to mood-disturbing brain changes.

Much of the meat we consume today is very high in AA. This is due to the fact that it is factory-farmed and grain-feed, leading to it having approximately five times higher levels of AA than the grass-fed meat that our ancestors eat.

Being a vegetarian for more than 18 years I’ll admit that I am partial to an omnivore lifestyle. With environmental, ethical, heath, and now mental-health benefits I wish everyone could subscribe to this way of life but I know the fact of the matter is that vegetarianism and veganism is not an option for everyone. However, for those who still would like to reap the benefits of these findings without a complete diet and lifestyle overhaul here are a few tips to help boast your emotional health through your food choices:

1) Eat less meat. While cutting out meat altogether may not be an option for you, decreasing your meat intake will in turn decrease the amount of arachidonic acid that your body takes in. You can do this with simple tricks like limiting your meat intake to one meal a day or participating in Meat-less Monday.
2) Eat more nuts and seeds. They are high in omega-3 alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) and are a great non-meat source of fatty acids. Walnuts, pumpkin seeds, soy nuts, and Brazilian nuts are some of your best choices when looking for high levels if ALA.
3) Eat the right kind of meat. Once again, my personal opinion is to stay away from meat all together, but if full on vegetarianism is not for you, make sure that the meat you are eating is grass-fed as opposed to corn-fed. Grass-fed meat will have significantly lower levels of AA, as well as less saturated fat.
4) Consider your oil choices. When cooking use canola oil. It has the highest level APA and lowest level of saturated fat when it comes to cooking oil. This way you can still get the omega-3 fatty acid that your body needs, but without the harmful side effects of sources that are high in AA.

We Need Better Emotional Hygiene

In the Ted Talk listed above Psychologist, Guy Winch talks about the tendency for us as human beings to prioritize our physical health over our emotional well-being. Winch points out that while we are taught from a very young age personal hygiene and what actions to take to maintain and treat our physical bodies, we are taught very little about how to protect and heal ourselves on an emotional level.

When we talk about health and science, the mind and body are often readily divorced from one another. Too often it is forgotten that we are not simply parts making up a whole, systems acting independently, but yet a singular being where many intricate components interact and effects one another. This is especially true the emotional and physical sides of our health.

As Winch points out, scientists say that chronic loneliness poses as much of a health risk as smoking. Loneliness can lower immunity, elevate blood pressure and cholesterol, and can increase ones risk of early death by 14%. Ruminating about negative events increases ones risk of eating disorders, alcoholism, clinical depression, and cardiovascular disease.

Clearly our physical and emotional health is interrelated. Yet, we know what to do if we get a cut or how to cure a cold but we are not taught what to do when we feel defeated or how to cure loneliness.

Maybe it is easier to focus on the physical side of health because it is more tangible. You can see a bruise on someone knee but you cannot see a bruise on their ego. There is a pill you can take to bring down your fever but no medication to take down your feelings of failure.

Yet, just because the emotional side of health is not as readily seen as the physical does not mean that it is not just as important. Often the key to better emotional hygiene is awareness. This enables you to gain control and break bad cycles, such as negative self-talk, which in turn will protect your self-esteem and teach you to be more emotionally resilient.

The simple trick Winch mentions of a two-minuet distraction being all you need to break the urge to ruminate about a negative event is a great example of taking control of your emotional well-being. Yet, if you are not actively aware of your emotional state you cannot get to the point where you can implement and reap the benefits of this technique. Getting in touch with your body is key.

Is Sleep Deprivation Messing with your Emotions?



With today’s fast-paced lifestyles, while we are trying to keep-up and catch-up with all of the things that we need to get done, it is easy to let a thing or two fall by the wayside. Unfortunately getting the proper amount of sleep each night is very often one of these things. We all seem to do it – stay up an extra hour or two to get some work done or simply wind down from the day watching Netflix or having a nightcap with friends after a stressful day at work. Then we load up on coffee in the morning rationalizing that it will make up for the hours of sleep we didn’t get. It seems to make senses; the more we get done, the happier we will be and the less sleep we get the more we can maximize our time. But that’s just not the way it works.

Recent studies have shown, now more than ever, that there is a clear link between sleep and emotional health. Back in 1985, Horne found that sleep deprivation lead to impairments of alertness and attention, and increased subjective reports of affective volatility and irritability. In more recent research, done by Pace-Schott and Hobson in 2002 and Sullivan in 1999, it was found that during REM-sleep our brains go through a unique process to deactivate emotional memories and reduce the anxiety attached to them. Through this process we remember the key elements of the event but learn to forget the emotional tone. And in their new book, Sleep and Affect: Assessment, Theory and Clinical Implications, Kimberly Babson and Matthew Felder, talk about their findings that there is a strong link between loss of sleep and the likelihood or reacting emotionally in stressful situations.

The findings and implications of these studies go beyond teaching us what we should to lead a generally healthier life, and can be applied to help us learn more about the treatment of multiple psychological and emotional disorders such as depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). By studying the role that sleep plays in our lives, we now know the vital importance that REM-sleep plays in, not just our biological but also, our emotional health.

So next time you think you need to stay up and work another hour on that essay and you can makeup for it with a little more coffee in the morning and everything will be okay, maybe you should think again.

I Run Like a Girl… Try to Keep up


A look at Gender Stereotyping in Sports

Featured during this year’s Super bowl was a commercial titled “Like a girl.” In this 60-seconds spot Procter and Gambles feminine-care Company Always launched a campaign that challenged our notion of what is means to throw, hit, or run “like a girl.” This brief, but powerful, clip shines a light on the gender stereotyping of young women that has become so common place that it is almost over looked.

I doubt I was the only person watching who felt uncomfortable as the participants in the commercial acted out their interpretation of what it looked like to do certain activities “like a girl.” As the individuals flailed their arms and giggled during their displays of weakness and in-coordination it was easy to be unnerved. When in the context of a commercial, it was obvious that the portrayals were demeaning, yet all of the stereotypes depicted are things we deal with on a day-to-day basis and most of us don’t take a seconds notice.


Gender stereotyping occurs when broad generalizations are made about attributes of an entire group based on gender. These fixed ideas, which are taught to us from a very young age and reinforced through various channels in our lives, lead to how we perceive others and how we feel about ourselves and how we must present ourselves to the world around us.
Unfortunately, in our society the female gender stereotype has labeled women as weak. Women are called the “fairer sex.” It is engrained in us that women are not tough; they are not expected to be leader. Doing anything “like a girl,” is perceived as an insult.
But how is this effecting young girls and their self-esteem?

Sports is an early way that children learn to socialize with one another. It teaches them a healthy model of competition and sets up an environment when they learn to feel pride for their accomplishments. But what does it teach little girls when they are taught that boys’ sports are “real sports” and girls’ sports come secondary? That their accomplishments in this arena are not as important?
The Amateur Athletic Foundation of Los Angeles reported that when it came to television coverage, male sports receive 92% of airtime, leaving women’s sports with only 3%. A 2014 European study found that one in three sports casts about females athletics corroborated stereotypes to some extent and that while leading male athletes often received a large amount of on-air praise and admiration, female athletes were unlikely to be singled out for their accomplishments. This facilitates an environment where boys have many choices for athletes to look-up up to and idolize and girls have a much diminished pool of strong female role-models.

Young women are taught that in the world of sports, much like they are taught in other areas of life, that they are considered weak and less important than their male counterparts. This can lead to low-self-esteem and diminished drive for accomplishments.
Yet, just because this has been the message in the past does not mean that it must continue to be the current message we send young women. In recent years, there has been a push to dismantle these gender stereotypes and strip away the negative connotation of doing anything “like a girl.” Recent ads, like Always’s “Like a Girl,” and Maybeline’s, “Girls Can’t” campaigns, are fighting to empower young women and motivate a change in the perception that females can’t do the same things that males can. Females athletes like Danica Patrick, Gina Corano, and Michelle Wie are serving as role models by excelling in sports that were previously perceived as to physically demanding or masculine for females to participate in.

I consider myself to be a female athlete. I often compete in races and consider physical fitness to be an important part of my life. I can outrun many men that I know and through participating in athletics I have known many strong and very capable female athletes. It is sad that it may not be the norm yet for everyone to see women in this arena in that light but I am happy to say that if anyone ever told me that I run “like a girl,” I would smile and say, “thank you.”

Anti-Social Media






Why do we use social media? The answer seems easy. We want to stay connected. We want to stay in touch. We want to be in-the-know. Yet, somewhere along the line “staying connected” turned into disconnecting from the real world around us. Events lost their relevance if they were not tweeted, posted, or updated. We started living our lives through filtered snapshots of edited reality. So, is social media really keeping us connected? Maybe it’s time we looked at how we define connection.

In the past decade and a half social media had revolutionized how we communicate. We can now instantly connect with anyone around the globe with a click, swipe, or tap. We spend increasing amounts of time on the internet. We live in a time where technology is an intricate part of how we interact with each other and the world around us. Our online personas are entwined with who we are and who we want the world to see us as. But with such a new interface in which we communicate, we need to step back and look at what are we doing, why are we doing it, and what is it doing to us?


We signup for social media sites, like Facebook, and create profiles that put our best face forward. We present the version of ourselves we want to the world to see us as. It is logical to think that seeing all of our accomplishments laid out in front of us alongside the most attractive pictures of us would make us feel good about ourselves. But the reality is that participation in these sites do exactly the opposite. A study done in 2014 found that involvement in Facebook was correlated with objectified body consciousness for both men and women. The more frequently people used Facebook the more likely they were to participate in body surveillance, the more fluctuation in self-worth they experienced based on their appearance, and the more pleasure they derived from being perceived as a sex object. These factors has a compounding effect that left participants more susceptible to feelings body shame. Why would we sign up for that?

Perhaps we see so many edited, filtered versions of people’s lives that we mistake them for reality. We compare them with our own lives and often feel that we just don’t measure up. We fail to remember that the raw footage is never as shiny as the final cut and that that is all we are being presented with. We accept what we see on the screen as reality when it is really just a retouched highlight reel. No one posts pictures of the cookies they burned, the funeral they went to, or the bad dye job their colorist did. We don’t tweet about gaining 20 pounds or getting passed up for a promotion. So, when these negative, non-post-worthy things happen to us we feel like a failure because in a world where we are constantly “connected” to each other we don’t see them happening anyone else.

Social media usage doesn’t just effect how we feel about ourselves, it also impacts our relationships with others. Recent studies have shown that frequent social media usage had a detrimental impact on intimate relationships and is correlated with tension within partnership. A 2014 study conducted by James E Katz, a Feld Family Professor of Emerging Media Studies at the College of Communication, found that heavy social media use was a significant predictor of divorce. People that did not use social media sites reported being 11.4% happier in their marriages than those who did uses these sites. When asked if they thought about leaving their spouse, 32% of heavy social media users said that they considered it compared to 16% of non-users. McDaniel and Coyne, found that 70% of couples felt that technology interfered with their relationships. Overall, social media usage was correlated with lower relationship satisfaction and higher rates of separation.


Social media has also revolutionized mate selection through online dating. In doing so, it has not just changed the way we date, but how we feel about dating. Sites like Match.com, Eharmony, OKcupid, and Tinder are now one of the leading methods people turn to find a partner. Between 2007 and 2009, 21% of heterosexual couples and 61% of same-sex couples met online. Never before had people had so many options and so much information literally at their fingertips about potential partners before ever interacting with them. Mate selections now seems limit-less.

The concept to having and endless selection of potential partners seems great. You’ll get exactly what you want, right? Wrong. It turns out all this choice does not lead to blissfully finding a perfect mate. It leads to indecision, wandering eyes, and the thought that maybe something better is out there because after all, there are so many fish in the sea, and now you can see and connect with all of them from the safety and comfort of your own home. A 2014 study found that social media usage was correlated with increased jealously and likelihood of cheating within relationships. It was also found that people often use social media to keep tabs on their exs after a breakup.

Honesty is another issue when online dating. It is hard to know if people are who and what they say they are. Catalina L. Toma, an assistant professor in the department of communication arts at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, found that approximately 81% of people on dating websites misrepresent themselves in their profiles in reference to statistics relating to things such as height, weight, and age. On average, women reported being 8.5 pounds lighter and posted pictures of themselves that were a year and a half old. Men claimed to be 2 pounds lighter, one inch taller, and used picture from six months earlier in their profiles.

Often people lie to meet the expectations of their target audience. A little white lie here and there seems innocent enough in theory but this is a dangerously slippery slope. Entering into a partnership setting the bar higher than one can deliver leads the disappointment and frustration in relationships and starting a romantic relationship with dishonesty is never a good idea.

At the end of the day, the motivation behind our social media use is both simple and complex. We want to connect. We crave validation, attention, relevance. But the outcome is that we can never achieve the perfection that we are both viewing from others on these sites and trying to obtain and present back. This leads to feelings of inadequacy and lowered satisfaction with ourselves and our lives. Constant input and choice does not satiate our desires to connect, rather is disconnects us further from the lives we really want to be living. In a society where we are lead to believe that life is better viewed than experienced, we are losing sight of the connection that we initially sought and the technology that we used stopped being the portal through which we view the world; it’s become our reality.