Exercise (preferably outdoors)

The association between exercise and wellbeing is nothing new. It is well documented that moderate amounts of exercise can improve wellbeing and this is supported by biological and physiological evidence. For one, it is shown to release endorphins in the brain which act as the body’s natural painkiller and is shown to relieve stress (click here for a detailed review on how exercise affects the brain). A small scale study in Australia showed how schoolgirls aged 17 who took part in an 8 week exercise program reported reduced stress, increased mood, social interaction and self esteem (Hagarty and Currie, 2012). A systematic review by Lawlor and Hopker (2001) reported how exercise can alleviate symptoms of depression as well as reduce the risk of suffering from clinical depression.

If I could see a sunset like that, I’d run everyday too


Tying this in with my plant post below, would it be extra beneficial to exercise outdoors, that is, immersed in nature? A systematic review by Coon et al (2011) found that participants generally found exercise outdoors more enjoyable and were more likely to repeat the activity at a later date. Studies also showed less negative feelings after exercising outdoors with respect to indoors although positive feelings after exercise were the same.

In my opinion:

any moderate exercise is good for your wellbeing, but if you can, it may be more enjoyable if it’s outdoors (I’m guessing unless it’s raining)

References

Coon, J. T., Boddy, K., Stein, K., Whear, R., Barton, J., & Depledge, M. H. (2011). Does participating in physical activity in outdoor natural environments have a greater effect on physical and mental wellbeing than physical activity indoors? A systematic review. Environ. Sci. Technol, 45(5), 1761-1772.
Hagarty, D., & Currie, J. (2012). The exercise class experience: an opportunity to promote student wellbeing during the HSC. Journal of Student Wellbeing, 5(2), 1-17.
Lawlor, D. A., & Hopker, S. W. (2001). The effectiveness of exercise as an intervention in the management of depression: systematic review and meta-regression analysis of randomised controlled trials. Bmj, 322(7289), 763.
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Just smile

I was looking at one of my friend’s blogs and re-read one of her posts called “Put on a brave face” (Click here to see full post). It mentions a study by Strack, Martin and Stepper (1988) where participants were asked to hold a pen in their mouth which either forced or inhibited facial muscles to contort into a smile. Participants who had forced smiling faces found a cartoon to be more humorous than the inhibited smile group. Unfortunately, mood was not measured but other evidence has suggested that our behaviour can influence our emotions just as our emotions can influence our behaviour. For example, Lewis and Bowler (2009) found that women who had botox injections to reduce the appearance of frown lines (by paralysing the muscles associated with frowning) reported a less negative mood than patients when compared to patients who had received other kinds of cosmetic surgery. Taken together, these studies suggest that simply smiling can lead to a better mood even if you didn’t feel like smiling in the first place.

If a frog can do it, so can you

If a frog can do it, so can you

So even if you’ve had a bad day, force a smile and see if it helps. It won’t hurt and it’s free.

References

Lewis, M. B., & Bowler, P. J. (2009). Botulinum toxin cosmetic therapy correlates with a more positive mood. Journal of cosmetic dermatology8(1), 24-26.

Strack, F., Martin, L. L., & Stepper, S. (1988). Inhibiting and facilitating conditions of the human smile: a nonobtrusive test of the facial feedback hypothesis. Journal of personality and social psychology54(5), 768.

Buy a plant

If you’ve ever played the computer game Sims 2, you’ll probably notice that a character likes its environment more when you add a plant to the room (for your reference, Sims also like paintings and windows and better lighting). It seems that this isn’t far from real life which makes sense for a video game attempting to virtually simulate life in the real world. Shibata and Suzuki (2000) found that students who performed a task in a room with a plant reported having a higher mood after the task and performed better than those who did the task in a room with an everyday object (e.g. magazine rack) or an empty room. An extensive review by Burchett, Torpy and Tarran (2008) describes a number of studies suggesting the multiple benefits of plants on wellbeing.

I wish my desk were that tidy

I wish my desk were that tidy

So why is this the case? The causal nature (pun unintended) behind the beneficial effects of plants has not been directly identified however theories can still be applied to help explain them.  Kaplan (1995) proposed that plants may have a restorative effect on humans by integrating humans back with nature. The majority of those living in the Western World have little interaction with nature in their everyday lives and this goes against what we have evolved to co-exist with. For example, early humans once hunted and lived in the wild and were immersed in nature whereas the modern city environment consists of working in buildings and living in a flat. Plants can therefore increase wellbeing by improving access to nature for those who are deprived of it in their everyday lives.

Take home message: If you can, spend some time with nature (e.g. gardening or going to the park). Otherwise, if you live in a city and have little contact with nature, it might make you happier if you buy an indoor plant to liven things up

References

Burchett, M. D. (2010). Greening the great indoors for human health and wellbeing. Horticulture Australia.

Kaplan, S. (1995). The restorative benefits of nature: Toward an integrative framework. Journal of environmental psychology15(3), 169-182.

Shibata, S., & Suzuki, N. (2004). Effects of an indoor plant on creative task performance and mood. Scandinavian Journal of Psychology45(5), 373-381.

Disclaimer

While this blog attempts to give evidence based advice on how to life your mood, I am not suggesting that it is vital to be happy. I think one of the worst things you can do is push negative thoughts out of your head when something bad has happened. Trying to suppress thoughts only make you think about them more. For example, Borton and Casey (2006) asked participants to describe their most upsetting thought about themselves. Participants were either told to try and push these thoughts out of their minds for the next 11 days (thought suppression group), or to carry on life as normal (control group). They found that the participants in the thought suppression group reported thinking about their negative thoughts more than those in the control group. Those in the thought suppression group also rated themselves as more anxious, depressed and having lower self esteem.

In a lifetime, negative life events will be inevitable. However they can also help you grow as a person by helping to develop problem solving skills and increase levels of motivation. For example, studies have shown how small amounts of stress can boost motivation, learning and performance if approached correctly. For example, Struthers, Perry and Menec (2000) found that students who engaged in problem-focused coping (e.g. planning and active studying) performed better academically and were more motivated than those who engaged in emotion-focused coping (e.g. venting, seeking emotional support). Admittedly, the study did not assess the student’s self esteem or mood state but the findings still suggest that it is best to tackle the problem at hand rather than avoiding it.

References

Borton, J. L., & Casey, E. C. (2006). Suppression of negative self-referent thoughts: A field study. Self and Identity5(3), 230-246.

Struthers, C. W., Perry, R. P., & Menec, V. H. (2000). An examination of the relationship among academic stress, coping, motivation, and performance in college. Research in Higher Education41(5), 581-592.

Writing – Part 2

It’s been a while since my last post but I wanted to stay on the subject of writing given the amount of literature I’ve found on its therapeutic effects. Last time I focused on how writing about things you are grateful for may increase your wellbeing. However, there are therapeutic effects in writing about other things aside from gratitude.

Firstly, there’s writing about traumatic and/or negative experiences. Zech and Rime (2005) found that simply talking about trauma did not yield any therapeutic effects. Greenberg and Stone (1992) asked participants to write about a past traumatic event for 20 minutes over three sessions. Those who disclosed more severe traumas reported less physical symptoms and greater happiness and self esteem at a one month follow up than those who disclosed traumas of lower severity. Greenberg, Wortman and Stone (1996) asked college women with reported traumas to write about either real trauma, imaginary trauma or trivial events. Those who wrote about imaginary trauma were significantly less depressed than those who wrote about real trauma at immediate post-test although there were no differences in mood. Both the trauma groups reported less physical health symptoms at a one month follow up however the real trauma group reported more fatigue and avoidance than the other groups. However, it may have been worth asking the participants to write about the trauma over a few sessions. Pennebaker, Mehl & Niederhoffer (2003) proposed that it is not the act of writing that is therapeutic but the change in perspective about one’s situation and coping strategies. With respect to real or imagined trauma, expressive writing allows an individual to learn that they are capable of handing emotional experiences and can gain insight into different ways with dealing with emotional upheaval. Greenberg et al (1996) proposed that writing about imagined trauma “could reflect catharsis, emotional regulation or construction of resilient possible selves”. This is further supported by the fact that writing about emotional experiences that are not necessarily traumatic may also bring about health benefits (see review by Pennebaker, 1997).

No harm in starting young!

No harm in starting young!

The therapeutic writing paradigm also seems to work when writing about positive events. Burton and King (2004) found that those who wrote about intensely positive experiences reported an enhanced positive mood after writing and made less visits to health centres at a three month follow up with respect to controls. King (2001) asked participants to write about either trauma, their best possible future self (BPS), both (combo group) or a non-emotional topic (controls) for 20 minutes over 4 consecutive days. Participants in the combo group wrote about trauma for the first 2 days, then BPS for the 3rd and 4th day. The BPS group showed lowered illness visits with respect to controls but the combo group did not significantly differ from controls. It is possible that the trauma-only and BPS group were able to bring a sense of closure about their topic in their own time and structure the event in a coherent manner, whereas the combo group were deprived of this due to the switch-over.

So how can writing make you happier?

  • Write about a traumatic or negative life event in detail (more than once if necessary). This can even be an imagined event.
  • Write about intensely positive events that have happened in your life or your best possible self.
  • Most importantly, make sure your writing is expressive, complete and insightful.

If you’re more interested in writing, I suggest you visit Jamie Pennebaker’s website http://www.secretlifeofpronouns.com/ . He is a pioneering researcher in therapeutic writing and there are many articles written by him on the beneficial effects of writing.

References

Burton, C. M., & King, L. A. (2008). Effects of (very) brief writing on health: The two‐minute miracle. British Journal of Health Psychology, 13(1), 9-14.

Greenberg, M. A., & Stone, A. A. (1992). Emotional disclosure about traumas and its relation to health: effects of previous disclosure and trauma severity.Journal of personality and social psychology63(1), 75.

Greenberg, M. A., Wortman, C. B., & Stone, A. A. (1996). Emotional expression and physical heath: Revising traumatic memories or fostering self-regulation?. Journal of personality and social psychology71(3), 588.

King, L. A. (2001). The health benefits of writing about life goals. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 27(7), 798-807.
Pennebaker, J. W. (1997). Writing about emotional experiences as a therapeutic process. Psychological Science, 8(3), 162-166.
Pennebaker, J. W., Mehl, M. R., & Niederhoffer, K. G. (2003). Psychological aspects of natural language use: Our words, our selves. Annual review of psychology, 54(1), 547-577.

Zech, E., & Rime, B. (2005). Is talking about an emotional experience helpful? Effects on emotional recovery and perceived benefits, Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy, 12, 270 – 87

Write your heart out

A few of my colleagues are doing their group project on the effects of gratitude on well-being. This is based on  Emmons and McCullough’s (2003) study where participants wrote down five things that either annoyed/irritated them (hassle group); were grateful for (gratitude group); or were life events (neutral group). Participants either wrote about these things daily or weekly for 2 weeks.

Results showed that even for the participants who wrote these things weekly, people in the gratitude group were more positive and optimistic about their lives, spent more time exercising and reported fewer physical symptoms than those in the hassle and neutral group. Participants in the gratitude group who wrote about these things daily also had higher levels of subjective well-being and were also more likely to report having helped or offered emotional support to someone with personal problems. Results were interpreted that a  “conscious focus on blessings may have emotional and interpersonal benefits.”

My colleagues are in the process of replicating the study and looking at the differences between genders. I won’t give too much away as they are due to collect data soon and I don’t want to decrease their effect sizes!

References:

Emmons, R. A., & McCullough, M. E. (2003). Counting blessings versus burdens: an experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. Journal of personality and social psychology, 84(2), 377.

Retail therapy – does it work?

So, for my first post, I’m going to talk about one of the stereotypically favourite hobbies of an average female – shopping. Admittedly, most men that I ask don’t really get the same “kick” as us females do and in fact find shopping a pain. There’s nothing like a day out with friends or mum (who will hopefully help you out on some of your purchases) in a shopping mall or high street just spending money on things you might not need but really really want. But does retail therapy really make us happy?

We all know the phrase “money can’t buy happiness” didn’t stem from just anywhere. People in richer countries are not necessarily happier than those in poorer countries (unless your income does not provide for your basic needs such as food and shelter). There is little correlation between income and happiness where you will not necessarily be happier if you had that little bit more money.

However, it has been shown that spending money on certain things does boost well being. A study done by Boven and Gilovich in 2003 showed that people who spent money on experiences (e.g. a horse riding lesson) rather than material products (e.g. a luxury watch) got more positive feelings from their purchase. They hypothesised this was because experiential purchases were more meaningful to one’s identity and contributed more to successful social relationships. 

Maybe spend money on a skydiving lesson instead of a pair of shoes?

Maybe spend money on a skydiving lesson instead of a pair of shoes?

Another type of purchase that can increase well being is buying something for someone else (Dunn et al, 2008). The reasons behind this is unknown (or at least I haven’t come across it, if anyone knows, please comment) but the results show that even just a small gift for a friend or family member is enough for a happiness boost. 

So does retail therapy make us happier?

  • YES if you spend money on experiences rather than material goods.
  • YES if you spend money on other people rather than yourself from time to time.

References:

Van Boven, L., & Gilovich, T. (2003). To do or to have? That is the question. Journal of personality and social psychology, 85(6), 1193.
Dunn, E. W., Aknin, L. B., & Norton, M. I. (2008). Spending money on others promotes happiness. Science, 319(5870), 1687-1688.