The 4 Components of Emotion

Most of us think of emotion purely as a feeling. We might feel happy or sad, for instance, or love, joy, or grief. But there is much more to emotion than a feeling. Emotion is really smeared all over and all throughout the body.

The diagram below shows how this is so.

4 components of emotion
Reproduced from ‘I HEART Me: The Science of Self-Love’

Let me explain. When you feel an emotion, a pattern of brain chemistry follows it. For example, happiness is often accompanied by changes in serotonin, dopamine and even endogenous opiates (the brain’s own versions of morphine). If you then feel a different emotion, brain chemistry shifts to a pattern that reflects your new emotion. Brain chemistry alters in response to how you feel at any moment. So far so good.

Your emotions also affect your muscles. You smile when you feel happy while stress causes your brow to crease and your shoulders to tense. These muscle movements are not conscious choices you make. They are like reflex reactions because your muscles are in communication with emotional centres of your brain.

Emotions also play tunes throughout the autonomic nervous system (ANS). OK, they don’t actually play tunes but I like the sound of that expression. I basically mean that your ANS responds to your emotional state. This is why an emotion is technically smeared all over your body. Your ANS connects your brain to your heart and other organs in your chest, your abdomen and pelvis, and also to your eyes, larynx, and through your blood vessels and sweat glands to your skin.

Via the ANS, your skin actually responds moment-by-moment to the contents of your mind. Let’s say you have a stressful or worrisome thought, for instance. Your skin starts to sweat. It’s quite obvious when you feel really stressed and your palms become moist. But even a little stressful thought causes micro amounts of sweating. In fact, this is the basis of the polygraph (lie-detector) test. When a person tells a lie and knows it’s a lie, the tiny (or large) amount of emotional stress they feel increases sweating. This is detected by sensors that measure the electrical conductance of the skin. When there’s sweating, conductance goes up!

So you can see how emotions are connected with brain chemistry, muscles, and all throughout the autonomic nervous system. And the connection is ‘bi-directional’, meaning ‘both ways’. Just as emotions affect chemistry, muscles, and the ANS, so chemistry, muscles, and the ANS affect emotions.

Here’s a few examples. That brain chemistry affects emotions is the basis for the pharmaceutical model of treating depression and other psychiatric disorders. If serotonin can be increased, for instance, it can cause a person to feel happier. Similarly, low levels of EPA or DHA (omega-3 fatty acids) following childbirth has been linked with post-natal (partum) depression where higher levels seem to have antidepressant effects.

We can also use our muscles to affect our emotions. Straightening your spine, relaxing your shoulders and breathing comfortably can boost mood and confidence. Smiling on purpose can also improve mood. It is the basis of laughter yoga.

Changes in ANS activity affect emotion too. The ANS has two components. There’s the sympathetic strand, which is the fight-or-flight part. It’s the bit that’s active when we feel stress or worry. Then there’s the parasympathetic strand, which is the rest-and-relax part. People who are stressed or worry a lot have more activity in the sympathetic portion and less activity in the parasympathetic portion.

Conscious breathing exercises (like meditation, yoga, Tai Chi) are a good way to increase parasympathetic function, and with the increase in parasympathetic function we tend to see an increase in positive emotion, coupled with a decrease in negative emotion.

So not only does emotion affect chemistry, muscles, and the ANS, but chemistry, muscles, and the ANS affect emotion. That’s what the double arrows in the diagram mean.

You can see why we can’t actually disentangle emotion from the brain or body and that we really can think of emotion as ‘smeared’ all over and throughout the body.

In some ways, we can start to think of the body and mind as a single thing – the bodymind – where changes in the mind affect the body and changes in the body affect the mind, with neither operating independently of the other, but rather operating as a single holistic entity.

References

References, and a fuller account of this and its broader implications, can be found in ‘I Heart Me: The Science of Self-Love’, by David R Hamilton PhD (Amazon UK  Amazon.com  Amazon.ca  Amazon.com.au).

For live online talks covering self esteem, the mind-body connection, kindness, plus life and spiritual, check out my Personal Development Club.

A strategy for overcoming worry, fear or anxiety

Breathe written on a pebbleEverybody has worries and fears. They can be useful because they can be warning signs of danger. They can also give us insights into the workings of our own minds. For some, understanding the source of a worry or fear helps them address a deeper issue causing it. But for most people, those repetitive bolts of worry, fear, or anxiety are nothing but a nuisance.

New insights in neuroscience offer us hope, however, in being able to change our emotional states.

During worry, fear or anxiety, brain resources tend to be flowing towards worry, fear and anxiety areas of the brain. Part of the fear architecture in the brain is the amygdala.

It’s a habit…

You might have noticed that the more we worry the more we seem to find to worry about. Worry, fear and anxiety are like habits for many people and so much so that eventually it only takes a small thing to set it off. Several years earlier, the same thing wouldn’t have had as much of an effect, if at all, and you now wonder why it is that you seemed so much stronger, more resilient, when you were younger. It’s partly because just like a muscle grows bigger and stronger through exercise, so worry, fear and anxiety brain areas grow too.

Just as a muscle becomes more powerful, so worry, fear and anxiety seem to become more powerful, in that we become more sensitive to circumstances around us and even begin to lose confidence. The phenomenon is broadly known as neuroplasticity.

This is where the hope lies though, because, a) neuroplasticity occurs in many regions of the brain, and b) it doesn’t just refer to growth but to shrinkage through lack of use. Think of what happens to a muscle if you stop using it.

The strategy I’d like to share with you uses this insight. If you stop worrying so much, you tend to find less things to worry about. That’s because you’re not using the ‘worry muscle’ as much and so it shrinks, just as a muscle shrinks if you stop working it.

Easier said than done! True! So the strategy involves bypassing the whole positive thinking thing. Instead we use simple techniques to divert resources away from the worry areas of the brain to areas associated with conscious control of our minds. It’s kind of like not letting resources flow backwards but making them flow forwards instead. Through not ‘feeding’ the worry areas so much, just like a muscle weakens through lack of use, the same happens to worry regions of the brain.

It takes a little bit of work, but it can be well worth it.

The How-to…

Here’s what you do. Each time the worry, fear or anxiety surfaces, take a comfortable breath, focusing all of your attention on the act of breathing – the sound, the sensation in your nostrils, the movement of your tummy or chest. By doing this, you interrupt the flow of brain resources towards the worry areas and instead send resources towards the prefrontal cortex (the bit above your eyes). It’s an area at the front of your brain that’s associated with conscious control. This is because you are consciously controlling something; in this case, your breath. This prefrontal cortex, among other areas, is active when we focus our attention on our breath.

It sounds easy on paper and initially the positive effect might only last a moment or two and you might find yourself having to do it 2, 3 or even 10 times in a row. This is where the work comes in. You almost need to be relentless, focusing on your breath every time the fearful thought or feeling arises. The technique is not for everyone as some might find it tiring and you might also doubt it could actually work.

But it can bring powerful results if you keep it up for a few days. Within that time, as neuroplasticity occurs to build the prefrontal cortex while at the same time shrinking the amygdala, you might notice a little letting-up of your fearful thoughts and feelings. Keeping the practice up for a few weeks might produce lasting results.

There is another fun way to do it. Instead of focusing on your breath when the fearful feeling arises, I have encouraged people to do a little victory dance – a silly, crazy set of made-up dance moves, choreographed by your good self. The key with victory dancing is to do it long enough until you smile (or laugh) – that might take 5 seconds or half a minute. That way, you’re activating positive emotion centers of the brain instead of fear areas. The same thing occurs as before – you build positive emotion areas of the brain while shrinking the worry areas and this is because you’re giving positive emotion areas a workout in instead of feeding worry areas.

You can even add a little visualization or an affirmation while you do the breath thing or the victory dance thing. For the visualization you might imagine the worry area of the brain shrinking down. For the affirmation you might say a positive statement that reflects how you intend to feel.

And if motivation to do it is a hurdle for you, a good thing to help keep you motivated is to remind yourself that you’re simply choosing to work different muscles. We all know how muscles get stronger and weaker depending on how much we exercise them. Doing this and acknowledging that there are actual changes taking place in the brain can provide just the motivation you need.

It is a vey useful strategy. It might not be for everyone and it’s also not the answer to all of our worries, fears, and anxieties. But it certainly is a useful tool.

7 Ways that Love is Good for Your Health

Painted heartLove feels good. I think we’d all agree on that. But it also has some surprising health benefits. Here’s a list of 7 of them:

 

1) Love is good for your heart

I think we all expect this. Biologically, love produces the hormone ‘oxytocin’. It’s why it’s often referred to as the ‘Love Hormone’ or even ‘Cuddle Chemical’ (yes, hugs produce it too). Research also shows that it is a ‘cardioprotective’ hormone. Simply put, it protects your cardiovascular system: it reduces blood pressure, helps clear your arteries of free radicals and inflammation, and even helps repair damaged blood vessels.

2) Love makes you happy

Emotionally, love makes us feel euphoric. We even feel tingling sensations in our hearts. In the brain, love elevates levels of both dopamine and serotonin, which contribute to this effect.

3) Love improves general health

Some research that compared couples whose relationship was close with those whose relationship wasn’t so much, found that couples who were in a close relationship reported their health as ‘very good or excellent’. The health reports were poorer in the other couples.

4) Love is good for your immune system

Every couple has arguments. That’s to be expected. But research shows that couples who argue in a more loving, positive way, were measured to have higher immediate immune function compared to couples who showed more negative behaviour. I guess, even when we argue, we should remember to be kind.

5) Love can help you get fit

OK, this might be obvious in the sense that regular sex is good for the heart, but there is another way that love can aid fitness. We all know that many people who start on an exercise program quit within 6 months to a year (you’ve probably been there yourself – seen it, done it, got the t-shirt), but did you know that when you work out with a romantic partner, not only do you work harder (perhaps you’re trying to impress) but you are also more likely to keep the program up?

6) Love can help you live longer

Research that compares married couples (in happy marriages) with single people shows that married people lived longer. And the good news for men is that the effect is especially pronounced in us. Seems we benefit from all that nagging good advice. Married men are less likely than single men to over indulge in drinking and smoking, which is better for health in the long term.

7) Love can lessen physical pain

Researchers who measures pain perception typically ask volunteers to place their hands in ice-water or receive electric shocks. Electric shock pain-perception-studies have shown that the experience of pain is lessened when we hold someone’s hand. And it’s even better news for females – pain decreases most in women in happy marriages who held their husbands’ hand.

4 Reasons Why Dogs Are Good for Your Health

Oscar my yellow labrador retrieverOne of the things I love about writing blogs is that I get to talk about stuff that’s relevant in my life, where I’ve been inspired, had a wise insight, or learned something new.

I’ve written a few blogs about my dog Oscar and what I’ve learned from him. If you haven’t been keeping up to date, he’s a yellow (golden) Labrador retriever and he’s 11 and a half months old (that’s him in the photo!).

We moved house a few weeks ago and now live in the country (in a beautiful village called Bridge of Allan, in central Scotland). I’m so enjoying the long healthy walks. I say healthy, because I feel healthy with all the miles I walk, breathing in the fresh country air. It got me thinking that dogs really are incredibly healthy for us.

Here’s 4 reasons why:

1) Dogs boost your immune system

Many people find that when they first get a dog they get much fewer colds. The main reason for this is that dogs (and puppies) bring dirt into the house on their paws. The dirt contains tiny bacteria that gives our immune systems something to work on. Like muscles, the immune system needs to work to build its strength.

Living in too clean an environment can lessen the immune system. It’s one of the suggested scientific reasons for an increase in allergies over the past few decades.

When a dog brings dirt into the house on it’s paws the human immune systems go to work, building up its muscles like we’ve gone to the ‘immune system gym’. As this happens, the immune system becomes more robust and resilient, and we’re more protected from colds and other illnesses and diseases.

2) The give us plenty of exercise

I walk about 20 miles a week with Oscar. I’ve lost about 8 pounds in weight since he came into our lives. Last weekend I ran the ‘Perth Kilt Run’, which is a 5k run in Perth (Scotland) and you have to wear a kilt. I ran a rather respectable 24 minutes and 39 seconds, which I think is good considering I hadn’t done any running training and a kilt gets quite heavy after about 4k :-).

I’m certain that walking all those miles with Oscar was excellent training for me.

3) They’re good for the heart

Research shows that interacting with dogs elevates levels of the hormone, oxytocin. As well as it’s role in childbirth and breast feeding (oxytocin is involved in the ‘letting down’ response of breast milk), oxytocin is a powerful ‘cardioprotective’ hormone (it protects the heart and cardiovascular system). Research shows that it lowers blood pressure and significantly reduces levels of free radicals and inflammation, two families of chemicals involved in cardiovascular disease.

Couple this with a stronger immune system and more exercise, it’s why research also shows that the chances of a second heart attack, for men who had one previously, is 400% lower for men who have a dog compared with men who don’t.

4) They’re good for mental health

We’re a social species. Humans need social contact. It’s built into our genome and is why we’re healthier and live longer when we connect with each other. Social network research shows that we’re healthier the more connected we are.

Part of this reason is, of course, oxytocin. Dogs are great company and we bond strongly with them. It’s not at all uncommon for people to talk to their dogs. I know! I talk to Oscar and tell him what I’m up to. 🙂

Human and animal contact also helps counter stress and is protective towards depression, so having a dog is also good for our mental health. Of course, we can also say the same for cats (in case you’re a cat owner reading this and are wondering).

 

So overall, I think it’s nice to reflect on how dogs are so good for our health and to feel deep gratitude for their presence in our lives. I feel immensely grateful for Oscar’s presence. He has changed my life for the better on so many levels.

4 Reasons Why Having Friends is Healthy

Heart Social NetworkI’ve had a lot of help from friends and family recently, from having help with my latest book, to having supportive and encouraging conversations, to having help with moving house.

Earlier this morning, I found myself smiling as I reflected on how grateful I am for having these people in my life. As I reflected while sipping my coffee and looking from the conservatory of my new home out at the beautiful view of the surrounding hills and Stirling castle, my mind drifted towards some of the research around friends and family and the health benefits they bring.

So I decided to share some of this with you. Here’s 4 reasons why having friends is healthy.

 

1) Friends help us live longer, healthier lives

Social contact is one of the strongest predictors of a long life. Research shows that when we analyse the factors – diet, exercise, etc – that are most important in ensuring a long and healthy life, regular social contact comes up time and time again as one of the most important.

In 2010, for instance, researchers at Brigham Young University published their analysis of 148 studies involving 308,849 people of an average age of 63.9 years. These studies looked at the relationship between social relationships and mortality risk. Measuring a period of 7.5 years, they found that people who enjoyed strong social ties had a 50% increased likelihood of survival over this time compared with people with weak or no social ties.

2) Friends help to counter stress

Friends support us through the hard times. They act as buffers to lessen the burden of our personal challenges. Having someone to talk to helps release some of the pent up pain we frequently carry. Friends can be our release-valves.

As the old saying goes, “A problem shared is a problem halved.”

3) Friends improve our happiness

Harvard researchers studied a social network of over 12,000 people and found that the people who were the most ‘connected’ were the happiest. In other words, people who have more social contact tend to be happier.

As well as buffering some of the stress of hard times, friends help us enjoy the everyday moments more and help provide some of the special moments, thereby improving happiness.

4) Friends protect you from heart disease

During a census in the 1960s scientists discovered that the death rate from heart disease of people aged 55-64 was almost zero in the US town of Roseto, and for people over that age it was almost half the national average. No one under the age of 50 had died of heart disease at all. This was vastly different from the rest of the country.

The reason, it turned out, was that they had each other. Residents of Roseto were more ‘connected’ and enjoyed more social contact than people living in most typical towns and cities. It’s known as the Roseto Effect.

Social contact increases levels of the hormone ‘oxytocin’ which, as well as its known roles in breast feeding, digestion, and childbirth, is also a ‘cardioprotective’ hormone (protects the cardiovascular system). Research shows that it lowers blood pressure and also helps reduce levels of some of the chemicals involved in heart disease.

OK, a few people might point out that they know someone who has lots of good relationships but also had a heart attack. As we know, there are many other factors that play a role in heart health – including diet, exercise, and stress – but having good quality relationships goes some way to counteracting the effects.

 

So if you’re looking for ways to find friends, one I’d personally recommend is to get a dog. After we got Oscar in October last year, we started to meet lots of dog owners in the park in the morning, some of whom have become very good friends.

You can also meet new people by taking an evening class, or going to yoga, the gym, volunteering for a charity, or even by going to dance classes.

You can also increase ‘contact’ by striking up conversations with postal workers, shop assistants, or by doing regular acts of kindness.

So if you’re considering some lifestyle changes because you want to be healthier, don’t forget the importance of good quality relationships.

As I once heard Patch Adams say (he’s the doctor featured in the movie whose role was played by the late, Robin Williams), “If you want to be healthy, get good at friends!

 

Notes:

You might find a couple of my related books of some interest:

I covered the social network research, as well as how emotions and contagious from one person to the next, in my book, ‘The Contagious Power of Thinking‘ (Hay House, 2011). Amazon.co.uk  Amazon.com  Amazon.com.au  Amazon.ca

I covered the Roseto Effect, good relationships, and oxytocin in my book, ‘The Five Side Effects of Kindness‘ (Hay House, 2017). Amazon.co.uk  Amazon.com  Amazon.com.au  Amazon.ca

How Dogs are Good for your Heart

Labrador puppy chewing a shoe
Oscar the labrador puppy

I just had to write this blog because a little 8-week old Labrador puppy joined our family last week (that’s him in the photo). We’ve called him ‘Oscar’. He’s a bundle of cuteness, extremely playful, and also VERY fond of chewing his way through just about anything left lying on the floor.

We all know how much love dogs have to share, but I also wanted to share with you why they are good for your health, and especially for your heart.

Research shows that interacting with a dog elevates levels of the hormone oxytocin. In one study, 20 minutes of positive interaction with a dog elevated oxytocin levels by around 20%.

You may wonder what that means. Well, oxytocin is known as a cardioprotective hormone, in that it helps to protect the cardiovascular system from damage. It works in two main ways.

First, it binds to the lining of the blood vessels to stimulate the production of nitric oxide. Nitric oxide then dilates (widens) the arteries, causing blood pressure to be lower.

People familiar with angina medication may know of ‘glyceryl trinitrate’ (nitroglycerin). It’s a medicine that basically delivers 3 lots (tri-) of nitric oxide to do the same job.

Second, research into how cardiovascular disease develops identified free radicals and inflammation as two processes that play a major role. When oxytocin was added to test tubes containing stressed cells, free radical levels dropped by up to 48% depending on the cell type, and inflammation by up to 57%.

Oxytocin is very good for the heart!

It’ll come as no surprise, then, to learn that in men who have had a heart attack, the chances of a second one for those who have a dog is 400% lower then for those who don’t have a dog, a statistic that has moved many cardiologists to write ‘get a dog’ into their prescriptions.

Of course, walking the dog also provides much needed exercise and is also a de-stressor, so this also contributes to cardiovascular health. These are obvious, but  I wanted to mention oxytocin because hardly anyone knows about how powerful a role it plays.

I can’t tell you how much I love having little Oscar in our lives. Watching him play brings a tear to my eyes. I joked with my partner, Elizabeth, that as she’s an actress, this is her first Oscar. 🙂

In only a week, he has brought so much love and joy into our home, as well as naughtiness! Two of my good shirts are now sporting teeth marks and holes.

I’ll keep you updated from time to time on my Facebook page and Twitter feed with how he’s getting on as he grows and, hopefully, stops chewing stuff.

 

Note: My book, ‘Why Kindness is Good for You’ is about the best resource I know of for the cardiovascular benefits of oxytocin.

 

3 Reasons Why Gratitude is Good

happy people
Gratitude - saying 'yes' to life

Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos into order, confusion into clarity… It turns problems into gifts, failures into success, the unexpected into perfect timing, and mistakes into important events.” Melody Beattie

 

So much of happiness is ‘all in the mind’, or at least it is a product of what we focus on.

We all make comparisons in life but quite often they are downward comparisons. We compare what we have to what we want (or think we want), and even though it’s not always conscious thinking, we conclude that what we have isn’t good enough.

It might be a job, a lifestyle, a house, car, or it might even be a husband or wife. But downward comparisons are sure to leave us feeling unhappy.

I think that part of the reason we do this is because on some level we are trying to create leverage to get us to act. ‘If it gets real bad – if I can see all the faults – then I’ll be motivated to change it,’ we think to ourselves. There are or course merits to this kind of thinking and there is definitely a call to use it sometimes. I certainly have at times in my life to create change.

But thinking in this way can also be a habit for many people, so much so that they look at the majority of things like this. The overall effect then is unhappiness, frustration, stress, and even depression as we become overwhelmed with the seeming multiple problems in life.

It’s a symptom of ‘the grass is always greener’ syndrome, as I call it. We’re always looking at other people’s grass and fail to notice the uniqueness of beauty of our own. It’s only when we do lie on our own grass that we realise that it actually feels really nice and that the sun shines on it just as it shines on other lawns.

My experience is that when we take the time to count our blessings, magic can happen in our lives. We start to notice stuff that was always there but we just hadn’t given it any attention. We have more energy and dwell less on our problems and worries.

Here are 3 reasons why gratitude is good for us. They’re based on published scientific studies as well as my own experiences.

 

1) Gratitude makes us happier

One study compared people making a short list of their blessings each week with another group making a list of their hassles (or burdens). It was called a Blessings vs Burdens study. After 10 weeks of doing this, the blessings group were 25% happier than the burdens group.

Isn’t that incredible? What a change we can make to our happiness, especially if we have gotten into the habit living life as if we’re in the burdens group.

2) Gratitude is good for the heart

Gratitude counteracts stress so ultimately it’s beneficial to the cardiovascular system. Mental and emotional stress can take a long-term toll on the heart, increasing stress hormone levels but also free radicals and inflammation – precursors to cardiovascular disease. So a side-effect of gratitude is improved cardiovascular health.

3) Gratitude helps us achieve

Focusing on things we’re grateful for helps us to notice even more things that we’re grateful for – it’s an upward cycle, like we surf a wave.

We become more attuned to the blessings instead of the burdens of life. This simple shift of focus increases our positive feelings, increases creativity, makes us feel more energetic, and we notice more opportunities in life. In these ways we are more able to shape our lives in the ways that we want.

 

I would also add another to the list. It’s perhaps not a benefit and therefore I haven’t included it as one of the 3. It’s that gratitude is a simple way of saying, ‘Thanks’ to the world, even when you don’t verbalise it. It’s a way of celebrating the validity of all life, and acknowledging its interrelatedness and the efforts that it takes to provide us with all that we need.

As a consequence, I have learned to resist less in life and give whatever I’m doing or being asked to do my complete attention. When we resist what is happening, or what we’re being asked to do, we only prolong it and create stress for ourselves.

I have discovered that happiness can be found in the simplest things, just by saying ‘Yes – thanks’ to much of what life presents to me. And it is from this space that I feel more contentment and personal energy and have been able to move towards other stuff that I have wanted in my life.

I think Martin Luther King had it right when he said, “If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well’.”

 

Gratitude Exercises

Here are two of my favourite gratitude exercises. You can focus on one or the other, or if you really want to go for it big style then you could do them both.

1) Every day for the next 21 days, make a list of 5-10 things that you’re grateful for. It can be people, things, how you’re feeling, events, circumstances, God, the Universe, your dog….whatever you can feel grateful for.

Try to alter your list as much as you can so that you’re not writing the same things every day. This exercise works really well if you do it first thing in the morning or just before going to bed.

2) Think of a person in your life and think of all the reasons why you’re grateful for that person – what they have contributed to your life (or are contributing), how they make you feel, what they do, who they are, what they do for others, etc.

Try to do it for a different person every day until you have gone through all of your loved ones. Then you could extend it to friends and co-workers. Then, if you feel really brave, you might even try the exercise on people who cause you stress or who have hurt or offended you in the past.

As you do this, watch the way your relationships with some of these people change.

 

Why Friends are the Key to Living to 100

Diverse group of friends
Friends for life

Most people believe that the secret to living to a very old age is simply down to the food we eat or how much exercise we take, or even whether we drink or smoke or how much stress there is in our lives.

This is because most longevity research (research into lifespan) has focused upon these factors. And they all do play an important role in lifespan. But one vital ingredient is missing from this menu. That ingredient is friends.

It turns out that the positive effect of regular social contact is about as strong as the effect of blood pressure, smoking, alcohol habits, obesity, and eating a healthy diet.

Take, for instance, the following two pieces of research:

In 2010, researchers at Brigham Young University published a meta-analysis of 148 studies involving 308,849 people of an average age of 63.9 years, from four different continents, that dealt with the impact of social relationships on mortality risk. The conclusion was startling: people who enjoyed strong social ties had a 50% increased likelihood of survival over a measured period of 7.5 years compared with people with weak or no social ties.

And a 2010 Australian study that looked at 188 people over the age of 100 found that having a close network of family and friends was a highly significant factor in their lifespan. Contrary to popular belief, genetics actually only accounts for 20-30% of the chances of living to 100! The rest is down to what you eat, how much exercise you take, your attitude, your lifestyle, and now we can add friends, or more precisely, social contact to that equation.

Think of it in this way. Take the health of our planetary ecosystem. It needs biodiversity – that is, a wide variety of different kinds of species. When there’s too little biodiversity, the ‘immune system’ of the planet is compromised and the health of the ecosystem suffers. Similarly, having too little social contact compromises our health whereas a diverse array of social connections improves our health.

We are wired for social contact. It seems that at the heart of all things, being connected sustains life.

Perhaps the roots of connecting go right to the core of reality. We know that at an elementary level, subatomic particles strive to connect. It is the connecting of these particles, facilitated by the four known forces of nature, that produces all matter in the universe.

Quite simply, connecting is what life does. Perhaps there is no other reason for us to be here than to form bonds with one another, for in the process of connecting, life flows through us.

Perhaps we are conduits for life. I am reminded of the words of the philosopher and humanitarian Albert Schweitzer, ‘True philosophy must start from the most immediate and comprehensive fact of consciousness: “I am life that wants to live, in the midst of life that wants to live.”’

What aspect of life could be driving the connectedness? Perhaps we can only begin to understand this through the process of connecting itself. It could be love. For in the depths of the bonds we form, love blossoms like a seed sown in fertile ground.

Perhaps, then, to love is the purpose of life!

 

References:

This article is adapted from my book, ‘The Contagious Power of Thinking’. Paperback. Kindle.

For the Brigham Young research, see: J. Holt-Lunstad, T. B. Smith and J. B. Layton, ‘Social relationships and mortality risk: a meta-analytic review’, PLoS Medicine, 2010, 7(7), e1000, 316, 1-20

For and article on the 2010 Australian research, click here.

 

How Video Games Affect Empathy

One of the things I most enjoyed over the holiday period when I was playing on the Nintendo Wii with family members. I did some super-high scoring on bowling. Whoopeee…. I also had some long slugging-it-out tennis matches with my nephew Jake, played a few rounds of golf, and danced on ‘Just Dance’ with my mum.

I think these kinds of games help us on so many ways. Judging by the aches and pains in my arms the morning after the first night’s gaming, I felt like I’d done some serious exercise. They also help with hand-eye coordination, and many games are good for brain development.

The other side of gaming, though, is playing violent video games where we maim our opponents. A number of studies on children, teenagers, and college students show that these kinds of games can affect behaviour, making the players more aggressive and less empathetic in the short and long-term.

In one study, 160 male and 160 female college students played either a violent or non-violent game for 20 minutes. When they were finished, the researchers staged a fake fight outside the room where two actors pretended to fight. One of them knocked the other to the ground and as the person struggled to get up, the victor strode off, leaving the person in pain and unable to stand up.

The point of the study was, would the gamers go outside the room and help the person to their feet, and would the type of game they played have any bearing on how long it would take them to offer help?

It did. The average time it took the players of the non-violent games to help was 16.2 seconds. But the average time it took the players of the violent games to help was 1 minute 13.3 seconds – a substantial difference.

Studies of these kind suggest that playing violent video games can affect prosocial behaviour, that is our willingness to show helping behaviour to benefit someone or society, and dampens empathy. But not everyone is affected the same.

Before the era of modern real-life graphics I played hours of games in the 80s when I was a teenager, some of them violent, but I never became violent.

It is highly likely that a person’s social background and early upbringing will affect how much they are affected by violent video games. Children and teenagers living in a warm, generally positive emotional environment, are probably more immune to the effects than those who live in socially or emotionally deprived areas without the buffer of positive emotional support around them to counteract the aggressive effects.

The number of hours played on a regular basis also has an effect. Children who play a lot of hours of violent games tend to show the most aggression. Other studies, though, suggest that the effects are short-lived. But short-lived or not, some children are affected.

So what do we do? As my elder sister and mother of two of my nephews suggests, it’s up to the parents to monitor the kinds of games their children play and how much they play them.

Any maybe software developers could create more games that have a positive impact on prosocial behaviour, inspiring children with ideas of kindness and empathy, and the gaming companies can employ clever marketing people to popularise them, just as we’re seeing with games for the Wii. More please..!

 

References:

B. J. Buchman and C. A. Anderson, ‘Comfortably numb: desensitizing effects of violent media on helping others’, Psychological Science, 2009, 20(3), 273-7

A number of scientific studies on media contagion are described in, David R Hamilton PhD, ‘The Contagious Power of Thinking’, Hay House UK, London, 2011. See chapter 4, ‘Contagion from Video Games’.

 

How Being an Optimist Might Lower Your Risk of a Stroke

eggs with positive words written on themA recent 2-year study at the University of Michigan followed 6,044 people who were over the age of 50. At the beginning of the study they had to rate their optimism level on a 16-point scale.

They found that for each extra 1 point of optimism on the scale, the risk of a stroke dropped by 9%. Three points and that’s nearly a 30% lower risk. Incredible!

Optimism seems to be fairly protective against stroke.

The link between optimism, positive emotions, and health is something that I’ve been writing and speaking on quite a bit in the past couple of years so I welcome research of this type that adds how we think, feel, and act, to the standard idea of how to be healthy.

We tend to think that we just need to eat well and take some exercise and everything will be OK. But we forget the importance of how we think and how we feel.

The question is, how does the mind have such an effect on health, or in this case, the risk of stroke?

The study leader, Eric Kim, believed that the work “suggests that people who expect the best in life actively take steps to promote health.” I totally agree with this.

I would also add that optimists look for solutions and get through difficult situations more easily than pessimists do. When you believe that you ‘can’ you tend to do what you can. But when you believe that you ‘can’t’, you often give up or get stressed.

Studies show that people who are more optimistic tend to have better coping strategies for when stressful situations come along. They get through them easier so they typically have less stress in their lives.

People who are more pessimistic, on the other hand, tend to have poorer coping strategies so pessimism, on the whole, is associated with more stress.

Of course, I must point out that this doesn’t apply to everyone. There are always exceptions. We all know optimists who don’t cope so well and pessimists who do. So it’s not so black and white. But averaged over a large number of people, we typically find that optimism is most definitely associated with better coping and thus lower stress.

How does this relate to the risk of a stroke? Lots of evidence shows a correlation between stress and stroke, particularly high levels of prolonged stress.

There are different types of stroke but a 2009 study found that a stroke caused by hardening of blood vessels, or blot clots in the brain, had the strongest links with stress.

Hardening of blood vessels can develop because of stress, as well as poor diet, and also, interestingly, hostility towards others. When under stress, chunks of hard calcium built up on arterial walls can cleave off and lead to a blockage. This can cause a stroke.

So I would say that optimism lowers our risk of stroke not only because we make better choices in life, but because of this additional reason.

So how do we become more optimistic? Here are 3 simple suggestions:

 

1) Tell yourself that you can more often than you tell yourself that you can’t.

This attitude helps you to find solutions and cope better when stressful situations come along.

2) Use positive affirmations

Try repeating, ‘Stuff happens, but it’s my choice how I respond to it’, or the Èmile Coué classic, ‘Every day in every way, I’m getting better and better’, or even ‘I always find the silver lining’.

3) Shed the idea that people are selfish/bad/mean and that the world is a bad place.

This is just as assumption. We see what we want to see in life, but it’s not necessarily the truth. Look for examples of kindness and compassion around you and in the world. Keep a diary of your findings.

 

References:

Click here for the study linking optimism with risk of stroke. You can download the PDF from the linked page.

Click here for a meta analysis of of studies on optimism and coping strategies.

Click here for a ‘Science Daily’ article linking severe stress and stroke.