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Happy and Successful

50 Facts to Train Your Brain for Happiness and Success 1


ichoose2b: Happy and Successful An Illustrated Handbook 50 Facts from Cognitive psychology and Neuroscience


(C) 2013 ichoose2b: Happy and Successful Written and edited by Kevin Gabbard | Sarah Mann | Linda Peia Illustrations by Madalina Bouros | Linda Peia With thanks to Vinithra Ramakrishnan for her research support Published by ichoose2b


Part 1. Happiness vs. Success Am I happy because I am successful or am I successful because I am happy?


Use your brain’s auto-pilot mode with caution Our brain is wired to make sense of our complex world. To do so, it has evolved to recognize patterns and develop rules of thumb that help us understand the world around us – e.g. if it is cloudy, we know there is a high chance of rain; or we may choose to eat at a restaurant if it has more cars in the parking lot. This is known as the brain's 'auto-pilot' mode, and there are good reasons for it; otherwise, we would be in a constant state of alert and acute awareness. Yet, the same ability that helps us navigate the world can also lead us astray. For example, we tend to infer causality from correlations. Looking at the graph on the right, you may quickly say that more money will make us happier. But, if you stop and think, (i.e. get your brain out of the auto-pilot mode), you may see that this is not necessarily the case. The only thing you can infer is that they move in the same direction. In Eastern Europe during the winter people tend to sleep more, but they also eat more imported fruit, such as oranges, because there is no local fruit on the market. So, both sleep and orange consumption increase in the winter, but it is not that eating oranges makes people sleep more, or vice versa. Another factor, winter, is in fact making people sleep more and eat more oranges.



Happiness leads to success, not only vice versa We often think that being successful will make us happier, but researchers have found that happiness does not simply flow from success; instead, happiness can also cause success. In one study involving more than a quarter of a million people, psychologists found that happiness causes success by making people more sociable and altruistic and by improving their ability to resolve conflict. Additionally, happy people talk more, which is important in establishing new relationships. Happy people are also more likely to think with originality and flexibility. Research shows that happy people have stronger immune systems, experience less pain, and perceive themselves to be healthier.1 In the same vein, another study has found that happy workers are "more likely to secure job interviews, to be evaluated more positively by supervisors once they obtain a job, to show superior performance and productivity, and to handle managerial jobs better. They are also less likely to show counter-productive workplace behavior and job burnout."2 Further, another study found that people who at age 18 were happier than their peers were more likely to be financially independent and generally doing well in their career.3



More money does not necessarily mean more happiness Almost no one disagrees that there is a positive correlation between happiness and income (at least up to a certain level of income). However, the relationship between the two is much more complex – most likely they both cause each other and may in turn be affected by other factors in our life. Saying with 100% certainty that more money makes people happier would be thus misleading. Most economists who are investigating this issue tend to agree that up to a certain level of income people with a higher level of income also tend to be happier people (which does not, however, imply that one causes the other). As research shows, despite growing income levels in the U.S. and the U.K., in the past 50 years, Americans and British people are no happier than 50 years ago. Further, more people suffer from depression. As one researcher explains, once we reach a certain level of income that allows us to meet our most basic needs, extra income is less important than, say, our relationships with others.4 In the same vein, another study found that those on the Forbes 100 list of the wealthiest people are only slightly happier than the average American.5



Happiness starts today We should know what will make us happy, you might say. As it turns out, we are very poor predictors of what will make us happy. Major events impact us in unpredictable ways, and our brain has a way of bouncing back to a basic, stable emotional state. Research has shown this to be just as true of major traumas as major achievements. Most interestingly, this response to major events does not seem to hold over small events. Whereas most people would say major life events, good or bad, hold sway over our general emotional well-being, the exact opposite is true. By investing in small positive experiences, we will be able to create an overall positive emotional state; more so than by striving for major objects of desire. Another reason why it is difficult to predict how happy we will be when we get that much desired house or promotion has to do with the fact that we change over time; the person we are today when we are imagining what it would feel like to have that big new house is not the person we will be when we actually can get that big new house.6 That is to say, do not wait on happiness to come one day; rather, start being happy today. We all have reasons to be happy today.



I choose to be‌ an Aries! How well do you think you resemble the traits of your sign? Some adults who were aware of the characteristics of their sign were found to have the personalities predicted by their signs. However, when the research was repeated with children, there was no particular affinity between individuals and the traits associated with their astrological signs.7 So, how is it that some adults do have the traits predicted by their signs? As it turns out, when a third round of research was conducted on adults, controlling for the level of understanding of their sign, it was found that only those individuals who were familiar with their sign characteristics developed into the people 'predicted' by their sign.8 In other words, we behave the way we are expected to behave. Or put differently, we play the roles we (or others) give to ourselves. The beauty of these findings is that we have the final say over who we are, because we are who we choose to be. The same results have similar implications on how we treat those around us, i.e. our colleagues, friends, and family. Would you like your colleagues to be more creative? Recognize emphatically whenever they are creative, and there is a great chance they will become even more creative.


"Treat people as if they were what they ought to be and you help them to become what they are capable of being." Goethe



Part 2. What Makes Us Happy? 20 facts that you should know


For happier results, buy experiences Would you like to buy happiness? Behavioral economists have discovered that when it comes to spending money, you will be happier buying experiences than products.9 As time passes, we all get used to what we have, whether it is a house, a new car, or a pair of jeans; the initial thrill of a new product quickly fades away as it becomes outdated, worn-out, and old – a process called ‘hedonistic habituation’. As psychologist David Myers put it, "thanks to our capacity to adapt to ever greater fame and fortune, yesterday's luxuries can soon become today's necessities and tomorrow's relics." With experiences, our happiness lasts for a longer period of time because experiences are ever-changing and they can continue to take on new meaning, preventing habituation and prolonging our state of happiness. Unlike circumstantial changes, such as getting a raise, intentional changes, such as starting a new hobby, prolong our happiness because they create an ever-changing state that constantly feeds us with new experiences, which prevent hedonistic habituation.10 To maximize your happiness, buy more experiences and less stuff; go to a concert, try a new sport, start a new hobby, join a club, learn a new skill, go on vacation, or go for a coffee with your friends.



Treat negative thoughts as guests who come and go Have you ever had a tug of war with your mind, trying to suppress certain thoughts? Recently, researchers have discovered the paradoxical effect that suppressing thoughts may actually bolster their mental presence. People who were attempting to quit smoking reported greater cravings when trying to actively suppress thoughts of smoking.11 One suggested method of therapy for those struggling with depression was acceptance of certain negative thoughts rather than suppression.12 Pushing out thoughts seems to be the greatest way to invite them back in, stronger than ever. Ironically, because we subconsciously "check on" ourselves and our ability to forget something while consciously trying to distract ourselves, we actually reinforce these negative thoughts.13 In another study, participants were asked to actively suppress negative thoughts about themselves, but they actually thought more about them than those who did not suppress their thoughts, and rated themselves as more anxious and more depressed.14 Happiness does not depend on the absence of negative thoughts; as some Buddhists suggest, treat negative thoughts as guests, with indifference, as they come and go.



Act happy, be happier We often think of our physical expressions as a reflection of how we feel. Researchers, however, have found that body expressions can also influence how we feel. Take love, for example. When we are in love, our heart tends to beat faster, but likewise, engaging in activities that increase our heartbeat can also trick our brain into thinking we are in love. In one study a woman surveyed two groups of men: one group after they had crossed a long bridge, and another after they had crossed the same bridge, but were given time to rest. After the survey, the woman gave all men her phone number for any questions they may have. The study found that a larger proportion of the men who were interviewed right after they had crossed the bridge called the woman and asked her on a date, possibly mistaking their quickened heartbeat resulting from the bridge crossing with the woman's attractiveness.15 The same applies to happiness. Act happy and there is a good chance you will feel happy. In one study, people who had sat upright during a math test were happier than people who had slouched, and they even did better.16 To start acting like a happy person, start by keeping your hopes high and being more optimistic. Happy people also swing their arms more and speak slightly faster!17


"We are as likely to act ourselves into a new way of thinking as to think ourselves into a new way of acting." David G. Myers


Make a habit of giving Even though we spend a lot of money on ourselves, recent psychological research suggests that people are happier when they spend money on others, even controlling for a baseline of 'resources'.18 Looking deeper into the brain, participants in one study demonstrated that two brain regions were excited by the prospect of having their money given to support the needy, and were especially excited by the prospect of donating that money voluntarily – these two regions of the brain are part of our pleasure center and are excited when we meet our basic needs.19 Studies have also shown that giving to others does not have to be expensive. In another study, participants were asked to perform five non-financial acts of kindness, such as helping a friend, donating blood, or writing a thank-you card. Those people who were asked to perform all five acts of kindness in one day, as opposed to one per day across a week, reported being 40% happier than their counterparts, who showed only a small increase in happiness.20 Feeling good when we help others goes deep and may arguably be one of our "basic needs". By helping others we can produce happiness in ourselves.



Happiness is a choice Modern research has found that 50% of our overall happiness is determined by our genes, 10% by our material wealth and circumstances (our education, job, and marital status, among others), and 40% by our day-to-day actions.21 Even though we cannot alter our genetics and have limited control over our circumstances, the remaining 40% of our everyday activity constitutes what psychologists refer to as "intentional activity,"22 which varies from person to person depending on personal preferences. The best way to capitalize on intentional activity for overall happiness is to engage in activities that bring you joy and fit your needs and personality. Through this happy work you may discover that each day is gratifying and your long-term goals become easier to pursue because you are creating your own happiness. Moreover, research suggests that behavioral changes have a more sustainable effect on our overall happiness than circumstantial changes.23



Creativity may give you a few extra years of life Creativity may have a long-term impact on health. One study suggests that creativity may predict a longer life and not in a small way: "[a] person who was [~35%] higher than another on creativity would be analogous to comparing individuals 8 years apart in age."24 In personality theory, creativity is a sub-trait of Openness, along with intellect and willingness to try new things.25 These sub-traits may impact health through "physiological, behavioral, social, or cognitive mechanisms"26 and may do so to varying degrees.25 Even though the connection between creativity and longevity is complex and work remains to be done, maintaining high cognitive activity into old age provides a positive impact on our overall quality of life.27 These findings are important, especially because "we have entered a phase of history in which most of the primary reasons for premature mortality have behavioral substrates."28 Just imagine what effect a lifetime of engaging your creativity could have. Embrace your natural creativity by becoming more aware of your environment and by starting to see opportunities instead of obstacles.



Having a pet may just be your best remedy Researchers have been investigating the effects of pets on mental and physical health. Findings suggest that pets help reduce stress, blood pressure, aggression, and anger. They also lower the risk of heart disease and reduce the feeling of loneliness.29 The emotional benefits of pet ownership can be observed almost immediately, whether the pet is a dog, cat, fish, or bird; and the cumulative effect on health is significant. Even though having a pet comes with significant responsibilities, many owners discover reward in establishing care routines and habitual bonding activities. 30 Pets create enriched social environments and provide "non-evaluative social support that is critical to buffering physiological responses to stress," which is particularly relevant for medical patients, long-term care facility residents, and people with high-stress occupations. As one individual being treated with pet therapy explained, "[h]aving this pet makes me better able to see what is really important and to put things into perspective."31 Surprisingly, you may not need a real dog to reap the benefits. One study found that robotic dogs lead to the same increases in health and happiness as their fuzzy originals.32 No matter what kind of pet suits your lifestyle, it is clear that animals provide a positive and supportive social environment that has great psychological and physiological benefits.



To boost your productivity, choose to be happy A growing body of research has found that if you want to be more productive, you have to direct your efforts towards being happier with your work. Happy people work better; they are better team players, more creative, more engaged, and overall more motivated, all of which enhance productivity and performance. As one study found, positive emotions energize human beings, while negative emotions have the opposite effect. Happier workers were found to be 12% more productive, whereas unhappier workers were found to be 10% less productive.33 Another study of 272 employees found that happier people got better performance evaluations and higher pay.34 Additionally, happy employees were found to have lower medical costs and absenteeism.35 If you want to be more productive, or make your business be more productive, work towards a happier work environment.



Embrace uncertainty It is time to rediscover the happiness that dwells in uncertainty. Too often we are confined by what psychologists call "narrow attention", which is the habit of selecting “what serves [our] immediate interests and ignoring the rest."36 Instead of having tunnel vision, we should do the opposite; we should maintain "wide attention," which entails appreciating the big picture, operating without an agenda, and being open to surprise. If we follow fixed paths and rigidly categorize things by putting ideas into boxes, we will miss many unconstrained possibilities entirely. John Keats described this openness as negative capability: "when a [person] is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason."37 It is also the capacity to remain content with incomplete knowledge. We often ignore the opportunity to be humbly bewildered when we attempt to rationalize something too big for our consideration. We should recognize that there is joy in the wider picture – maybe even especially if it is puzzling.



Make a habit of giving thanks A growing body of research shows the importance of gratitude for our happiness and health. In a recent study, two groups of people were observed: the first group recorded everything they were grateful for each day, and the second group recorded daily complaints. Participants who expressed daily gratitude were found to be 25% happier, to have fewer health problems, and to sleep 1.5 hours more. The same study was repeated with patients with neuro-muscular disorders; those who kept a gratitude journal reported more satisfaction with their lives as a whole.38 Gratitude affects happiness because it releases dopamine in the brain, a chemical that helps regulate the brain’s reward and pleasure centers. This effect also tends to lead to repetitive activity because of the pleasurable effects that it causes, which means that once you start being grateful, it kicks off a habit of gratitude. To incorporate gratitude in your daily activities, write more thank-you notes and dedicate some time every week to jot down the things you are grateful for.



Share your happiness with your family and friends Instead of searching for what makes us happy, perhaps it is time to focus on who makes us happy. It is true that our activities and choices can bring us joy, but research suggests that our social networks play an essential role in our happiness. Our social connections, our friends, and our families are what make us happy.39 Support from friends and family has even health benefits. In one meta-study of more than 140 studies that involved over 300,000 participants, it was found that people with stronger social relationships had a 50% increased likelihood of survival.40 Moreover, research shows that happiness is best found at home. One study has found that the happiness of a close contact increases the chance of being happy by 15%, the happiness of a 2nd-degree increases it by 10%, whereas the happiness of a 3rd-degree contact (friend of a friend of a friend) increases it by 6%.41



Put your anger to constructive use Research has found that suppression of anger is the dominant predictor of the presence and extent of prolonged gastric distress.42 Further research confirms that suppressing anger has detrimental effects on both physical and mental health, including hypertension, coronary heart disease, eating disorders, and hostility.43,44,45 A popular stage in anger management in the last three decades involved screaming into a pillow or breaking glass plates to "release" anger. However, recent research has shown that forcing catharsis of anger has negative effects, especially for people with explosive anger issues. Two studies in particular suggest that the theory of anger catharsis may be wrong entirely.46,47 In one study, 600 subjects were asked to hit a punching bag; one group was asked to think of someone who angered them, while the other was asked to think about becoming physically fit. The former group was found to have higher levels of anger and to be more aggressive. Therefore, active rumination actually reinforced angry thoughts, which calls into question the validity of long-standing anger-venting theories. Both suppression and ruminative catharsis can lead to more anger and may damage one’s health. Moderated anger expression, especially when directed at positive distracting tasks, appears to be the best path towards anger management.



Fantasizing can do more harm than good Surprisingly, visualizing a successful outcome can make us less likely to achieve it. One study found that positive fantasies about desired futures can decrease our energy levels, even more so than negative fantasies, and lead to poorer results.48 A similar study demonstrated that students who were asked to fantasize about their grade on a future exam studied less and got lower grades.49 Similar results were found with people fantasizing about their dream job; they submitted fewer job applications, received fewer job offers, and got lower salaries.50 Having positive fantasies does not necessarily help people get positive results; it can actually produce the opposite effect, because it can distract us from doing the work and from preparing ourselves for any obstacles that we may face.



Meditate your way to happiness Research has found that meditation creates changes in the gray-matter density of the brain that is associated with memory, empathy, and stress.51 It does so by “training attention and awareness in order to bring mental processes under greater voluntary control and thereby foster general mental well-being and development and/or specific capacities such as calm, clarity, and concentration".52 In other words, meditation trains the brain similar to how weightlifting trains the muscles. One study also discovered that those who maintained a long-term practice of meditation showed greater folding of the cerebral cortex, which is related to the time that it takes the brain to process information.53 Another study found that taking just eight sessions of mindfulness meditation for a month can increase happiness by 20% on average.54 Overall, meditation was found to improve memory, sharpen focus, increase introspection, develop emotional control, increase attention span, and dull perception of pain.55



Luck is a habit you can practice Are some people born lucky or is there something else that makes some people luckier than others? Research has shown that luck is a consequence of how we think and act. In a study of 145 people, researchers found that people who considered themselves lucky also happened to be more open, more optimistic, more motivated, more satisfied with life, and more confident in their ability to pursue their goals. Lucky people also related better with others and had higher self-acceptance.56 In a similar study with a group of people who considered themselves lucky and another group of people who considered themselves unlucky, one researcher asked participants to count the number of pictures inside a newspaper. Only those people who considered themselves lucky noticed a large message that said “Win £100 by Telling the Experimenter You Have Seen This.” The ‘unlucky’ people were too busy counting pictures. As the researcher explains, people make their own luck by the way they think and act. ‘Lucky’ people are lucky because they also tend to be “optimistic, energetic, and open to new opportunities and experiences,” in contrast to ‘unlucky’ people who are “more withdrawn, clumsy, anxious about life, and unwilling to make the most of the opportunities that [come] their way.”57



Be aware of the positive benefits of your daily activities Researchers have wondered whether the mere awareness of the health benefits of our daily activities can impact our health. In other words, does the placebo effect exist beyond the use of medicine? In one study of 84 hotel maids, researchers told one group of maids that their work alone met the Surgeon General's quota for exercise and informed them of the number of calories burned by the different tasks they performed each day – changing bed sheets, doing laundry, walking up and down the stairs, etc. The other group was told nothing. Four weeks later those maids who were informed of the health benefits of their day-to-day job showed a decrease in weight, blood pressure, body fat, waist-to-hip ratio, and body mass index.58 Simply being aware of the health benefits of their work, the hotel maids were able to improve their health. In another study, a group of students were invited out for drinks. By the end of the night everyone failed to pass a series of sobriety tests. However, what the students did not know was that some of them had been served non-alcoholic drinks all night long.59 "If our mind-sets control our psychological and physical reactions and we can control our mind-sets, then we can have direct control over our health," one researcher explains.60



Buy a Mozart CD Music influences our physiology and emotions; up-tempo beats make us want to dance, and dirges make us contemplative and melancholic. Similarly, relaxing and classical music can have a positive impact on our health, as shown in a study of older adults whose blood pressure decreased after listening to a series of 12-minute Mozart recordings.61 Classical music, in particular, has been found to reduce stress and improve performance. In one study, a group of 75 participants performed three-minute mental arithmetic tasks and were then randomly assigned to sit in silence or to listen to one of several styles of music: classical, jazz, or pop. It was found that those participants who listened to classical music had lower post-task blood pressure levels than the rest of the participants who either sat in silence or listened to jazz or pop.62 Another series of experiments found that students’ test scores improved after listening to a Mozart recording, when compared with a relaxation tape or silence.63



Laugh more We have all heard that laughter is the best medicine, but research has now demonstrated the truth of this saying. When people laugh, major blood vessels dilate, allowing for easier blood flow, which reduces the risk of cardiac events. Mental stress, on the other hand, produces the opposite effect. The difference can be up to 35% in blood vessel diameter, as found in one study where a group of people watched the comedy There is Something about Mary and another watched the drama Saving Private Ryan.64 The effect is similar to that of aerobic exercise. Other studies have found that laughter also releases endorphins, a chemical painkiller, improves the immune system, and reduces the impact of stressful experiences.65,66,67 Moreover, the mere anticipation of laughter can be sufficient enough to reap its benefits. One study found that the anticipation of watching a humorous movie reduces the levels of stress hormones by 40-70%, alleviates depression by increasing the levels of beta endorphins by 27%, and stimulates growth and cell reproduction and regeneration by increasing the levels of the human growth hormone by 87%.68



Write positive letters Studies have shown that affectionate writing is a helpful way to increase happiness. In one study, researchers asked a group of people to spend twenty minutes a day over a period of a few weeks to write about someone they loved and found that taking just a few minutes to write about someone we care increases our level of happiness, reduces our stress, and even decreases our cholesterol level.69 This simple ritual made the participants reflect on their most important connections, though it was the act of writing that helped the participants create a structure and story line that put their appreciation in perspective and in a tangible form. Another researcher analyzed the journals of nearly 200 Catholic nuns by focusing on emotional content and positive vocabulary. Those nuns who used more positive and affectionate language in their writing lived eight to ten years longer.70 Send out more letters; it will improve your outlook on life, strengthen your relationships, and could even help you live longer.



Plan out pending tasks Unfinished tasks and looming deadlines create what is called "psychic anxiety" or the Zeigarnik effect. Researchers noticed that waiters could recall orders from memory with incredible skill, but once a customer had paid and left, they were unable to remember any details of the order; based on this observation, researchers concluded that the subconscious expresses a kind of "psychic anxiety" over unfinished tasks.71 More recent research demonstrated that psychic anxiety represents a significant cognitive burden, but that specific and earnest planning goes a long way towards alleviating these distracting and negative effects.72 David Allen harnesses the power of these observations and provides advice for increased productivity in his book Getting Things Done.73 In terms of your own procrastination, keep in mind that you will be distracted and in a state of constant anxiety until your task is finished or sufficiently planned out; by organizing and then completing your tasks, you will be not only more productive, but also happier.




Part 3. What Makes Us Successful? 25 facts that you should know


Certainty is the brain’s best friend Our brains are wired to seek certainty and control and to avoid uncertainty and ambiguity. Researchers have found that ambiguity (even in the smallest amount) triggers activity in the amygdalae – the region in our brain that plays a major role in our response to threats. At the same time, activity subsides in the ventral striatum, a part of the brain involved in our response to rewards. In other words, the more ambiguity, the more intense is the activity in the amygdalae region and the less intense it is in the ventral striatum. Simply put, our brain not only craves certainty but also shies away from uncertainty.74 While this ability has served us well as we evolved from hunter gatherers, it can also undermine our activities and relationships. For example, whenever we encounter new information that questions the validity of our assumptions and world view, our brain reacts as if threatened, firing up like a dragon, and it vigorously seeks ways to block or dismiss it. This can become problematic in situations where information that contradicts our view of the world comes from our peers, partners, or even friends. It can also lead to suboptimal project decisions as our brain tends to seek information that validates our theories.



Release creativity with uncertainty States of uncertainty and ambiguity are uncomfortable places for our brain to be. However, the brain's propensity to crave certainty and control in our life may impede our creativity. A team of researchers has found that people who shy away from uncertain situations – such as admitting that they may be wrong, looking for data that refutes their theory, seeking different opinions on the issues at hand, or analyzing inconsistent data – are generally less creative problem solvers than their counterparts. On the contrary, those who are able to tolerate some uncertainty and resist the brain's craving for certainty are more likely to seek new perspectives and opportunities, which is exactly what fuels scientific discovery, technological advances, and other human pursuits.75 Sometimes all it would take to spark our creativity would be to invite some uncertainty in our life by looking for data that contradicts our assumptions; asking for constructive criticism from our peers; taking a new route home; or attempting to experiment once every month with doing something completely different from our norm. Try to be your own devil's advocate. Take a dive into the unknown and enjoy!



Go Green Studies conducted by researchers have "demonstrated that a brief glimpse of green prior to a creativity task enhances creative performance". This is true even when it happens for just a few seconds. In one study, the research team asked two groups of people to solve a set of standard anagrams and found that the group of people whose code number was written in green solved 30% more anagrams.76 A similar study by a team of psychologists found that people who have plants nearby or within their line of sight were consistently more creative and innovative.77 The beauty of these studies is that it does not take much to spark your creativity: get a plant for your office; write with a green pen; organize your documents in green folders. Invite creativity in the different areas of your life by simply going green.



Distract your conscious mind If you are stumped, take a break. Studies have shown that taking a break from solving a problem is beneficial to its solution. In one study, subjects were given a simple problem or question; half of the subjects were distracted for three minutes before they had to answer and the other half were allowed to answer immediately. Those who were given the break actually answered more fully and creatively because the unconscious mind continues to incubate new ideas while the conscious mind attends to an irrelevant situation.78 Many other researchers have come to the same conclusion that working on insight problems over a long period of time results in more innovative and complex solutions.79 Therefore, the next time you find yourself at a problem solving impasse, take a few minutes to do something else and let your unconscious mind work. You may find you will be able to address the situation with a new perspective.78



Identify your creativity peak hours What you may think is your most unproductive time of the day may just be your window for new insights. A recent study found that people are more likely to have a moment of insight at their sleepiest (non-optimal) time of the day.80 Other research showed that after initial training on a task that required insight-based problem solving many more participants were able to reach a crucial insight on the problem after sleeping regardless of the time of the day.81 Additionally, other studies show that the more difficult the problem, the greater the impact that sleeping may have on problem solving.82 During sleep we often compile and reorganize our thoughts and memories and it is possible that it is this process that leads to insights.83 Other studies indicate that the brain may be doing more than passive "file-sorting". In one study, researchers reactivated task awareness using smells, and participants who were exposed to the same smell during problem solving and sleep were more creative after sleep than participants in the control group.84 If you are stuck on a problem during the day remind yourself of the problem before going to bed, or have the same scented candle in your bedroom as your office. When you wake up in the morning be sure to give yourself ten minutes alone with your thoughts before you get distracted with your day.



Pose for creativity We literally embody our thinking and it turns out that certain physical motions lend to different ways of thinking. A recent study showed that physical movements that literally acted out metaphors for creative thinking, e.g. "thinking outside the box", improved performance on creativity tasks.85 Numerous other studies have shown that certain body positions lend to faster insight or problem solving. In particular, while lying down, subjects of one study were able to solve anagrams quicker.86 Beyond simply getting into a new frame of mind, body position can also affect our attitude towards problem solving. Another study showed that problem solving persistence was affected by whether participants had crossed their arms or not while solving anagrams.87 Further, when our eye movements are guided in a particular way, we tend to reason differently. Casting our gaze in circles can help us think in circles and see new possibilities.88 If you need to tackle tough problems that require abstract thinking, try some yoga to clear your mind or take a wandering walk to embody your search. Once you have a task that needs focus and serious analytical attention, train your gaze, cross your arms, and stick with it.



Think of painters, artists, and designers It is common to think of creativity as a trait of fixed and measurable quantity. However, studies show that creativity can be greatly influenced by environment and context priming. Subtle priming can encourage different modes of thinking and lead to more creative acts. In one study, subjects were asked to think about "engineers" or "punks" and were then subsequently tested on both analytical and creativity tasks. The result was that simply being asked to think about one of these groups at a broad level had a significant impact on how well each group did on each of these tasks;89 those who thought of the more deviant stereotype, "punks", did significantly better on creativity tasks. Curiously, the power of priming is in stereotypes, because when people are primed with a specific individual who best embodies the qualities of a certain group (e.g. Gates for “engineers�), the reverse effect is observed, owing to our tendency to compare ourselves with that specific individual.90 This effect is so socially ingrained that expectations about the group that one selfidentifies with can also affect creative performance.91 To encourage positive creative activity, set aside five minutes before starting your creativity tasks and imagine the group that best embodies the results that you are trying to achieve.



Look for unconventional images One way to actively bring more creativity in your life is to put creativity in your lineof-sight. Creativity can be primed visually. Simply having images of creative or divergent ideas in your workplace can affect how creatively you think. One researcher demonstrated that visual priming to nonconformity dramatically improved creative task completion.89 Another researcher showed that even insightbased creativity can be primed; in one study, participants who were shown an illuminating light bulb, which is associated with insight, performed better on insight-based creativity tasks.92



Diversify your experiences New experiences increase creativity and mental flexibility. One study showed that participants who were exposed to settings that included unusual events were more cognitively flexible than participants exposed to control settings.93 In another study, participants who were exposed to absurdist texts showed an increased ability in pattern-matching problem solving; researchers argue that by threatening our sensemaking abilities with something absurd, our pattern-recognition faculties react by being more intensely focused or determined to identify a pattern.94 Similarly, another study showed that extensive and open participation in multicultural situations facilitated all types of creative performance, such as the ability to make insights, the ability for remote association, and the ability to generate vast sets of ideas.95 From the strange to the diverse, the broader set of experiences you have to draw on, the more plastic your mental associations will be.



Try to brainstorm alone Counter to how we normally think of brainstorming as a group activity, one study demonstrated that individuals are more productive brainstorming alone; within groups each person must take turns speaking, which can block many ideas from even entering the discussion. The study concluded that individuals alone produced four times as many ideas when compared to individuals in groups.96 Another study identified the general conformity of ideas as another potential problem with group brainstorming; individuals who brainstorm alone tend to reach more divergent domains than groups do.97 Further, cognitive laziness is yet another group-induced effect that can be avoided by having individuals brainstorm alone.98 Additionally, even the social anxiety of contributing individuals can have an effect on the productivity of an entire group.99 Despite these potential setbacks, researchers have provided several suggestions. Individuals alone should come up with as many ideas as possible. Within a group setting, these individuals should review, synthesize, integrate, and rank the ideas produced individually.100 By carefully controlling group size and group composition and by building collective respect and responsibility for the ideas produced, many of the problems found in traditional brainstorming can be resolved. Like any tool, the power of brainstorming is only manifest when used properly.



Leverage other people’s talents Individuals tend to work less in groups. This effect is known as "social loafing" and is due primarily to "[e]valuation potential, expectations of co-worker performance, [and] task meaningfulness."101 Another obvious cause is group coordination: the number of pairwise communication channels that are open at any one time in a group, given a certain group size, is often staggeringly large ({n*{n-1}}/2).102 However, research shows that social loafing is not simply a practical issue but it is also a robust cognitive effect.103 Another study showed that the effect is observed even when all group interactions take place virtually, as in distance learning classrooms.104 Additionally, because increases in social loafing are seen most dramatically with initial increases in group size, some researchers argue that one main source of this phenomenon is the diffusion of one's sense of individual responsibility; that is, once people feel like their efforts are anonymous regarding the outcome, they will invest less effort.105 To avoid social loafing within your organization make sure that the tasks that you assign to groups rely on the talents of several individuals and be sure to highlight the contributions of each individual so that each member can take part in the success of the group.



Account for the optimism bias We often tend to underestimate the time that it takes us to complete tasks or projects. This comes as a result of the “planning fallacy�, which represents our tendency to underestimate how long we need to complete a task, including tasks that we undertake regularly.106 Curiously, this bias only affects our predictions about our own tasks; when we predict task completion for other people, we exhibit a pessimism bias and overestimate the time that the task will take.107 Some explain this bias as an indication of our optimism or wishful thinking.108 The same study also found that when estimating task completion times anonymously, this optimism bias disappears, which may mean that this bias may be self-serving. That is to say, we are optimistic because we want others to view us in a positive light. While being optimistic is important for a happy living, we need to be realistic about our abilities. When making plans and estimating how long things will take, be sure to stop and: a) Consider how long it has taken you in the past (if you do it regularly, time it); b) Identify the ways in which things might not go as planned; and c) Spell out all the steps you will need to take in order to get it done.



Be realistic about your abilities For common traits and abilities most people think they are above average.109 This occurs because we optimistically enhance our or our in-group's self-image.110 While self-enhancement is important for our self-esteem and confidence, it turns out that we also tend to believe that we are less than average for negative traits – this helps us cope with the impressions that others have of us.111 Additionally, the “above average� effect tends to weaken when we consider rare skills; this helps demonstrate that our illusions of self are relative and not absolute; for example, the average person will probably not believe s/he is an above average brain surgeon, but a brain surgeon probably will.112 For our own self-worth we "round up" when we think about our or our in-group's abilities, and this artificial confidence allows us to better cope with criticism. It also helps us turn our shortcomings into learning opportunities.113 It is alright to allow your feelings of above average-ness to boost your confidence as long as you reinvest that confidence in accepting constructive criticism, which entails recognizing your mistakes and learning from them.



Spell out your intentions and you are halfway there Something as simple as posing a question might be able to influence our behavior. In a recent study students were asked to predict whether they would vote or register to vote in the next election; those who were asked the question were 25% more likely to vote.114 This is called the "mere measurement" effect; that is, merely by measuring an individual's intentions you can change his or her behavior.115 This research suggests the power of calling attention to our intentions. Questions are more powerful than simple will power because questions and their answers bring ideas and future states into the mind in a relatively cognitively accessible way; this ease of representation increases the likelihood that we will choose to do the thing we were asked about.116 Therefore, asking yourself whether or not you intend to take an action is one way to get closer to your end goals.



Visualize the process Recent research shows that we are more likely to start and stick to plans that are goal-oriented, situation-specific, and that involve implementation intentions ("if, then" statements).117 Furthermore, there is a difference between planning based on fantasy vs. expectations; effort and performance are positively affected by assessing the likelihood of a desired outcome, but they are negatively affected by imagining the feelings associated with the desired outcome.118 In one study, two groups of students were observed; the first group visualized the steps involved in getting an "A" on a test, while the second group simply visualized the event of getting an "A". The group that mentally simulated the process not only studied more, but they also scored an average of eight points higher on the exam.119 The more concrete our plans are, the more motivated and focused our efforts will be. By linking a desire to act with the relevant expectations, we create a motivation that is specifically tailored to the situation and the desired goal.120 With the right planning we enable ourselves to mentally simulate the goal as well as the commitments that contribute to it. The next time you face a large project, imagine all of the steps involved and think about the likelihood of success – save the celebrations for later.



Finish first, refine later Studies show that perfectionism may lead to procrastination as a (bad) coping strategy. One powerful and negative aspect associated with perfectionism is the fear of failure.121 Recent research has found that people with perfectionist tendencies will indeed delay work so as to avoid failure.122 Another study measured the levels of procrastination and perfectionism in students throughout a semester period; procrastination resulted in increases of stress and unhappiness by the end of the semester, and those with the greatest perfectionist tendencies tended to procrastinate most because of higher initial levels of stress.123 Procrastination as a coping mechanism for perfectionism creates a stressful and self-feeding cycle. To combat the stress and unhappiness that accompany procrastination, recognize that while you may not reach perfection on your first try, you can always refine your work at a later time. Ultimately, avoiding procrastination will contribute to your mental well-being and will lead to a more successful future.



Use contingent planning A planning strategy called 'if-then' planning works especially well because we are cognitively attuned to contingency planning. A growing body of psychological research shows that if our plans include specific information about when, where, and how certain actions will be performed, we are more likely to achieve our goal.124 Research shows that not only do these kinds of plans help us begin, but they also help us stay on course.125 Another recent study showed three specific positive outcomes that result from framing our plans in contingent terms: participants were more persistent, maintained a consistent level of effort across attempts regardless of failed attempts, and were more open to changes in their plan.126 This planning strategy is so strong that it can also effectively empower our attempts to set or break longstanding habits, such as smoking or eating habits. 127,128



Doing it together makes it easier Personal commitments are important for achieving our goals, but recent research has shown that making public commitments can be even more powerful. Public commitments act as strong motivators because the act of announcing our intentions creates real social standards by which others may judge our (in)actions.129 This external pressure is known as "susceptibility to normative influence".130 Group standards exert great power over individual decision-making and actions; the views of a group can make us confirm or even question our views.131 However, it is not just the public pressure; it is also the social support. In one study, the incline of a hill was judged by those walking alone and by those walking with a friend, and for those who were accompanied by a friend the hill seemed less steep than for those walking alone.132 When you make these public statements to your close companions, you make yourself vulnerable to their judgments, but you also implicitly enroll their support. With the right group, individuals can be made stronger individuals. Stikk is a great website where people can set public goals and social consequences, such as betting $100 that they will do regular physical exercise and enlisting their friends as the referees.133



How you receive information matters Our decisions are often influenced by the first piece of information we receive. The effect is so strong that even arbitrary information can impact our decisions.134 One researcher asked participants to use the final two digits of their social security number as a starting price for an array of merchandise, and then had them bid on an item in an auction; those with the highest final digits, 80-99, bid the most, while those with the lowest digits, 01-20, bid the least.135 In another study, participants were asked two questions about happiness and dating, and the order in which the questions were asked made all the difference. When the happiness question was asked first, the answers did not correlate, but when the dating question was asked first, the answers did correlate because happiness in the second question had been anchored to dating.136 Some people purposefully set anchors in order to gain advantages in advertising and negotiations; product descriptions are made to influence our impression of a product and the likelihood to purchase137 and experienced sales people know that in order to sell high they have to start high.138 Take note of the order in which you receive information and remember that where you start does not necessarily determine where you will finish.



Anecdotes do not qualify as solid data When determining frequency or the probability of some event, we often confidently rely on our impression of how easy it is to recall examples of the event. 139 This “availability bias� is very misleading because recent or sensational examples greatly influence our impression of the frequency of events. Even professionals who do forecasting for a living are subject to this bias, and it has been shown that good financial quarters lead to more optimistic predictions and vice versa.140 There are two ways to engage this bias in a constructive way. First, you can use this bias to promote positive changes in behavior within your organization; make salient examples of behavior that you would like others to base their decisions on. If you make the success of role models available and easy to recall, it is more likely that considerations of reward and success will be based on those positive work behaviors.141 Second, recognize when you are making predictions based on a feeling of "oh, there are lots of (or recent) examples of that." Even if you are convinced by your gut feeling, check yourself by thinking carefully about examples of the event not occurring. For example, before buying a lottery ticket based on a feeling that you might win, think about how many people play (regularly) without ever winning.



Trust your instinct Careful decision making is often linked to meticulous deliberation and analysis. However, recent research shows that satisfaction with complex choices goes up significantly when the choice is made without conscious deliberation.142 This is not to say that the choices that were made were objectively the most rational choices or "the best" choices;143 instead, it shows that our happiness is affected when we "let" decisions happen, rather than when we make decisions overtly. Similar research shows that the way in which complex choices are made must be sensitive to the sort of cognitive tasks involved.144 Over-thinking a decision is likely to be detrimental to choice satisfaction and performance, and that if deliberation is required, the gut feeling of "enough is enough" should be your green light to move ahead.145 However, given the controversy in the research, test yourself – when you go with your gut feeling, write it down and revisit the decision a few months later to see how well you feel you did.



Make it easy to be honest Truthfulness and sincerity come more naturally when we are reminded of our ethics. Researchers found that people are more likely to be honest if they are required to sign their name prior to entering any information on a form 146. Prior commitment removes the ability to rationalize dishonesty later. Likewise, in a more natural setting, people are less likely to litter if they are reminded to use trash cans, and this is especially true when the reminders are worded positively.147 Additionally, researchers have shown that simply making litter receptacles easier to spot leads people to throw out more of their litter.148 In another study, just the presence of a set of eyes, and thereby the implicit feeling of being monitored, led people to litter less regardless of any direct verbal prompting.149 These findings contribute to the ideas in "nudge psychology", which state that people behave better if the desired behavior is suggested for them.150 We all want to be well-behaved and sometimes we just need to be reminded.



Lead by example Experts in the field of honesty, lying, and cheating are pointing to the "Broken Window Theory" to explain why being truthful can create more honest communities.151 Minor offenses affect overall considerations and acceptance of major ones. Whether it is our intention or not, we often emulate those in our immediate surroundings. Consistently embodying certain social traits will cultivate more positive behavioral practices in social settings. If the people in our lives are consistently truthful, we will most likely act the same way, and vice versa. By taking a strong position on what behaviors you are willing to engage in, you are empowering yourself to provide positive reinforcement for those wishing to do the same. Even though the effect is not immediate, it is cumulative and it will ultimately shape your environment.



Express yourself more fluently Cognitive fluency is the feeling of ease or difficulty, and it greatly affects how we communicate. For example, if your writing is extremely fluent, you will be seen as more intelligent. In one study, the length of words in several texts was manipulated to be as long or as short as possible, and participants felt the authors of the shorter word texts were more intelligent.152 Fluency also affects how instructions are performed. One study showed that when instructions took more effort to process, people took more time to complete the task.153 Furthermore, even truthfulness of your writing will be judged by fluency. In one study, mundane statements were presented to people in a variety of colors and contrast levels, and truth judgments for the statements varied based on how easily people could read the statement.154 However, dis-fluency is not necessarily negative. One study showed that dis-fluent statements tend to be interpreted as more distant from ourselves, and in turn we tend to process that type of information in a more abstract way.155 Before you draft your next memo, consider the fluency of the content. If you need to get something done in the next two weeks, be clear and concise, and use the simplest vocabulary you can: you will be read as more intelligent, and the urgency of your goals will come across as more truthful.



Prime your mind for success Subliminal messaging remains a pop-science phenomenon, but the supposed power actually resides in an effect called priming. Recent research found that people who solved puzzles containing words related to the elderly ("grey", "old", "wrinkle", etc.) walked more slowly when leaving the experiment, even though they were not aware of the priming.156 Further research has shown that priming is even more effective when used to trigger actions that we already intend to perform. 157 While priming and subliminal messaging seem quite similar, the difference is in the degree to which people are aware of the cues given; typically, the total effect is weaker when the cues are weaker and more susceptible to distraction.158 Overall, priming in focused contexts can have great results. You can prime your mind for a productive day by looking at words or images that inspire you or promote success in your task. You might try adding action-oriented words and images printed on note cards at your desk or even listening to upbeat music. Alternatively, at the end of the day you can prime yourself for relaxation by checking the National Geographic's Photo of the Day, reading a poem, or listening to classical music. The more often you incorporate these practices into your daily routine, the more conditioned your response will be.



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