Monday, September 14, 2009

Forget swine flu - this is something you actually want to catch...

Like many others, psychology and trying to figure out why people do what they do fascinates me. I devoured Malcolm Gladwell's "The Tipping Point;" a lot of his points and case studies made an enormous amount of sense to me.

That book is referenced in a New York Times magazine article which discusses a recent theory that happiness is contagious. Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler are the two social scientists behind a study which looked at the interconnectedness of people and how those links affected their behaviors in terms of obesity, smoking, mood, etc. They discovered people's behaviors can affect up to three others - people you may not associate as close friends.

One finding that caught my eye was better-connected people (ones who are connected to a lot of people with varying degrees of closeness) are actually happier than people with small, tight-knit clusters of friends. The idea being with lots of exposure to happ(ier) people, you become happier.

The Sydney Morning Herald takes a slightly different approach to cultivating happiness. The paper cites findings from several different researchers who, prompted by the recent rise in depression in the West, have looked into what makes people happy. Experts suggest the usual nuggets like being positive and kind to yourself, but a couple tips surprised me.

Daniel Gilbert, from Harvard University, says to be brave. Gilbert believes people rationalize an excess of courage more easily than an excess of cowardice, so it is better to risk it than sit idly by. Failing brings out our self-defense mechanism of saying "at least I learned X." That can promote a positive slant to the experience. And Julie Noreem of Wellesley College urges citizens to put their pessimism to work. She theorizes those who expect the worse and think out all the possible ways things can go wrong actually help themselves realize goals because they have thought of all the contingency plans needed for the situation.

When all else fails, break out the stress-busters. When I was in college, it was coloring books and crayons. There was something very soothing about using pretty colors in an ordered design. When I worked in a job that constantly thrust new, unexpected and usually unpleasant obstacles and issues at me, it was baking. The precision in amounts of ingredients needed and the strict order of recipe steps helped me regain control of something. Now it's reading. For me, there is nothing like having all my problems put on hold while I travel into someone else's world for a bit.

For Bob Wire, a presumably very self-possessed Colorado man, it's crocheting. Looking for an outlet for his stress which was also creative, constructive and not too complicated, Wire stumbled into a new yarn shop in his town and was swept into crocheting. His project choices - guitar case, cowboy hat band - definitely reflect his gender, but if it works for him, good on him. Because, in the end, being happy - even fleetingly - is the goal, no?

(Photo courtesy of The Quaker Agitator)

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