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Hugging Yourself Can Reduce Pain


Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist at Stanford University, recently wrote about a study that suggests we can reduce physical pain by hugging ourselves.

The study included 20 participants who willingly received small pulses of pain by an infrared laser. The researchers found that during trials when participants had their arms crossed in front of them they reported less pain. Each participant was also hooked up to an EEG, in which brain scans showed smaller spikes of brain activity during those same trials.

Neuroscientist Giandomenico Iannetti from University College London suspects that when we cross our arms in front of ourselves this confuses the brain when processing tactile stimuli. In a way, it redirects our attention from the source of pain to this other tactile overload, which can often help reduce pain. It’s similar to when you pinch yourself in order to distract yourself from another long-lasting and irritating sensation somewhere else in the body. Of course, the lift is usually very temporary, but it does work.

Kelly McGonigal mentions in her article how she prefers the crossed arms position because it mimics the act of giving yourself a hug and expressing self-compassion. That makes me wonder if the intention of giving oneself a hug would lead to even greater reductions in pain. I’d also like to see future research testing to see how this generalizes to psychological pain as well.

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Toxic Happiness: The Downsides of Too Much Joy

Rarely in life are things just “black” vs. “white” or “good” vs. “bad” – but instead different shades of grey.

In my post Depression: The Yin of Happiness, I describe how depressive states aren’t all bad. They can sometimes motivate us to reevaluate our lives and solve personal problems. So in many ways a period of depression can actually guide us to be more happy in the long-term.

The key idea is that while depression may usually be seen as solely “bad” or “negative,” it can actually serve a positive function, especially if our depression is triggered by events that we have control over.

On the other end, while depression can sometimes lead to more happiness, too much happiness can also sometimes lead to more depression.

A recent study by psychologists at Yale University has identified several downsides to “too much” happiness. Here are the main pitfalls they’ve found:

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Feel Free To Disagree

“The greatest threat to freedom is the absence of criticism.”

Wole Soyinka

I have a nasty (yet often rewarding) habit of finding ways to critique nearly everything. Sometimes it really irritates people. They think I’m trying to show off or I’m being pedantic, but I just like progress. One time while critiquing a friend’s opinion he replied, “Steve, you can poke a hole in anything.” I don’t think he meant it as a compliment, but I took it as one anyway.

While it’s not always appropriate to show criticism, sometimes it can spark very healthy discussion. That’s usually my goal. I don’t aim to piss people off, but some people will always find a way to take disagreements personally.

On the other hand, I encourage disagreements. I see them as an expression of our diversity as a species. We all have different viewpoints, different knowledge, and different values, so not only is disagreement inevitable, but it helps us to better understand others, as well as better understand ourselves. Being able to tolerate these differences is a huge mark of maturity and intelligence.

That’s why I encourage readers of this blog to feel free to disagree with me. I know I’m not perfect and I know others have different values than me, so I always appreciate it when people share their thoughts in the comment section or on my Facebook and Twitter. It helps me learn new things and see from alternative viewpoints.

As the quote on the top of this page suggests, being able to disagree is a part of your right to freedom of speech and thought. It’s what makes democracies and free societies work. If we all conformed to the norm, nothing could be improved. We would all just settle for the status quo. But upstanding individuals like Martin Luther King Jr, Gandhi, and Thomas Jefferson didn’t settle for the status quo. They exercised their freedom to disagree even when they were the underdogs. And much of the social progress we take for granted today is a result of that kind of bravery; the kind of bravery that doesn’t succumb to social norms or tradition, but pushes the envelope and later emerges into a new standard of living.

I don’t know about you guys, but sometimes I even get suspicious when someone is always in full agreement with me. I guess I find it hard to believe. They may be just trying to please me, but I’d rather they let their personalities shine through more. We shouldn’t be ashamed to hide our differences, as often they are a sign that both parties have something to learn from each other.

So I’m going to keep this message real short: you have your own mind, with your own thoughts, and your own beliefs and values. Use it! Be willing to express it and also be willing to let others express their beliefs. If you find yourself struggling with taking criticism or others disagreeing with you, try some of these tips on how to take criticism.


You Have To Be Happy Before You Can Make Someone Else Happy

make someone else happy

I repeat this phrase a lot to my friends: you have to be happy before you can make someone else happy.

So often I hear of people unsuccessfully trying to make someone else happy. They give and give and give, but nothing seems to work. They actually believe that the more they sacrifice, the more it shows they care, even though it couldn’t be further from the truth.

You can give all you want, but you can’t give something that you don’t already have. If you haven’t achieved happiness for yourself, then how could you possibly help someone else achieve their happiness? It’s impossible. You may be able to provide some short-term pleasure, but you can’t teach someone something that you have no understanding of.

When it comes to first achieving happiness for yourself, I’m reminded of the lecture they often give on airplanes about oxygen masks. They always tell you that in times of emergency you should put your oxygen mask on first, then help your neighbors put on their masks. The reasoning is simple: if you don’t put on your oxygen mask first, you suffer a greater likelihood of dying; and you can’t help anyone once you’re dead.

In the same way, you can’t make someone happy if you’re depressed. You have to take care of yourself first before taking care of others. Anything else is a recipe for disaster for the both of you.

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You Create Your Own Meaning In Life

“The least of things with a meaning is worth more in life than the greatest of things without it.”

Carl Jung

Positive psychologists often emphasize the importance of meaning when creating a fulfilling life. In Martin Seligman’s new book “Flourish,” meaning is one of the 5 components of his new theory on happiness, now abbreviated as “PERMA” – which stands for Positive Emotion, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, and Achievements. But as I mentioned in an earlier post on PERMA, one does not need all five components to live a satisfying life. Those who lack positive emotion can make up for it by finding meaning in their life circumstances, whatever they may be.

Of course, positive psychology wasn’t the first to emphasize the importance of meaning in living a satisfying life. Probably ever since human’s first became self-aware, they have asked themselves deep and profound questions about their life’s meaning and purpose. It is a struggle that we all seem to face, but some of us deal with it better than others. The existentialist psychologist Viktor Frankl wrote in his book “Man’s Search for Meaning” how even under the harshest conditions we can find meaning in our suffering, and live with dignity and satisfaction. When Frankl was put into a concentration camp during the Holocaust, he used to give lectures to an imaginary audience. In this way, Frankl learned to cope with his suffering by using his imagination to create a more meaningful existence to his life. He believed that by playing out his imagination objectively, he could find a deeper sense of purpose. He did.

I believe we should all exercise this capacity to some extent, and I believe imagination and creativity play a huge role. The human mind is gifted with this incredibly ability to restructure the way it views reality and experience. And as Frankl demonstrates, we can take truly awful circumstances in our life and transform them into something positive for ourselves.

I found this same theme to be very prevalent in the film Tideland by Terry Gilliam. The main character is a little girl who is incredibly lonely and lives with a very negligent father (played by Jeff Bridges). In some scenes, the little girl actually helps her father shoot up massive amounts of heroin, after which the father passes out for extended periods of time. In the girl’s fit of loneliness and desperation, she goes outside and her imagination takes over. She carries around the heads of three dolls, who all have their own personalities, and together they go on all kinds of adventures. Objectively, the life of this girl is harsh and miserable. But inside her head, she finds a way to get by.

Apparently most people who saw the film found it incredibly depressing (which is understandable) but the director Gilliam emphasizes that we often underestimate just how resilient the human mind is (especially when it is accompanied by a child-like imagination).

Of course, the examples presented by Frankl and Gilliam are extreme cases. But we all go through some kind of suffering, and by creating a new layer of meaning we can find ways to overcome this suffering.

When creating this meaning we don’t need to be as dreamy (or “delusional”) as the little girl in Tideland. Often creating meaning in one’s life is as simple as writing poetry, composing a song, dancing, or painting a picture. We shouldn’t constantly live in some imaginary existence, but using our imagination in some way can be incredibly healthy and emotionally relieving. A healthy imagination, in my honest opinion, is a crucial component to mental health and living a meaningful life.

I believe that when we participate in art or other creative activities, we simultaneously change the way we think about ourselves and our world. We begin to recognize that we are participators in this game of life. Life is not just something that happens to us, but something that we also create for ourselves. And by engaging in art and creativity, we feel more capable in taking control of our thoughts, emotions, actions, and life in general. Being creative empowers us.

Interestingly, there is some empirical evidence that shows a relationship between mental illness and creativity. Perhaps some of this is due to the unconventional thinking of those with mental illness. But I also think creativity is a natural coping mechanism. If people with mental illness are more likely to suffer than those without mental illness, art and creativity is something that the mentally ill would be naturally drawn to in order to manage their condition.

But, in truth, I think most of us are naturally drawn to some form of creativity. There may even be a hunger for it, and when that hunger isn’t satisfied I think our lives become drastically less meaningful and less satisfying.

The moral of this post is to embrace your ability to create new meaning in your life. And in my opinion art is one of the absolute best ways to do this. If you don’t already have a creative hobby, I suggest starting one. Don’t have the time? Make room for it, especially if you are in need of an emotional boost.

I personally engage in creative ways by posting on this blog, taking photographs, writing scripts for movies, and composing songs on my computer. I can’t imagine how much less fulfilling my life would be without hobbies like this. They make a big difference, they help me love life more.

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