At the start of 2016, Barbara Ehrenreich published an essay in The New York Times that took aim at the science of gratitude, criticizing it for focusing solely on benefits to oneself rather than to others. “This holiday gratitude is all about you,” she writes, “and how you can feel better.”
Nearly a year later, we can see what a false dichotomy this is. In our fifth annual Top 10 Insights from the Science of a Meaningful Life list, practices that involve thinking of other people, such as keeping a gratitude journal or performing acts of kindness, were found to bring strong personal benefits, like a healthier heart or a better sex life. And practices that seem to focus on the self, such as mindfulness and self-compassion, were linked to benefits for others, whether by fostering moral behavior or making you a better parent.
Of course, we have argued since our founding in 2001 that our own individual well-being is intertwined with that of other people. Selfishness, greed, and hate may have seemed pervasive in 2016, but here we present evidence that compassion, generosity, and empathy are bedrocks of human behavior, essential to a meaningful life—and worth promoting and fighting for.
How did we come up with this list? We polled 350 researchers, asking them to name the findings from the science of a meaningful life that they considered most provocative, powerful, and influential. We looked at each of their nominations, to see how often the study had been cited since publication and what other people said about the finding. In the final stretch, our staff put the studies in the context of our 15 years of coverage, to see what jumped out at us as interesting or important. Here are our top choices.
Gratitude helps the hearts of people at risk
This was definitely not the first year in which research documented the health benefits of gratitude—that has been happening for well over a decade, as readers of Greater Good know.
But the fact of the matter is that most of those findings have relied on “self-report” measures of health: People tell researchers how they’ve been feeling, then complete some kind of gratitude-boosting activity, then report on their health again. The researchers—and the rest of us—are mostly taking their word for it.
This year, however, medical researchers at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), took gratitude research to the next level.
Their study involved people with “Stage B” heart failure—people who have developed heart disease, like an irregular heartbeat, and are at high risk for critical failure if they don’t take proper care of themselves. The UCSD research team, led by Laura S. Redwine and Paul J. Mills, brought these people into the lab, took a blood sample, and measured their heart rate.
Then roughly half of the patients were instructed to keep a “gratitude journal”—by writing down three to five things for which they felt grateful—every day for eight weeks. The other half weren’t told to keep a gratitude journal. After eight weeks, everyone returned to the lab, gave another blood sample, and had their heart rates measured before and during a five-minute gratitude journaling exercise.
Analyzing the blood samples, the researchers found that, compared with people who hadn’t kept a gratitude journal, the grateful group showed fewer biological signs that their heart disease was getting worse. Also, while their resting heart rates didn’t seem any different after the eight weeks, the gratitude group did show a healthier heart rate than the other group when writing in their gratitude journals for five minutes in the lab.
Redwine, Mills, and their colleagues emphasize that this was just a pilot study—which, full disclosure, received funding from the GGSC’s Expanding the Science and Practice of Gratitude project. They had a relatively small number of participants (58) who completed the eight-week study, and they can’t say definitively that the benefits they observed were from gratitude specifically rather than from writing in a journal in general.
But their results are noteworthy nonetheless for offering some of the most objective evidence to date suggesting the health benefits of gratitude, indicating that more research is certainly warranted to explore how gratitude might help our hearts—and the rest of our bodies.
Having self-compassion doesn’t make you lazy, weak, or selfish
Some people fear that without self-criticism, they’ll become complacent or let themselves off the hook for bad behavior. But recent studies suggest just the opposite: the practice of treating yourself with compassion and understanding leads to holding yourself to a higher standard of morality.
In a new study, participants who had displayed selfish behavior in an initial experimental task were randomly assigned to a self-compassion writing practice or a control practice (writing about a hobby). Afterwards, the participants rated how selfish they’d been in the initial task. Those induced to feel self-compassion rated their selfish behavior more harshly than those in the control group, suggesting a willingness to take moral responsibility for their actions.
The notion that self-compassion helps promote moral behavior may seem counterintuitive, but past research shows that self-compassionate people have a more stable sense of self-worth and so feel less threatened when considering their own shortcomings. This allows them to admit more readily that they’ve done something wrong and to consider making amends.
Self-compassion may also promote growth and self-improvement. In another study published in January, researchers asked participants to write about incidents from their life that elicited regret—like cheating on a loved one—from either a self-compassionate perspective, a perspective emphasizing their positive qualities, or without instruction. When questioned afterwards, those in the self-compassion group reported being more motivated to improve their behavior going forward than people in the other groups.
Why would that be? The researchers found that acceptance (not forgiveness) of one’s bad behavior seemed to be what drove the motivation to improve. “Self-compassion appears to orient people to embrace their regret, and this willingness to remain in contact with their regret may afford people the opportunity to discover avenues for personal improvement,” they write.
Humility has a dark side
A U.S. presidential election year might seem like an ironic time to consider the virtues of humility. Yet after years of neglect, the topic is now starting to receive more serious scrutiny from researchers.
This year that meant several new studies documenting humility’s health benefits—and one significant paper exploring its dark side.
A study published in January suggests that humble people enjoy better physical and mental health because stressful events don’t make them as depressed or anxious as other people. Another study published the same month, in the journal Patient Education and Counseling, found that humble doctors are more likely to have healthy patients, perhaps because they’re better at communicating with them.
But a paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology argues that humility is not always healthy.
Across five separate studies, surveying nearly 1,500 people, researchers led by Aaron C. Weidman of the University of British Columbia found that when people talk about “humility,” they may be talking about one of two distinct emotional experiences. Sometimes they’re describing what the researchers call “appreciative humility,” which usually follows some kind of personal achievement and balances feelings of pride with guilt and strong feelings of appreciation and kindness toward others.
But other times, people experience “self-abasing humility,” which usually follows a personal failure and involves feelings of shame, low self-esteem, and worthlessness, as well as submissive behavior—all strongly associated with low psychological well-being and poor health.
The authors argue that most people use the same term—“humility”—to describe these two very different experiences, yet researchers have generally only focused on the positive side and ignored its “darker, more negative, or problematic side.” So while previous research characterizes humility as a worthy and desirable goal, Weidman and his colleagues suggest that precisely how people are humble may determine how good it is for them.
“We hope that the present findings will spark future research into the causes, consequences, and dynamics of both sides of this complex emotional experience,” they write.
Different types of meditation have different benefits
“Mindfulness” is a broad concept that can be cultivated in many ways. Which ones are best for you, given your personality and the problems you face?
A German study recruited novice meditators to participate in a nine-month mindfulness training. They learned four different types of meditation: breathing meditation, body scan, loving-kindness meditation, and observing-thought meditation.
In the end, the researchers found some common benefits: During every type of meditation, participants reported feeling more positive emotions, more energetic, more focused on the present, and less distracted by thoughts than they did before beginning—perhaps thanks to the attention training that’s common to all meditation. But that’s where the similarities ended.
During body scan, participants saw the biggest increases in how aware they were of their bodies (unsurprisingly) and the sharpest decline in the number of thoughts they were having, particularly negative thoughts and thoughts related to the past and future. Loving-kindness meditation led to the greatest boost in their feelings of warmth and positive thoughts about others. Meanwhile, the observing-thought meditation seemed to increase participants’ awareness of their thoughts the most.
“The type of meditation matters,” explain postdoctoral researcher Bethany Kok and professor Tania Singer. “Each practice appears to create a distinct mental environment, the long-term consequences of which are only beginning to be explored.”
Thanks to this new direction in mindfulness research, we’ll be better equipped to choose the practice that’s right for us.
Mindfulness can make you a better parent
Hundreds of studies have found that mindfulness can improve individual well-being. This year, a wave of papers suggested that mindfulness may also help improve the well-being of others in our lives—in particular, our children.
In one study, University of Vermont researchers found that mindful parents engaged in more positive, and less negative, parenting behavior, which was linked to less anxiety and depression in the kids.
While this study suggests that mindful parenting is related to positive outcomes, it’s hard to know why. George Mason University researchers tried to investigate this relationship directly in another study, by bringing parents and kids into the lab to look at their real-time interactions.
They found that parents higher in mindful parenting demonstrated less negative emotion and more shared positive emotion with their children in the conversations than those lower in mindful parenting. In turn, sharing more positive emotion was associated with decreased drug use for the children (though not decreased sexual behavior).
Yet another study promises to take this research to the next level by combining classes for both preteens and parents with brain scans of the parents and reports from their children on how mom or dad were doing.
Eighteen parent-and-child pairs attended an eight-week Mindful Families Stress Reduction Course. Before and after the course, the researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to look at the neural activity in the parents’ brains while they practiced mindful breathing and during a period when they were asked to let their minds wander.
Overall, parents reported decreased stress and increased mindfulness after completing the course. And there was a relationship between the two—parents who increased the most on measures of mindfulness showed the largest decreases in stress. When Lisa May and colleagues compared the brain activity patterns in the parents during the breathing task and the mind wandering task, they saw that the mindfulness activity led to more activation in brain regions known to be involved in attention—consistent with previous results looking at the effect of mindfulness on the brain. And, in fact, the kids felt like their parents were paying more attention to them.
But perhaps the most intriguing finding in this preliminary study was that parents who had the most activation in a part of the brain involved in empathy and emotional regulation (the left anterior insula/inferior frontal gyrus) had children who perceived the greatest improvement in their parent-child relationship. While only a pilot, this study opens to the door to a new way of understanding the impact of mindfulness on our relationships.
Teachers can reduce suspensions by practicing empathy
Many schools today have zero-tolerance policies for student misbehavior, resulting in high suspension rates. But rather than guiding students toward success, suspensions cause them to fall behind in their coursework and tend to widen achievement gaps. A study published in May suggests that showing empathy may be a better approach to student discipline.
Groups of middle school teachers received training on why some students misbehave—often because of stressors outside of school—and how to respond empathically rather than punitively. This could involve actions as simple as asking misbehaving students open-ended questions, like, “What’s happening with you right now?” rather than “What’s wrong with you?”—and then listening carefully to their responses.
In comparison to students whose teachers received training on using technology to improve learning, students of teachers who participated in the empathy training were half as likely to be suspended, regardless of race, gender, or previous suspensions. In addition, while students who have been suspended before usually feel less respected by teachers than other students, this wasn’t the case when teachers trained in empathy.
These results dovetail well with past research showing the benefits of teacher empathy on improving student learning while reducing teacher burnout, and its potential role in minimizing bias that might otherwise lead to over-suspensions of minority students.
A “growth mindset” might help teens foster peace in the world and in themselves
Decades of research on the “growth mindset”—the belief that our abilities are not set in stone but rather can be improved with dedication and hard work—has suggested that this way of thinking can foster academic achievement, professional success, empathy, and more.
This year, though, a study linked the growth mindset to perhaps its greatest benefit yet: world peace.
The paper, published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, involved one group of teenagers from a Palestinian-Israeli school and another from a Jewish-Israeli school. Some students within each group attended growth-mindset workshops on how individuals and groups are able to change; others were taught strategies for coping with stress, such as meditation.
After attending three workshops, all of the students were brought together and divided into smaller teams that mixed Palestinians with Jews. Some teams were composed entirely of students who had attended the growth-mindset workshops; the rest of the teams included only students who had learned the coping strategies. All teams had to complete a series of tasks that required cooperation.
The students who had learned about people’s and groups’ general ability to change performed significantly better on the cooperation tasks; they also felt more positive emotions toward members of the other ethnicity.
The researchers believe their findings have wide applicability. They argue that by influencing people’s beliefs about the nature of groups in general, rather than targeting their beliefs about a specific conflict or opponent, we may be able to improve relationships even between groups stuck in seemingly intractable conflicts, like Israelis and Palestinians.
A separate study this year attests to the power of the growth mindset to foster inner peace among teens. When high school students learned that getting socially excluded doesn’t mean they have an inherent personal defect, they seemed significantly less tense and frazzled—based on their physiological responses—when placed in a socially stressful situation.
Taken together, these findings suggest that the growth mindset can help us achieve more than just good grades and ambitious career goals. It may also help us build a world where people treat others—and themselves—with more understanding and compassion.
To be happier, prioritize your time over your money
In day-to-day life, we often face choices that pit money against time: to cook or order takeout, to walk or take the bus. While a decade of research has examined whether and how money can buy happiness on its own, researchers are now starting to explore how the tradeoffs we make between time and money affect our well-being.
“Time and money serve as people’s two most precious resources,” write the University of Pennsylvania’s Cassie Mogilner and Harvard Business School’s Michael Norton in an August research review. “Both are scarce (sometimes painfully so), and both can be saved, budgeted, wasted, or spent in the pursuit of life’s necessities and joys.”
In a study published in January, researchers found that people who valued time more than money—who indicated that they would sacrifice money to save time, and that they’d prefer to work fewer hours and earn less—tended to have higher well-being: greater life satisfaction, higher positive emotion, and lower negative emotion.
Why might this be the case? Previous research has found that inducing people to focus on time rather than money leads them to spend more time socializing and less time working, and be more willing to give to charity—activities that have been associated with well-being.
“Drawing attention to time seems to nudge people to view their life as finite, which encourages them to act in ways they can be happy with when reflecting on who they are,” write Mogilner and Norton.
Future research will undoubtedly explore the nuances of this relationship—when, exactly, it helps to focus on money and for which types of people. But in the meantime, for those of us who are lucky enough to have the choice, we might consider saving hours rather than dollars.
Masculinity might hurt men’s mental health
Man up. Grow a pair. Don’t be a wuss.
Could trying to live up to these platitudes fuel depression, anxiety, and other kinds of mental illness in boys and men? A wave of studies this year suggests that the answer can often be “yes”—but a lot depends on which masculine ideals you embrace.
In a paper published in November, an international team of researchers led by Y. Joel Wong searched for scientific studies that surveyed men about their belief in various masculine norms, such emotional control, self-reliance, power over women, and disdain for homosexuals.
Their meta-analysis of 74 studies—the first of its kind to look at men and mental health—confirmed previous research suggesting that a strong commitment to these kinds of masculine norms, overall, is associated with mental-health problems, and that many of these problems seem to spring from social difficulties.
But not all these masculine norms had the same link to poor mental health. The drive to succeed at work and risk-taking seemed to be good for some men. The norms that encourage men to cut themselves off from others, or feel hostile to women and gay men, seemed to hurt the most.
This wasn’t the only study to appear this year that found masculine norms can be bad for men. Many other studies found strong correlations between masculine norms and unhealthy activities like heavy drinking, barroom brawling, and refusing to use condoms.
But other research this year offered some grounds for hope. One study of male rats found that mild levels of stress drove increased bonding between them, elevating oxytocin levels, which in turn improved their well-being. While human males are not rats, obviously, this line of research does have implications for understanding the impact of stress on human bodies—and possible treatments.
Researchers and clinicians are also using this kind of research to craft mental-health and anti-violence programs that will appeal to men. Wong and his colleagues argue that their work suggests we shouldn’t pathologize men as “workaholics” or “adrenaline junkies” when work and risk-taking are so central to male identity. At the same time, we can still target, with greater precision, masculine norms that stand in the way of connecting with others.
Giving is good for your love life
Do nice guys finish last when it comes to sex and love? No, conclude two studies published this year.
A paper published in January asked over 200 straight women to look at photographs that showed the faces of two men—one handsome, the other much less so. The images were accompanied by scenarios that described situations where altruism—or its absence—played a key role.
“Individuals who displayed high levels of altruism were rated significantly more desirable overall,” the researchers write. While the self-absorbed guys were viewed as more attractive candidates for a one-night stand, altruistic guys were rated as “more desirable for long-term relationships.”
Then a Canadian paper published in September by the British Journal of Psychology found that altruism could “translate into real mating success.” In the first part of the study, 192 unmarried women and 105 unmarried men filled out a detailed questionnaire that included their sexual histories, current sexual activity, and altruistic activities. They indicated the accuracy of such statements as “I have helped push a stranger’s car out of the snow” and “I have donated blood.”
Even after controlling for age and personality, men who regularly acted in altruistic ways reported more lifetime sex partners and more casual hookups. Okay, but were the male participants’ self-reports an accurate gauge of their actual altruism? The second part of the study addressed that issue by informing participants that they had been entered into a $100 drawing—and then asked if they planned to keep the money or donate it to charity.
“Participants who were willing to donate potential monetary winnings reported having more lifetime sex partners, more casual sex partners, and more sex partners over the past year,” the researchers report. “Men who were willing to donate also reported having more lifetime dating partners.”
So why is selflessness sexy? The researchers argue that altruistic behavior is what biologists call a “costly signal” — an activity that requires some exertion, but also advertises one’s attractive qualities to potential mates. And from an evolutionary standpoint, this makes sense: A behavior that helps sustain a positive social environment would, over the course of natural selection, get rewarded.