What is the path to a happier life and a more compassionate society? We tend to prefer strategies that seem straightforward: To be healthier, we eat healthier; to fight apathy, we urge others to join us in getting involved.
But sometimes the way to individual and community well-being isn’t so direct. This year’s insights suggest just how circuitous it can be, illuminating how keys to well-being like gratitude, awe, and forgiveness can have surprising benefits—in seemingly unrelated areas of life—that we might not have expected. Change one thing in your life, and inevitably something else will shift.
These insights go to show how complex and interconnected our attitudes and behaviors are, within ourselves and our relationships. They also remind us that, sometimes, we just need to see it all as a journey, having a little patience as we work toward good things.
The final insights were selected by experts on our staff, after soliciting nominations from our network of more than 300 researchers. We hope they offer you some motivation and tools to keep pursuing a meaningful life for yourself and your community.
Happy people are more willing to tackle social problems
The quest for happiness has often been seen as self-absorbed. But new research published in The Journal of Positive Psychology disputes that narrative. It turns out that happier people may care more about contributing to important causes and have more energy for doing so.
In one experiment, researchers recruited University of Virginia students after the violent Unite the Right rallies in 2017. After measuring the students’ happiness and level of concern about the rallies, the researchers offered them a chance to sign up for an on-campus group fighting racism. Those who reported being happier showed more concern about the rallies and were more willing to sign up to fight racism going forward.
“There’s a naïve belief out there that maybe we shouldn’t be focused on making people happier or increasing their well-being because they won’t be motivated to do anything,” says lead researcher Kostadin Kushlev. “But our findings suggest the opposite: Being happier links to more action, not less.”
To confirm this, Kushlev and colleagues studied more diverse participants in two other experiments. In one, participants chose their own social concern, such as climate change, and then reported on how active they’d been or planned to be in addressing it. In another, the researchers used surveys to compare how people in the U.S. rated their happiness, concern for the environment, and efforts to protect the environment—through past activity or potential future sacrifices, like a willingness to pay higher taxes.
In both cases, happier people were more likely than unhappier ones to have done something in the past and to intend to do something again in the future. In other words, they were more socially involved.
These findings counter the prevailing wisdom (and some science) that suggests negative emotions are what drive social action. Instead, being happy may give us the fuel we need to do good in the world.
In the long run, diversity wins
Is diversity too politically difficult and socially disruptive, as many argue? Does social trust and cohesion depend on ethnic and religious homogeneity?
New research provides some reason to think that humans may not be as averse to diversity as we think, at least not over time. A team of researchers used 22 years of data, drawn from over 100 countries, to look at how people react to growing religious diversity in their societies.
They found that, at first, diversity does indeed tend to cause problems—people report lower quality of life and less trust in neighbors, strangers, and institutions. “In the short run, when diversity suddenly increases very rapidly, there is a loss of trust,” says Douglas Massey, a Yale psychologist who coauthored the study. “People don’t know anything about the new people in society. They haven’t had any experience with them, they haven’t had any contact with them.”
Over time, however, things start to shift in the positive direction. “We’re talking about ten, twelve years, maybe,” says Massey. “People come into contact with the newcomers and they come to appreciate them as human beings rather than a category of strangers.”
Massey stresses that while it appears that societies tend to accept diversity over time, that does not mean that the process simply happens on auto-pilot. The outcomes are heavily dependent on leadership. Leaders who frame outsiders as scary and act to isolate or exclude them are simply prolonging the short-term stresses of diversity while delaying the benefits, says Massey, citing classic intergroup contact theory.
What this research shows is that virtually every place on the planet comes to accept religious diversity over time—and, we might hope, other types of diversity, as well. In fact, this result echoes studies in psychology and neuroscience showing that people’s brains do gradually get used to diversity. “It tells a different kind of story than the one a lot of people are putting forward,” says Massey. The only question is how long it takes—and who will take on the work of making it happen.
Awe changes our brains for the better
When experiencing the emotion of awe, people often feel less focused on themselves and more connected to the greater world. But what makes awe so transporting and transcendent?
A recent study published in the journal Human Brain Mapping offered a peek into the captivating nature of awe by examining people’s brains while they were feeling it.
The University of Amsterdam’s Michiel van Elk and his colleagues used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to scan the brains of 32 people while they watched three different types of videos: awe-inspiring natural phenomena, funny animals, and neutral landscapes.
The researchers compared brain activity when participants were passively watching the clips—when their minds could wander—versus when they had a focused task to perform while watching (counting perspective changes in the clips).
For the funny and neutral videos, watching passively increased activity in regions of the default mode network (DMN)—a brain system that is particularly active when our minds wander or when we think about ourselves—compared to watching while counting perspective changes. However, watching the awe videos passively did not increase DMN activation as much.
This finding suggests that participants may have been extra engaged while watching the awe videos—even when they didn’t have a task to do—and thus their minds were less likely to wander and start thinking about themselves. Awe’s ability to dampen DMN activity may be key to giving us that sense of transcending our everyday problems and stress.
This study also found that counting perspective changes while watching the awe videos increased activity in areas of the fronto-parietal network—a brain network thought to be involved in externally directed attention—more than the other types of videos. This finding may help explain how awe draws us out of our self-focus and engages us more with the external world.
What does this mean for you? If you feel a need to get out of your head, go take in that vista, concert, or whatever helps you find your awe—it just might help.
Treating yourself gets old fast—but giving to others doesn’t
One of the challenges we face in the pursuit of happiness is how quickly we adapt to the good things in life, something psychologists call hedonic adaptation. It’s why going to your favorite restaurant every day would be exciting at first, but would soon become routine—even boring—over time.
However, a study published in Psychological Science suggests that all activities are not created equal when it comes to hedonic adaptation. Compared to treating ourselves, doing something kind for others may give us more enduring satisfaction.
In the study, researchers Ed O’Brien and Samantha Kassirer gave 96 participants $25 to spend over the course of five days. About half of the participants were asked to spend the money on themselves, while the other half were told to spend it on someone else—buying whatever they wanted, as long as it was the exact same thing each day.
People who spent the money on themselves declined in happiness over the five days of the study—a result in line with hedonic adaptation. However, for participants who spent money on others, happiness remained high throughout the study.
In a second experiment, the researchers found a similar pattern: When participants repeatedly won an online game, the enjoyment they derived from winning decreased more slowly if they were told their winnings went to charity (compared to participants who were able to keep their winnings).
As the authors explain, “Happiness from giving appears to sustain itself.” We’re less likely to get used to it or take it for granted.
This makes sense in the context of our evolutionary history, where working cooperatively was crucial. O’Brien and Kassirer suggest that being repeatedly helpful and kind could have improved our ancestors’ reputations and their chances of survival. Fast forward to today, and we seem to get a wide range of benefits from helping others, from a greater sense of purpose and meaning to better physical health.
Of course, this research doesn’t imply that we should never treat ourselves—just that treating ourselves gets old faster. The optimal approach for well-being, simple and yet so complex, may be to find the right mix of self-care and caring for others.
Practicing loving-kindness slows aging
Globally, anti-aging products are expected to rake in over $330 billion by 2021. But a recent study suggests a cheaper way to stave off senescence: a contemplative practice called loving-kindness meditation (LKM) that “aims to cultivate warm-hearted positive emotions toward oneself and others.”
A team led by University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill psychologist Barbara Fredrickson randomly assigned 142 midlife adults to participate in either a six-week LKM training or a mindfulness meditation (MM) training. There was also a group on a waiting list who served as the control. The researchers obtained blood samples from all participants prior to the trainings and again after the trainings ended—specifically to measure telomeres.
Telomeres are DNA-protein complexes inside every cell that protect it against daily wear and tear; over the lifespan, telomeres get progressively shorter. The shorter your telomeres get, the sooner your likelihood of dying. The good news, however, is that certain behaviors and lifestyle choices can either slow their shrinkage or even make them longer.
In this experiment, the researchers observed that telomeres shortened across all participants over the course of the training, which is a typical pattern of change over time. Further analysis suggested that while telomere length shortened in both the control and MM groups (less so in the MM group), it did not systematically shorten in the LKM group at all. Practicing loving-kindness meditation appeared to have slowed people’s aging just a bit.
The researchers note that there are limits to this study. The participants were interested in and willing to try meditation; it may not have the same impact on someone who isn’t. Telomere length variations could have been affected by events and circumstances unrelated to the trainings. Even so, these results contribute to the solid case that strengthening our kindness and social connection can fuel good mental and physical health and, yes, keep us youthful.
Your partner’s emotional health could affect your longevity
Romantic partners are interconnected—and research is starting to show just how deep this connection goes. According to two studies published this year, your spouse’s happiness could have an impact on your physical health.
Olga Stavrova of Tilburg University in the Netherlands analyzed data on over 4,300 couples to understand the relationship between a spouse’s life satisfaction at one point in time and their partner’s survival over the eight years that followed. Her findings were pretty remarkable. When a person’s partner was significantly happier, that person had a 13 percent lower chance of dying within the eight-year period. This was true regardless of the person’s age, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, or health when their partner’s happiness was measured.
As expected, a person’s own happiness was also tied to their mortality. But, based on her analyses, having a happy partner was even more protective—it may be what keeps us alive longer.
Hers isn’t the only study published this year to deal with how our spouses’ emotions affect our lifespan. An international team of researchers arrived at a similar insight by analyzing over 1,200 U.S. adults over the course of two decades. While they didn’t find any longevity benefits from day-to-day good feelings in a partner, they did find that a lot of negative feelings in a spouse seemed to shorten the other person’s life.
While these two studies are quite different, they both suggest that our physical health can be tied to our spouses’ emotional health. Why? Scientists don’t yet know. Perhaps a happier partner tends to exercise more, which encourages the other to exercise. Or maybe happier people eat better food. It could be that constantly confronting a partner’s negative emotions causes stress, which erodes physical health over time. It’s hard to know for sure. But these two studies suggest that if we want to live longer, we might want to focus on not just our own well-being, but that of our partner, too.
People who are more forgiving sleep better
If you have trouble falling asleep, you may have tried counting sheep or listening to a bedtime meditation. But according to one study, there’s another practice you could consider instead: forgiveness.
Researchers asked over 1,400 American adults to rate themselves on how likely they were to forgive themselves for the things they did wrong and forgive others for hurting them. The participants also answered survey questions about their sleep quality over the past month, their current health, and their satisfaction with life.
The results suggested that people who were more forgiving were more likely to sleep better and for longer, and in turn have better physical health. They were also more satisfied with life.
Forgiveness of self and others “may help individuals leave the past day’s regrets and offenses in the past and offer an important buffer between the events of the waking day and the onset and maintenance of sound sleep,” wrote the researchers, led by Luther College professor Loren Toussaint.
When we don’t forgive, we tend to linger on unpleasant thoughts and feelings, such as anger, blame, and regret. This can involve painful rumination—focused attention and repetitive thoughts about our distress. Ultimately, this study suggests, the resentment or bitterness we are harboring could be detracting from our sleep quality and our well-being.
While we know sleep is important for overall health, this study offers a new perspective on forgiveness as a key factor in achieving healthy sleep. It also helps explain the findings from two research reviews this year, which found that more forgiving people are healthier.
If you’re holding onto a grudge, forgiveness could be one constructive practice to try—whether in the name of better sleep, better health, or its many other benefits.
Kids who engage in the arts feel better about themselves
When children reach middle school, they tend to lose self-esteem and feel unworthy as they start to compare themselves more with others—and new technology isn’t helping. But parents and educators should take note: A new study in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences suggests that participating in the arts might bolster kids’ self-esteem.
The researchers interviewed over 6,000 11 year olds from the U.K. The kids reported on their self-esteem, as well as how often they listened to or played music; drew, painted, or made things; and read for enjoyment at home. They also noted whether their parents joined them in these hobbies.
“Children who participated in arts activities most days were significantly more likely to have higher levels of self-esteem than those who participated less often,” the researchers report. They determined this using a special statistical method: Children were each matched with another child with similar demographics—gender, ethnicity, and parental education and employment—so that the results could be attributed not to those factors, but to the difference in their creative pursuits.
For reading, as well as for music, this boost in self-esteem was limited to kids whose parents got involved with them at least once or twice a week. Kids who did more painting and drawing, however, felt better about themselves whether their parents were involved or not. Importantly, it didn’t matter whether kids were actually good at art or music.
The researchers suggest a few explanations for their findings. Creating art might make us feel unique and accomplished, encouraging us to pursue other goals, too. At the same time, it could also bond us together with others, like when we sing in a choir.
Other research has found that creative activities can improve learning—particularly among low-income youth—and boost cognitive development. At a time when arts funding is up for debate, it’s increasingly clear that some of the best tools we can provide our children may be paintbrushes and pianos.
Feeling grateful makes us more honest
Gratitude is the feeling of enjoying something good that has come from another person’s efforts, and research suggests that it leads to lower blood pressure, better coping, stronger relationships, and more. This year, Northeastern University social psychologist David DeSteno added another item to gratitude’s long list of benefits: honesty.
In an initial study, DeSteno’s team split participants into three different groups. In one group, a researcher secretly pretending to be a participant rescued participants from having to start over on a super-tedious computerized task that they had already finished. In the second and third groups, participants never had to worry about starting over. Indeed, when they were done with the boring task, they got to watch either a funny or a mundane film clip with the faux participant. Then the researchers surveyed all the real participants to see how they felt about the pretend participant—looking specifically for feelings of gratitude.
In the next step, the researchers led all the real participants into separate, private cubicles where a “randomizer button” would decide what they had to do next in the study: either a brief, fun task or a longer, more onerous one. The pretend participant would be assigned to whichever task the real participant did not do. In reality, the button was rigged to always land on the longer, more onerous task—but it was up to participants to report this result to researchers.
What happened? While some of the film clip watchers lied to save themselves from the onerous task, only one of the participants who felt grateful for being helped lied. Even if the clips made them happy, the film clip watchers were considerably more likely to cheat.
A second experiment used slightly different methods but obtained similar results: Participants who had been made to feel grateful were much more likely to be honest about the results of a coin flip. In fact, the more grateful participants reported feeling, the less likely they were to cheat.
As DeSteno writes, “Gratitude stands as a promising candidate for an honesty ‘nudge’ of sorts.”
Seeing goals as a journey makes you more likely to stick to them
The path to well-being is often paved with goals. Some of those goals have clear finish lines—lose 10 pounds; make a new friend. But finish lines also feel like endings. Once we pass them, we might be less motivated to keep up the habits that got us there in the first place, so we end up regressing.
A new study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found a way to keep people engaged in their goals even after the pride of triumph had worn off. Across six different experiments, Szu-Chi Huang and Jennifer Aaker from the Stanford Graduate School of Business studied over 1,600 people with a variety of aspirations, from restricting their calories to walking more steps to graduating from school. Many of the participants were U.S. college students and staff; others were businesspeople in Ghana.
After everyone completed their goals, the researchers divided them into three groups. One group was asked to reflect on their experience as a journey, a second group thought about their goal as reaching a destination, and a third didn’t hear these metaphors at all. All the participants then journaled about their goal or talked about it with an interviewer.
Ultimately, the researchers found that thinking about goals as a journey can help us maintain good habits even after we’ve reached our target. The journey groups were more likely to take immediate actions to stay on track, like signing up for an exercise program or doing reading that would further their education. When the researchers checked in with them days or months later, they had stuck with their habits better than the other two groups.
Additional analyses found that the journey metaphor gave people a greater sense of personal growth, a feeling of changing and learning over the course of the experience. It was that feeling, in turn, that explained why they stuck to their new habits. Lots of research suggests how we can achieve our goals, like setting up the right environment. This new study offers advice for a time when we may not realize we need it: after we succeed.