Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Do Parks Make People Happier?

I have been lucky enough to live in Austin, Texas for the past 15 years.  One of the things that strikes people who visit here for the first time is how green it is.  For one thing, many people have the stereotype that all of Texas is desert and tumbleweeds, so when they see lots of trees, it does not fit their image.  (There is plenty of desert in West Texas, so the stereotype is not completely without merit.)

But, the city of Austin, itself is quite green.  There are lots of small parks, greenbelts, and hills with woods.  In the center of town, Ladybird Lake is ringed with a trail that is always full of walkers, runners, and bikers.

If you live in a place with lots of parks like this, does it affect your life satisfaction?

This question was explored in a paper in the June, 2013 issue of Psychological Science by Mathew White, Ian Alcock, Benedict Wheeler, and Michael Depledge.  They did a longitudinal analysis of data in Great Britain collected over a period of 18 years.

The study involved over 10,000 people from urban areas and asked general health questions (including questions about their mental health) and questions about well-being.  The data also permitted the researchers to determine how much green space was located in their neighborhood.  Green space included parks and gardens.  The survey also had questions about other factors that affect well-being like education, marital status, age, and employment.

The researchers entered these variables into a statistical analysis to determine the factors that predicted mental distress and overall ratings of well-being.

As you might expect, being married was associated with lower levels of mental distress and higher levels of well-being.  Likewise, being employed (rather than unemployed) was associated with lower levels of mental distress and higher levels of well-being.  These effects are rather large overall.

After taking all of these factors into account, living near parks did affect people’s mental health.  People experienced lower levels of mental distress and higher-levels of well-being when they lived near green space in their urban area.

On the one hand, these effects are reliable, but small.  The influence of living near parks was about one third the size of the influence of being married and about one tenth the size of the influence of being employed.  As the authors point out, though, marriage and employment affect only individual families, while parks can influence whole neighborhoods, so the collective influence of parks on well-being can be enormous.

What does this mean?

Demographic trends suggest that people are moving back to cities.  Living in urban areas has many benefits such as low commuting costs and access to many interesting cultural activities.  Living near parks, though, has a number of benefits.  Parks allow people a chance to get away (even briefly) from the stress and noise of the city.  Parks also provide places for exercise and movement.

This research also suggests that governments should support the construction and maintenance of green areas in their cities.  Around the world, this is a time of austerity. Governments are cutting back on the services they provide.  But, mental well-being translates into physical well-being.  People who feel good about life take better care of themselves than those who do not.  This work suggests that a relatively small investment in urban green spaces can save governments a lot of money down the line in health-care costs.

Finally, this work suggests that if you are moving to a city, you should look for a neighborhood that is near to parks and gardens.  Being close to these green spaces will help you to engage in activities that will keep you healthier and happier.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Can You Make Teens Less Aggressive?

Over the past several years, I got to experience high school again through the eyes of my kids.  Though I have enjoyed going to band concerts and choir concerts and plays, I am glad that I am beyond my high school years.  There is a lot of aggression in high school.  Kids can be flat-out mean to each other.  Some of it is just good-natured fun, as kids test out their ability to hurl verbal insults.  But, some of it is nasty. 

There are always a few kids who find themselves to be the object of a lot of teasing and bullying.  Those kids can suffer through their time in high school.  They experience symptoms of depression.  They can also lash out at the people who torment them, acting aggressively toward them.

Is there any way to break this cycle of aggression?

A fascinating paper by David Yeager, Kali Trzewniewski, and Carol Dweck in the May/June, 2013 issue of Child Development explored this question. 

I have written about Carol Dweck’s research in this blog before.  She and her colleagues argue that people tend to think about psychological traits in one of two ways. Sometimes they adopt an entity mindset, in which they believe that the trait is a permanent fixture of someone’s psychology.  Sometimes they adopt an incremental mindset, in which they believe that traits change over time. 

Most psychological traits can change, and so an incremental mindset is probably closer to the truth.  Yet, many children and adults adopt an entity mindset for all kinds of traits including intelligence, trustworthiness, and aggression.

To make kids less aggressive, you might think that the best strategy is to teach them skills for coping with disappointments and conflicts with other kids.  Perhaps they could use those skills to think differently about their behavior. 

If you have spent any time recently with teenagers, though, you know that they resist almost any attempt to tell them what to do.  So, it may not be that effective to just give teens strategies to deal with conflicts.  Instead, if you give them information about how personality traits like being aggressive can change over time, you may help them to deal more effectively with other people.

In their study, about 250 students from a city high school participated in this study.  Some students were in a control condition whose behavior was measured without any intervention.  Other students participated in a 3-week program teaching them coping skills.  They learned about things like hot to deal with social rejection and how to focus on positive aspects of their life.  A third group participated in a 3-week program teaching them about the incremental mindset.  They learned that personality traits can change over time, because people’s brains are always changing.  They also learned about the many factors that affect people’s behavior and how changes in motivations can change their behavior. 

Several weeks after the intervention, participants were given the chance to display aggressive and pro-social behavior.  They played a computer game called “Cyberball.”  In this game, three players seated in different rooms play a game in which they pass a ball around.  The other players are actually controlled by the computer.  After the first few passes, the two other players pass the ball only to each other.  This game has been shown to make people feel excluded.

After playing this game, participants did a taste testing activity in which they prepared food for one of the people they were supposed to have played Cyberball with.  The participant was given information about the other person including the fact that the person does not like spicy food.  The participant was given the chance to put hot sauce on the food, and they could put on as much hot sauce as they wanted.  The idea is that the more hot sauce they put on, the more aggressive they are being toward this person who had just excluded them from a game. 

Before the food was “delivered” to the other person, the participant also had a chance to write a note to accompany the food.  This note allowed participants to give either prosocial messages (“I didn’t add much hot sauce, because I know you don’t like it”) or antisocial messages (“I put a lot of hot sauce on, because you were mean to me.”)

Finally, a few months after the intervention, teachers were given the chance to identify students whose behavior had changed positively over the last few months of the year.  These students were also less likely to be absent or tardy from school in the months after the intervention. 

Overall, participants given the incremental theory training put less hot sauce on the food after the game of Cyberball (so they were less aggressive toward others) than those who got the coping skills training or those in the control group.  The participants given the incremental theory training also wrote more positive messages in their note than those in the other groups.  At the follow-up later, the participants in the incremental theory group were also more likely to be identified by teachers as improving their behavior than those in the other groups.

However, this training had a specific benefit.  The students who were most likely to show improvements in their behavior were the ones who were often the victims of aggression, teasing, and bullying by other students.  This training was particularly effective at helping victims of bullying to realize that the people around them can change, and so they did not need to lash out at these people.

This study adds to the benefits of thinking about psychological traits as being malleable rather than fixed.  The more that you believe that your own behavior and other people’s behavior can change, the more willing you are to deal positively with interpersonal problems and to work harder to improve yourself. 

Monday, February 2, 2015

Both Good and Bad Habits are Boosted in Times of Stress

The effects of stress on willpower are a staple of romantic comedies.  A character goes through a difficult romantic breakup, and in the next scene, she is sitting on the couch smeared in ice cream with empty wrappers strewn on the couch. 

All of us have experienced this kind of failure of self-control.  There is some bad habit we are trying to avoid, and we succeed until life gets hectic.  Suddenly, it is business-as-usual. Because these breakdowns of willpower are so clear when they happen, you might think that stressful situations bring out your worst behavior. 

A fascinating paper in the June, 2013 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by David Neal, Wendy Wood, and Aimee Drolet suggests a different possibility.  They argue that in times of stress, we fall back on our habits generally.  When those habits are bad, then we experience what we see as a failure of self-control.  But, we also fall back on our good habits.  We don’t notice those as readily, because those behaviors are helpful.

In a naturalistic study to support this view, the researchers explored the behavior of a sample of college students.  First, they looked at the strength of a number of habits relating to eating breakfast and reading the newspaper.  Some of these behaviors were good (like eating hot cereal for breakfast), while others were bad (eating a pastry for breakfast).  For each person, some behaviors were a strong part of their routine, while others were not.  A particular individual might generally eat hot cereal, but rarely eat pastry.  That person might also tend to read the Op-Ed section of the newspaper, but rarely read the comics.

Over the next four weeks, the researchers continued to track the students’ behavior.  In two of those weeks, the students had an intense series of exams, while in the other two of those weeks, there were no major exams.  The researchers expected that the students would be undergoing more stress in the exam weeks, and so their willpower would be compromised.

When a particular behavior was a strong habit for that person, then they were more likely to engage in that behavior during the stressful exam weeks than during the less stressful non-exam weeks.  This reliance on habits was evident both for the good behaviors and the bad ones.  So, the lack of willpower drove people to rely on their habits, regardless of whether they were good or bad.

In several other studies, the researchers manipulated stress level for participants.  In one study, the researchers tracked the behavior of participants over a series of days.  On a few of those days, participants were asked to perform their daily activities with their nondominant hand.  So, if they routinely used their left hand while talking on the cell phone, they should now use their right hand.  This manipulation is known to cause stress to the willpower system by requiring a lot of effortful self-control. 

On the days when participants had to use their non-dominant hand, they were much more likely to perform both good and bad habits than they were on days when they were allowed to use their dominant hand. 

Other studies in this paper demonstrated that people fall back on their habits, because they are acting without thinking.  They are not explicitly choosing to act based on their habits when their willpower is depleted. 

This study adds to a growing literature demonstrating the power of habits in daily action.  When the going gets tough, the natural response is to fall back on the behaviors that have carried you through so many other situations in the past.

That is why it is crucial to work on developing good habits.  It is hard to rise to the occasion in times of stress.  When you have lots of exams, a big project at work, or are going through a stressful period in a relationship, you simply do not have the mental energy to rise to the occasion.  Instead, you just want to get through the day.  In those cases, your habits will drive a lot of your behavior.  The more that your habits push you toward behaviors that support your goals, the better you will do in stressful situations.