Sunday, February 27, 2011

Smile and the World Smiles with You . . . Or Not

Or, maybe you’ve heard the term, “fake it till you make it?” But does it work, and is it healthy? Recent research suggests that flashing a fake smile to make yourself or others feel better, can actually make you feel worse.

The study, which appeared in the February issue of the Academy of Management Journal found that trying to cultivate positive emotions (meaning hiding negative emotions) may result in additional strain. Attempting to hide negative thoughts with a fake smile actually makes those thoughts more persistent.

According to the study’s lead researcher, Brent Scott, “Employers may think that simply getting their employees to smile is good for the organization, but that’s not necessarily the case. Smiling for the sake of smiling can lead to emotional exhaustion and withdrawal, and that’s bad for the organization.”

Many jobs require friendly, courteous and frequent interactions with other people. That mean’s smiles. The study points out that when these smiles are generated from “deep acting” (based on positive thoughts), they tend to be authentic smiles, even when they are smiles on demand. It’s the smiles based on “surface acting” (fake smiling on demand) that tend to backfire.

The takeaway—your game face says a lot, but so do the reasons for it. Forced smiling can actually result in withdrawal and mood deterioration when that smile is fake flash after fake flash. But, focus on pleasant thoughts and memories, and fake a smile, and you’ll be more likely to generate a real smile—and improve your mood.

So, what does this have to do with wellness (since we’re in the wellness business)? When you give yourself a chance to have an “authentic” smile, you’re actually improving your health. And, the best way to create the opportunity for that authentic smile? Do the smallest positive thing every day for only two months and you will improve your attitude, ward off anxiety and depression and begin to create the self-belief that you are in charge of your health—and that’s something worth smiling about.

Try it for yourself. Adjust your “smile feelings.” How do you feel? What are you thinking about? Does it bring a real smile to your face?

Monday, February 14, 2011

Death by Sitting

You might want to stand up while you read this. You may not think of yourself as sedentary, especially if you are one of the few who actually find time for that recommended hour per day of physical activity. And if you are one of the few, how do you spend the remaining 15 to 16 hours when you are not actively running, walking, biking, swimming, playing tennis . . . you get the picture? If you spend those 15 or 16 hours commuting to and from work or school, sitting at a desk, in front of a TV or any other screen, guess what—you are sedentary. This new sedentary is different from the way we’ve defined sedentary for the past 50 years.

In general terms, the new definition of sedentary behavior means if you are sitting down, you are sedentary. This also means it is possible to meet the recommended physical activity guidelines yet still live a very sedentary lifestyle. Dr. Marc Hamilton of the Pennington Biomedical Research Center sums it up by saying, sitting too much is not the same as exercising too little. And, it’s not an equal equation. Sitting too much may actually be worse. It involves an enzyme called lipoprotein lipase which works to reduce the amount of fat circulating in your blood, which also influenced cholesterol. When you’re sitting, this enzyme activity is significantly reduced.

According to a new study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, time spent sitting is more important in determining mortality rates than the amount of structured physical activity. As part of the American Cancer Society’s Cancer Prevention Study, researchers found the more time a person spent sitting down, the higher their risk of dying. In fact, women who reported more than six hours of sitting per day were 37 percent more likely to die during the study period than those who sat for fewer than 3 hours per day—and that association didn’t change after adjusting for physical activity levels.

Here’s the hard part—our society involves a lot of sitting—at work, school, in our cars and at home. Here’s the good part. We can take breaks from our sedentary behavior. We can get up and walk. We can stretch. We can fidget. Skip the text or email to your colleague at the next desk—walk over and deliver it in person. We can wash our own cars rather than drive them through the car wash. If we look, we can all find ways—and very good reasons to move more.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Save Us From Ourselves . . .

What do you get when you mix up economic science and psychology? You get behavioral economics, a relatively new but already widely accepted field—Behavioral Economics. It’s founded on the premise that a number of factors, including the context in which they occur, influence our individual judgment, preferences and decisions. It even becomes tactical when applied to marketing, framing our decision-making in the moment. (As an example, the next time you’re in a check-out line, anywhere, look at what’s around you and at the price-point. It’s there, carefully placed, so you will pick it up, look at it, and think to yourself, “sure, why not?”) Think nudge.

Every day most people make at least a few seemingly irrational decisions—poor choices on some level—eating too much, spending too much, driving too fast. The list goes on. But, when we understand the “why” of these choices, the principles of behavioral economics can step in to create solutions.

And, how exactly do behavioral economics move us to make healthier and more cost-effective choices?

Consider what behavioral economics calls the Prospect Theory. We’re motivated more by the threat of a loss than we are by the promise of reward. (We’d all like to win $50, but we’d really hate to give up $50.) So, applied to our own health, the loss of our personal health and wellness, as in “change or die,” is a greater motivator than becoming healthier.

There’s also what’s called the Endowment Effect. In essence, we become attached to what we already own. Our own doctor, our own insurance policy, our own table at our favorite restaurant, our own lucky lottery numbers. We get used to these things, and others, and resist changing even when it’s in our best interest to do so. We might be suspicious of change, and stubbornly hold onto even unhealthy and costly behaviors—because they are ours’. But again, when we understand “why” and begin to explore other options we become more willing to make better, and perhaps more cost effective choices. Now we “own” better choices.

There are basic tenets at work here, such as loss aversion (we fear loss because it causes more pain than the pleasure we receive from a new gain) and status quo bias (because we are reluctant to change, we let changes be made for us or happen to us).

The trick in saving ourselves from ourselves is in finding ways to create a forgiving environment. Every element of every design has the potential to influence our choices. Do we close our eyes and hope for the best, or do we take what we know and apply it to making rational behavior choices? If others are doing it for us, shouldn’t we find ways to do it for ourselves?