Want To Feel Happier Today? Try Talking To A Stranger

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The doors open wide, you enter, and they close behind you. As the elevator begins its ascent, you realize it’s just you and one other person taking this ride. The silence soon grows uncomfortable.

Pop quiz. What’s your go-to move?

A) Stare at your shoes.

B) Pull out your cellphone.

C) Make brief eye contact.

D) Initiate chitchat.

If your answer was B, you’re like far too many of us, eyes glued to our phones, attention focused on the digital world.

Many of us tend to do just about anything to avoid conversation or even eye contact with strangers. And smartphones make it easier than ever to do that. A recent study found that phones can keep us from even exchanging brief smiles with people we meet in public places. But a body of research has shown that we might just be short-changing our own happiness by ignoring opportunities to connect with the people around us.

Several years ago, University of British Columbia psychologist Elizabeth Dunn and her colleague Gillian M. Sandstrom, tested whether short conversations with strangers could lift moods. They asked participants to enter a busy coffee shop and grab a beverage — half would get in and get out, and half would strike up a conversation with the cashier.

“We found that people who were randomly assigned to turn this economic transaction into a quick social interaction left Starbucks in a better mood,” Dunn says. “And they even felt a greater sense of belonging in their community.”

The same researchers found that these seemingly trivial encounters with the minor characters in our lives — the random guy at the dog park or the barista at our local coffee shop — can affect feelings of happiness and human connection on a typical day.

Social anxiety, however, could be preventing these types of interactions, says Nicholas Epley, a University of Chicago behavioral scientist.

One day, during a daily train ride, he noticed something paradoxical. People — social creatures — were basically ignoring one another. Why, he wondered, if connecting with others makes us happy, do we so often avoid it?

Either solitude really is more enjoyable than talking to strangers, he figured, or we have mistaken assumptions holding us back.

His curiosity led to a series of experiments revealing that train and bus commuters who interacted with other passengers experienced a more pleasant ride — even when they believed they would prefer the solitude of, say, reading a book.

It is fear that the person sitting next to us won’t enjoy talking to us that makes us keep to ourselves, Epley found. But when we do talk to each other, those social interactions with strangers tend to be both less awkward and more enjoyable than most people predict.

If striking up small talk with a stranger sounds daunting, you might be relieved to hear that even something as simple as making eye contact offers benefits.

No one likes feeling invisible when someone walks past. The Germans even have a term for it — wie Luft behandeln, which means “to be looked at as though air.”

Kipling Williams, a Purdue University psychologist, studied how people felt when a young woman walked by them and either made eye contact, made eye contact while smiling, or completely ignored them. Even brief eye contact increased people’s sense of inclusion and belonging.

“Just that brief acknowledgment, that brief glance — with or without a smile — made them at least temporarily feel more socially connected,” Williams says. And it works both ways. Those that had been “looked through” felt even more disconnected than the control group.

So, how can we dodge the risks of loneliness and stop short-changing our own happiness?

It might be easier than you think.

“It takes very little to acknowledge somebody’s existence,” Williams says.

Start with folks like the cashier in a grocery store or the barista at your local coffee shop, Dunn says. You’ve got to interact with them anyway, so you might as well make an effort to turn it into a friendly exchange.

And be mindful that using your smartphone sends a signal that you’re not interested in interacting with the people around you. Put it away and you easily remove that barrier, she says.

The mood boost of talking to strangers may seem fleeting, but the research on well-being, Epley says, suggests that a happy life is made up of a high frequency of positive events, and even small positive experiences make a difference.

“Happiness seems a little bit like a leaky tire on a car,” Epley explains. “We just sort of have to keep pumping it up a bit to maintain it.”

This doesn’t mean we need to set out on some grand quest to connect at every possible turn. Instead, he recommends paying closer attention to those times when the urge to offer a compliment or strike up a conversation arises.

Sure, there may be a bit of fear or reluctance holding us back, but it’s worth overcoming.

The next time you walk into an elevator, consider leaving the phone in your pocket, acknowledging the presence of that other person, and maybe even saying “hello” or “good morning.”

Who knows? It could wind up putting a smile on your face and theirs.

By Paul Nicolaus

A Bedtime Bath Can Help You Cool Down And Sleep Better

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Graduate student Shahab Haghayegh has long had trouble sleeping. But when the biomedical engineering student began his doctoral program at the University of Texas at Austin five years ago, his issues worsened. “I would go to bed at 3 or 4 a.m. and wake up at 8 a.m.,” he says. The exhausted Haghayegh was getting an average of just 4 or 5 hours sleep a night.

After years of near constant fatigue, he tried a bedtime home remedy: “I started using warm baths,” he says. This seemed to help — actually, a lot. These days, Haghayegh says, he’s able to fall asleep at midnight, getting three or four more hours of sleep per day.

Taking a warm bath or shower has long been associated with relaxation. But Haghayegh was more interested in scientific evidence, and wanted to see if he could optimize the soothing soak approach. An analysis he and several colleagues conducted of the research literature on the topic, published in the August issue of Sleep Medicine Reviews, suggests that either a warm bath or shower before bed can help a person fall asleep and improve sleep quality — even in the heat of summer. And the optimum time to take one, he says, might be an hour or two before going to bed.

The method is thought to work by augmenting the body’s temperature rhythm over 24 hours. Our core body temperature changes throughout the day, as governed by an inborn body clock (though this clock can shift for people who have circadian rhythm disorders, work the nightshift or are jetlagged.) We tend to gradually cool by evening time, before we go to sleep. Augmenting that natural cooling of the body’s core temperature, apparently, may be a way to promote sleep.

“There’s actually good science behind this,” Matthew Walker, a neuroscientist and sleep specialist at the University of California, Berkeley, tells Allison Aubrey and the team from NPR’s Life Kit podcast episode on better sleep rituals.

“We know that your core body temperature needs to drop by about 2 to 3 degrees Fahrenheit to initiate good sleep and then maintain deep sleep,” says Walker, the author of Why We Sleep. “The way it works is this: For you to get your heat out of the core of your body, you actually need to release that core heat through the outer perimeter surfaces of your body, namely your hands and your feet.

“And this is why hot baths actually work … for the opposite reason most people think,” Walker adds. “You get into a hot bath, you get out, you think I’m nice and toasty, I get into bed and I fall asleep better because I’m warm. The opposite is true. What happens with a bath … is you actually bring all of the blood to the surface. And your hands and your feet are wonderful radiators of that heat. So you are essentially like a snake charmer — you are charming the heat out of the core of your body to the surface of your body.”

In their research review, Haghayegh and his colleagues examined results from 17 studies that met criteria for their analysis, i.e. studies that looked at using warm water exposures of various types to aid sleep onset and quality. Some involved body baths, some involved footbaths and one involved a shower. Thirteen of the studies had the full amount of data needed for a quantitative review.

Based on scientists’ review of these studies, a bath or shower of about 104 degrees Fahrenheit before bedtime that lasted for as little as 10 minutes was significantly associated with improved sleep quality, and increased the overall amount of time slept. In at least a couple of studies, taking a bath one or two hours before bedtime decreased the average amount of time it took the study participants to fall asleep — by about nine minutes.

That’s a far cry from Haghayegh’s three hours of extra shut-eye, but is still statistically significant, he says.

Haghayegh and his colleagues are currently at work on a mattress that can help control the body’s temperature throughout the night — including warming in the morning to facilitate an easier wake-up.

The study’s results, while not the final word, might already be useful clinically, says Dr. Sarah Stolz, one of the medical directors of the Sleep Medicine program at Swedish Hospital in Seattle. She points to a study she recently read on zolpidem, a drug better known by its brand name, Ambien.

In that study, she says, patients who used zolpidem fell asleep about 16 minutes faster than a placebo group after eight months of use. That’s only about seven minutes faster than the result a warm bath achieved, and the latter doesn’t carry the risk of chemical dependence.

“I’d rather tell my patients, ‘why not just take a hot bath or shower?’ ” Stolz says. “And now I know [they should] take it one to two hours before bed.”


What is Concocting?

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Strange Food Combinations and Eating Disorders

Do you secretly eat strange combinations of foods? Are you ashamed about it? It is important to know that you are not alone. This is known as “concocting”, and although it is rarely studied or talked about in research or clinical literature, it is not uncommon in people with eating disorders. Secretive food concocting has been defined as “making strange or bizarre mixtures of foods or food ingredients that one would be too embarrassed or ashamed to make in the presence of others.”

Examples of Atypical Food Combinations
Among the unusual combinations reported on the internet and in a 2013 paper on concocting by Boggiano and colleagues include:

· Applesauce on pizza

· Peanut butter on steak

· Cherry tomatoes and mayo in a flour tortilla

· Bananas with peanut butter wrapped in cheddar cheese

· Bananas and ketchup

· Crackers with almond butter and crab

· Cucumber and pasta sauce

· Salami and Nutella

· Sugar on scrambled eggs

· Pickles in caramel or caramel w/ chocolate and Oreos

· Frozen vegetables mixed with mayonnaise and eaten frozen

· Tortilla chips and peanut butter

· Ham and cheese and syrup

· Ice cream and popcorn together


The phenomenon has been studied and is well-documented in famine and semi-starvation literature. In the single study of food concocting in eating disorders, Boggiano and colleagues found that secretive food concocting was reported by as many as 25% of their subjects (who included college students as well as patients from an eating disorder treatment center). Concocting was highest among people who showed symptoms of binge eating disorder, which involves eating large amounts of food in a short period of time while feeling out of control to stop the behavior. Concocting appeared to be a response to eating too little.

This is consistent with reports of concocting found among victims of famine and experimental starvation. The researchers predicted that dietary restriction would drive similar behavior in people with eating disorders who restrict deliberately. They posited that the behavior of frantically mixing together whatever foods were available would be similar between people who were deliberately restricting intake and those who were in famine.

Researchers found that concocting was often motivated by cravings and was associated with intense negative emotions including excitement, anxiety, panic, fear, desperation, depression, and guilt. After eating the strange combinations, subjects reported feeling increased negative emotions, including depression, guilt, and disgust.

They discovered that common ingredients for food concocting were sugar and other sweet ingredients, cheese, chocolate, peanut butter, and refined flours. Given that concocting is a response to restriction, it is not surprising that the favored foods have higher fat contents and are more calorically dense.

If you engage in this behavior and are either dieting or know that you have an eating disorder, please know that concocting is nothing to be ashamed about—rather, it is a sign that your body is working! Food is a basic need, and when you are in a state of deprivation your body will drive you to make sure you get enough food to survive. It is most likely a sign you are not eating enough!

If you are engaging in concocting you should seek help. Professionals trained in eating disorders can help you to look at your eating and discover whether you need to eat more at mealtimes. Giving yourself permission to eat more can help reduce secretive food combining and help you develop more regular and satisfying patterns of eating. If someone you know is engaging in behaviors like this, you may encourage them to seek help.

By Lauren Muhlheim, PsyD, CEDS and Medically reviewed by Steven Gans, MD

Which of the Things You Love Make You Happiest?

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Do you love running, parties, or chocolate? A new study suggests that the objects of your affection might matter for your well-being.

When we think about the emotion of love, we usually think of people. We love our friends, our families, our neighbors, and our communities.

But what about other “loves” in our lives? For example, I love chocolate, hiking, and dining with friends. Does feeling that love for things and experiences make any difference to our well-being, just like our love of other people does?

According to a new study, it may—depending on what you love.

Researcher Hannah Lucas and her colleagues asked a large group of adults to list things they loved that were not people. Their answers fell into five distinct categories: material things (like money or mobile phones), things that brought hedonic pleasure (like a hot shower or laughing), physical exercise (like participating in sports), spiritual things (like faith in a higher power), and social connection activities (like having a meal with family).

The researchers then created a questionnaire using 61 of those things—some from each category—and asked another set of participants to report how much they loved (or merely liked) each item on the list. Then, the participants filled out surveys measuring their happiness, life satisfaction, and meaning in life.

When the researchers analyzed the data, they found that two categories of “loves” mattered: social activities and physical activity. Specifically, people who loved social activities had higher happiness and meaning in life, and people who loved physical activity had higher happiness, meaning, and satisfaction.

Lucas was pretty stunned by the findings—especially the findings around physical activity.

“The presence of meaning with physical activity was a surprise, because I didn’t really see the connection at first,” she says.

But Lucas eventually started to understand how people attach meaning to physical activity. They engage in exercise to look fit and to keep themselves feeling physically and mentally healthy, she says, and these values are likely meaningful to them.

It’s clearer why enjoying social activities could be good for us, since strong social relationships have long been shown to improve our health and happiness. But Lucas is unsure why people who loved social activities didn’t have higher life satisfaction.

“It could be that life satisfaction is more of a long-term, global measure,” she says. “If you consider the kinds of social experiences people said they loved—like enjoying a conversation with a loved one—you can see how they might yield happiness and be meaningful, but by themselves wouldn’t lead to life satisfaction. It may simply require more to be satisfied with your life.”

Interestingly, some of the other categories predicted people’s well-being, too, but not after other “loves” were accounted for. For example, people who loved spiritual things felt a greater sense of meaning in life, but that apparent link disappeared once researchers took into account how much they also loved physical exercise or social activities.

“Spirituality is a meaningful thing,” says Lucas. “But if someone has those other things going on—love of physical exercise or social activities—they predict meaning more powerfully.”

A similar finding was true of pleasurable experiences: People who loved those were happier, but that could be explained by other, more impactful loves.

Loving material things didn’t seem to matter to well-being, except in one case: 18 to 19 year olds who loved material objects were more likely to be searching for meaning. Perhaps this makes sense, since younger people who are forming a sense of who they are tend to be more interested in getting access to things they don’t have yet—like a car to get to work or a computer to use in school, says Lucas.

Of course, all of these findings cannot prove cause and effect, that we’re happier because of the things we love. In fact, they raise the question: Couldn’t other factors not measured in the study be the true causes? Absolutely, says Lucas—this was a single study, and it’s just the “tip of the iceberg” for this line of research.

Still, she says, it’s important research to pursue. For one, it may help us to know that learning to love physical exercise and social activities could be beneficial to our well-being. For another, many experts talk about relationships as key to well-being but don’t consider those people who have trouble meeting or connecting with others—perhaps because they live in sparsely populated areas or just have difficulties with social skills. Her research could bring them some comfort.

“They want to have good lives, too, and it’s useful to know that other things can make your life good and meaningful and positive while you’re figuring out how to connect” she says. “I think that’s valuable.”


Forgiveness and Letting Go in Your Marriage

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Being able to forgive and to let go of past hurts is a critical tool for a marriage relationship. Additionally, being able to forgive is a way to keep yourself healthy both emotionally and physically. In fact, forgiving and letting go may be one of the most important ways to keep your marriage going strong.

Healthy Aspects of Forgiving

If you hold on to old hurts, disappointments, petty annoyances, betrayals, insensitivity, and anger, you are wasting both your time and your energy. Nursing a perceived hurt can eventually make it into something more – hate and extreme bitterness.

Lack of forgiveness can wear you down. Additionally, being unforgiving is not good for either your physical and mental well-being. Resentment gains momentum and chips away at the foundation of your relationship.

How to Forgive a Partner Who Hurt You:

  • Be open and receptive to forgiveness.
  • Make a conscious decision to forgive your spouse.
  • When images of the betrayal or hurt flash in your mind, think of a calming place or do something to distract yourself from dwelling on those thoughts.
  • Do not throw an error or mistake back in your spouse’s face at a later date. Also, do not use it as ammunition in an argument.
  • Do not seek revenge or retribution. Trying to get even will only extend the pain. Chances are this won’t really make you feel better anyway.
  • Accept that you may never know the reason for the transgression, behavior or mistake.
  • Remember that forgiveness does not mean you condone the hurtful behavior.
  • Be patient with yourself. Being able to forgive your spouse takes time. Don’t try to hurry the process.
  • If you continue to be unable to forgive, or you find yourself dwelling on the betrayal or hurt, please seek professional counseling to help you let go and forgive.

How to Ask for Forgiveness When You Have Hurt Your Partner:

  • Show true contrition and remorse for the pain that you’ve caused.
  • Be willing to make a commitment to not hurt your spouse again by repeating the hurtful behavior.
  • Accept the consequences of the action that created the hurt.
  • Be open to making amends.
  • Be patient with your spouse. Being able to forgive you often takes time. Don’t dismiss your spouse’s feelings of betrayal by telling your spouse to “get over it.”
  • Make a heartfelt and verbal apology. This includes a plan of action to make things right.

Marriage Need Forgiveness

Marriage, like other close relationships, needs forgiveness to thrive. Remember that everyone makes mistakes. We all have bad or grumpy days. Many people say things they do not mean now and then. Everyone needs to forgive and to be forgiven. This is especially true if the person who hurt you is attempting to make amends and seek forgiveness.

No relationship, especially a marriage relationship, can be sustained over a long period of time without forgiveness. Even though you may find it find it difficult to forgive, being able to do so is crucial in a marriage.

Are Some Things Unforgivable?

If your spouse abuses you, continues to betray you, keeps lying to you or makes no real change in behavior, then it may be time to say enough is enough. This calls for you to seriously evaluate your marriage and possibly think about divorce. When there is enough proof that these major concerns are not going away, despite your effort to forgive, your marriage is in trouble.

In some situations where there was an extended period of abuse or betrayals, but it is no longer occurring, forgiveness for the past hurts may take longer and that is okay. You both must be open to talking about it and continuing to process it. It is encouraged to seek guidance from counselors and clergy to help you through this.

By Sheri Stritof

Can a Happier Spouse Help You Live Longer?

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Older adults have a lower risk of death if their partner is more satisfied with life.

My husband Don is generally a pretty cheerful guy. He has a great network of friends, takes good care of himself, and does work that is meaningful to him.

Certainly, Don’s happy disposition is a boon for me, as his happiness makes our relationship run more smoothly. But could it have any impact on my health—perhaps even extending my life? A new study by Olga Stavrova of Tilburg University in the Netherlands looked at that very question.

Stavrova analyzed data on over 4,300 couples from the Health and Retirement Study at the University of Michigan, an ongoing project studying adults ages 50 and older. She specifically wanted 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 from that point. This was a little tricky to figure out, as there are so many factors to consider when looking at longevity—for example, age, ethnicity, or race; socioeconomic status (SES); the baseline health (of both partners); and more. Stavrova statistically controlled for these other factors to see if a partner’s happiness affected one’s longevity above and beyond them.

Her findings were pretty remarkable: When a person’s partner was significantly happier—in science-speak, one standard deviation higher than average in life satisfaction—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, SES, or health when their partner’s happiness was measured.

Though I was surprised by this finding, Stavrova wasn’t.

“Previous research has already shown that well-being in one spouse is associated with positive health outcomes in the other one,” she says. “So, this study extends these findings to mortality.”

As expected, a person’s own happiness was also tied to their mortality—for every one standard deviation higher, the person had an 18 percent lower chance of dying. But, when Stavrova considered how healthy either member of the couple was at the beginning of the study, and whether or not a person’s partner died during the eight-year window, being happy didn’t affect a person’s longevity while having a happy partner still did.

This suggests that a spouse’s happiness could be even more relevant than one’s own—it may be what keeps us alive longer. “In other words, the association between one’s life satisfaction and one’s mortality might be ‘explained away’ by a confounding with having poor health initially (at least, in this dataset), while the association between one’s partner life satisfaction and one’s mortality cannot,” says Stavrova.

How could this possibly be? Stavrova considered one explanation. Some research suggests that feeling supported socially is an important factor in staying healthier longer, and she thought happier partners might offer more support to their significant other. But the data she had didn’t support that hypothesis.

However, Stavrova did find evidence for another explanation: A happier partner tended to exercise more, which was tied to a person’s own willingness to exercise more. And since more exercise is tied to greater longevity, it’s possible that this social influence around exercising is what’s making the difference.

Still, it’s impossible to know that for sure, says Stavrova, since exercise patterns in both partners were measured simultaneously. It could be the opposite—that when you exercise more, your partner is happier. Plus, there could be other reasons for the findings: Maybe a happy person eats healthier food or makes more time for social activities, which could indirectly affect their partner’s longevity, as these activities tend to be shared within couples.

So, can we say anything for sure? Yes, says Stavrova: Our partner’s life satisfaction affects our own longevity, even if we aren’t well to begin with.

Does this imply that we should leave an unhappy spouse for fear of putting ourselves into an early grave? Though Stavrova fears people might interpret her findings that way, she insists it’s the wrong approach. Instead, she says, it may only mean that doctors and others should widen their view when considering patient health and consider the role partner happiness may play in healing. “A more humane implication is that healthy lifestyle recommendations should target couples (or households) rather than individuals,” she says.

In other words, if we want to be happier and live longer, we might want to focus on not just our own well-being, but that of our partner, too. Encouraging them to have healthy social relationships, exercise regularly, and engage in meaningful activities could lead to greater longevity for them and for you.

Luckily for me, Don is already there.


How to Connect With Your Spouse After a Long Work Day

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Once the kids are in bed you flop down next to your spouse and ask, “How was your day?” They reply, “Good.” They may go into detail or they may not. You may forget that you even asked the question while zoning out.

This person that you’re building a life with is pretty important. You know that. But after a long work day, getting the kids bathed and in bed, plus cleaning up the house a bit, your left with little energy to connect with your spouse. The same goes for them, too. You love each other, but you’re working parents. You’re exhausted.

Regardless of your energy levels, you need each other. You’re in this life together until death do you part. So to help strengthen your bond here are six ways you can connect with your spouse regardless of how exhausted you are from your quadruple workload.

1. Ask Open-Ended Questions to Invoke Conversation

A close-ended question will result in a one-word response like “Okay” or “Fine”. We may use it as a warm-up for an in-depth conversation we’d like to start but instead, skip it. Get straight to the point and don’t waste your time and energy.

First, get your spouse’s attention, especially if they’ve already zoned out with electronics. Look them in the eyes, say hi, and then use the language of love. Go in for the kiss! Ah, now we’re talking! Contact has been made.

Now, hook them into the conversation and ask a question like, “What was the best part of your day today?” to get them talking about something that excited instead of what stressed them out. Another question you could as is “What was your most important encounter today?” to learn who they connected with and what that was like.

Then, the most important part, listen with all your heart. Resist the urge to pick up your phone and mute the T.V. if you must. Leave the spotlight on them for as long as possible to shower them with attention.

2. Use the Language of Love

Words are not the only way to connect with your spouse after a long day. If you don’t have the energy for a love-fest there are alternatives. You could have a long hug when you first see each other. When you feel like letting go, hug for a few more seconds and feel the connection between your hearts. Feels good, doesn’t it? Or give your spouse some really good kisses all night when they least expect it! You haven’t seen each other in over eight hours. Show them some love!

If this public display of affection bothers the kids physically make contact in discreet ways. You could hold hands while watching T.V. or walk hand in hand while taking the kids out for a walk. If your spouse is doing the dishes (yippee!), go up behind them and put your arms around them. This might feel funny, but that’s part of the game of love, right? Another idea is while on your tablets or laptops, touch their feet or legs with their feet.

3. Reminisce About the Good Old Days

If you don’t feel like hashing out your day talk about a specific funny or loving memory you shared. For example, you can ask, “Do you remember that time in Hawaii when we both felt sick during our first helicopter ride?” Then enjoy the trip down memory lane.

Reminiscing takes you away from the stress of the daily grind. It sends you back to happier time and thus gives you a burst of energy when you need it most, at the end of your day. You’ll feel grateful you were able to have that experience with your spouse. Your past has helped bring you both to where you are today.

4. Go to Bed Early – Together

Recoup from a tiring day by getting into bed early and at the same time. So get ready for the next day together like making coffee, putting out breakfast or packing lunches together. Then brush your teeth and get frisky or cuddle. You know, just be silly! Then jump under the covers and snuggle.

Snuggle time makes you feel secure and love. At the end of the day all you want it a bit of affection from your spouse, right? No words need, just getting warm and comfortable to prepare for a good night sleep.

5. Smile at Each Other Often

Let’s say you come home in a bad mood. Although your spouse had nothing to do with that we tend to take out our frustrations on those we care about the most. With this perspective in mind, if you want to get over this bad mood and be able to connect with your spouse in a positive way, smile at them.

Psychologist and facial coding expert, Paul Ekman, discovered that if you smile with both your lips and eyes, even if it’s fake, it’ll put you in a better mood. Also, since we are wired to be social if your spouse sees you smiling, they can’t resist by smile back. Put this in your toolkit when you want to get your spouse out of their bad mood!

6. Start a Bucket List Together

What do you want to do before you die? What does your spouse what to do before they die? After the kids are asleep start your bucket list. How many similar things do you want to accomplish?

This conversation connects you by dreaming about possibilities. These things don’t have to be done this weekend. They are goals you’d like to accomplish within your lifetime. This perspective takes the pressure off checking off the list and instead you dream together. Making plans this way can excite you both and give you another burst of energy at the end of a long day.

At the End of the Day, Don’t Forget Your Marriage

Your marriage needs your attention. Not your undivided attention, and perhaps not every day. But your spouse is part of the reason why you work. The two of you make a team who supports your family and the lifestyle you enjoy. Making time to nurture this relationship must be a priority. with these tips, you’ll be sure to connect with your spouse even after the toughest of work days.

By Elizabeth McGrory

Why Are the First Two Years of Marriage so Important?

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Those who are married know that marriage can hit rough patches at any point in time. When it happens early in the marriage, this can be quite alarming and it probably should be. As the topic of matrimonial success and divorce is studied more and more, research shows that how a couple weathers their first two years together can make or break their marriage.

First Two Years Predict Long-Term Marital Fate

Dr. Ted Huston of the University of Texas at Austin provided commentary on a study on the predictors of marital satisfaction and stressors. “This study showed that couples’ newlywed marriages and changes in their union over the first two years foreshadow their long-term marital fate after thirteen years … disillusionment—as reflected in an abatement of love, a decline in overt affection, a lessening of the conviction that one’s spouse is responsive, and an increase in ambivalence—distinguishes couples headed for divorce from those who establish a stable marital bond.” The researchers also discovered “differences between the happily married and unhappily married groups were apparent right after they tied the knot.”

The Texas study looked at 156 couples who were married for the first time in 1981. Researchers discovered the following after thirteen years:

68 couples were happily married
32 couples were unhappily married
56 couples had divorced

The couples who divorced within the first two years showed signs of disillusionment and were negative toward one another in the first two months of their marriage. It is a sign of trouble if a newlywed couple starts to have disillusionment within the first year. The couples who were still happily married were couples who were able to have positive feelings about their spouse during this early period of time in their relationship.

Facing the Honeymoon Blues

If you find yourself a bit depressed after your wedding, it’s okay. Honeymoon blues are normal. You have both been caught up in time-consuming wedding preparations. It is a sure bet that once you don’t have that stress to deal with, you will have a sense of loss. It’s similar to the post-holiday let down that many people experience.

However, it is important to not ignore this period of depression. Being prepared for the newlywed blues can help you get past them. It’s time to move on to setting the marital stage for the rest of your lives together. As mentioned by Dr. Huston’s study, a top priority for newlyweds should be keeping the romance alive.

There are other priorities a couple will need to face as well. Several major goals that need to be settled the first year include how to allocate and handle money, who is going to do what chores, ways to spend free time, finding time to have sex, dealing with in-laws, understanding differences in spirituality or religion, learning how to deal with conflict, and discussing expectations. Unfortunately, many couples avoid topics that may become heated, but doing so will do a disservice to your union.

Red Flags in Early Marriage:

Lack of romance and intimacy
Inability to have fun together
Fear of conflict
Lack of respect
Over-commitment of time to other things
Too much dependence on parents
Sexual problems
Addictions and/or substance abuse
Emotional and/or physical abuse
Unrealistic expectations
Married too young or for the wrong reasons

What to Do If You’re Struggling

The best thing to do is have an open and honest conversation with your spouse, without blaming, about your concerns. You can start by saying something like, “I think we are both struggling to adjust to being married.” From here you can figure out what options might be a good fit for you both. It could be reading self-help books, seeking guidance from your house of worship, a marriage education class or couples’ therapy.

Build the Foundation for a Successful Marriage

Although the first couple years are said to be the most difficult, they are often remembered as the most joyous. They can be a tremendous time of intimacy and discovery. There is so much to learn about each other and so much to express to one another. During the newlywed stage of marriage, you can both build the foundation and set the stage for a life-long, meaningful marriage. So enjoy and romance one another!

By Sheri Stritof

How to Cope With a Toxic Relationship

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We can experience toxic relationships in our families, in the workplace, and among friend groups. They can be extremely stressful if the toxicity is not effectively managed.

While they cannot always be avoided, toxic relationships can be managed with healthy boundaries, self-care, and above all, awareness. Here is what you should know about toxic relationships, including what makes a relationship toxic, how to detect if you’re in one, and the most effective ways to manage the various types.


Toxic relationships can exist in just about any context, from the playground to the boardroom to the bedroom.

A relationship is said to be toxic when your well-being is threatened, whether it is your emotional wellbeing, your psychological well-being, or even your physical wellbeing.

Relationships that involve physical abuse are definitely classified as toxic. Relationships in which one person is consistently giving more than they are getting may be toxic as well, especially if the person who is giving more feels devalued and depleted because of it. In many cases, this person is unable to change the dynamic.

Likewise, if you are in a relationship where you feel you are consistently not being respected or that your needs aren’t being met, you may feel a toll on your self-esteem over time.

Relationships where you feel unsupported, misunderstood, overtly or subtly attacked, or in other ways demeaned can classify as toxic. On a basic level, any relationship that makes you feel worse rather than better can be toxic over time.

Only you can tell if the bad outweighs the good in a relationship, but if someone consistently threatens your well-being by what they are doing or by what they are not doing, it’s time to focus on solutions.

Toxic Dynamics

Not all relationships are toxic because of the other person. Sometimes it’s the way the two of you interact that brings out the worst in both of you.

For example, you may have a competitive friend who pushes you to be your best, and you do the same for them. If you are both getting enjoyment out of the dynamic, this may be fine. However, if you are seeking someone who can validate your hard work with some emotional support and your friend is constantly putting you down, this may not be a healthy dynamic for you. Regardless of whether your friend’s intention is to put you down, this can be especially dangerous if you develop a spite-based competitive streak with this friend that is not enjoyable for you.

Similarly, if you find that you are not your best self around someone—they might bring out the gossipy side of you, or they seem to draw out a mean streak you don’t normally have—it could be that the two of you create toxicity together.

What to Do

If you find yourself in a toxic relationship where you bring out the worst in one another (or simply fail to bring out the best), you may want to work on the relationship and change the dynamic, particularly if there are other benefits you are getting from the relationship. You may want to attempt to talk to the other person about it.

Be assertive about your needs and feelings while also taking responsibility for your part in the situation.

In these cases, it is often a good idea to discuss what you see as a problem and decide together if you want to change the dynamic and how. You may be able to change the way you interact so that you both begin to get your needs met in a better way as you bring out the best in one another. Assertive communication and healthier boundaries may be the key.

Irritating Toxicity

Not all toxic relationships are mutual. Some people can sap your energy with constant complaining or by seeing the glass as half-empty and constantly sharing this perspective with you.

Some people feel the need to argue with others constantly, explain why they know better, or point out the flaws of others, which may or may not weigh on your patience. This person may act this way with everyone, and they are likely not even aware of their effect on others. They may not know healthier ways to communicate their need. It is likely that they do not know how to read social cues well enough to know when they are frustrating people or making them feel like they are not being heard.

What to Do

You may simply want to limit your time spent with people who bring frustration or unhappiness into your life. You may, however, want to talk to them about your issues and see what happens.

With people who lack self-awareness or social skills, it can be an exercise in futility to expect them to change. However, in smaller doses, they can go from being a toxic force in your life to a mere annoyance.

If this person is someone you need to interact with, like a family member or co-worker, you may do better to limit interactions and try to nonconfrontationally stand up for yourself when the situation warrants it.

Heavily Toxic People

Some people, particularly narcissists (and their less common cousins, sociopaths) tend to feed off of other people’s attention and admiration.

Narcissists feel a need to one-up people and make them feel “less-than” in a quest for feelings of superiority. They may intentionally put you down in subtle ways, throw little insults at you if you share an accomplishment you are proud of, or they may keep you guessing as to whether they will be nice to you from one day to the next.

It is not always obvious whether they are aware of what they are doing, but if their behavior is consistently making you feel bad about yourself, it may not matter. The result is the same: Your unhappiness.

Potential Solutions

With a true narcissist or sociopath, or with anyone draining you of your well-being, the best solution is to put distance between yourself and them. You are probably not going to change them, and confronting them will only bring out their wrath without resolving anything.

Narcissists, for instance, are notoriously bad at admitting fault because they truly do not believe that they make mistakes; they find it personally threatening to see themselves as less than perfect. In general, you may have tried and failed to discuss your feelings with the other person in your toxic relationship. Even if you are able to express yourself, it can feel as though your words fall on deaf ears.

It is often best to distance yourself from this person, or at least accept that you need to be on your guard. This acceptance won’t change them, but it can help minimize the stress of dealing with them.

By Elizabeth Scott, MS, Medically reviewed by Steven Gans, MD

In a Divided World, We Need to Choose Empathy

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It’s gotten harder to empathize; that’s why it’s so important we work at it. Luckily, we can.

As I dialed the number, my palms began to sweat. The person on the other end wasn’t a loan officer or angry lawyer; he was an old friend and we were about to catch up. This should all be mildly pleasant but was instead nerve-wracking. You see, I had reached out to him because we had a problem.

Over the years, my friend’s politics and my own had taken incompatible turns. On social media, I saw him growing reactionary; he saw me becoming a soft, “politically correct” academic. We sniped at each other online, then over text. After a while, I realized we’d forgotten our friendship, and I proposed that we talk to each other to try and bridge our differences.

Why did this seem so hard for my friend and I? And why do so many of us feel that human connection has become increasingly out of reach?

That’s what I address in my new book, The War for Kindness. For over a decade, I’ve documented the many ways that empathy helps individuals, relationships, and teams. I’ve also learned how fragile it can be. But there are ways to reignite empathy—and if more of us can do so, we’ll all be better off.

How we (all) got here

Just 30,000 years ago, humans were unremarkable, medium-sized mammals—not particularly strong or fast, lacking sharp teeth, claws, and wings. We weren’t even the only smart ape; five other large-brained species shared the planet with us. But humanity did have something that set us apart: each other. More than any other species, sapiens worked together cooperatively. This helped us become super-organisms who quickly took over the planet.

Our collaborative flair stems from empathy: the capacity to share, understand, and care about what others feel. Individuals who feel empathy in abundance experience greater happiness and less stress and make friends more easily. These benefits ripple outwards—patients of empathic doctors are more satisfied with their care, spouses of empathic individuals are more satisfied in their marriages, children of empathic parents are better able to manage their emotions, and employees of empathic managers suffer less from stress-related illness. Empathy strengthens our social fabric, encouraging generosity toward strangers, tolerance for people who look or think differently than we do, and commitment to environmental sustainability.

Yet for all its benefits, empathy often goes missing just when we need it most. To understand why, think back to our paleolithic past—the environment in which empathy evolved. Humans lived in tiny bands of hunter-gatherers, so that anyone you encountered was likely familiar, similar, and maybe even related to you. You counted on each other, knew each other, and could hold each other accountable for your actions.

Even now, empathy comes most naturally when those rules are in place. We care up close, when we can see suffering or joy on someone’s face, and when we can be seen. And we are most inclined to help people who look or think like us.

But these days, the rules that encourage empathy are being broken. More than ever, humans are urban, isolated, and anonymous to each other. We meet irregularly, often in online spaces that privilege outrage and leave cruelty unpunished. We are increasingly tribal, and sometimes view outsiders not as human beings but as symbols of ideas and groups we fear and hate. And when we learn about tragedy, it’s often as an abstraction. We might hear about thousands of people affected by a disaster or civil war, but think of them only as faceless statistics, without any way to access their emotions.

This is not fertile soil for empathy, and by some measures empathy has shriveled. One particularly alarming study found that the average American in 2009 was less empathic than 75 percent of Americans just 30 years before. In other words, empathy is fading, but maybe you didn’t need a study to tell you that. Our culture appears more callous by the year. Norms of civility are being steadily shredded. Our species rests on human connection, but that foundation feels shakier than ever.

How emotion and reason contribute to empathy

This might look like a one-way trip. The world we’ve built is poorly calibrated with the caring instincts that allowed us to build it in the first place. As long as these trends continue, maybe we are doomed to become madder and meaner over the years.

This view jibes with one of the oldest, most stubborn stereotypes in psychology and our culture. For centuries, we’ve been warned that “passions” are irrational impulses that take people over and steer us into all manner of bad decisions. In other words, we can’t do anything to control our emotions in the moment, or to shape our emotional lives over time. This belief cuts both ways: When an emotion overtakes us, there’s nothing we can do to calm it. And when we don’t feel anything, there’s nothing we can do to turn our emotions up.

This would be bad news for empathy. It means that when we hit the limits of our care, there’s nothing we can do to overcome them and become more empathic. And if the modern world has sapped our collective empathy, there’s nothing we can do to recover that, either.

Thankfully, this stereotype gets emotion backwards. Reason and passion work together, not against each other. Every time you remind yourself that a scary movie is just a movie, or breathe deeply before reprimanding your child, or choose music to psych yourself up for a big game, you decide how you want to feel, and deftly tune your emotions to suit your will.

This goes for empathy as well. We actively turn it up or down, and make choices about empathy all the time. Will you cross the street to avoid a homeless person, or pay attention to their pain? Will you dismiss someone who disagrees with you, or cultivate curiosity about why they feel the way they do? Over time, empathic choices add up—building empathic habits and, eventually, empathic people.

In other words, empathy is like a muscle, which we can build or leave to atrophy.

How to build your empathy

Psychologists have explored many ways that people can work out their care muscles. Some of these techniques not only make people kinder in general, but also help us empathize in circumstances that make doing so difficult, such as encountering people from different social groups like my friend.

Here are some tools psychologists have found to help people connect better:

Meditation. The idea that we can control what we feel may run counter to our beliefs, but other traditions have embraced it for millennia. Contemplative practices such as loving-kindness meditation were developed specifically to help individuals sharpen their empathy, and an increasing amount of evidence suggests that they work.

In one dramatic example, people practiced loving-kindness meditation for nine months, and researchers scanned their brains before and after training. Remarkably, parts of the brain associated with empathy grew in volume as individuals practiced, suggesting that these techniques can have deep and long-lasting effects.

Storytelling. Where statistics fail to move us, stories succeed. They bring us into one person’s perspective, allow us to resonate with their joy and pain, and are steeped in humanity. In fact, even fictional stories help us to empathize with real people.

Evidence suggests that bookworms grow better at understanding others the more stories they eat through. Even small “doses” of fiction can make a difference, especially when they connect us with voices from cultures or groups we might not think or care about otherwise.

Friendship. Empathy dissolves when we see the world in terms of “us and them,” but it recovers just as quickly when we return to “you and I.” Decades of research demonstrate that when people make close, personal contact with members of other groups, under the right conditions, they experience less prejudice. This is in part because they find it easier to empathize with that individual’s perspective and—by extension—with their group as a whole.

This last principle is what I was going for in calling my old friend. We had stopped being people to each other, but I believed a conversation could bring us back. To do so, we focused not on our opinions, but on how we had gotten to them in the first place. We talked about moments of fear, alienation, and anger, and how much we both feared the hatred that seems to be blooming in our national dialogue. Our conversation didn’t make us agree, but it did help us to understand each other, to feel heard, and to remember our common humanity.

I wouldn’t have called my friend if I didn’t know that people can build their empathy. If it’s impossible to change, why waste the energy trying? And indeed, my own research suggests that people who think of empathy as a trait they can’t control empathize lazily—for instance, only when it’s easy, or with people in their own tribe. Understanding empathy as a skill empowers and challenges us to decide what we want to do with it, and what type of people we want to become.

The first step toward building our capacity to care is believing we can succeed. Hopefully by now you know you can. What you do with this knowledge—and with your capacity to care more—is up to you.