5 things science learned about living happier, more meaningful lives in 2021

This year was a stellar year for science as researchers around the world developed vaccines and new therapeutics in almost miraculous times. But the pandemic has not only put pressure on our physical health. It was also a pressure cooker for our sanity.

And just as brilliant medical researchers seek discoveries that will keep us physically healthier, so psychologists and behavioral researchers have worked hard to figure out how we can all be a little happier, more resilient, and better adjusted in a world that feels so often feels like it’s going off the rails.

UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center online magazine documents these breakthroughs year-round, and helpfully summarizes some of the most important and useful each December. Some are niche insights for therapists or educators, but a handful can help almost each of us have a more joyful and meaningful year 2022.

1. Uncertainty drives us to stop and smell the roses.

This pandemic had very, very few silver linings, but positive psychology researchers may have uncovered at least one. The more unsafe your life, the more likely it is that you will pause and smell the roses.

“Researchers handed out flyers to pedestrians saying ‘Life is unpredictable: stop and smell the roses’ or ‘Life is constant: stop and smell the roses’. Not far away was a table with a dozen red roses on it – and the people who read that life is unpredictable smelled the roses literally 2.5 times more often than the others, ”reports Greater Good. What’s cute, but does this effect actually apply to real life?

Apparently yes. When the same researchers “pinged 6,000 participants up to a dozen times a day and asked how chaotic and unpredictable the world felt and whether they were enjoying the present living a few hours later, at the next ping.”

We’d all love to see the end of this virus, of course, but maybe it will cheer you up to know that it makes us all pay more attention to the little joys in life. We may even keep this newfound good habit after we are fully settled back into a more predictable routine.

2. There is a right and a wrong way to daydream.

We are bombarded with advice on how to eat right, exercise more efficiently, and work smarter. The last thing we need is advice on how to optimize our daydreaming, right?

But the new science insists that there is indeed a right (and wrong) way to daydream. One approach leads to fresh ideas. The other way leads directly to fear. What is the difference? Mind wanderings where you think about something other than the task at hand, but in a focused way, makes you feel lousy. But when your thoughts flow freely and meander from topic to topic, daydreaming makes you happier and more creative.

Here’s the quintessence of Greater Good: “We don’t have to be 100% focused all the time. So if you want to be more creative and happier, don’t feel guilty about daydreaming a little.”

3. You are surrounded by opportunities for empathy.

An absolute shipload of science shows that empathy helps to be successful in life and at work (some examples here and here). This is practical to know, but also a little abstract. It’s easy enough to abstract the benefits of empathy, but actually, it’s a lot harder to increase your empathy in day-to-day life, isn’t it?

Actually no, says new research this year. Scientists have actually measured, and it turns out that we all have an average of nine opportunities to show empathy each day. And the more we take chances, the better we feel.

“People who saw more opportunities for empathy and showed more empathy were happier and had a greater sense of wellbeing,” summarizes Greater Good. “This suggests that our daily lives are full of opportunities to exercise empathy, including opportunities to share in other people’s happy moments, if we just pay attention.”

4. Compassion makes us more resilient.

Many people (myself included) feel that the pandemic has exhausted their ability to compassionate. After nearly two years of disruption and disagreement, it is sometimes incredibly difficult to muster a lot of compassion for those who have another access to the virus (or, in our worst days, many others, really).

But new research this year might convince you to dig deep into your last reserves of empathy. A survey of 4,000 people in 21 countries “found that respondents who were afraid to show compassion for themselves or others were likely to feel more depressed, anxious and stressed during the pandemic”.

Other studies confirmed these results. Nudging yourself to have compassion for others (including those you disagree with) may sound like a recipe for emotional exhaustion, but compassion seems to give us resilience during a crisis. Contrary to intuition, empathy resides in your own psychological self-interest.

5. Turning off the camera will help reduce zoom fatigue.

And here’s an immediately useful, if not surprisingly surprising, finding: If you’ve been feeling emotionally frayed at the end of the day after having too many video conferencing, just turn the camera off.

A large number of studies were conducted into the incredibly current phenomenon of zoom fatigue this year, with scientists identifying a number of causes. You can read the full Greater Good article for all the details, but the bottom line solution (aside from the obvious avoidance of unnecessary meetings) is simple: “Turn off the cameras, both ways, at least from time to time.”

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not Inc.com’s.

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