Category Archives: Happiness

Make new friends – share a toilet today!

love-your-loo-2Here’s some advice for all new undergraduates who’ve started their programmes over the past few weeks…  One of the most daunting aspects of starting university, aside from the debt and the challenges of studying, is the prospect of making new friends.

This is really important. Students who develop quality networks also perform better and maintain their well-being.  But, where to start?  Well, many new friendships begin with chance encounters in communal spaces and environmental psychologists have been studying the characteristics of effective social areas for decades.

A recent study by Easterbrook and Vignoles examined this issue in the specific context of a university and found confirmatory evidence of what we have long known – many new undergraduate friendships begin with regular chance meetings in fairly obvious social spaces such as the communal kitchen, the common room and the college gym.  So far, so good.

What’s interesting about this study, which focused on over 400 new undergrads, was that a more unusual site for the development of new friendships emerged; the shared toilet!  In fact, this unexpected arena for new relationships proved as reliable a venue as all of the other spaces in terms of predicting friendship formation, durability and quality.  But why?

Easterbrook and Vignoles believe that the shared bathroom is a natural place for barriers to break down.  Nothing like regularly encountering a dorm mate with a loo roll in his or her hands to remove interpersonal walls and thereby allow bonds to be formed!  No sure what I think about this explanation, but it seems as plausible as any.  Motto: the en suite doesn’t just cost you more money, it makes you a lonelier student too!

Of course, the one problem with a shared toilet is that it also carries with it a whole series of shared smells!!!  So, for those sensitive to such matters, here is a real product you may wish to check out…

Doctor Who and the Aerobics

TIMEA female friend recently asked me if I thought she looked fit.  For a male, that is a nightmare question because it is open to so many different interpretations!  Pausing a moment, I decided to play it safe and replied “Sure, have you been working out?”  Good call!  That was exactly what she meant and, given our age difference, it led to a longer conversation about ageing, exercise and health.

The psychology of ageing is interesting, of course, because its relationship to longevity and health depends very much on what you mean by “age”.   The common measure of this is our functional age, quite literally meaning the number of days (or hours or years or whatever) since we were born.  So far, so good…  Well my functional age is ##   (nope, not telling you!).  Then there is my subjective age, which is very mood and situation dependent.  Got flu this week, so feel ten years older at least.  Then again, listening to the radio in the car today, the ABBA track “Does your mother know” brought back memories of bad pub singing by me and a girl called Dawn in 1987 and I suddenly felt much younger (well, for three minutes or so!).  But what of the relationship with exercise, health and longevity?

Well, I don’t have a TARDIS, so travelling through time isn’t an option and I smoke too, so guess I need to look elsewhere for advice.  Ok, what about the idea of biological age?  Now that’s a very tricky concept!  Up to the age of about 30, so-called “aerobic power” will do for most psychology experiments.  Over-simplifying things, this is the index derived from treadmill exercises that get our heart and lungs up to maximum capacity and we see how sustainable that is.  Problem here is that beyond the age of 30, we typically decline in aerobic power at a rate of about 1% per year in the average person and other physiological factors combine to make this a less useful measure.  So, what can we do instead?

Recent work undertaken in Norway, involving almost 40k people, has sort of cracked the code.  This is based on the idea of fitness age.  Specifically, it’s a measure based on BMI (body-mass index), age, resting heart rate, etc., plus answers to questions indexing three variables; how often we exercise, how long for, and how hard we push ourselves.  If you are interested in determining your own fitness age, there’s a nice online test you can try and it’s now stimulating interesting research into the psychology of ageing and exercise.

So, what do we know so far?  Well, we are all generally healthier if we stop thinking about ways of extending the number of years we will live after birth, which is of course impossible, and instead thinking about pushing back the number of years we have left until we die.  That simple reorientation in thinking alone helps more than we might expect!  In terms of exercise, we can achieve a “younger” fitness age if we get the frequency, duration and level right relative to our chronological age, BMI, etc.  And by definition, a younger fitness age means our death has been delayed…

Alas, it is not quite that simple.  There are many benefits of exercise at my age (which I am still not telling you!).  Managed correctly, it can reduce my chances of a heart attack, delay dementia and improve my sexual health.  Even then, though, exercise means I am at greater risk of joint problems, it may make me more prone to obsessive compulsive problems, and it will also accelerate tooth decay!

So, where does all this leave us?  Not sure…but to go back to the opening question from my friend and flipping it, at least I can offer my own definition of what a “fit” man over 30 is.  Following the Norwegian logic, the man who has lost his own teeth, is limping, can’t remember his address and who keeps washing is hands just could be the fittest guy of all!  Oh, and his sexual health is probably ok too…

Happiness, Katy Perry and a hot air balloon

how-to-be-happyIt’s an old chestnut, isn’t it?  The question of whether money can buy you happiness or not.  It’s attracted a great deal of research over the years, engaging psychologists and economists alike, and it’s at the heart of many commonly held beliefs in folk psychology too.

The idea of retail therapy stems from such an assumption, for instance, as does the notion that money can be a vital route to life-enriching experiences which, in turn, will then deliver satisfaction.  Indeed, a recurrent theme in the literature concerns the notion of experiential consumption.  Generally speaking, there has been a loose consensus that spending money on a novel life-enriching experience, rather than on purely materialistic goods, will deliver at least a short-term sense of pleasure.

New research by Zhang and his colleagues, however, reported in the Journal of Research in Personality, adds some important qualifiers to this assumption.  This may perhaps seem something of a truism, but it seems that whether buying an experience makes you any happier actually depends on the type of person you are.  For the one-in-three of us who fall into the “material buyer” category, for instance, treating ourselves to a Katy Perry concert ticket will deliver no greater pleasure than buying a very good bottle of malt whisky.  And even those of us who are more experiential in our personality profiles will only derive happiness from an experience that actually matches our interests and desires.

That last point is the most crucial element of this research, I think.  It has always been assumed in the literature that any new life experience we buy will deliver at least a degree of happiness if we are that “type” of person.  In practice, however, it’s the fit between our personality and the experience itself that is the deciding factor.   Last November, I was fortunate enough to watch the 50th Anniversary Special of Doctor Who live in a movie theatre with a couple of hundred other “Whovians”, a novel experience that made me very happy.  Had my partner bought me a trip in a hot air balloon instead, however, I’d have gained no pleasure at all from that once-in-a-lifetime experience because, frankly, I don’t like heights!