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5 facts about positive affect for 2021
After the unrelenting negativity of 2020, we may need a refresher on the benefits of a positive affect.
The year 2020 was an unrelenting nightmare of negative stimuli. The coronavirus hit early and, in coastal cities like Seattle and New York, hit hard. Daily news reports tallied a death toll that today accounts for more American lives lost to coronavirus than battles in World War II. Unemployment reached unprecedented levels just as schools rushed to implement remote-learning contingencies. Then there were the violent displays of racial inequality, the revelations of America's devastating health gaps, and widespread disasters that hit with devastating force. Oh, and it was an election year, a time customarily reserved for bickering and the revocation of goodwill.
Many of us know that 2021 won't bring miraculous change, like a hard reboot of America's fractured systems and growing cultural distrust. But with New Year's quickly approaching, we also can't help but revel in its symbolism, a fresh start to a new (hopefully better) year.
After the fusillade of negativity that was 2020, though, we may need some help rerouting our mental circuitry toward positivity. Here are five helpful reminders of the value of sporting a positive outlook backed by science—and not self-help quackery.
1. Positivity correlates with better health
It's difficult to say whether a positive outlook nurtures health, success, and life satisfaction or if people who are healthy, successful, and satisfied maintain a positive outlook for, well, obvious reasons. While establishing a causal relationship has been difficult, research does suggest that happiness, extraversion, and optimism—the traits of a positive affect—influence beneficial life outcomes as much as it is a byproduct.
A longitudinal study published in Psychological Science found that enthusiastic, cheerful people experienced less memory decline with age. The researchers tested nearly 1,000 middle-aged and senior U.S. adults and found a strong association between having a positive affect and a stronger performance on the memory test.
As study authors Claudia Haase and Emily Hittner, an associate professor and a Ph.D. graduate at Northwestern University, respectively, said in a release: "Our findings showed that memory declined with age. However, individuals with higher levels of positive affect had a less steep memory decline over the course of almost a decade."
Preliminary research looking at the broaden-and-build theory suggests that a positive affect not only helps people cope with stress but makes them more psychologically resilient to future stressors. And studies have found that a positive outlook boosts immune responses while reducing the likelihood of heart attacks or other coronary problems. (Though, again, it is unclear in the literature whether positive people make healthier choices or if the positive affect influences these boons).
2. Positivity is contagious
The emotional contagion phenomenon describes the tendency for us to acquire the emotions of the people around us. Hanging out with happy, enthusiastic people, researchers have discovered, makes us happier and more enthusiastic ourselves, leading to windfalls such as less stress and increased energy. Of course, the phenomenon works in the opposite direction, too. Our minds can become the harbors of others' misery.
"Just as some diseases are contagious, we're found that many emotions can pulse through social networks," sociologist Nicholas Christakis told Harvard Medicine in an interview. Unlike a real disease, however, emotions don't have to be transmitted through contact. They can infect our minds through social networks and even online.
A study out of the University of Chicago found that researchers could alter people's opinions of a product by simply revealing peer evaluations. Sharing the negative opinions of others turned previously positive opinions sour and entrenched the already negative ones.
As Christakis added later in the interview, "Rather than asking how we can get happier, we should be asking how we can increase happiness all around us. When you make positive changes in your life, those effects ripple out from you and you can find yourself surrounded by the very thing you fostered."
3. Social connections support positivity
If emotions are contagious, then it stands to reason that positive social connections support personal positivity. And that's exactly what the research shows.
In 2019, the American Psychological Association published a meta-analysis surveying two decades of longitudinal research. All told, the report analyzed more than 47,000 participants across 52 studies looking at the effect social relationships had on self-esteem. The researchers found that social relationships, social support, and social acceptance helped develop positive self-esteem throughout people's lives.
"For the first time, we have a systematic answer to a key question in the field of self-esteem research: Whether and to what extent a person's social relationships influence his or her self-esteem development, and vice versa, and at what ages," Michelle A. Harris, study author and psychologist at the University of Texas, Austin, said in a release. "The reciprocal link between self-esteem and social relationships implies that the effects of a positive feedback loop accumulate over time and could be substantial as people go through life." Harris added that the effect did not differ significantly across the studies analyzed, suggesting a robust finding.
4. We have a bias toward positive language
Researchers at the University of Vermont wanted to test the Pollyanna Hypothesis, the idea that there is a universal human tendency to—feel free to whistle along—look on the bright side of life.
To test it, they asked the native speakers of ten different languages to rate individual words on a 9-point scale. Nine equaled broad-smiley face, while one was for deep-frowny face. For example, among English speakers, "laugher" rated a happy 8.5, "the" a neutral 4.98, and "terrorist" a depressing 1.3. The researchers then gathered a data set containing billions of words from 24 sources in those languages, from books to tweets, websites to music lyrics, and, of course, news stories.
An analysis of the data showed that humans typically use language to imbue a, in the researcher's words, "usage-invariant positivity bias." Every one of their 24 sources rated above the neutral score of five across all ten languages. Though it's certainly not true of all songs or novels—no amount of data massaging could turn "The Road" into anything other than a bummer—the researchers found that overall humanity "use[s] more happy words than sad words." Counterintuitive as it sounds, Twitter really is a gathering of the Pollyannas.
5. Positivity is not a self-fulfilling prophecy
Do these findings mean we should give ourselves over to the cult of positivity come 2021? Should we ignore every one of life's difficulties, view every rain cloud as a cotton-candy-laced fantasy, and use positive thinking to ween away our every foible until we become new-age Übermenschs? Absolutely not. Without realism to serve as ballast, positivity can become a flight of fancy that drifts us over dangerous territories.
One study compared people's financial expectations in life with their ultimate outcomes over 18 years. They found that participants who set realistic expectations based on accurate assessments of their situations had higher well-being than those who set unrealistic expectations based on overly positive attitudes. Crucially, realists had a higher well-being score than pessimists, too.
"I think for many people, research that shows you don't have to spend your days striving to think positively might come as a relief. We see that being realistic about your future and making sound decisions based on evidence can bring a sense of well-being, without having to immerse yourself in relentless positivity," Chris Dawson, study author and associate professor of business economics at Bath University, said in a release.
Positivity must also be measured against a realistic accounting of our emotions. Sometimes, life just sucks. It isn't fair. We lose the people we love, our hard work goes under-appreciated, and we struggle to traverse the paths that others seem to bypass. To just think positively and assume everything will be fine is what psychologist Susan David calls the "tyranny of positivity." Rather than ignore these parts of our life, David suggests that we should accept them.
"Difficult experiences are part of life. They are part of life's contract with the world. They're part of our contract with the world simply by virtue of being here," David told Big Think during an interview. "It is really important that as human beings, we develop our capacity to deal with our thoughts and emotions in a way that isn't a struggle, in a way that embraces them and is with them and is able to learn from them."
Positive realists don't ignore life's hardships and challenges, nor do they let the negativity bias worsen such struggles. They approach both rationally and with measured expectations. When remembering a year or period in their lives, they may also choose to treasure its positive qualities. And after a year like 2020, we can all be forgiven if, in 2021, we err on the bright(er) side of life.
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The finding is remarkably similar to the Dunning-Kruger effect, which describes how incompetent people tend to overestimate their own competency.
- Recent studies asked participants to rate the attractiveness of themselves and other participants, who were strangers.
- The studies kept yielding the same finding: unattractive people overestimate their attractiveness, while attractive people underrate their looks.
- Why this happens is unclear, but it doesn't seem to be due to a general inability to judge attractiveness.
There's no shortage of disparities between attractive and unattractive people. Studies show that the best-looking among us tend to have an easier time making money, receiving help, avoiding punishment, and being perceived as competent. (Sure, research also suggests beautiful people have shorter relationships, but they also have more sexual partners, and more options for romantic relationships. So call it a wash.)
Now, new research reveals another disparity: Unattractive people seem less able to accurately judge their own attractiveness, and they tend to overestimate their looks. In contrast, beautiful people tend to rate themselves more accurately. If anything, they underestimate their attractiveness.
The research, published in the Scandinavian Journal of Psychology, involved six studies that asked participants to rate the attractiveness of themselves and other participants, who were strangers. The studies also asked participants to predict how others might rate them.
In the first study, lead author Tobias Greitemeyer found that the participants who were most likely to overestimate their attractiveness were among the least attractive people in the study, based on average ratings.
Ratings of subjective attractiveness as a function of the participant's objective attractiveness (Study 1)
"Overall, unattractive participants judged themselves to be of about average attractiveness and they showed very little awareness that strangers do not share this view. In contrast, attractive participants had more insights into how attractive they actually are. [...] It thus appears that unattractive people maintain illusory self‐perceptions of their attractiveness, whereas attractive people's self‐views are more grounded in reality."
Why do unattractive people overestimate their attractiveness? Could it be because they want to maintain a positive self-image, so they delude themselves? After all, previous research has shown that people tend to discredit or "forget" negative social feedback, which seems to help protect a sense of self-worth.
To find out, Greitemeyer conducted a study that aimed to put participants in a positive, non-defensive mindset before rating attractiveness. He did that by asking participants questions that affirmed parts of their personality that had nothing to do with physical appearance, such as: "Have you ever been generous and selfless to another person?" Yet, this didn't change how participants rated themselves, suggesting that unattractive people aren't overestimating their looks out of defensiveness.
The studies kept yielding the same finding: unattractive people overestimate their attractiveness. Does that bias sound familiar? If so, you might be thinking of the Dunning-Kruger effect, which describes how incompetent people tend to overestimate their own competency. Why? Because they lack the metacognitive skills needed to discern their own shortcomings.
Greitemeyer found that unattractive people were worse at differentiating between attractive and unattractive people. But the finding that unattractive people may have different beauty ideals (or, more plainly, weaker ability to judge attractiveness) did "not have an impact on how they perceive themselves."
In short, it remains a mystery exactly why unattractive people overestimate their looks. Greitemeyer concluded that, while most people are decent at judging the attractiveness of others, "it appears that those who are unattractive do not know that they are unattractive."
Unattractive people aren't completely unaware
The results of one study suggested that unattractive people aren't completely in the dark about their looks. In the study, unattractive people were shown a set of photos of highly attractive and unattractive people, and they were asked to select photos of people with comparable attractiveness. Most unattractive people chose to compare themselves with similarly unattractive people.
"The finding that unattractive participants selected unattractive stimulus persons with whom they would compare their attractiveness to suggests that they may have an inkling that they are less attractive than they want it to be," Greitemeyer wrote.
Every star we can see, including our sun, was born in one of these violent clouds.
This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink.
An international team of astronomers has conducted the biggest survey of stellar nurseries to date, charting more than 100,000 star-birthing regions across our corner of the universe.
Stellar nurseries: Outer space is filled with clouds of dust and gas called nebulae. In some of these nebulae, gravity will pull the dust and gas into clumps that eventually get so big, they collapse on themselves — and a star is born.
These star-birthing nebulae are known as stellar nurseries.
The challenge: Stars are a key part of the universe — they lead to the formation of planets and produce the elements needed to create life as we know it. A better understanding of stars, then, means a better understanding of the universe — but there's still a lot we don't know about star formation.
This is partly because it's hard to see what's going on in stellar nurseries — the clouds of dust obscure optical telescopes' view — and also because there are just so many of them that it's hard to know what the average nursery is like.
The survey: The astronomers conducted their survey of stellar nurseries using the massive ALMA telescope array in Chile. Because ALMA is a radio telescope, it captures the radio waves emanating from celestial objects, rather than the light.
"The new thing ... is that we can use ALMA to take pictures of many galaxies, and these pictures are as sharp and detailed as those taken by optical telescopes," Jiayi Sun, an Ohio State University (OSU) researcher, said in a press release.
"This just hasn't been possible before."
Over the course of the five-year survey, the group was able to chart more than 100,000 stellar nurseries across more than 90 nearby galaxies, expanding the amount of available data on the celestial objects tenfold, according to OSU researcher Adam Leroy.
New insights: The survey is already yielding new insights into stellar nurseries, including the fact that they appear to be more diverse than previously thought.
"For a long time, conventional wisdom among astronomers was that all stellar nurseries looked more or less the same," Sun said. "But with this survey we can see that this is really not the case."
"While there are some similarities, the nature and appearance of these nurseries change within and among galaxies," he continued, "just like cities or trees may vary in important ways as you go from place to place across the world."
Astronomers have also learned from the survey that stellar nurseries aren't particularly efficient at producing stars and tend to live for only 10 to 30 million years, which isn't very long on a universal scale.
Looking ahead: Data from the survey is now publicly available, so expect to see other researchers using it to make their own observations about stellar nurseries in the future.
"We have an incredible dataset here that will continue to be useful," Leroy said. "This is really a new view of galaxies and we expect to be learning from it for years to come."
Tiny specks of space debris can move faster than bullets and cause way more damage. Cleaning it up is imperative.
- NASA estimates that more than 500,000 pieces of space trash larger than a marble are currently in orbit. Estimates exceed 128 million pieces when factoring in smaller pieces from collisions. At 17,500 MPH, even a paint chip can cause serious damage.
- To prevent this untrackable space debris from taking out satellites and putting astronauts in danger, scientists have been working on ways to retrieve large objects before they collide and create more problems.
- The team at Clearspace, in collaboration with the European Space Agency, is on a mission to capture one such object using an autonomous spacecraft with claw-like arms. It's an expensive and very tricky mission, but one that could have a major impact on the future of space exploration.
This is the first episode of Just Might Work, an original series by Freethink, focused on surprising solutions to our biggest problems.
Catch more Just Might Work episodes on their channel: https://www.freethink.com/shows/just-might-work