Out of the zillions of research papers published in 2018, I've chosen 18 that offer easy tips for living a more fulfilling life. While I’ve focused on my usual “beat” of health, happiness, and habits, you’ll also find the latest on the G-spot, aging, sleep and many other topics, from the wonderful (#1) to the weird (#18). I’ll summarize each study, offer a link and a few details about it, and then give a tip or two for how you could apply it to your everyday life. And remember, use it or lose it! (Note to self.)
So, here it is, psych news you can use from 2018:
1. Summary: Difficult people can benefit the most from practicing acts of kindness--and their change of heart happens rapidly.
Details : 640 people who were mildly depressed were recruited to participate in online compassion training. One group of participants were also rated disagreeable, that is, they had frequent relationship conflicts and acted in hostile ways. After just two months of practicing the suggested acts of kindness and empathy, this subgroup reported the most increased life satisfaction and the most reduction in depression of all other participants. (Research report is here .)
Tip : Structured exercises that teach people how to be kind can be quite effective. Given that these interventions took only 10-15 minutes every other day, they could be taught in a variety of settings and have broad applications.
Some studies have shown a link between over-use of digital technology and harmful effects on the immune system, such as that published by myself and colleagues in PLOS ONE in 2015,4 and others have shown that overuse of such technology is associated with poor lifestyle choices (bad diet, poor sleep).5 How these negative influences interact with the benefits of exercise remains to be seen.
2. Summary: Being in a settled relationship increases the chances for weight gain.
Details : Most studies of married people show that marriage is associated with healthier behaviors. But a recent 10-year study showed that couples gained more weight over the years than singles. Even though the couples did, in fact, eat healthier foods than the singletons, they also ate more . This result was even stronger for couples with children, who tended to finish their children’s food and snacks. The authors of the study speculated, among other things, that individuals who are no longer on the “marriage market” don’t care as much about gaining weight. However, being overweight or obese puts them at risk for numerous health problems.
Tips : 1. Talk about this issue with your partner and decide together how to handle it. 2. Stop with eating your kids' snacks, already! 3. Cut back on portion sizes. Adopt this fun way to become more mindful of portion control by comparing healthy serving sizes to ordinary objects.
Tackle fears with common sense. If she's scared of dogs, don't hustle her across the street when one is coming. Demystify the fear. ("Oh, a puppy! Let's ask the owner if we can feel how soft his fur is.") In tense moments—shots come to mind—be sympathetic but not too emotional, says Atlanta-area pediatrician Roy Benaroch. Say, "It will be OK. It will be over in a few minutes," not, "I know—it hurts! It hurts!"
3. Summary: Loud music leads to unhealthy food choices.
Details : Whatever the background music—be it classical, rock, or rap, if it’s loud, you may find yourself making poor food choices, according to this research. Lead author of the study , Dr. Dipayan Biswas, explained that, “High-volume music is more exciting and makes you physically more excited, less inhibited and more likely to choose something indulgent. Low music makes us more relaxed and more mindful, and more likely to go for the things that are good for us in the long run.”
Tip : To make healthier food choices (not to mention protect your hearing), avoid loud restaurants.
4. Summary: There is no G-spot!
Details : Have you been trying in vain to find your G-spot? For those lucky enough not to know, the G-spot is allegedly an extra-sensitive area inside a woman’s vagina that is purported to be the stairway to orgasmic paradise. But according to gynecologist Dr. Jen Gunter, there is no such thing as the G-spot.
Tip : Stop looking for your G-spot, and stop using the term “G-spot.” According to Dr. Gunter, the search for the G-spot “serves no one and in fact leaves many women to feel deficient when they can’t find their 'G-spot.'” Gunter offers more details in this New York Times article .
5. Summary: If you are interested in a potential romantic partner, show it!
Details : While conventional wisdom would have it that “playing hard to get” is the best way to attract a partner, this research indicates that prospective romantic partners prefer those who indicate romantic interest. This makes sense. After all, asking someone out puts your ego on the line; you want to know whether you have some chance of success.
Tip : Show some interest and enthusiasm when you hope to get better acquainted with someone.
6. Summary: Extroverts who are conscientious and agreeable have the most mating success .
Details : This conclusion seems to align with #5 above. I’m going to speculate that extroverts might be more likely to express their interest in a potential partner, thereby acquiring a mating advantage. It is heartening to note that people (especially men, according to the study ) who are conscientious and agreeable also have a mating advantage. Maybe nice guys do not finish last.
Tip: Whether you are an extrovert or not, you can still be conscientious and agreeable. Be open about your intentions, follow up on plans, and be honest when communicating who you are and what you enjoy.
7. Summary: To impress others, emphasize the hard work that went into your success.
Details : Whether you are trying to impress a job interviewer or a potential romantic partner, emphasize the hard work that went into your success and/or the challenges you successfully overcame. According to this study , focusing on how hard you worked will be more impressive than focusing on talents or achievements.
Tip : Talk about the efforts you made that contributed to your successes.
8. Summary : Attending regular cultural activities can dramatically reduce the risk for depression in people over the age of 50.
Details : In a 10-year study (described here ), 2000 people over the age of 50 were tracked to see how many cultural activities they attended each month. Those who attended plays, art exhibits, movies, and musical events every few months had a 32% lower risk of depression. Those who attended at least one cultural event every month had a 48% lower risk of depression. While this study described a correlation (not causation), the results are impressive.
Tip : Add “mental health” to your reasons to go to a cultural event. If finances are a barrier, start noticing free and low-cost events in your area. Then get out and have fun! A toast to a happier mood in 2019!
9. Summary: “Sitting is NOT the new smoking, contrary to popular myth.”
Details : I was thrilled to see this myth-busting headline in sciencedaily.com . As a regretful former smoker, nothing annoys me more than those who minimize the dangers of cigarette smoking. To be clear, excessive sitting does increase the rate of premature death and of some chronic illness by about 10-20%. However, smoking increases the rates of premature deaths from all causes by about 180%. Terry Boyle, the author of the study, drives the last stake into the “sitting is the new smoking” myth: "Finally, unlike smoking, sitting is neither an addiction nor a danger to others.”
Tips : Stopping smoking is the best thing you can do for your health. Oh, and get up from that recliner and move around a little bit every hour or so. Even the tiniest amount of exercise has benefits, as described below and in an ever-increasing number of studies.
Take charge. Children crave limits, which help them understand and manage an often confusing world. Show your love by setting boundaries so your kids can explore and discover their passions safely.
10. Summary: Small amounts of exercise, even at a slow pace, can help the brain, make you happier, and prolong your life.
Details : In a small study of college students, just 10 minutes of slow cycling on a stationary bicycle improved memory. Even better, MRIs of participants showed increased coordination between different parts of the brain after exercising.
A different study indicated that even small amounts of exercise--just 10 minutes a day or one exercise session per week--seem to make you happier. And, another study found that even small amounts of exercise increase longevity.
Tip: To paraphrase Aesop, no act of exercise, however small, is ever wasted. Move around in any way that feels good to you for as long as you are inspired to do so.
11. Summary: Supervised aerobic exercise has large anti-depressant effects on adults with major depression.
Details : 455 adult patients from ages 18-65 with a diagnosis of major depression who did moderate intensity aerobic exercise for 45 minutes three times a week showed a large overall anti-depressant effect, according to the study summarized here .
Tip : Even if you have major depression, aerobic exercise will give you a significant mood lift.
12. Summary: Regular, lifelong exercise may give septuagenarians the bodies of those 30 years younger.
Details :. A small group of people in their 70’s who had exercised regularly since their 20’s were compared to non-exercisers (also in their 70’s) and to healthy young people in their 20’s. Amazingly, the results showed that the active 70-year-olds had muscular and cardiovascular health comparable to people 30 years younger than they. The 20-year-olds won out on aerobic capacity, but the 70-year-olds’ muscles resembled those of the younger set.
Tip: A lifelong exercise habit may keep your body 30 years younger than your chronological age.
13. Summary: Late-evening exercise (with one exception) does not have a negative effect on sleep onset or sleep quality.
Details : Many people, even some sleep experts, warn against exercising too late in the day for fear it will disrupt sleep. But after an analysis of 23 high-quality studies, researchers concluded that moderate exercise, even if it ended just 30 minutes before bedtime, has little effect on sleep quality. If anything, there is a slight positive effect, that is, participants spent more time in deep sleep, the kind of sleep that is most restorative. The one exception: Those doing vigorous exercise or competitive sports had more difficulty falling asleep, as their heart rates remained too high for them to settle down.
Tip : Moderate exercisers can exercise in the early evening without fear of disrupting their sleep quality.
14. Summary: Childhood poverty may have lasting effects on cognitive skills in old age.
Details : The research news from 2018 was by no means always upbeat. In the largest study of its kind, a European study of over 20,000 seniors (average age 71) found that those who had experienced socioeconomic hardship as children scored significantly lower on cognitive tests as elderly adults. This study adds to the growing body of evidence documenting the harmful effects of “ toxic stress ” and “adverse childhood experiences” (ACEs) on children.
Tip : The study author recommends that “children facing social and economic challenges should be provided with more resources to counter the disadvantages they face." Editorial comment: If we truly believe in equal opportunity, we must find ways as a society to help disadvantaged children, their parents, and their communities.
15. Summary: Lottery winners in Sweden find that money really does lead to a more satisfying life .
Details : “Money can’t buy happiness.” Apparently, this adage does not apply to lottery winners in Sweden. Lottery winners in Sweden were more satisfied with their lives than lottery losers. In fact, the more people won, the more satisfied they were. Moreover, these results held up two decades after the initial wins. This result was not simply a correlation—data showed that winning the lottery itself caused the lift in life satisfaction. (Note: In this research, “life satisfaction” measures a person’s overall view of their life situation, whereas “happiness” describes a current mood.) Counter to other prevailing myths, lottery winners did not blow their money all at once, but spent it slowly over time. The fascinating story is here .
Put on your own oxygen mask first. In other words, take care of yourself or you can't be a fully engaged parent. Parents who deprive themselves of rest, food, and fun for the sake of their kids do no one a favor. "People feel guilty when they work a lot, so they want to give all their free time to their kids," says Fred Stocker, a child psychiatrist at the University of Louisville School of Medicine, in Kentucky. "But you risk getting squeezed dry and emotionally exhausted." A spa weekend may not be realistic, but it's OK to take 15 minutes for a bath after you walk in the door. (A tall request for a kid, yes, but a happier Uno player goes a long way.) Running ragged between activities? Ask your child to prioritize, says Taylor. She may be dying for you to chaperone a field trip but ambivalent about your missing a swim meet—the ideal amount of time for a pedicure.
Tip : Whether you win the lottery or not, if you build your financial resources, you will feel more satisfied with life. And, just in case you were worried about it: If you should win the lottery, you will not feel miserable. The bottom line: Money can sometimes buy happiness.
16. Summary: Putting calorie content on food images helps your brain make better food choices.
Details : There’s been a back-and-forth in the research about whether putting calorie counts on food items is an effective way to help people eat healthier and less. Now, a small study of Dartmouth undergraduates indicates that cues such as calorie information could indeed promote healthier eating. According to a summary of the study here , “When food images appeared with the calorie content, the brain showed decreased activation of the reward system and increased activation in the control system. In other words, foods that you might otherwise be inclined to eat became less desirable once the calorie content was displayed."
Tip : The average woman needs about 2000 calories/day and the average man about 2500. That’s about 600-800 calories per meal plus one 200-calorie treat. (Regular readers know I’m a fan of treats.) Start paying attention to calorie information, and you will consume less and get a better sense of portion control. Given that 40% of Americans are obese, the public health gains from simply displaying calorie information are potentially enormous.
17. Writing a thank-you note is more powerful than you think.
Details : Why don’t people write their thank-you notes? (Grumble, grumble.) The reasons may vary, but according to this recent study , one potent reason is the gift-givers underestimate the positive reactions of the recipient of the note. Turned out the recipients were delighted to receive the notes, and the givers felt better, too.
Tip : Write those thank-you notes! You’ll feel better, and so will the other person. Plus, it’s the right thing to do.
18. Summary: The world’s hottest chili pepper can give you a “thunderclap headache."
Details : As a person who gets frequent migraines, the words "thunderclap headache" strike fear into my heart. It turns out that there is an easy explanation for these headaches and an even easier solution.
A man developed excruciating “thunderclap headaches” after participating in a chili pepper eating contest and consuming the world’s hottest chili pepper, the “Carolina reaper.” (Personally, I was thunderstruck at the idea that anyone would try to eat the world’s hottest chili pepper.) It turns out that cayenne pepper and some chili peppers are vasoconstrictors and can cause headaches and even sudden heart attacks.
Tip : Easy solution: If you’re considering entering a chili pepper eating contest, don’t do i!.
And there you have it: 18 studies from 2018. Just one warning: Studies are generalizations, so if you have something different going on that works for you, keep doing it. Otherwise, pick one or two of these studies and use it to make your life a little better. As the research above shows, even small improvements can make a big difference.