Put Down the Blob, Stop Thinking — And Walk!

photo by asher isbrucker (creative commons)

Noted in both the Washington Post and the New York Times this morning, research just out (Monday) suggests that walking in nature helps reduce rumination (brooding, obsessing over unsolvable problems). The mechanism is unclear.

Why is that important? Because solid research (see Lyuborminsky) has indicated that rumination is both a symptom and cause of depression. Non-depressed folk that ruminate are much more likely to later become depressed. Depressed folk that ruminate are much more likely to become more depressed.

The researcher, Gregory Bratman at Stanford, measured bloodflow to a part of the brain associated with rumination, the subgenual prefrontal cortex. (In research on meditation, the prefrontal cortex has also been implicated in self-referential thought, and that self-referential thought is associated with unhappiness.) Post-walk, participants showed small but significant reduction of bloodflow to that part of the brain.

The Post also noted that short micro-breaks of looking at nature have “rejuvenating effects” on the brain. And the Post also noted that research that relies on brain scans to draw conclusions remains controversial. It’s certainly true that studies that measure something in the brain seem to be hailed as irrefutable by the press (see Blobology).

Still, if you’re depressed, take a walk! Or just go outside and take in some trees. It really does make a difference.

Oxford Happiness Inventory

Sonja Lyuborminsky drew my attention to this in The How of HappinessHere is the link to the inventory.

Can happiness be measured? The Oxford Happiness Questionnaire attempts to do just that. Developed by Michael Argyle and Peter Hills of Oxford Brookes University, and originally published in 2002 in the Journal of Personality and Individual Differences, it’s one several measures of “subjective wellbeing” (aka happiness) constructed by scientific research psychologists.

You might try the assessment several times over some extended period: take the questionnaire now, and return at a later date to take it again, comparing scores (perhaps after trying some exercises to increase happiness). There are just 29 questions, so it won’t take long.

Sonja Lyubomirsky: Happiness Research

Psychoanalysts famously charted the origins of mental pathology. Cognitive psychologists take a pragmatic, manualized approach to treatment. But what about once pathology has been tamed, or minimized? Is there anything more? Sonya Lyubomirsky has been busy researching the answer to this question. She belongs to the positive psychology movement, a group which, rather than focussing on pathology (a worthwhile pursuit), is interested in what makes certain people happier than others.

Her approach is not glib. She is a real researcher who tests assumptions. One finding is particularly interesting. She found that 50 percent of our happiness is based on our genetics, 10 percent on circumstance, and 40 percent on actions we take ourselves. The genetics part is not surprising. That circumstance is contributes only 10 percent to our happiness is a bit of an eyebrow raiser. But that 40 percent of happiness hangs on our own actions is quite empowering, if you think about it.

Dr. Lyubomirsky is smart enough to caution that these numbers are not absolutes. They vary from person to person. But this ratio generally holds for most.

The next obvious question – actions can I cram into that 40 percent that will increase my happiness. Well, fortunately for us she supplies a list — but with some caveats. Some practices will be more useful for some people than others. There is an importance of “fit.” In other words, if you enjoy a practice then go for it. If you don’t enjoy a practice, then abandon it. What works for what people can hinge on culture. Depressed people found expressing gratitude to be – more depressing. They tended to end up criticizing themselves for not being grateful enough. So, do what works. If it doesn’t work, toss it.

Here are some of the practices she maps out:

  • practicing gratitude and positive thinking
  • investing in social connections
  • managing stress, hardship, and trauma
  • living to the present
  • committing to goals
  • taking care of the body and soul

Dr. Lyubomirsky has a number of books including The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want.