It was a banner year for science in 2021 as researchers around the globe turned out vaccines and new therapeutics in near miraculous times. But the pandemic hasn't just turned up the pressure on our physical health. It's been a pressure cooker for our mental health too.
And just as brilliant medical researchers have been racing to make discoveries that will keep us physically healthier, psychologists and behavioral scientists have been hard at work figuring out how we can all be a little happier, more resilient, and well adjusted in a world that often feels like it's going off the rails.
The UC Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center's online magazine chronicles these breakthroughs throughout 2021 and helpfully rounds up some of the most important and useful each December. Some are niche insights for therapists or educators, but a handful can help just about any of us have a more joyful and meaningful 2022.
1. Uncertainty pushes us to stop and smell the roses.
This pandemic has had very, very few silver linings, but positive psychology researchers may have uncovered at least one. It turns out the more wildly uncertain your life is, the more likely you are to stop and smell the roses.
"Researchers handed out flyers to pedestrians that said 'Life is unpredictable: Stop and smell the roses' or 'Life is constant: Stop and smell the roses.' A short distance away was a table with a dozen red roses on it--and the people who read that life is unpredictable literally smelled the roses 2.5 times more often than the others," Greater Good reports. Which is cute, but does this effect actually translate to real life?
Apparently yes. When the same researchers "pinged 6,000 participants up to a dozen times a day, asking how chaotic and unpredictable the world felt and whether they were savoring the present. It turned out that when the world felt messy, people were more likely to be savoring their lives a few hours later, at the next ping."
We'd all love to see the end of this virus, of course, but perhaps it will cheer you to know it's pushing us all to pay more attention to the life's small pleasures. Maybe we'll even keep this newfound good habit once we fully settle back into a more predictable routine.
2. There's a right and wrong way to daydream.
We're 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 new science insists that there is actually a correct (and wrong) way to daydream. One approach leads to fresh ideas. The other way leads straight to anxiety. What's the difference? Mind-wandering, where you're thinking about something other than the task at hand but in a focused way, makes you feel lousy. But when your thoughts are free flowing and meander from topic to topic, daydreaming makes you happier and more creative.
Here's the bottom-line takeaway from 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 doing a little daydreaming."
3. You are surrounded by opportunities for empathy.
An absolute boatload of science shows that empathy helps you succeed in life and at work (some examples here and here). Which is handy to know but also a little abstract. It's easy enough to tout the benefits of empathy in the abstract, but actually increasing your empathy in your day-to-day life is much harder, right?
Actually no, says new research out this year. Scientists actually measured and it turns out we all encounter an average of nine opportunities to show empathy every single day. And the more we seize the opportunities the better we feel.
"People who saw more empathy opportunities and empathized more were happier and had greater well-being," Greater Good sums up. "This suggests that our daily lives are filled with opportunities to practice empathy, including opportunities to share in other people's happy moments, if we just look out for them."
4. Compassion makes us more resilient.
Lots of people (myself included) feel like the pandemic has worn down their capacity for compassion. After nearly two years of disruption and disagreement, it's sometimes incredibly hard to muster much sympathy for those with a different approach to the virus (or, on our worst days, much of anyone really).
But new research out this year might just convince you to dig deep for your last reserves of empathy. A poll of 4,000 people in 21 countries "found that participants who expressed a fear of showing compassion for themselves or others were likely to feel more depressed, anxious, and stressed out during the pandemic."
Other studies confirmed these findings. Nudging yourself to empathize with others (even those you disagree with) might sound like a recipe for emotional exhaustion, but compassion seems to give us resilience in a crisis. Counterintuitively, empathy is in your own psychological self-interest.
5. Turning off your camera helps reduce Zoom fatigue.
And here's an immediately useful if not wildly surprising finding to end on: if too many video meetings leave you feeling emotionally frayed by the end of the day, try just turning off the camera.
A host of research has been done into the incredibly topical phenomenon of Zoom fatigue this year, with scientists identifying a range of causes. You can check out the complete Greater Good article for all the details but the bottom line solution (besides the obvious one of avoiding unnecessary meetings) is simple: "Turn off the cameras, both ways, at least from time to time."