What Religion Can Tell Us About a Well-lived Life

Gillian McCann and Gitte Bechsgaard wrote . . . . . . . . .

When determining why religious people tend to be healthier, both mentally and physically, certain connections can be easily understood. The links between the community that is often provided by religious affiliation and better health are more and more well known. The work of psychologists like Susan Pinker has argued for the buffering influence of community and human contact and its connection with longevity. However, other vital contributions that are made to well-being by religion are often less clear.

Religious, spiritual, and philosophical traditions provide overarching world views. These help us to orient in the many situations we may come up against in the course of their lives. These beliefs, which are often developed in childhood, are not necessarily front of mind or even conscious much of the time, but they have important implications for well-being and a well-lived life.

Pleasure versus purpose

Spiritual traditions have a great deal to say about what constitutes the “Good Life.” As we have mentioned before on this blog, spiritual traditions often have a very different approach to happiness than secular ones. Happiness, as with so many words, ends up a challenge to define. This is because ideas of happiness lead directly into a larger conception of our understanding of a well-lived life. This varies a great deal depending on your worldview. Is the Good Life one based on personal pleasure? Or is it a life spent in service to others?

Much of mainstream public discourse on the Good Life has largely been hijacked by commerce and travel companies. It is presented to us as someone lounging on the beach or playing golf. It is depicted as a life that is centered around the individual and their amusement. Essentially this is the hedonist worldview—that freedom from work and entangling relationships constitutes happiness. But does this really lead to the sense of a fulfilled life?

It turns out no, it doesn’t. In her ongoing work on meaning versus happiness, Emily Esfahani Smith argues that pillars of happiness are related to eudaimonia. This is a Greek term that refers to an overall sense of well-being rather than fleeting happiness. This way of approaching life encompasses ideas of meaning and purpose nor simply referring to changing emotional states.

Eudaimonia does not presuppose a life free of struggle and strain. Esfahani Smith makes an important point that while, for instance, having children may lead to stress, it is ultimately one of the key sources of meaning for many people. Standing up and fighting for a cause may be extremely inconvenient and often discouraging but provides for a sense of contributing to society and of meaning overall.

Research indicates what may at first appear to be counterintuitive to many who are constantly bombarded by ads for resort vacations and lotteries. If we look at occupations that show the most satisfaction, they consistently include those who work in “helping” professions, such as teaching and nursing. The feeling of making an important and meaningful contribution trumps salary in terms of career satisfaction.

Sociologist Émile Durkheim made this argument about the importance of meaning over a century ago. Durkheim, who was himself a mostly secular Jew, was concerned with the waning power of religion and its implications for society. He coined the term anomie to describe a person who had lost all sense of meaning and purpose in their life. Detached from religion, from relationships to others, anomic individuals were, he concluded, dangerous both to themselves and to those around them.

One of the key contributions of religious and spiritual traditions is precisely that they offer a sense of meaning and purpose. This outlook fosters resilience and a deeper feeling of satisfaction. It places all the events of human life within a larger pattern and the sense that each individual life is valuable. Religious people often frame experiences as meaningful, even when they are challenging. This other-oriented approach offers a very different interpretation of what we mean when we say “a Good Life.”

Source: Psychology Today

Healthy Living Can Lower Your Odds for Alzheimer’s

Alzheimer’s disease has no cure, but one expert says it may be possible to reduce the risks of developing the disease with healthy lifestyle changes.

There are two different types of Alzheimer’s. Early-onset typically affects patients before age 65. Late-onset affects older adults.

“Early-onset dementia often is linked to genetics and can run in families,” said Dr. Chen Zhao, a neurologist at Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center. “The cause of late-onset dementia is less clear, and most likely due to a combination of lifestyle, environmental and genetic risk factors.”

Certain lifestyle changes may have benefits for brain health, which may then reduce the risk for dementia.

The strongest evidence is that physical activity, specifically, “aerobic activity, or exercise that gets the heart pumping, can help to maintain brain function,” Zhao said in a medical center news release.

Other changes include following a Mediterranean or plant-based diet and getting better-quality sleep. Maintaining strong social connections and keeping mentally active may also lower your risk, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.

Social and mental stimulation strengthens connections between nerve cells in the brain, though why this happens hasn’t been determined.

“Observational studies suggest that lifestyle impacts risk for dementia; making health-conscious lifestyle changes certainly helps to improve general health, well-being, and brain health as well,” Zhao said.

Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia. With the disease, an abnormal protein builds up in the brain and spreads to other parts of the brain over time, Zhao said. Normal brain cells start to die.

This progression can lead to problems that affect one’s day-to-day life, including short-term memory loss, getting lost, spatial and navigation issues, trouble making judgments and eventually trouble speaking or recognizing people.

Early warning signs include trouble remembering the names of old friends, and not feeling as sharp as usual. Later signs include getting lost, repeating the same stories and forgetting to take medications.

Any of these is a good reason to talk to a neurologist or seek a referral from a family doctor.

Source: HealthDay

COVID Caused Biggest Drop in U.S. Life Expectancy Since World War II

The COVID-19 pandemic triggered the largest decline in U.S. life expectancy since World War II, a new study finds.

Between 2018 and 2020, overall life expectancy in the United States fell by 1.87 years.

But there were significant racial differences. Life expectancy fell 1.36 years among whites, 3.25 years among Blacks and 3.88 years among Hispanics, researchers say.

The decrease in life expectancy in the United States was 8.5 times higher than the average in a comparison group of 16 other wealthy nations. And the declines among U.S. minority populations were 15 to 18 times larger than in those other countries.

“To give some perspective, when the decline in life expectancy was happening a few years ago, it was a decrease of about 0.1 years each year that was making front-page news,” said study lead author Dr. Steven Woolf, director emeritus of the Center on Society and Health at Virginia Commonwealth University.

“That’s the kind of increase or decrease that we’re accustomed to each year,” he said in a school news release. The 1.87-year decline found in this study is “massive” by comparison, according to Woolf.

“It’s like nothing we’ve seen since World War II,” he said. “1943 was the last time the U.S. had such a large decrease in life expectancy.”

The results were published in the BMJ.

Life expectancy in six countries in the comparison group increased in 2020, including New Zealand, Finland and Norway. While some of the comparison countries also did poorly — Italy and Spain had decreases in life expectancy — none approached the decline seen in the United States.

The U.S. COVID-19 death toll has surpassed 600,000, according to Johns Hopkins University’s Coronavirus Resource Center.

“When the pandemic came, my naïve assumption was that it would not have a big impact on the preexisting gap between the U.S. and peer countries,” Woolf said. “It was a global pandemic, and I assumed that every country would take a hit. What I did not anticipate was how badly the U.S. would fare in the pandemic and the enormous death toll that the U.S. would experience.”

Woolf said the “disorganized handling of the pandemic in the U.S.” had a lot to do with government structure.

“Our Constitution delegates public health authority to states, so we had 50 response plans,’ he noted. “Many lives were lost because so many decisions were driven by politics and ideology. COVID-19 exposed a lot of the systemic problems that have been fueling the long-term decline in the health of Americans.

And when COVID-19 is in the rear view mirror, those systemic issues will still be with us, Woolf said.

Native Americans, who had high death rates during the pandemic, weren’t included in the study due to a lack of data.

Source: HealthDay

That Song Is Stuck in Your Head, but It’s Helping You to Remember

Karen Nikos-Rose wrote . . . . . . . . .

If you have watched TV since the ’90s, the sitcom theme song, “I’ll Be There For You,” has likely been stuck in your head at one point or another. New research from UC Davis suggests these experiences are more than a passing nuisance — they play an important role in helping memories form, not only for the song, but also related life events like hanging out with friends — or watching other people hang with their friends on the ’90s television show, Friends.

“Scientists have known for some time that music evokes autobiographical memories, and that those are among the emotional experiences with music that people cherish most,” said Petr Janata, UC Davis professor of psychology and co-author on a new study.

What hasn’t been understood to date is how those memories form in the first place and how they become so durable, such that just hearing a bit of a song can trigger vivid remembering. — Petr Janata

The paper, “Spontaneous Mental Replay of Music Improves Memory for Incidentally Associated Event Knowledge,” was published online in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. Co-authors are Janata and Benjamin Kubit, a postdoctoral researcher in cognitive neuroscience, both of the UC Davis Department of Psychology, and Center for Mind and Brain.

This new research offers an initial glimpse into these mechanisms and, somewhat surprisingly, finds that the songs that get stuck in your head help that process of strengthening memories as they first form, the authors said. Thus, this is the first research to link two of the most common phenomena people experience with music — earworms (having a song stuck in your head) and music-evoked remembering.

For their latest study, the researchers worked with 25 to 31 different people in each of three experiments, over three different days, spaced weeks apart. Subjects first listened to unfamiliar music, and then, a week later, listened to the music again, this time paired with likewise unfamiliar movie clips. In one instance, movies were played without music. The research subjects, all UC Davis undergraduate and graduate students, were subsequently asked to remember as many details as they could from each movie as the music played. They were also quizzed about their recollection of the associated tunes and how often they experienced each of the tunes as an earworm. None of them had formal music training.

Repetition and accuracy

The results: the more often a tune played in a person’s head, the more accurate the memory for the tune became and, critically, the more details the person remembered from the specific section of the movie with which the tune was paired.

With only one week between when they saw the movie, and when they were asked to remember as many details from the movie as they could while listening to the movie soundtrack, the effect of repeatedly experiencing a tune from the soundtrack as an earworm resulted in near-perfect retention of the movie details. These people’s memories, in fact, were as good as when they had first seen the movie. Additionally, most subjects were able to report what they were typically doing when their earworms occurred, and none of them mentioned the associated movies coming to mind at those times.

“Our paper shows that even if you are playing that song in your mind and not pulling up details of memories explicitly, that is still going to help solidify those memories,” Janata said.

“We typically think of earworms as random nuisance beyond our control, but our results show that earworms are a naturally occurring memory process that helps preserve recent experiences in long-term memory,” Kubit said.

The authors said they hope the research, which is ongoing, could eventually lead to the development of nonpharmaceutical, music-based interventions to help people suffering from dementia and other neurological disorders to better remember events, people and daily tasks.

Source: UC Davis

The 7 Lamps of Living

Marty Nemko wrote . . . . . . . . .

Something as complex and individualized as the life well-led cannot be reduced to seven keys or even 50 keys.

That said, amid our information overload, such lists may have value, if only as a starting place for our contemplating how to live our lives. In that spirit, if someone were to put a gun to my head and say, “Give me the seven keys to the life well-led or else!”, this is what I’d say.

Decide cosmically

It’s not enough to follow the rules or even decide whether to keep or to break a rule to take care of family. The life well-led involves making cosmically wise decisions, that is, decisions that will do the most good for the most people without violating an individual’s fundamental right, for example, the right to not be killed. (I’ll leave the death penalty issue for another day.)

For example, let’s say you’re a psychotherapist and your client is considering divorce. You’ve asked all manner of questions to help the client decide. But after that, the client insisted: “No! Tell me what you think.” The therapist who decides to answer should consider not just what’s best for the client but for the spouse, kids, and perhaps surprising, society. Let’s say the spouse is a medical researcher with the potential to save many lives but is emotionally fragile who, in a divorce, would be devastated, likely requiring a long time to recover, and therefore do a worse job at work. That could be worth considering.

Another example: Let’s say you supervise a poor-performing employee. Deciding whether to coach or replace the employee depends not just on how the person would feel if let go but on the probability of the coaching helping sufficiently, what you’d otherwise do with the time, the likelihood of finding a better replacement, and the impacts of the current versus likely replacement on coworkers, bosses, customers, and even society. Take even an entry-level employee: an accounting clerk. If the person is slow and/or error-prone, it means that people and your organization don’t get the deserved money, let alone on time. The organization’s accountants must spend extra time searching for and correcting problems, the organization could lose customers, and be more prone to a time-consuming, stressful audit.

The life well-led involves considering an action’s effects on the stakeholders.

Responsibility is key

The life well-led includes working diligently and ethically. Anathema would be people who make the least effort they can get away with and who cut ethical corners, both in professional and personal life. The good news is that responsibility doesn’t require people to choose a career they find difficult. Rather, a responsible, contributory career builds on natural strengths and acquired knowledge, thus making the career not too difficult.

Treasure time

It’s cliche but true that time is our most valuable and ever decreasing possession. And while nearly everyone agrees with that statement, some people waste so much time, for example, hours each day on puerile TV or video games or shopping until they’re dropping. The life well-led includes spending much time making a difference, however you define it. To that end, until it’s habitual, when deciding whether and how to do spend a chunk of time, you might ask yourself, “Is this a good use of time?”

Communicate effectively

Communication is more difficult than many people think.

Listening requires attention to what’s said, what’s underneath, deciding whether to stay focused on what the person is saying or if you can think ahead to what you’ll say in response, when to be blunt and when to be tactful (usually), and whether to interrupt (usually not.)

Speaking requires concision, weighing what your listener(s) wants and needs to know and, as appropriate, using ethical tools of persuasion: valid logic, statistics, anecdotes, examples, and analogies.

Act

Many people ruminate excessively, letting fear of failure blind them to the wisdom of taking at least low-risk actions, which usually yield more success or at least lessons that can be applied subsequently.

Balance gratitude with striving

Too much gratitude causes inertia while too much striving can sacrifice ethics. So balance is required. For example, the fundraiser who is living the life well-led works hard to raise money for a worthy organization but doesn’t push unduly: exaggerate the likely benefits of a donation nor pressure potential donors beyond what they can comfortably afford—even if that means s/he doesn’t win “fundraiser of the month.”

Grow

No, it’s not necessary to ever plod on the educational treadmill, but part of the life well-led is to spend a reasonable amount of time continuing to learn what’s important, ideally in pleasant ways. For example, the aforementioned psychotherapist might want to start or join a patient review group. All of us can distract ourselves from maddening traffic by listening to a career-related or personal-growth audiobook. Or would you enjoy taking a course, in-person as COVID lifts, or online? Tens of thousands of courses on every imaginable topic, most with syllabi and student reviews, are searchable on websites such as udemy.com, coursera.org, and linkedinlearning.com.

Might these lamps help illuminate your path?

Source: Psychology Today