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Interview with Matthew Nock about N-of-1 Experiments

Matthew Nock, Ph.D. is one of the leading experts on n-of-1 experiments and single-case experimental designs. Matthew became a MacArthur Fellow in 2011 receiving the MacArthur “Genius” Award. He studied at Yale and now is a professor at Harvard where he also runs the Nock Lab. In addition to his research interests, Dr. Nock has been counsel to the World Health Organization’s World Mental Health Survey Initiative, the National Institutes of Health, the American Psychological Association, as well as other prestigious health organizations.


1) Assuming I have captured the basic methods of single-case experimental design (SCED):

  1. Identification of specific target behavior
  2. Continuous and valid measurements
  3. A baseline period (data is gathered before the intervention is applied)
  4. Stability of the specific target behavior (target behavior changes only when the intervention is applied)
  5. Systematic application of intervention

What are the considerations, risks and advantages for someone partaking in self-experimentation — someone who wants to use these methods to help determine the efficacy of a new habit or practice (e.g. determining the effect of meditation on mood)?

These are the basic methods, but it is important to note there are some variations in how you would apply different types of single-case experiments. Once the intervention is applied, then something else is going to happen next, right? For instance, there is “AB-AB design” also known as “withdrawal design.” In this application, you apply the intervention, you then remove the intervention and examine whether the behavior/condition reverts to the baseline level. You then reapply the intervention — so the A state stays as baseline, the B state stays as an intervention — so you do AB, AB and measure the change.

For instance, if you wanted to see if a reward program for not smoking cigarettes worked for you. You start with cigarette smoking as your baseline. Let’s say you smoke two packs a day. Now you apply the reward (intervention). After the reward you now smoke half a pack a day. You then remove the reward (intervention), going back to baseline (smoking without a reward for not smoking), and you see if you go back to two packs a day. You then reapply the intervention (in this case the reward) in an attempt to determine that it is when, and only when, the intervention is applied that your behavior changes. This method helps you rule out alternative explanations. For instance, in this hypothetical example you rule out that you stopped smoking because of some historical event, or your wife told you she’s going to leave you if you don’t stop smoking at the exact time you started the intervention.

What you are trying to accomplish is identifying the result from the experiment is from the intervention and nothing else. You can do an AB-AB design as described, or, if you have access to other participants, you can do a multiple baseline design. In this example, the first person, they would have a one-week baseline and then you apply the intervention; the second person would have a two-week baseline, then you apply the intervention; for the third person, a three-week baseline then you apply the intervention. Again, if you can show when, and only when, you apply the intervention something has changed, you have evidence that your intervention causes change in people.

A single person can also use a multiple-baseline approach across behaviors. For instance, I am trying to change my smoking and drinking and eating. I could apply the intervention to my smoking, then apply it to my eating, and then apply it to my drinking. If I see that when, and only when, I apply the intervention my target behavior changes, it provides evidence that my intervention is effective. You can apply the multiple baseline approach across people or across behaviors.

If someone is self-experimenting, they will want to do their best to collect their own data objectively. Using these methods on yourself, you run the risk of tricking yourself into seeing something that is not there or failing to see something that is there. When it is a clinician or a researcher observing you, they are going to be, with their own objective eyes, carefully measuring some behavior of interest. If you are not carefully measuring objectively what it is you want to change, again, you might see change that is not there or fail to see change that is there. It is important to do your best to objectively measure.

The benefit of this approach is you are the one following the data. You have a real-world answer to whether or not your intervention is working. It can be just a little bit of extra work to do something like this, to quantitatively, objectively measure your own behavior. However, in my opinion, that is also a benefit: knowing what’s effective; knowing what can change your behavior at a fairly minimal cost.

2) For many, “lifestyle design” is about optimization. For example, using meditation as the hypothetical again, it appears that many find benefit from only minimal exposure (Creswell, Pacilio, Lindsay, & Brown, 2014), but one could posit the effective duration is unique to the individual. Since interventions generally come with an opportunity cost, reducing this cost has a benefit. What are some good strategies for expediting the determination of the minimum effective dose (MED) of any given intervention?

In my mind, there are two philosophies about this. One is start small, and measure carefully the effects of the small dose/intervention, and then increase, increase, increase, until you see maximum benefit(s) and then you might know how much is needed. The other is the opposite; start with the maximum dose and then work down from there. Each has pros and cons, right? It certainly depends on what it is you’re using as an intervention. If there is any toxicity associated with the intervention — drugs are an obvious example — if there are toxic side effects to an experimental drug, you would want to start very small and work up to see what is the needed dose to cause change. The benefit here is you are not exposing the subject to toxicity; the downside is it could take longer for an effect and the person could be engaging their harmful behavior, or suffer from disease, for longer intervals of time than giving them more from the onset. On the flip side, if you start with the maximum dose, you generally will know right away whether it has an effect and then you can work down from the initial amount. The downside is you are now exposing the subject to any toxic side effects from potential overdose. If you are certain the intervention does not have any toxicity and/or limited risk, I think the best thing to do is start with the maximum amount and then work down from there to see how much is needed to maintain the effect.

3) Technology is making the recording and analysis of self-experimentation more accessible. There are an abundance of consumer and condition-specific wearables for collecting data, ecological momentary assessment (EMA) protocols are accessible to anyone with a smartphone, the statistical package R is free to use — enabling anyone willing to take on the learning curve the ability to crunch their own numbers. What technology and innovation excites you in this area? And, is there anything that is currently helping democratize one’s ability to run these types of experiments?

There are a lot of tools at the ready now with smartphones and other wearable devices, so people can collect and analyze their own data quite easily. The big bridge is people often are not going to want to learn something like an open-source statistical program. Learning a statistical program like R, even though it is free, is not a minor endeavor. People want ready-made solutions to problems, so they want an app that is turnkey and ready to go. Technology that is going to monitor their behavior, apply the intervention, whatever it is … to the extent that we can create applications that bridge that gap for people, that are easy to use, people will likely use them.

So yes, there is some great open-source stuff out there, but getting someone to figure out how to collect their own data effectively, then create and apply their own intervention, learn statistics (even if it is free to do), analyze their data; wow, this basically requires an intervention in and of itself to get someone to do that.

The thing that excites me most right now is using wearable devices and smartphones to collect data about people and apply interventions that are beyond their own awareness. There are apps available now that allow us to collect data from people’s smartphones passively. We can monitor their GPS, we can monitor their sleep, we can monitor their activity level, who they’re calling, who they’re texting, who’s calling them, who’s texting them, and we may pick up information that can predict future behavior that people are not aware of themselves.

For instance, if a person’s activity level is decreasing, they have outgoing calls and texts and none are getting returned, and their sleep becomes more irregular, we might predict this person is becoming more depressed. So a condition a person may not even realize they have themselves — we can use information from their phone to help identify potential problems and deploy an intervention remotely before the condition can cause any negative effects. We now have e-interventions, smartphone interventions, where people can engage in a little quick, game-like app that they can play to try and change their behavior. The old model of going to a doctor, the doctor does an assessment and tells me I have a problem, then gives me some kind of treatment — this model is changing. We can now go out and find people who are in need of help before they know they need it, and send interventions out to them that they can use and apply themselves. We can deploy this on demand, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, whenever it works for the individual.

4) You are a Harvard psychologist. You are also one of the leading experts on destructive behavior. There seems to be a resurgence of William James’ ideas lately, specifically that if we master our free will and make ourselves 100 percent accountable for our actions, this process will increase our chance of positive outcomes. Do you believe in the validity of this assertion? And, given your expertise working with people where this process might pose difficulties, what are some strategies to assist one to increase their ability to be accountable in this area?

My department resides in a building called William James Hall, so the spirit of William James is still present. The idea of holding ourselves 100 percent accountable, as it pertains to the way I am interpreting your question, comes down to the rewards and the costs of a behavior. If we want to change our own behavior, we need to accurately understand to what extent the behavior in which we are engaging is rewarding or beneficial. We also want to accurately understand what the costs involved are. We have to seriously evaluate both the rewards and cost. For instance, if I am smoking cigarettes, I probably feel good after I smoke. In this case, what are the rewards and costs of smoking? It means realizing there are benefits, but there are also significant costs engaging in the behavior. I need to weigh both, but to do so I need to accurately consider present and future elements of the behavior.

So for me, holding ourselves accountable means realistically realizing the cost and benefits of our behavior and weighing those carefully. If the costs are going to ultimately outweigh the benefits, then I think we have a chance of decreasing risky behavior. If the benefits are perceived as outweighing the costs, it is much tougher to change someone’s behavior. For instance, take a self-destructive behavior like cutting oneself or burning oneself, why would someone do that? It turns out that cutting yourself or burning yourself, for many people, removes aversive thoughts and feelings. This behavior has a benefit for them. For these people, the reward of removing these thoughts appear to outweigh the costs of seeing tissue damage, and so they engage in the behavior. Getting people to stop engaging in this behavior is a lot about figuring out other ways to get the existing benefit for alternative behaviors that do not carry such a heavy cost.

I think the same is true with smoking, drinking and overeating — as well as other problematic behaviors. These behaviors have associated rewards, but they also can come with significant costs. To make good choices, we need people to understand and appropriately weight the costs and the benefits. An important part of the process of behavior chance is to figure out ways to have people find similar benefits that do not carry the same costs of the behavior one hopes to change. The challenge is how to get yourself to feel good and/or distract yourself from aversive psychological states, without doing harm to your mind and/or body. If the spirit of your question is, “How do we increase our chance of positive outcomes?” then you can look at it as benefit-cost=outcome. To do this, you need accurate information about the behavior’s costs so you are not discounting and/or ignoring these. Then look at the behavior’s benefits and find suitable alternatives that offer comparable benefits without the associated costs of the behavior you are trying to change.

5) A young student has walked into your office and proclaimed they want to become the leading expert on self-experimentation. What are three rabbit holes you suggest they explore (i.e. ideas, concepts, models)?

Three rabbit holes they should explore …

1) Read up on the decades of research that people have done on single-case experiments and N of 1 designs. There are a lot of well-worked out-methods and approaches to measuring behavior and carefully, systematically applying an intervention to change behavior, as well as observing the effect of the intervention. When you really understand these validated methods, then you are aware when you are truly doing experimentation. We have existing study designs where one can carefully observe the outcome of self-experimentation in an empirical manner — opposed to reinventing the wheel, there are decades of existing work that one can build on, so mastering the current available literature in this area is a big one.

2) Mastering new technology. As we discussed earlier, there have been significant, recent advances in technology available to people interested in experimentation in the form of smartphones, wearable devices, the Internet and free access to educational information. We have easy access to data at our fingertips now. Through technology we can easily measure our real-world behaviors. Mastering new technology will allow a person to tap into a huge new source of objective data on our behavior.

3) Once you master experimental design and you master the latest technology, the last rabbit hole I’d suggest is how to engage and measurement your experiments. You need to figure out how you can use advances in technology to develop new interventions based on what we already know works. Questions like, “Are we effectively using carrots and/or sticks? Are there ways that we can use computers, the Internet, smartphones, wearable devices, to try and apply new interventions?” The new frontier regarding behavior change is to master the way that we try and modify people’s behavior (or modify our own behavior?). With the right creativity — coupled with an existing mastery of the first and second rabbit holes — there is a lot that can be done using the new tools that we have at our disposal. We now have the ability to apply personalized behavior-change interventions, in real-time, at scale.

There is a downside to this third rabbit hole, too, though, especially if you are building tools that help others self-experiment. There are now thousands of thousands of apps out there that are purported to improve health and well-being. However, by my reading, there is very little data to support that most of these apps are actually effective in any meaningful way. Moreover, there is little evidence to suggest that most of these apps will actually change anyone’s behavior. Worse, there is a financial incentive to create apps and to market to people, “This app will make you healthier and happier.” In my opinion, there is not a good public understanding of how to evaluate scientific evidence. That makes it difficult for most to evaluate claims about effective treatment and/or interventions. It’s the Wild, Wild West out there.

Before scientific medicine, people just created their own methods. They could sell snake oil. They could put anything in a bag or box and sell it to us as effective. Some were and some weren’t, and many times the ones that were effective, weren’t effective for the reasons that people thought. Luckily, now we have a much better infrastructure where, if you are going to sell some kind of FDA-approved medication, you have to know what is in it and show that it is effective in randomized clinical trials. It’s on you, you’ve got to have experimental data. I think of the app world as similar to the Wild, Wild West. People are now deploying things that they say are treatments and there is not a good, systematic infrastructure in place to know which ones are experimentally sound and which ones are not. Similar to the thoughts expressed in the previous question, there needs to be a clear benefit to making experimentally sound apps. This benefit could be a special designation, like FDA approval or FDA approval equivalent. Something that ensures it has been tested, with evidence showing that it works. If the app does not have that, then some kind of repercussion for the makers. Until we have that system in place, I think you will continue to see a market full of snake oil.

Interview with Cathy Presland about Tracking Progress

Cathy Presland, a former economist, runs the program World-Changers’ Circle that takes five action-takers on a 6-month journey of transformation. She is an expert on leadership, both personal and professional, and inspires people to look beyond themselves when they make their life and business decisions. Cathy draws her knowledge from over twenty years of experience working with governments and international organizations on different public policies, programs and regulations. Cathy is a respected motivational speaker, teacher, mentor, facilitator and an author. Her book, Write! Stop Waiting, Start Writing. A Step-by-step Guide to Turn What You Know into a Book, is an international bestseller and is just one of the ways Cathy is supporting people who feel they have an idea that they want to share with the world.


1) If someone is looking to create a system to track their process towards some sort of desired change and/or personal improvement, how would you coach them through building this architecture so they can successfully develop a measuring protocol that assists them with meaningful metrics that assist with experimentation and continual improvement?

I think that at the core of any kind of monitoring is the question: is the process serving the end goal? Sometimes this is just a feeling, and sometimes, it is some kind of a quantified measuring protocol. I’m not so interested in numbers; I’m interested in where we are trying to get — How can we make the process more joyful, therefore, making it easier to get to the goal, regardless of the number? In my experience, if we put a measurement around a goal too early, the number becomes more important than the result we’re aiming for and there is no scope for creativity. We’re then quick to jump to self-criticism about not hitting some made-up target which sets off a cycle of demotivation. Measurements are especially not helpful in the early stages when we are just setting up doing something. Sometimes, you first need to do something to test your theory without having to deal with the danger of negative feedback that can come from creating your own metrics. If you want quantification, do a two-week experiment and see how you feel. You can put some measurement around it later if you feel you want to move it forward. So, very rarely would I rush into measurement from the outset.

I’ve got a client at the moment, for example, who’s applied for a number of jobs, and she’s not getting the results she wants. So, we had a conversation about what else could she be spending that time doing? It transpired that it wasn’t working for her because she wasn’t really inspired by the jobs she was applying for. This was the start of an honest conversation. I’m interested in what is going on in our minds that is creating good or bad feelings. When my client has an insight, and she realizes that she wants to be doing something differently, she should just be able to go off and do it. She doesn’t necessarily need to monitor things. Too much measurement can strain your results I think. It may be just about how honest we’re being with ourselves about the things we are doing, whether the things that we’re doing are going to give us the results that we want.

2) When someone is faced with assessing a life change where the present state/status quo is comfortable and satisfactory, and the future state being evaluated is high risk but high reward (i.e. the change requires deviating from an existing desirable state) — what effective strategies, processes and/or frameworks have you found useful for individuals to use to increase the likelihood of making a successful decision?

Life is never a low-risk, high-risk situation in my experience. The future is always unknown. None of us literally knows what we’re going to be hit with personally, professionally, so to me, that is never what it’s about. The actual situation is less important. The only thing that really matters is how we’re thinking about the current situation and what moves we’re making.

I don’t have a framework I could prescribe. What I do have is a philosophy. I do think there is a place that we can come from, because, as individuals, we’re so tiny and meaningless. And, the less consideration I give to me, the more contribution I’ve got to make to one person, to my children, to my family. I try to have a discussion around what is important to the person in that coaching conversation. What is it that they feel in this moment is the right thing for them to do? It’s about removing your personality and your ego as much as possible, so you can analyze your decision in terms of these questions:

  • Am I doing this because I think I’m going to be happier in some way, which is a red flag because our feelings don’t come from our circumstances?
  • What is the greater good in this situation? What feels ‘right’?

And, at the same time, I also think that the right thing is something that we create in our imaginations. So, I don’t see that as a fixed thing; I see that as a drive, a movement, an action at this point in time.

3) In contrast to the previous question, it is my opinion (given the immense amount of advice currently available about improving performance) that people often get stuck consumed by integrating seemingly endless methods (e.g. life hacks, productivity approaches, etc.) that either act as distractions and/or worse — impede progress towards what really is desired. What is your opinion on this assertion and do you have a process with your clients on making strategic decisions on what not to do? Lastly, in this regard are there commonalities that lend themselves to general advice that would benefit most people about what not to do?

I certainly see life hacks as distractions. And, I think that they can impede progress when people give them an importance that they don’t deserve. A lot of life hacks, especially in the personal development world, are designed to try to create some kind of space. Meditation, or anything in that zone, is designed to try to create some space so we can get some clarity. But, the process often becomes an end in itself, like, “I’ve got to meditate”. And we forget that we have access to that space in our heads at any moment. Some people have found life hacks helpful, but the reality is that we don’t need them.

We’re very good at making up things that we think we want and then trying to think our way there.  We go into this cycle of over-thinking, whereas, if we actually just gave ourselves mental space, we’d probably already know what it is that we want to do. But, we just don’t accept it, or we don’t see it, or we don’t think this is it; we kind of don’t know what it looks like. So we spend a lot of time chasing things that we don’t really want to do, or things that other people have, which are completely pointless wastes of time.

People that have enough perspective to know that something is not real or is going to pass, do better in life. We need to distinguish between what’s real and what isn’t. Generally, there are some things that look more real than others to people. Money is a typical example here. Many of us think money will create a feeling of security but the security comes from within us, not from something external. Similarly, doing something because it’s going to lead to something else taking an action or a path “so that…” or because there is an ulterior motive beyond the immediate is generally a wrong decision, too, and you are fooling yourselves if you are taking intermediate steps to something. If there’s something that you want to create, there’s always a more direct way to do it. For instance, “If I make lots of money, then I can create a foundation to do good in the world.” It’s like, why not just do good in the world now?

The other kind of big general thing that I will comment on is that people seem to think there is somewhere to get to. However, there’s no forward motion. It’s a real trap to believe that there is forward motion because then we’re always trying to get somewhere that we’re never going to get to. It’s just motion, in all sorts of directions and, often, that can be hard for people to conceptualize because we are so conditioned that there is a timeline in life, a journey from A to B. That’s a myth, there is only where we are now.

4) What are good indicators that it might be time to give up on a big idea/plan/goal? Using my own goal as the example, the Boston Marathon has always been a stretch goal, albeit an achievable pursuit — until recently where I was advised never to run long distances again. The Web is cluttered with advice to never give up on your dream, but science suggests this “inspirational” messaging has had some significant negative consequences. What is a suitable gauge and process for determining a goal has realistically fallen out of reach?

For me, this comes down to removing the ego from the decisions that we make. It is about heading in a certain direction and making the most of the opportunities we have rather than regretting those that are not open to us right now. It’s kind of direction versus outcome. And what is important for me is the direction and coming from a higher self … it can be difficult for us to create that separation between what we feel and what we actually decide to do. So, the higher the perspective we get on this, the easier it is to take those clear decisions. That’s where I would work with somebody. We feel what we feel; it’s not for me to tell somebody that what they’re feeling isn’t valid, because that’s what’s coming up for them. But, I will work with them in a way to show them that this isn’t meaningful in the way that they think it might be.

When a big goal falls out of reach, it doesn’t take away from you that direction that you’re heading in. For you, for example, it’s not in the cards to do the Boston Marathon anymore. Or, maybe it is. Or, maybe you can explore something else and get another route for experimentation and/or exploration. But, if you stay attached to the Boston Marathon, you’re going to lose the creativity to try out lots of different things on route to getting there. The reality is that we have very little control over what happens. We don’t know what’s around the corner; we don’t know who we’re going to meet. And, the more open and positive we are to the possibilities that are in front of us, the more fantastic things happen.

5) You run a program called World-Changers Circle. Although daring big might not be for everyone, what are some of the undervalued intangible rewards you have witnessed from those that succeed at big things?

I think that it is human nature to want to do something that goes beyond ourselves. People come to me because they want to do something meaningful, and this doesn’t have to be grandiose. Amazing things can happen when we get our egos out of the way, and these things happen faster than we expect when we do this too. You take bigger actions and make bigger asks when you’re not coming from a place of ego. There are a lot of benefits from taking a different perspective and looking differently at the world: you get calmer, have better relationships. You realize that it is actually more about how you’re looking at things rather than anything that other people have done. You realize that the world is driven internally more than externally.

Can You Really be Addicted to Fun?

Hello, my name is Mike Rucker, and I am a fun addict.

This should not surprise anyone. I pretty much have been my whole life. Admittedly, this passion has gotten me into trouble from time to time. For me, channeling this obsession by creating better user experiences (UX) grounds my passion with a purpose. I want people to enjoy what they are doing. I want people to have more fun.

Can You Really be Addicted to Fun?

Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for things that are initially described as “fun” to turn into addictions — and, at extremes, pathological obsessions. For instance, neuroscience has shown us that the brain structure changes in people who obsessively play video games (but who are not yet considered addicted). In these individuals, the volume of the player’s gray matter increases in their left ventral striatum — an area of our brain associated with both reward/pleasure and addiction (Kuhn et al., 2011). This region of our brain is also known for being rich in dopamine (the feel-good neurotransmitter) and is connected with the pursuit of desired experiences. It should be no surprise that dopamine has been playfully described as the sex, drugs and rock and roll neurotransmitter, as all three of these activities affect dopamine in the brain — so does sugar and gambling (Avena, Rada, & Hoebel, 2008).

Considering the role dopamine plays in experiencing pleasure, it is not that difficult to understand how addictive behaviors (that release dopamine) can evolve out of initially pleasurable and fun experiences. Having fun in a healthy manner is a rewarding endeavor. Moreover, the allure of fun can motivate us, at least at the onset, to dare big and pursue worthy goals.

Too Much of a Good Thing

“Behavioral” addictions have now been widely recognized as non-substance addictions (that can also develop with or without substance addictions). Neuroimaging techniques and recent research show that it is not only alcohol and recreational drugs that are addictive. Behavioral addictions trigger the same fundamental responses in the body as, for example, cocaine (Grant et al., 2010).

A lot of common activities have the potential to become addictive, though the topic of what behaviors can be considered behavioral addictions is still open for (popular and scientific) debate (Grant et al., 2010). The word addiction has a Latin origin that translates as “bound to” or “enslaved by.” In general terms: I have been addicted to running; I am a recovering addict to travel; I would like to think I am addicted to trying to be a good father and friend.

There is perhaps a fine line between something being an enjoyable activity that brings us fulfillment and an activity that we become dependent on and/or use as a technique for escapism — a distraction that can stand in the way of dealing with real-life situations and feelings. Like Airbnb and Everlast executive Chip Conley recently discussed with me about those that get trapped roaming from one festival to the next looking for fun, “… if you just constantly go to festivals because you cannot live your normal life, or live in real life and/or you are searching for a utopian experience … festivals always come to an end. If you are going to festivals as a way to vacate in some manner, I think you need to ask yourself, ‘What could I do in my ‘normal’ life to make it better?’”

In this context, you can interchange festival attendance with whatever you do for fun. I think Chip’s wisdom applies to all of us in a broader context.

Escapism is a well-known phenomenon in psychology that is often described in conjunction with addictive behaviors. In my youth, especially during my years in high school, I levitated to mood-altering experiences to avoid my boredom and loneliness. I certainly was not alone in this pursuit. Unfortunately, many often continue down this path even when they are aware they’re not getting to the crux of their problem (Reid et al., 2011). And like many, I am still not out of the woods. I traded counterproductive vices for more productive ones … entrepreneurship, Ironmans, this neurotic writing habit. Long distance running or a 2-hour session at the gym can be paradoxically both healthy and unhealthy — just because an activity is marketed to you as healthy does not mean it is being put to use for its intended purpose. Psychologists believe that escapism can become harmful when you start splitting your world into two versions: the real version and the version that is connected with the activity you frivolously pursue (Ohno, 2016). Jesse Israel’s post on his wellness hangover does a great job highlighting this phenomenon.

Furthermore, as modern life becomes more and more stressful and demanding, there is a whole new level of “mind-programming” going on (facilitated by the media and society) that tells us we need to constantly have fun just to make life bearable. A new generation of pleasure seekers has emerged, and they are not necessarily having fun — they are redlining their psyche as they battle cry, “turn down for what.”

In their recent book Stealing Fire, Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal estimate that we spend over 4 trillion (yes, with a ‘t’) dollars on various types of escapism. As such, questioning the reasons and motives for us having fun is, therefore, a relevant pursuit. A lot of my livelihood, especially as it pertains to UX design, is providing fertile ground for people like yourself to have fun experiences. Maximizing fun is a personal passion, but it needs to coexist with my personal value of not causing harm.

Hedonism vs. Ego Depletion — an Evolutionary Perspective

In my interview with Chip, Chip juxtaposes pleasurable experiences that are guided by hedonistic self-interest with experiences that give you a sense of being a part of something greater than yourself (and that move you beyond your own selfish needs) — collective effervescence. Both types of experience can be a source of fun. However, while the first takes you to your basic instincts, the latter has the ability to enable you to transcend your ego.

Hedonism and hedonistic activities have traditionally been considered a special variety of egoism. Philosophers talk of psychological hedonism. This refers to engaging in certain activities because we believe that they will lead to the fulfillment of a desire that will promote our pleasure, or, alternatively, will help us avoid pain (Garson, 2016). This type of fun has instant gratification, but it also has its faults.

Of important note, from an evolutionary standpoint, a strong argument has been made against hedonism. Philosopher Elliot Sober and biologist David Sloan Wilson, the authors of Unto Others, argue that hedonists are likely not good at child-rearing and that such behavior can be energetically costly — hence evolution has probably prioritized altruists (Sober & Wilson, 1998). Natural selection has promoted behaviors that are reliable, available through genetic mutations, and energetically efficient.

Those in the constant pursuit of fun through hedonists’ means might not fare that well in the long run if they constantly run around seeking their own pleasure (without considering others, especially their offspring). When we blend psychology, biology, anthropology and philosophy — care for others and selfless behavior somewhat surprisingly emerge as important features of human nature that, according to Sober and Wilson, have developed through natural selection.

In Defense of Hedonism

Associate professor Justin Garson, a philosopher of biology from Hunter College, explains another form of hedonism, which he refers to as “reinforcement hedonism” or R-hedonism (as opposed to inferential hedonism or I-hedonism, which is the more egoistic type described above). In this type of psychological hedonism, we have fun from just thinking about the satisfaction of a desire. In Garson’s view, hedonism does not need to be linked only to your own hedonistic desires; it can expand to the welfare of others as well (Garson, 2016). For instance, you can derive great pleasure thinking about the possibility of world peace — which is a very non-egoistic desire that could be considered closer to altruism. Dr. Raj Raghunathan, professor at the McCombs School of Business at The University of Texas, Austin, also suggests that having fun can bring you closer to being more altruistic, happy, healthy, productive and creative. In his view, it is important to have fun, in a way that specifically works for you (for more on that, see my discussion with Raj).

Can you really have too much fun or be addicted to fun?

There is a body of evidence that too much of anything can be harmful, and any addiction has the potential to psychologically enslave you in some way. A hard truth is that our time on this rock is finite — so you probably do not need this perspective from a psychologist to intuitively know that if we overly commit to one pursuit, we will likely live an unbalanced life.

A strong indication that “fun” of any sort has become a problem is if you start having diminished control over your behavior and experience undesirable consequences, as these are common characteristics of addiction (Grant et al., 2010). Also, the distinction between fun and escapism is not always clear-cut and requires some deep reflection on your part. It is up to you to decide if the pursuit of fun has become counterproductive. Make no mistake, fun is an important ingredient of a meaningful and happy life. However, since I am advocating a life full of fun, I have felt compelled to provide an important service announcement: a dose of mindfulness might be required if/when fun gets in the way of you living. In fact, it might be one of only a handful of ways an ecstatic life can truly be reached.

Sources & further reading:

Avena, N. M., Rada, P., & Hoebel, B. G. (2008). Evidence for sugar addiction: Behavioral and neurochemical effects of intermittent, excessive sugar intake. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, 32(1), 20–39. doi:10.1016/j.neubiorev.2007.04.019

Garson, J. (2016). Two types of psychological hedonism. Studies in History and Philosophy of Biology and Biomedical Sciences, 567-14. doi:10.1016/j.shpsc.2015.10.011

Grant, J. E., Potenza, M. N., Weinstein, A., & Gorelick, D. A. (2010). Introduction to Behavioral Addictions. The American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse, 36(5), 233–241.

Kuhn, S., Romanowski, A., Schilling, C., Lorenz, R., Morsen, C., Seiferth, N., & … Gallinat, J. (2011). The neural basis of video gaming. Translational Psychiatry, 1. doi:10.1038/tp.2011.53

Ohno, S. (2016). Internet escapism and addiction among Japanese senior high school students. International Journal of Culture & Mental Health, 9(4), 399. doi:10.1080/17542863.2016.1226911

Reid, R. C., Li, D. S., Lopez, J., Collard, M., Parhami, I., Karim, R., & Fong, T. (2011). Exploring Facets of Personality and Escapism in Pathological Gamblers. Journal of Social Work Practice in the Addictions, 11(1), 60-74. doi:10.1080/1533256X.2011.547071

Sober, E., & Wilson, D. S. (1998). Unto others: The evolution and psychology of unselfish behavior. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Is Ignorance Bliss?

I am an endless knowledge seeker, so on first pass I naturally scoff at the notion we could somehow be blissfully ignorant. AS such, on face value, “is ignorance bliss?” seems like an asinine question. My desire to educate myself on how to be happy has fueled my involvement with the International Positive Psychology Association and my study of academic thought leaders in this space — people like Martin Seligman, Ed Diener, and Barbara Fredrickson — to learn ways to be happier. However, lately I have observed that there are a lot of instances where more information leads to dismay. At a basic level, I watched my one-year-old son thoroughly enjoy a simple train set for months.

Is Ignorance Bliss?

There is a great store where we live that has cheap, recycled toy train parts, so my wife and I continued to introduce train pieces and have made my son’s set more robust over the past few months. We loved doing it for him because he couldn’t get enough… until the day he did. As we continued to add disparate train pieces with the best of intentions, some trains do not fit certain tracks — some trains fit the existing track but are too tall to go under the existing bridge that came with the original set. What has ensued is confusion and frustration. I have let it go on because I think the development of problem solving outweighs the loss of bliss my son used to achieve when the set was simply enjoyable. However, this loss of bliss is observably noticeable and therefore significant. We are basically making my son unhappy by introducing new information.

Scientifically, happiness is a choice. It is a choice about where your single processor brain will devote its finite resources as you process the world. —Shawn Achor

Have you ever found yourself in a supermarket, surrounded by an aisle of different choices, wishing there was only one available? Science tells us endless options can be anxiety-provoking. When faced with choice, we use a lot of energy to make our final choice. When there is an abundance of choice, the cost is an increased chance that you will regret your final decision later. If you want to feel like you made a solid choice, you need to scrutinize all the available information you have available and then (once you process all this information) make your decision. But, as a general rule, does more information actually contribute to a more satisfactory outcome? How much information do we need to make an informed decision, engage in play, achieve flow, take action or simply be happy?

The topic of choice touches on different areas of our personal and professional life. Choice contributes to our happiness, as well as our social arrangements. We can view the argument of “ignorance is bliss” through the lenses of behavioral psychology, philosophy, politics, education and marketing sciences. The topic is provocative since it juxtaposes our general wish for autonomy with a more paternalistic and prescriptive view. In a world that is filled with seemingly constant impulses and endless options, we would often like to believe we are happier when we have all the information. However, this might not always be congruent with the desire to reduce our stress and feel balanced.

When Choosing Feels like Losing

The paradox of choice is not a new phenomenon; we can observe it in different areas of our lives, from the food we eat to who we are attracted to. Nowadays, there are so many options available to us in every aspect of our life. If you are not completely satisfied or happy, why not dump what you have and replace it (or even him/her) with another version?  Why should you practice discipline and perseverance when it is so easy to find yourself a superior model to what you have now? Psychologist Barry Schwartz wrote extensively about the paradox of choice and argues that Americans do not seem to be benefiting from all the choice that is available to us (Schwartz, 2004).

Various research also shows us that when more choice is available, we are more likely to be dissatisfied with what we finally choose. Jonathan D’Angelo and Catalina Toma (2016) explored this idea in their study of online dating. When participants selected their dates from a larger set of people, they were more doubtful about their dating choice a week later (when compared to those who had fewer potential partners to choose from). A similar observation has been made in marketing. Studies show that people who spend more time deliberating about a decision can later feel a sense of loss towards the options they did not pick. During what we perceive to be a careful selection process, we develop a sense of attachment to our decisions, which researchers believe might be harmful to our well-being (Carmon, Wertenbroch, & Zeelenberg, 2003). The premise “choosing feels like losing” has been introduced. Choosing from a set of options can lead us to a feeling of post-choice discomfort.  Once we opt for one option, we no longer possess the other — that’s just a fact. Instead of feeling a sense of relief about finally making a decision, we let negative feelings creep in and we start to feel dissatisfied. Rebecca Ratner of the University of Maryland and her colleagues explored different strategies that can help us help others in their decision-making process. They indicate that providing good information is one of them, but restricting options or adding restrictive options are also recommended (Ratner et al., 2008). For instance, pre-committing to a choice can free us from having to face the decision later, and can also help with self-control when more options become available. It is part of the science that makes restrictive diets like WHOLE30 episodically successful. Simply put, if we can manufacture a predisposition to making (and sticking with) a decision it makes our life a lot less challenging.

When Are You Most Free to Make Autonomous Choices?

Although we all generally value autonomy, there appears to be some ambivalence surrounding this topic. For instance, in education, some studies of problem-based learning showed that while students welcomed some degree of autonomy afforded by this technique, they were also engaged during more prescriptive approaches to studying (Harmer & Stokes, 2016). It appears that paternalism can sometimes free our energy to engage in life in a more efficient way.

From a philosophical stance, there is also a vibrant debate about what constitutes choice. It is pretty easy to find critics anytime the idea of a “forced choice” is brought up. For example, in the West, we have the freedom to choose (and this is widely lauded). However, sometimes, there is the subtle (unspoken) condition that we ought to choose the right thing. If we fail to do that, we can be ostracized and, and in a way we lose some of our freedom to choose (Žižek, 1989). How many “forced choices” do we make just to remain a part of our community (or “tribe”) and conform to the expectations of our environment? In choice, too, there appears to be a degree of ignorance we are willing to accept to “keep the peace” and avoid the cognitive dissidence of malalignment with the philosophy of our peers.

So a strong scientific argument can be made that a plethora of choices can create decision fatigue. Our mind simply cannot cope with an endless amount of information; our decision capacity runs out, and at this point we run the risk of making bad decisions. Our mood can worsen when we are faced with too many choices as well. Research shows that too much choice leads to suboptimal decisions (Schwartz, 2004). Therefore, significant decisions should not be made when we are fatigued or in a bad mood. This was illustrated by a study of judicial decisions conducted at four major prisons in Israel (Danziger, Levav, & Avnaim-Pesso, 2011). The authors examined parole decisions made by experienced judges. It transpired that having a break (thus feeling less fatigued) influenced the judges’ ruling. More favorable decisions were made in the mornings (at the start of the work day) and after food breaks — this pattern was predictable, possibly confirming our need to rest and replenish our energy before making an important decision. It appears a good decision can sometimes be more about the timing, and less about the choices we are presented with. The saying “sleep on it” might sound simplistic, but it has some scientific credence.

Then, there is the scientific theory behind choice architecture. If you are interested in going down the rabbit hole of choice and well-being, I suggest following Brian Wansink. In various studies, Dr. Wansink has shown that if you crowd out the ability to make bad decisions by rigging your environment towards a bias to make good ones, you can steer yourself and/or others towards healthy behaviors (never the wiser that they’ve been unwittingly influenced). As I became aware firsthand in my study about workplace wellness strategies, people do not like to know their choices have been limited; however, if the reduction of choice is unobserved, one can rig the system for people to make specific decisions (arguably in their best interest) based on controlling the information available to them.

When Are You Most Free to Be Creative?

A study by Associate Professors Anne-Laure Sellier and Darren W. Dahl challenged the established belief that having more choice fuels creativity. They conducted two experiments that focused on knitting and crafting. The selection of creative inputs was increased from moderate to extensive: a bigger selection of yarn colors in the case of knitting; and a larger selection of shapes for a Christmas tree decoration in the case of crafting. Interestingly, the creative output of experienced and knowledgeable participants was negatively affected by more choice. Those who were less experienced, on the other hand, didn’t seem to be effected by the change in choice but it did not enhance their expereince either. The authors concluded that restricted choice could be better for creative success as it allows us to focus more — and actually enjoy the creative process more — particularly if already experienced or skilled in that pursuit (Sellier & Dahl, 2011).

One of my heroes, Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, a couple of decades ago wrote how restricting choice could reduce stress and anxiety. Choice does give us the feeling that we can be more creative. However, this feeling is just that — a feeling — it is generally an illusion. Science suggests we have more difficulty focusing and enjoying an activity when provided with an extensive choice.

Is Ignorance Bliss?

Is Ignorance Bliss? Maybe.

Science tends to back up why my wife and I might have been unintentional wet blankets. When we have too much information, we risk the potential of decision paralysis. We are given less room to follow our creative paths, engage in flow and — let’s face it — sometimes enjoy ourselves. Other studies by Darren Dahl also highlighted that the highest level of enjoyment is achieved when there is a right balance between restriction (e.g. providing limits around a task) and the freedom to create with autonomy (Dahl & Moreau, 2007). It is important to note that while researching this topic has in no way curtailed my thirst for knowledge, but it has garnered a new respect for the relationship our happiness has with information and choice. For many of us, happiness is a choice. We don’t need to be ignorant to be blissful, but waiting around for the right information does not appear to help any either. To contrary, in some cases it may do the opposite.

Sources & further reading:

Carmon, Z., Wertenbroch, K., & Zeelenberg, M. (2003). Option attachment: when deliberating makes choosing feel like losing. Journal of Consumer Research, 30(1), 15–29.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper and Row.

Dahl, D. W., & Moreau, C. P. (2007). Thinking Inside the Box: Why Consumers Enjoy Constrained Creative Experiences. Journal of Marketing Research (JMR), 44(3), 357. doi:10.1509/jmkr.44.3.357

D’Angelo, J., & Toma, C. (2016). There Are Plenty of Fish in the Sea: The Effects of Choice Overload and Reversibility on Online Daters’ Satisfaction With Selected Partners. Media Psychology, 1-27. doi:10.1080/15213269.2015.1121827

Danziger, S., Levav, J., & Avnaim-Pesso, L. (2011). Extraneous factors in judicial decisions. Proceedings Of The National Academy Of Sciences Of The United States Of America, 108(17),6889-6892

Harmer, N., & Stokes, A. (2016). “Choice may not necessarily be a good thing”: student attitudes to autonomy in interdisciplinary project-based learning in GEES disciplines. Journal of Geography In Higher Education, 40(4), 531-545. doi:10.1080/03098265.2016.1174817

Ratner, R. K., Soman, D., Zauberman, G., Ariely, D., Carmon, Z., Keller, P. A., & … Wertenbroch, K. (2008). How behavioral decision research can enhance consumer welfare: From freedom of choice to paternalistic intervention. Marketing Letters, (3/4). 383

Schwartz, B. (2004). The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less. New York: Harper Collins Publishers.

Sellier, A., & Dahl, D. W. (2011). Focus!! Creative Success Is Enjoyed Through Restricted Choice. Journal of Marketing Research (JMR), 48(6), 996-1007. doi:10.1509/jmr.10.0407

Žižek, S. (1989). The Sublime Object of Ideology. London: Verso Books.

Pyrroloquinoline Quinone and mTORs

As a general statement, mTORs are cellular regulatory proteins essential for the activation of proteins specific or important to growth and cellular replication.  Almost any factor important to protein synthesis affects mTOR activation to some degree by interacting with the TSC1/TSC2 protein complex.  Relevant to the question, the underlying mechanisms for many tumors and cancers involve dysregulation of mTOR cell signaling pathways (usually an abnormal up-regulation of mTOR components).  Thus, as an approach to controlling the growth of cancerous cell lines, the use of mTOR inhibitors has been proposed.  The question or concern related to PQQ evolves from such observations, specifically the report by Kumar et al. in Anticancer Agents Med Chem. 2015;15:1297-304 (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25832358).  These researchers observed that PQQ exposure lessens the growth of human leukemia HL-60 Cells through Inhibition of mTOR.  Thus the question – Could something similar happen in muscle?

The cells in question versus muscle cells:

HL-60 (Human promyelocytic leukemia) cells are derived from a type of blood cells, known as neutrophils.  HL-60 cells proliferate continuously in suspension cell cultures.  Accordingly, they are used in cell proliferation studies or studies in which cells with the characteristics of phagocytic cells, such as neutrophils, are the focus of an investigation.  Phagocytic cells are cells that are recruited to the sites of infection, cell injury, and inflammation.  An interesting observation is that when activated, some of their mitochondrial content gets extruded (cf. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/15548627.2015.1063765) in to plasma/blood.   In this regard,  plasma levels of mitochondrial DNA (from phagocytic and the targeted damaged cells) can be used as a marker for the extent of inflammation in human and animal subjects. Phagocytic cells can even generate hydrogen peroxide and superoxide radicals to aid in the chemical modification of inflammatory by-products and cellular debris.

Muscle cells, of course, are different.  In vivo, they do not replicate or “turn-over” rapidly, in contrast to phagocytic cell lines.  Their mitochondria stay intake and are not extruded.  Oxygen utilization is efficient and used for ATP production, which in part is in contrast with phagocytic cells, wherein some of the cellular oxygen is directed at “oxidant” and superoxide production.  The point here is that interpretation of results related to cell signaling is cell-type and process dependent.  When the only data available are derived from cells in culture, it ‘s hard to make assertive conclusions without a lot of nuance and other assumptions.

mTOR, PQQ, and Muscle

So – can mTOR levels influence muscle growth.  The answer in some situations is yes.  Several research groups have noted that there is a sarcopenic effect (presence of lower muscle mass and either lower muscular strength or lower physical performance) with long-term mTOR inhibitor use (e.g. for long-term cancer treatment. (cf. Gyawali et al. Muscle wasting associated with the long-term use of mTOR inhibitors. Mol Clin Oncol. 2016; 5:641-646).  Importantly, only very very potent mTOR inhibitory agents have been studied.  Thus, to what extent this has a direct relevance to a normal exercising person taking PQQ is not clear.  Moreover, as it relates to PQQ, there are few comparative studies of using differing cells and their response to PQQ exposure.  We know of only one.   Min et al. reported (J Cancer. 2014; 5:609-24, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25161699)

PQQ exposure enhanced apoptosis (programmed cell death) in tumor cells (3 types of tumor cells were studied) but promoted no apoptotic changes in the normal cell lines derived from renal and umbilical-derived cells.  Accordingly, an answer to the PQQ/muscle question is, if there is an effect, it is probably modest, if at all.  Importantly, exercise “trumps” most known dietary factors and nutraceuticals taken as supplements to optimize muscular function or maintenance.

As a final comment, for questions such as the one posed, going to the resveratrol literature is sometimes helpful.  In many respects PQQ and resveratrol (RV) influence similar cell signaling pathways.  A PubMed search identified over 50 papers addressing RV, tumor growth, and apoptosis, i.e. RV suppresses tumor growth.  In contrast, there are dozens of paper suggesting RV improves many aspects of muscle function.  For PQQ, although the literature is not as extensive, the available reports suggest similar findings.

Summary

In an active individual, is PQQ going to do much independent of the effects of exercise?  Few external factors promote muscular or mitochondrial function as well as exercise itself.  The mTOR cell signaling pathways are clearly essential to muscle function, but any mTOR inhibitory response that PQQ might have is probably overridden by other factors.  For example, PQQ has been shown in animal studies to have clear positive effects on neonatal growth, anti-ischemic/cardio-protective effects, neural protective effects, an ability to enhance fatty acid metabolism via mitochondrial oxidation, and anti-inflammatory effects.  Rather, than increasing performance per se, the benefits of PQQ, if any, are more likely related to recovery following an episode of intense activity.  In this regard, some mTOR suppression may have some utility.

Workplace Wellness Strategies for Small and Mid-Size Businesses

Businesses are continuing to look towards viable workplace wellness strategies, and these programs are increasing in popularity, despite inconclusive evidence regarding their return on investment and effectiveness. Analysts are so bullish on the growth of workplace wellness programs that the sputtering consumer wearable market is banking on their success by speculating on the opportunities being made available as large enterprises continue to expand their employee well-being programs through technology.

According to a government-funded RAND study in 2013, about one in every two American employers offers some form of initiative that promotes employee wellness (Mattke et al., 2013). Going into 2017, this saturation is probably higher. Corporate wellness stakeholders often want to know how much money they will save if they introduce or expand a wellness program for their employees. They look for hard data to support their decisions, and many decision makers continue to rely on return on investment (ROI) as a quantitative measure to gauge program efficacy. However, because proving program ROI has been elusive, it has been suggested by those in corporate wellness trade organizations that other factors should be considered when assessing the long-term benefits of these programs. As an alternative to ROI, there has been an attempt to introduce value on investment (VOI) to capture some of these program’s intangible benefits. These “intangibles” include subjective measures such as: contributions to knowledge, collaboration, innovation, presenteeism, retention and employee engagement (Hight, 2012; Norris, 2003). The contrived VOI model has basically become essential in attempting to financially justify funding and investment in most programs (Norris, 2003).

Workplace Wellness Research for Small and Mid-Size Businesses

For the most part, the primary focus of academic research regarding workplace wellness programs has been large enterprises. However, the findings of these studies are often not generalizable to companies with fewer than 1,000 employees. There is a significant and growing need for models and strategies that can benefit smaller organizations. This need is especially significant considering that a majority of employees in the American workforce serve small and mid-sized companies (McPeck, Ryan, & Chapman, 2009). My recent study “Workplace Wellness Strategies for Small Businesses” attempted to fill the knowledge gap that exists in this area. My purpose was to determine what common strategies are being used by small to mid-sized business (SMBs) that had both effective and viable workplace wellness programs.

Workplace Wellness Strategies in Small and Mid-Size Businesses (SMBs)

Four organizations participated in the study: a beverage distributor, a boutique hotel, a general contracting firm and a service-based company. I conducted in-depth interviews and studied company artifacts. The data collected was compared for similarities, differences and patterns (a comparative case study approach), and data analysis was performed according to the standards of thematic analysis (Braun & Clarke, 2006). This process provided me the opportunity to uncover and better understand the commonalities of effective and viable SMB workplace wellness strategies that were demonstrated by these four companies.

My findings found 19 strategies used by these effective programs. Five overreaching concepts are identified that helped organize these strategies:

  • Innovation
  • Company culture
  • Employee-centric
  • Environment
  • Altruism
Effective and Viable Workplace Wellness Strategies

One of the common characteristics (“concepts”) of the programs studied was their ability to be innovative. The positive company culture within the businesses themselves was another commonality of successful programs. The employee-centric concept referred to the company’s desire to care for the well-being of its employees. All companies that participated in the study also worked proactively to create healthier work environments and provide healthier options for their employees. Finally, the concept of altruism referred to the company’s inherent desire to help others, and included the presence of a selfless leader running the workplace wellness program.

These five primary concepts each had corresponding strategies presented as themes. For instance, innovation was connected with non-traditional approaches, constant iteration and refinement, ideas that were internal to the company, thoughtful use of technology and the “fail fast” concept (often found in lean methodology). Company culture presented themes that include employee influence and involvement, authenticity and leadership that did not directly get involved (in program design), but instead provided autonomy to the right people within the business to run the programs effectively. The concept of employee-centric got expressed through various holistic approaches to employee well-being, starting with the employee’s well-being as a foundation (in contrast to considering economic motives), as well as through shouldering the financial burden of employee health care costs and tailoring their wellness approach to the needs of the employees. Concern for the external and internal corporate environment was shown in themes that described the designation of physical space for well-being considerations, company community involvement and the provision of healthy options for the employees. Altruism related to a selfless program leader, appreciation of program feedback and a program budget that was based largely on recommendations rather than mandates.

Why is this SMB Workplace Wellness Study Important?

I am proud of this study and believe it provides new insights into the characteristics of successful workplace wellness strategies. While some of the themes that emerged will feel familiar to my contemporaries, several rather surprising findings were identified as well. A better understanding of these factors — combined with validation of the more common strategies already well-established — this study gives SMBs programs a new, unique map to improve their workplace wellness strategies. What I have documented is a set of strategies that transcends the cookie cutter advice commonly disseminated by workplace wellness providers (generally tailored for big business) because their motive is to move large corporate clients into their sales funnel.

A poignant example of this is a theme that surprised me: that some of the most successful program ideas were internal. This is contrary to the established belief that workplace wellness ideas get cascaded down from vendors and brokers that offer employee well-being services at scale (Hughes et al., 2011). Although my professional role is working for a provider (Active Wellness), my study was conducted as a doctoral candidate, and in taking an unbiased look at these programs the data suggests health promotion vendors (catering to big businesses) might not be the optimal providers of workplace wellness strategies to SMBs. Another interesting assertion I make is challenging the common wisdom that successful programs rely on involvement from leadership. Historically, it has been generally advised that managers should personally promote wellness initiatives, act as role models and engage with employees in wellness (O’Boyle & Harter, 2014). My study, however, did not support this established view. In the case of the four companies that participated, wellness thrived in environments where leadership passed the responsibility for wellness programs to the right person within the organization. That person was given the autonomy to implement the program in a viable way based on the culture of the organization. Intuitively, one might posit managers within SMBs might not always be the best qualified to lead by example. Running SMBs often is fairly stressful and requires managers to play multiple strategic roles. Therefore, these individuals in many cases should not necessarily champion wellness initiatives if they are already struggling to maintain their own wellness due to high levels of stress (Swaby, 2016).

My sincerest hope is that the findings of this study break new ground and can fuel a positive discussion about the importance of creating healthy workplaces and supporting employees in small and mid-size business — so these businesses can support employee well-being as effectively as larger enterprises. If you would like to learn more about this study on workplace wellness strategies, please feel free to reach out and/or you can view the study in its entirety over at the International Journal of Workplace Health Management by clicking here.

Sources & further reading:

Braun, V., and Clarke, V. (2006), “Using thematic analysis in psychology”, Qualitative Research in Psychology, Vol. 3, No. 2, pp. 77–101.

Hight, C. (2012,), “Move from ROI to VOI” Institute for Organization Management, available at http://institute.uschamber.com/move-from-roi-to-voi (accessed 30 June 2016).

Hughes, M. C., Patrick, D. L., Hannon, P. A., Harris, J. R., and Ghosh, D. L. (2011), “Understanding the decision-making process for health promotion programming at small to midsized businesses”,  Health Promotion Practice, Vol. 12, No. 4, p. 512.

Lincoln, Y. S., and Guba, E. G. (1985), Naturalistic inquiry. SAGE Publications, Newbury Park.

Mattke, S., Liu, H., Caloyeras, J. P., Huang, C. Y., Van Busum, K. R., Khodyakov, D., and Shier, V. (2013), “Workplace wellness programs study: Final report”, RAND Corporation, Santa Monica, CA.

McPeck, W., Ryan, M., and Chapman, L. S. (2009), “Bringing wellness to the small employer”, American Journal of Health Promotion, Vol. 23. No. 5, pp. 1–10.

Norris, D. M. (2003), “Value on investment in higher education”, EDUCAUSE Research Bulletin, No. 18, pp. 1–13, available at https://net.educause.edu/ir/library/pdf/erb0318.pdf

O’Boyle, E. and Harter, J. (2014). “Why your workplace wellness program isn’t working”, Gallup Business Journal, available at  http://www.gallup.com/businessjournal/168995/why-workplace-wellness-program-isn-working.aspx (accessed 5 July 2016).

Swaby, S. (2016). “Leadership wellness: The conversation no one is having”, The Good Men Project, available at http://goodmenproject.com/featured-content/leadership-wellness-the-conversation-no-one-is-having-part-1-snsw

 

Live Life Love | Volume Thirty-Seven

Hi Everyone,

The year 2016 is almost ready for the history books. It seems like an especially remarkable year for many — for a variety of reasons — good and bad. Over the course of the year I have shared a lot of personal ups and downs, as well as made a commitment to improve the utility of this project. This quarter I have attempted to do that by learning and sharing the wisdom of two extraordinary individuals. One notable for his ability and passion to create experiences and habitats that create joy, and another for being the figurehead of one of the largest and most successful MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) on creating happiness. I hope you enjoy the articles and the ideas from these thought leaders, and the information is able to help you create more joy and happiness in your own life, as well as the lives of those you care about.

Business, Innovation and Entrepreneurship: This quarter I sat down with the legendary Chip Conley to talk about creating and delivering joy (and a lot about festivals too). Chip has written several best sellers, is the founder of the Joie de Vivre Boutique Hotel Group, and holds executive positions in strategy at both Airbnb and Everfest. My interview with Chip can be viewed here.

Health and Wellness: I was also fortunate enough to interview Dr. Raj Raghunathan, a world-renown expert on happiness. Raj wrote the book, If You Are So Smart, Why Aren’t You Happy? He also maintains the online course: A Life of Happiness and Fulfillment. It is one of the top courses offered by Coursera, and has had over 75,000 students. My interview with Raj  can be viewed here.

Life Experience: This quarter I made it to the East Coast to present my research on workplace wellness, but the more notable life experience this quarter happened closer to home. I got to expereince an escape room at EscapeSF in San Francisco. I also experienced my first “float” (i.e. sensory deprivation tank) at FLOAT in Oakland.

Float | Oakland, California
Float | Oakland, California

Contribution: It was exciting to be a small part of a big win for my friend, Chris Tsakalakis. Chris had open-heart surgery in 2009, at which time he wasn’t sure how much time he had left here. Fortunately, he’s now thriving and this year set the American Heart Association’s all-time Heart Walk donation record, bringing in over $100,000 for the charity.

A few weeks ago I was working at the dining room table, which is flanked by our playroom and a makeshift art studio for the kids. My daughter sat next to me as I typed away and said, “papa, you’re always practicing your work; you are a really good worker; I wish I could be a good worker like you.” Being the psychology nerd I am, I talk to her a lot about the importance of deliberate practice, so the idea of practice is a familiar concept around our house. When she shared her observation I felt a little piece of me begin to die inside, but I saved it from peril by uttering these words, “Sloane, you’re always practicing your play; you are really good at playing; I wish I could be as good at play as you.”

We agreed after this exchange to teach each other our respective trades. As such, you might see her popping up more in the life experience section as I get educated in the coming year.

Wishing you and yours an abundance of joy, happiness and play in 2017.

In health,
Dr. Rucker

Interview with Raj Raghunathan about Happiness

Professor Raj Raghunathan specializes in psychology, marketing, as well as the philosophy of happiness and decision making. He graduated from Birla Institute of Technology and Science and completed his MBA at the Indian Institute of Management. In 2000, he earned his Ph.D. at the Stern School of Business, New York University. He is a Professor of Marketing at the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin. Prof. Raghunathan developed an online course called A Life of Happiness and Fulfillmenta 6-week course on Coursera platform. The course includes knowledge from the fields of psychology, neuroscience and behavioral decision theory. It has had over 75,000 enrollments and has been featured as a Top 10 course offered by Coursera. In 2016, Raghunathan also published the book, If You Are So Smart, Why Aren’t You Happy? Raj’s book explores how to become happy and draws on the concepts Prof. Raj calls ‘happiness habits’ and ‘happiness sins’. Raj has received several National Science Foundation Career Grant Awards. He is an associate editor at the Journal of Consumer Psychology, guest associate editor at the Journal of Marketing Research and is on the editorial boards of the Journal of Marketing and the Journal of Consumer Research.


1) The mechanisms of a happy and fulfilling life can now be explained using science. How do you define happiness as an academic? Does it have quantifiable components or is it truly a subjective measure?

Somewhat surprisingly, happiness is both a subjective experience and measurable. The subjective part comes in two ways — the things that make different people happy, and the types of emotions with which people implicitly equate the term “happiness”. The idea that different things make different people happy is, of course, straightforward. Going sailing may reliably make some  person happy, while for others, it won’t float their boat (so to speak).

The idea that different people equate happiness with different terms is a little more subtle. Prof. Barbara Frederickson of the University of North Carolina finds and suggests (based on work by Dacher Keltner, a researcher at UC Berkeley) that “positivity” comes in 10 main varieties including joy, love, serenity, hope, awe, gratitude, laughter and interest. To me, happiness is the same thing as what Prof. Frederickson calls “positivity.” In other words, in my book, you are happy so long as you are experiencing one or more of these (and other) positive emotions.

What is really interesting about all of this is that, as Prof. Ed Diener and his colleagues have found, the simplest way to measure happiness is essentially by asking people how happy they are across a few items (like, “all things considered, would you consider yourself happy right now?”). This is a highly reliable and valid method. For instance, people’s subjective reports of happiness are highly correlated with some objective correlates of happiness, like serotonin (positive correlation) or cortisol (negative correlation) levels. Likewise, people who report higher levels of happiness tend to have a thicker left pre-frontal cortex, and also tend to be thought of as being happier by their close friends, etc.

So, in a nutshell, what might appear at first blush to be a problem for happiness research, namely, that happiness is too subjective, turns out to be not such a big problem after all.

2) In your work, you suggest that being creative and having fun are habits that should be cultivated to reach higher levels of happiness. Since fun is a very subjective concept (i.e. what is fun for one person, is not necessarily fun for somebody else) how do you suggest fun might be studied more rigorously?

As I mentioned in my response to the previous question, while it is true that what is fun for one may not be fun for another, what we subjectively experience when we say we are having fun is more similar than dissimilar across people. So, for example, even if my idea of fun (say, going on a hike) is quite different from that of yours (cuddling up with a book), you will understand what I mean when I say, “Going on a hike is really fun.” You might say, “that’s not what I would call fun, but hey — different strokes for different folks!”

The point is that it’s important to have fun — in whichever way that works for you. Why? Because you are likely to be more creative, more healthy, more productive and more altruistic when you are having fun (more generally, when you are happy) than when you are not.

3) Your work points out that people who are more educated and successful are not necessarily happier. However, one could argue that with expanded education comes broader knowledge and awareness of critical issues (e.g. global warming, poverty, discrimination, injustice, the division of people), and this insight could have a negative effect on one’s sense of happiness. Can one have a thirst for universal knowledge and increase their happiness at the same time? What, in your opinion, is the relationship between seeking truth and happiness?

It is true that more knowledge and more awareness can lower happiness levels. There was a study that a few of my marketing colleagues (including Ziv Carmon and Klaus Wertenbroch) conducted in which they showed that those who spend more effort and thought in coming to a decision about which product to buy are generally less satisfied with the product than those who make it based on lower levels of effort. A main reason for this is that, when you know more, the more you know what else is possible; so, you are less happy with what you have.

The mechanism to which you allude in your question (to conclude why better informed people may be less happy) is a related one. You suggest that being informed and knowledgeable about all of the ways in which the world is screwed up may be a buzz kill. True. And this certainly seems like an important reason why the smart-and the-successful are not so happy. But I also think that there’s merit to the argument that some of the very things that make us smart or successful — like a need to be superior, the desire to control others or outcomes, or that of engaging in elaborate analyses — when taken to unhealthily high levels, can also undermine happiness levels.

A final reason why success lowers happiness has to do with how access to the yardsticks of success — fame, money, power, etc. — can make us more self-centered and materialistic. Several findings show that being self-centered and materialistic are not good form for obtaining happiness.

4) From the perspective of neuroscience, emotions are important for our decision-making processes. In a Business Insider article, you warn ‘mind addiction’ can make us ignore our gut instincts and feelings (see: ‘Mind addiction’ could help explain why smart people aren’t as happy as they could be). From your research, why do you think we have found ways to short-circuit our intuition?

Great question. It’s not that thinking through problems and overcoming emotions is always bad. Clearly, we have all experienced situations where our emotions have hijacked — or at least derailed — our decision-making process. Impulsive consumption behaviors (e.g., overeating) are all examples of this. So, one big reason why many of us become suspicious of emotions is because we do not want to commit this mistake again. But in an attempting to avoid the mistake of being too impulsive, many of us run the risk of becoming “mind-addicted”.

I think society too plays a big role in instilling mind addiction. Take schooling. Children almost never get to learn about how emotions and instincts can be useful in decision-making. That is, pre-college education almost exclusively encourages the “mind” route to solving problems and making decisions.

On top of that, most of the goals we are encouraged to pursue, from individual ones (e.g., saving enough for retirement, losing a certain amount of weight) to societal ones (e.g., increasing GDP) are quantitative in nature. So, we end up never pursuing qualitative goals (like being happy, or enhancing levels of trust in society). This overly quantitative (vs. qualitative) focus also makes us more prone to relying on the mind to solve problems, getting us increasingly out of touch with our instincts and feelings.

A final reason for mind addiction may be that women are not as well-represented in positions of leadership. So, to the extent that listening to, understanding, acknowledging, and utilizing emotions is a more feminine trait than a masculine trait, society reinforces mind addiction.

5) Mindfulness has become a very popular concept recently, and you often mention it in your work as being a habit that can support happiness. Purportedly, Maslow never published the final version of his hierarchy of needs pyramid in which self-actualization is followed by self-transcendence. Do you think that mindfulness practice might ultimately prove to be a useful tool towards self-transcendence? Or, alternatively, do you see this practice as more a simple, yet very effective, evidence-based cognitive technique to help identify that a lot of what makes us unhappy is merely a waterfall of mindless thoughts and we have more power over these than most believe?

Good question again. I personally think mindfulness has the potential to both offer the “lower order” benefit of reducing stress and enhancing happiness and the “higher order” benefit of self-transcendence. What I mean by self-transcendence (and I imagine you do too) is not something that is necessarily mystical or spiritual. Rather, it’s just the subjective experience of not perceiving oneself as separate from something that we would “normally” consider external. So, for example, when we are so involved in an activity that we lose track of time, or do not feel self-conscious (the critical voice in the back of the head is gone), we merge with the activity to experience a state that Prof. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has famously called “flow.” Flow is a transcendental experience in the sense that there is a subjective feeling that one has merged with the activity in which one is involved.

Likewise, being in love is self-transcendental, because one feels this sense of merging with the object of one’s love.

In a similar way, mindfulness can provide a transcendental experience — providing one is able to do it correctly, which may require practice. By “doing it correctly,” I mean doing what is often considered the main aim of mindfulness — “being aware without judgment”. Being aware without judgment means being aware from the perspective of what might be called “bare attention”. Bare attention is very different from mind attention. Mind attention is what leads us to judge, categorize, comment, etc. on whatever is going on. Bare attention, on the other hand, means just being aware of the object of one’s attention without the accompanying commentary. It is difficult to do, but can be learned through practice. Once one is able to successfully take the stance of bare attention, one experiences this transcendental sense of being merged with the object of observation, resulting in what Douglas Harding called a “headless experience”. Sam Harris describes this experience very well in his book, Waking Up, as well.

Interview with Chip Conley about Creating Joy

Chip Conley began his journey in creating “joy” by transforming a seedy motel in the Tenderloin District of San Francisco into the legendary Phoenix hotel. Under the umbrella Joie de Vivre (translated to mean: the exuberant enjoyment of life), the endeavor grew to 40 unique hotels spread across California. He has authored several books, including Emotional Equations, PEAK and The Rebel Rules. Currently Chip serves as the Head of Global Hospitality & Strategy at Airbnb and the Chief Strategy Officer of Everfest, a company that connects the festival community online.


1) Now that you have immersed yourself in the world of festivals, what are the commonalities that make these experiences so impactful and life changing? For instance, there are elements that distinguish the Rise Festival from say, an Outside Lands. What are the essential elements of exceptional festivals that set them apart from a run-of-the-mill collective experience?

There is a French sociologist named Émile Durkheim, and in 1912 he wrote about the nature of pilgrimages. He coined the expression “collective effervescence” that really describes what makes a festival different. He used this term in the context of religious pilgrimages, but I actually think a festival where you become part of the installation — in an environment where people are somewhat out of their customary social environment — that is where transformation tends to happen. When you go to a concert, generally you go there for the day and then you go somewhere else. Collective effervescence happens when your sense of ego almost evaporates and what it is replaced with is a sense of common mission, and a common connection, with other people — that’s the beauty of a festival. The more digital we get, the more ritual we need. In this context, ritual is the IRL experience vs. the URL experience. The URL experience is what we do online, IRL is “in real life,” and I think that the more we are possessed by our gadgets, the more we need to have opportunities for connection in real life. Furthermore, there is no doubt that habitat influences our behavior and what we are willing to accept. A particular festival may have a set of guiding principles (e.g. Burning Man’s 10 Principles). What is really great when a festival does have principles — and they are well-advertised and promoted — is as an attendee you know what you are getting yourself into and also what is expected of you to participate.

2) You are well known for creating physical space and visceral experiences that create joy. Like any good master, you have pulled elements from other disciplines ranging from positive psychology to physical art. What is one of the most profound lessons you have learned along the way? Perhaps one you found the most surprising about the craft of creating joy?

I have always loved throwing parties. I throw the grand opening parties for my hotels, and every five years I throw a party somewhere in the world for just my friends. I did this last year in Baja with 125 friends. It was great. I just threw a party for 20,000 people in Los Angeles for Airbnb. What would normally be considered a conference, we reimagined as a festival and broke conventional rules. This was the third event of this type for Airbnb, and this time we wanted the format to be a bit uncomfortable at first. Not uncomfortable physically, but more like the attendees did not know what they were getting themselves into. A level of curiosity like, “I do not feel like I am in a normal environment.” This level of stress can actually help people to find parts of themselves that they did not know exist. We had the event in a somewhat sketchy area of Los Angeles. There are historic, beautiful theaters that we used as part of the installation. We took over five historic theaters, we took over about seven different retail spaces, and at least three parking lots. We used this environment for workshop spaces, conversation spaces and creative spaces for people to connect. What I believe is that what is remarkable — what creates joy — is when something surprises you and then it delights you. There can be surprise and disappointment or there can be surprise and delight — when it is surprise and delight, it is unexpected. Unexpected delight is memorable. I think interesting juxtapositions do this very well. When juxtaposition is done well, our brain is literally going through a process of having to imagine two things together, for instance, art and spirituality. The blending of ideas can lead to illumination. You see something in a way you never thought of before. The best way to describe someone who is a great festival producer: they are a curator. So, you try to curate an experience, create a habitat for people to have peak experiences. When there is nice mix of unfamiliarity and you push through boundaries — joy comes with that feeling that some level of accomplishment, some level of progress, has taken place. This growth allows you to feel a sense of exhilaration.

3) In your book, The Rebel Rules, you talk about the benefit of sabbaticals to avoid burnout. For many, these opportunities will only manifest a handful of times in a lifetime. As such, in your experience examining both successful “rebels” and those with an affinity for wanderlust, have you identified any strategies for those who embark on soul-searching expeditions to help maximize their outcome?

Creating space (whatever space means in the context of some individual freedom) and seeing what emerges is pretty important. Now, you literally could do that on a weekend. You could say, “Okay, this weekend I am going to put an office message that just says: I’M NOT CHECKING EMAILS THIS WEEKEND.” You hide your phone. For two days you go digital free. You go through a digital detox and maybe you have nothing planned, you literally just allow spontaneity or serendipity to rule those two days. That process might actually start to bring some things up for you, including fear. A lot of us like structure, a lot of us like to have a calendar that is full because it lets us know, “Okay, this is what I accomplished today.” There are a lot of people that need to ‘accomplish’ things to feel alive. So, I think not everyone needs a six-month sabbatical — at least not as a first step. Even if you have the opportunity to take a sabbatical because your life has created a transition, it might be foolish to assume that you know what you are going to get out of a sabbatical. For me, my sabbatical was not really even a true sabbatical, but more along the lines of “what’s juicy for me right now?” For me it was festivals, and I started going on that path, and I went to five festivals in Asia in the winter of 2013 and came back starting Fest300. Then, all of a sudden, out of that emerged the founders of the Airbnb approaching me and saying, “we want to turn our little tech company into a hospitality company, will you help us do it?” I have been doing that for almost four years now. Sometimes you have to make space to grow; I might not have taken the call from Brian Chesky four years ago if I had not taken time for renewal. When you create space, you are in a better place to take the blinders off, which gives you the opportunity to see things you might not have seen otherwise. So making space is one strategy. A second strategy is meditation. I try to meditate twice a day if I can. That experience is my form of a daily sabbatical, because it allows me to decompress and disconnect. It does not have to be meditation — some people like taking afternoon naps, for others it is going for that four-mile run that they do every day. Whatever it is that helps you to break with the linear mind. However, there is not a prescription that is right for everybody. I think for me, knowing my tendencies, having a really open field is probably wise because if I am too prescriptive about what I want at the end of a six-month sabbatical, the end result will be a linear to-do list, which defeats the purpose. With that said, realize your sabbatical probably should be the opposite of what you normally have. For me, I need space to be open to new ideas. For someone else, they may need a sabbatical because they are so lost that the purpose of their sabbatical is more oriented around a mission or some level of achievement.

4) There can be a bit of an underbelly to festival culture, where it is purported that some that identify with this lifestyle and chase experience, do so with hedonistic self-interest. A recent example are some of the complaints coming from Standing Rock (http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/music/news/standing-rock-north-dakota-access-pipeline-burning-man-festival-a7443266.html). In consideration that this may exist, how does contribution, responsibility and ethics factor into organizing any collective experience?

I think hedonism in moderation is appropriate, self-interest is not necessarily a bad thing. However, festivals can become an addiction, just like so many other things in life. I think one of the things that Burning Man has done quite brilliantly is creating 10 principles that define this community. The main event and other events around the world that are sanctioned to be Burning Man affiliated help this community to hold ourselves accountable when we see people not living up to them. No one is perfect of course, and the Burning Man principles are not right for every festival. The problem with a lot of festivals is they lack principles. Often when you lack principles what you get is the lowest common denominator. Without an inherent culture, you get something that takes people to their basic instincts. Getting back to your first question, I think the part that is truly beautiful is when you see that collective effervescence happen. Collective effervescence means that people are losing their sense of ego and their sense of identity and, in the process, feeling connected to something bigger than themselves. I think that if principles are articulated well, and these principles are lived out in such a way that they help people move beyond their own selfish needs (in the process of experiencing the festival), then principles have the potential to create a better legacy for the event. If an event is something that is purely hedonistic — and it is important to note that there are festivals that survive and do quite well within that environment — you diminish the ability to somehow feel like there is something bigger than your own personal, hedonistic needs. Great festivals elevate people and help people to transcend their own petty grievances and desires. A great festival is a community of people experiencing something together. So, if it’s a collection of individuals as opposed to a community of like-minded people, the risk is, if you look at Maslow’s hierarchy, pretty low on the pyramid with regards to experience. At these type of events the moment that somebody else is attracting you as an individual to something over here, or a new shiny object there, whimsy just takes you over there because you don’t feel any connection to the purpose of the event. Festivals are at their best when they really do help people to feel connected to something bigger than themselves.

So the issue you have highlighted is not a festival problem — the definition of addiction is using something as a distraction, as a means of not feeling something. Festivals can play this role. If you just constantly go to festivals because you cannot live your normal life, or live in real life and/or you are searching for a utopian experience… festivals always come to an end. If you are going to festivals as a way to vacate in some manner, I think you need to ask yourself, “What could I do in my ‘normal’ life to make it better?”

5) If someone wanted to follow in your footsteps in the pursuit of creating joy, but was at the beginning of their journey and was looking for mentorship, what three pieces of advice would you impart on them to begin acquiring the mastery to be successful in this pursuit?

1) Understanding who you were as a little kid always helps, because weirdly there are clues in your childhood that help you understand what it is that gave you that sense of timeless wonder. Timeless wonder is usually a pretty healthy place to seek out in that Joseph Campbell “follow your bliss” approach to life. So, start by doing a personal archeology project about your childhood. Talk to your friends, talk to your brothers and sisters, your parents, whoever you spent time with as a child. Look at pictures of yourself at childhood and get a sense of what it was that gave you bliss. How can you manifest that in your adult life? I was always fascinated about Walt Disney and how he created Disneyland. I was fascinated by creating experiences for kids in the neighborhood, so… I would do just that. I would create a restaurant in my mom’s dining room for instance. There are clues there — find them.

2) Look at who you admire. Who are the people out there in the world as adults who are living their life in such a way that they could be a model for you? Who is actually having joy in how they experience their life? Who is doing it in a way that gives them a sense that they are living their calling? This does not have to be just in the work world; you could live your calling as a political activist, you could live your calling as an Ironman athlete, you could live your calling as a grandmother. Figuring out what it is that gives you that sense of passion in life and seeing it in other people — this helps you develop a better picture of what life might look like for you.

3) The way to bring joy to people is helping them to feel like they are a kid again. The Celebrity Pool Toss has been going on for 25 years now — a fundraiser we do at my first hotel, The Phoenix. It is a fundraiser for TNDC’s afterschool program for kids. We have created a fundraiser based upon the high bidder getting to toss a celebrity in the swimming pool of the hotel. The reason that it has lived for 25 years now — raising over $7 million for afterschool programs — is because it allows people to act like a kid. Auctions are a bit fun too, but the process of actually throwing someone in the pool is very childlike. I think providing people that sense of being able to break out of their normal formality — helping people feel less contained. Burning Man is a somewhat extreme example. Getting the chance to toss people in the pool is a very simple example, but still effective of reconnecting with a sense of freedom that might have gotten lost in adulthood.

A word of caution for those looking to create an event. Some people find joy in being spectators, others in being participants. Some events are better suited for everybody to be a participant, some are suited for some people to be participants and some to spectate. I think a key to success is to make sure people know what they are opting in for. So, if you are creating an event with the aim of creating joy — if your idea centers around everybody participating, you better make sure the attendees know that in advance.

Why You Need More Fun in Your Life, According to Science

Why You Need More Fun in Your Life, According to Science
—George Bernard Shaw
Most of us want to have fun, it just seems like it is not as easy as it used to be. The reasons are many: guilt (because others aren’t having fun), perceived inappropriateness (because others around us cannot have fun) or lack of time (because our commitment to others won’t let us have fun). Yet, science gives an encouraging nod that we need to make time for fun and should perhaps prioritize it.

Since the term “fun” can be ambiguous and is often used in different contexts, let us first look at the standard definition of the word. Oxford Dictionary of Current English defines fun as: amusement, especially lively or playful. Staying true to the definition we generally connect the word fun to things that are entertaining and enjoyable to do. Fun is also sometimes used interchangeably with play — although there is a distinction as fun is argue that play is a state of mind; a certain attitude we can incorporate into any and every activity (Brown, 2009).

It is important to keep in mind that what is fun for you, might not be fun for somebody else. Therefore, fun can be difficult to investigate using standardized scientific methods. As such, scientific conclusions about the benefits of fun come from subjective observations and less rigorous studies. Nonetheless, there are enough studies that indirectly link to the concept of fun and play that a case can be made that we all need fun.

Here are five reasons science suggests you should have fun:

  1. Fun improves your relationships, both at work and in life

Research shows that when we have fun with others, these experiences have a positive effect on building trust and developing communication. Having fun gives us an opportunity to connect and be creative. When we laugh together, this sends an external non-verbal message that says: “We are alike, we share values” (Everett, 2011).  It can also make us look more vulnerable, but at the same time approachable and friendly, which can help build connections and bonds. Drs. John and Julie Gottmann, relationship experts from the Seattle’s Gottman Research Institute, have been studying happy and unhappy couples (and their patterns of behavior) in a systematic way. They found that couples who are happy know how to have fun together. It appears that when we have the ability to create and partake in acts of humor and affection, our conflict resolution skills improve as well.

Studies show that fun activities at work can improve our relationships with co-workers. These strong bonds developed with our colleagues have been linked to improved performance and productivity (Kansal, Puja, & Maheshwari, 2012).

  1. Fun makes us smarter

According to science, one way to improve our memory and concentration is to have fun. Partially, this has to do with the stress reduction that happens when we engage in something we enjoy. However, the benefits of fun activities seem to stretch further than that. The British Cohort Study — a study that has been following 17,000 people born in 1970 — found that reading for fun improves our language skills, and more surprisingly our proficiency in math as well. It appears that fun activities that introduce us to new ideas and concepts foster self-directed learning. The rewards we gain from these experiences might expand beyond the obvious benefits. Scientists are now also exploring if reading for fun can also protect us against cognitive decline as we age.

  1. Fun reduces stress

You probably do not need science to inherently know this already: engaging in enjoyable activities can be an especially powerful antidote to stress. It has been recognized in several studies that spontaneous laughter has a stress-buffering effect that helps us better cope with stress. According to one study, individuals who laughed less had more negative emotions when compared to those who laughed more. In contrast, those who laughed more showed fewer negative feelings even when stressful situations increased (Kuiper & Martin, 1998). Interestingly, this same study found that there is no correlation between having a good sense of humor and displaying stronger or more intense emotions. As such, therapeutic laughter programs are now being developed and evaluated, and are sometimes offered as treatments for depression, stress and anxiety (Kim et al., 2015). It appears that there is some truth to the adage, “laughter is the best medicine.”

  1. Finding fun in physical activity balances your hormone levels

It has been well-established that high stress levels negatively influence our hormones and neurotransmitters (especially cortisol and noradrenalin). Stress also affects our endocrine, metabolic and immune functions. Hormones can have an amazing effect on our mood — this is true for both genders (Koelsch et al., 2016). Certain hormones, such as cortisol, insulin, testosterone and estrogen, can be particularly influential and cause havoc when we have an imbalance. One way to naturally balance hormones is to engage in pleasurable physical activity (e.g. Abbenhardt et al., 2013). In other words, adaptation is not reliant on intense physical activity but rather consistent recreational exercise. When it comes to exercise, find what fun means to you and bake it in to your routine.

  1. Fun can make you more energetic and youthful

Stress is draining — it can suck the life out of us, making us tired and cranky. When we effectively reduce our stress levels, this can often provide us with a new boost of vitality. Having fun and playing have traditionally been connected with children and the early years of our development. However, many philosophers and psychologists emphasize the importance of play as we get older. Plato professed that life must be lived as play, and George Bernard Shaw famously said: We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.

Fun at Work

Having fun at work might be just as important as having fun in your personal life. Everett (2011) concludes that since we will spend more than 90,000 hours of our lives at work, we might as well have fun there. Some of the benefits of playing on the job include:

Higher recruitment and retention rates. Organizations that nourish creativity and playfulness in employees have less difficulty recruiting and retaining good staff, and it is an encouraging trend that more modern organizations are balancing work and play than in prior decades (Everett, 2011). For example, here in the Bay Area Google is known for having a fun workplace and is also a very desirable company to work for. Sponsoring fun activities has also been recognized as a measure to prevent burnout (Meyer, 1999).

– Increased job satisfaction. Employees must feel satisfied to be productive. There are many factors that contribute to job satisfaction, which logically also correlates to overall life satisfaction. When we can laugh and have fun at work, we can also build better relationships and help create connections with our workmates. Doing fun things together creates a joint history with our fellow employees. When we have fun together we tend to relate to and identify with our coworkers better. Some authors believe that “teams that play together, stay together,” so it is important to create organizational culture that supports that (Berg, 2001).

Increased customer satisfaction. Customer satisfaction is generally closely linked with employee satisfaction. Workers who have something to smile about are usually better equipped to make customers smile than their melancholy counterparts. Fun seems to be contagious — as shown by studies looking at work environments. For example, when a fun work philosophy was adopted at Sprint, this resulted in their call center agents handling 30 percent more calls, and customers expressing an increased level of satisfaction with their services (Karl & Peluchette, 2006).

Everett (2011) also points out that fun should not be made mandatory. It ceases to be fun then, and can actually contribute to feelings of stress among employees. It is important to consider that people’s perceptions of fun (and what fun means to them) may vary and that they do not necessarily want to have fun in a certain way, at a certain time.

[FUN FACT]: Did you know that according to a study from 1998, adults only laugh on average 17 times a day (Kuiper, & Martin, 1998)?  If you have a good joke, leave it in the comments so we can help push up this average.

 

Sources & further reading:

Abbenhardt, C., McTiernan, A., Alfano, C., Wener, M., Campbell, K., Duggan, C., & … Ulrich, C. (2013). Effects of individual and combined dietary weight loss and exercise interventions in postmenopausal women on adiponectin and leptin levels. Journal of Internal Medicine, 274(2), 163-175.

Berg, D. H. (2001). The Power of a Playful Spirit at Work. Journal for Quality & Participation, 24(2), 57-62.

Brown, S. (2009). Play: How it shapes the brain, opens the imagination, and invigorates the soul. New York: Avery.

Everett, A. (2011). Benefits and challenges of fun in the workplace. Library Leadership and Management, 25(1), 1-10.

Kansal, M., Puja, & Maheshwari, G. (2012). Incorporation of fun and enjoyment in work: Builds the way for success and generation of long term benefits. ZENITH International Journal of Business Economics & Management Research, (12), 98-113.

Karl, K., & Peluchette, J. (2006). How does workplace fun impact employee perceptions of customer service quality?. Journal Of Leadership & Organizational Studies, (2), 2-11.

Kim, S., Kim, Y., Kim, H., Lee, S., & Yu, S. (2012). The Effect of Laughter Therapy on Depression, Anxiety, and Stress in Patients with Breast Cancer Undergoing Radiotherapy (CP). Quality Of Life Research, 20, 84.

Koelsch, S., Boehlig, A., Hohenadel, M., Nitsche, I., Bauer, K. & Sack, U. (2016). The impact of acute stress on hormones and cytokines, and how their recovery is affected by music-evoked positive mood. Scientific Reports, 6doi:10.1038/srep23008

Kuiper, N., & Martin, R. (1998). Laughter and stress in daily life: Relation to positive and negative affect. Motivation and Emotion, 22(2), 133-153.

Meyer, H. (2000). Fun for everyone. IEEE Engineering Management Review, 28(2), 45-48.