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Social Wellness

I got you on the “how to live forever” part, didn’t I? Okay, it depends on your interpretation of forever, but let’s just say “longer than you might otherwise expect,” especially when you consider your other life habits. But what does health and longevity have to do with the residents of Roseto, Pennsylvania? You probably have a general idea of where I’m going with this, but pull up a chair and pour yourself a glass of (red) wine anyway. If you haven’t heard this story before, you’ll find it a cool little piece of Italian-American history.

                                    

The Roseto Effectnce upon a time in America, as long ago as the 1950s, there was a physician named Benjamin Falcone who practiced in Pennsylvania near the small towns of Bangor and Nazareth. During the 17 years he had been treating patients in the vicinity, Dr. Falcone noticed that older residents from a third nearby town, called Roseto, hardly ever needed to be seen for heart problems, even though the rate of heart attacks within the other two towns, and across the United States in general, were increasing steadily.

Could it have something to do with their relative seclusion? The inhabitants of Roseto had emigrated almost en masse from an Italian village called Roseto Valfortore, located in the province of Foggia. Hoping to escape poverty in their homeland, about 1,200 inhabitants of Roseto Valfortore had been issued passports bound for America by 1894. After they arrived, existing cultural pressures and social restrictions prevented them from scattering and melting into the local populations, so they eventually built their own community on a rather confined hillside, essentially separated from nearby English, Welsh or German immigrants. By 1912, Roseto’s population had exceeded 2,000 and it incorporated to become the first American municipality governed by Italians. By the time Dr. Falcone began to notice the extraordinary heart health of its residents, Roseto was a thriving town, accepted and even admired by neighboring Bangor and Nazareth, and served by the same doctors and hospitals.

One day, Dr. Falcone attended a local medical society talk given by a visiting physician from the University of Oklahoma, Dr. Stewart Wolf, who frequently spent summers at a nearby farm. Dr. Falcone invited Dr. Wolf out to a local pub for a beer and in the course of their conversation, mentioned the strange phenomenon he had noticed in the Roseto residents.

It was now 1961, and Wolf was intrigued enough to engage some of his colleagues from the University of Oklahoma in taking a deeper look at the Roseto effect. Along with sociologist John G. Bruhn, the research team began to compare medical histories, physical exams, and lab tests in a large sample of Rosetans—as well as the inhabitants of Bangor and Nazareth—hoping to find the key to the apparent health and happiness of this unusual community.

What they found stymied them. Yes, the evidence confirmed it was true that coronary heart disease and death from myocardial infarction (heart attack) was strikingly lower in Roseto than in its neighboring towns. Importantly, mental illness (including senile dementia) was also much lower: half the rate of Bangor, and only a third the rate of Nazareth. But at first, no one could understand why.

“The findings were surprising because of a greater prevalence of obesity among the Rosetans,” wrote Wolf and Bruhn in their report, published in 1979 under the title, The Roseto Story: An Anatomy of Health. “A meticulous study of dietary habits established that Rosetans ate at least as much animal fat as did the inhabitants of Bangor and Nazareth.” This was reflected, not only in the high obesity rates of Roseto, but also in the fact that the town’s rates of hypertension, diabetes, and measures of serum cholesterol concentration closely matched those of the other communities. Smoking and exercise habits were also similar, and the researchers were able to eliminate ethnic and genetic factors from the mix. After all, inhabitants who left Roseto to live in other communities soon became subject to the higher death rates that plagued the rest of the nation.

What, then, could explain Roseto’s strange effect? (And no, people weren’t drinking from a special communal well or making mysterious concoctions from South American miracle plants). Having already ruled out diet, exercise, genetics, and other factors that the medical community has long believed to be “risk factors” for heart disease, the researchers turned to studying the way Rosetans lived.

What they discovered was that their initial rejection by outlying communities had forced Rosetans to turn to one another for support and mutual help. Ultimately, the researchers found, the only real differences between Roseto and its neighboring communities were social ones. Roseto’s citizens enthusiastically took on the responsibility of being their neighbor’s keeper.

The researchers described the character of the townsfolk as buoyant, fun-loving, enterprising, optimistic, cohesive, and mutually supportive. “Our first sociological study of Roseto revealed that crises and problems were coped with jointly by family members with support from relatives and friends,” wrote Bruhn and Wolf. “Following a death in the family, interfamilial differences were forgotten, and the bereaved received food and money from relatives and friends, who at times temporarily assumed responsibility for the care of the children of the bereaved. When financial problems arose, relatives and friends rallied to the aid of the family, and in instances of abrupt, extreme financial loss the community itself assumed responsibility for helping the family.”

In addition, families weren’t secretive. Their problems were shared—and then worked out with the help of the local priest or family “pillars.” Pillars were often older single women in the community who had taken on the responsibility of aging parents and who were highly respected and valued for their role in maintaining cohesive family and community ties.

In Roseto, nearly everyone had a vital role to fulfill—whatever their age or gender. At the end of the day, they gathered together in each other’s homes, social clubs or the local diner. But the cornerstone of life in Roseto was the family. “Family traditions provide a buffer in times of crisis and a source of stability for the community,” wrote the researchers in their 1979 report.

Of course, even in Roseto life wasn’t always rosy, and a good study wouldn’t be complete without taking a look at the “outliers,” or those whose circumstances were remarkably different from the main sample. There were some who were marginalized in Roseto, either because they had no ethnic or social ties within the community or because, for whatever reason, they had been excluded or had excluded themselves from the community’s social culture. Like their neighbors in Bangor and Nazareth, these marginalized Rosetans showed a higher incidence of illness and myocardial infarction than the general population. Indeed, in one case history, a seemingly healthy “Mr. F.” commented to the researchers (five years before he died of a heart attack) that “I don’t fit in the town—I don’t live like they do—I’m not like the Rosetans.”

He was not the only marginalized inhabitant who missed out on the health benefits of living in Roseto. “Hard work and family and personal problems were common to most of them,” wrote Bruhn and Wolf. “In addition they emphasized self-reliance and responsibility for their own actions and hence enjoyed little or no family or community support in times of crisis.”

With these observations in hand after two years of study, it wasn’t difficult for the researchers to predict in 1963 that, “If and when Roseto’s traditional close-knit, mutually supportive social structure began to crumble . . . the town’s relative immunity to death from myocardial infarction would gradually come to an end.”

In fact, that is exactly what happened. As Roseto gradually became Americanized, adopting what the researchers called “materialistic and individualistic values,” mortality from heart attacks shot up, reaching the prevailing rate in Bangor by 1975. Unfortunately, the study didn’t follow up on mental health effects, but there is no shortage of more recent research linking mental health and well-being to social support—or indeed linking physical health to mental health.

Can materialistic and individualistic values really do so much harm to the health of a community? Isn’t independence one of the greatest gifts we can give our children?

It’s a valid question. As parents we certainly want our children to grow up knowing how to dress themselves, regulate themselves and exercise a great deal of the trait that we call “independence.” But as you consider independence in terms of community, also consider that the human brain is not only itself a mass of connections that feed the health of mind and body, but the stability of these connections is maintained and supported by reliable interconnectivity with other human brains. And contrary to the fears of some, you can’t have “too many” connections. You may not treasure them all equally, but all serve a purpose and contribute to the larger safety net that is community.

That said, I wouldn’t dream of arguing with Monty Python: “We’re all individuals! Yes, we ARE all different!” But we are individuals who, because we are human, are pro-social beings. Whether we like it or not, this makes us interdependent, and that’s not so bad—in fact, it’s actually the way of all living things.

Of course, if you prefer, you can try to do “forever” on your own . . . but the odds aren’t going to be stacked in your favor.

 

 

RELATED RESEARCH:

Humans Are Happier when They Do the Right Thing; It Also Helps Them Overcome Difficulties

June 12, 2013—Communities that stick together and do good for others cope better with crises and are happier for it, according to University of British Columbia researcher John Helliwell and colleagues. Their work suggests that part of the reason for this greater resilience is the fact that humans are more than simply social beings, they are so-called ‘pro-social‘ beings. In other words, they get happiness not just from doing things with others, but from doing things both with and for others. The paper is published online in Springer’s Journal of Happiness Studies.”

Heart Disease Risk Linked with Spouses’ Social Support

February 6, 2014—Matters of the heart can influence actual heart health, according to new research. A study from researchers at the University of Utah shows that the ways in which your spouse is supportive—and how you support your spouse—can actually have significant bearing on your overall cardiovascular health.

People Who Are Socially Isolated Experience More Pain after Hip Replacement

October 27, 2013—Could being socially isolated affect how well you do and the amount of pain you experience after surgery? Researchers at Hospital for Special Surgery (HSS) set out to test this hypothesis. They found that people who lacked good social ties were much more likely to experience serious, ongoing pain following total hip replacement surgery two or more years after the procedure.

People Mean Most for our Collective Happiness

October 7, 2013—Swedish soccer star Zlatan is associated with happiness, but not iPhones. A new study at the Sahlgrenska Academy and Lund Universitysuggests that our collective picture of what makes us happy is more about relationships, and less about things.

PeopleWho Needs Them?
 Nov 2, 2011 … As much as our inner cowboy might like the idea of riding off alone into the sunset, real people cannot thrive that way.

research-the science of gratitudeThere are so many things I love about Autumn days—and yes, we get them even in Southern California. A crispy edge to the air; pumpkins, cranberries and turkeys, falling leaves drifting by the window —(to borrow a little poetic imagery from Nat King Cole)—and of course, all the Facebook posts from friends who are counting down the days of November with reasons to be thankful.

Some of my friends have momentous events to be thankful for: the birth of a child, an engagement, a championship trophy. Some may seem less earth-shattering. “Today, I’m thankful that, for the first time in many years, I will be hosting Thanksgiving,” wrote one friend. “I’m thankful it’s going to be a short school week for my son,” wrote another. These two friends in particular have proven resilient through some difficult times over the years, and it struck me that they both took the time to express gratitude for some deceptively simple things. Could their “attitude of gratitude” be part of the reason for their resilience?

Knowing all my friends, I’m certain that their expressions of gratitude come from the heart and are voiced without the anticipation of payback. But in actual fact, the simple act of taking time to reflect on whatever we have to be grateful for does pay dividends, say researchers, no matter how great or small our gifts.

What kinds of dividends?

Beginning with the big picture, several studies point to gratitude as being an overall key to happiness. One way gratitude contributes to happiness is by strengthening our relationships with family and friends, not only because of the positive feelings we evoke in them when we thank them—but also because of the pleasure we feel when we make others feel appreciated. At the same time, however, we increase the degree of responsibility we feel for their future welfare which may make us more invested in strengthening the relationship further. This is good for our brain in all kinds of ways. We’re social beings, and the stronger our relationships, the happier we are in general. But there are also more specific ways gratitude pays us back.

Robert A. Emmons of the University of California-Davis and Michael E. McCullough of the University of Miami are two of many researchers around the world who focus on the effects of gratitude. In a 2003 study, they looked at how gratitude affects well-being by comparing three randomly assigned groups of subjects over nine weeks. Each group had a different assignment: one was to report on five things they were grateful for in their lives. The second were to report on negative aspects: irritating or annoying events. The third  were simply to report on any events that “had an impact.”

As you’ve no doubt guessed by now, the “gratitude” group ended up with the most positive outcomes, both physically and psychologically. They had fewer symptoms of illness, spent more time exercising, reported higher levels of positive emotions, more sleep, better sleep quality, greater optimism and a greater sense of interpersonal connection than those in the other two groups. They also were more likely to have helped someone, or to have offered emotional support to others. A few years later, Emmons conducted a similar study with recipients of donated organs. Those patients who kept “gratitude journals” scored higher on measures of mental health, general health and overall vitality than those who simply kept routine notes about daily events.

Like Emmons and McCullough, researchers Giacomo Bono and Jeffrey J. Froh have also focused on gratitude, particularly in children and teens. (Their new book, Making Grateful Kids, is due out in February 2014. Stay tuned, I fully intend to review it here.) In research they presented at meetings of the American Psychological Association (APA) in 2012, Bono and Froh found that “grateful teens are more likely than their less grateful peers to be happy, less likely to abuse drugs and alcohol and less likely to have behavior problems at school.” Fortunately, say the researchers, if your teen isn’t yet up to snuff on the gratitude scale, never fear. This is a habit that can be developed.

This is good news, especially in light of Todd Kashdan’s 2009 study suggesting that men tend to have a more difficult time feeling and expressing gratitude than women.  Men tend to feel more burden and obligation when presented with gifts . . . and as a result, less gratitude, he found. This was especially true when the gift came from another man. “The way we get socialized as children affects what we do with our emotions as adults,” says Kashdan. “Because men are generally taught to control and conceal their softer emotions, this may be limiting their well-being.”

Whatever your gender, if you’re up for change in mental or physical well-being, you could do worse than to try the same exercise used in much of the above research: journal about the things in your life that you can feel grateful for. Even if you can only come up with five things a week, you stand a chance of improving your outlook. Of course, as you become adept at noticing more of the “little things,” like my two Facebook friends, you may be able to come up with far more than that.

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For more about the science of gratitude, you might want to check out these researchers whose work appears in recent journal issues from the Society for Personality and Social Psychology:

David DeSteno, Northeastern University

DeSteno’s work shows the social benefits of feeling gratitude: how it makes us more resilient, how it makes us more honest and cooperative, how it alters our financial decisions such that we favor the greater good, and how it makes us “pay virtue forward” without even knowing it.

Naomi Eisenberger, UCLA

Eisenberger’s work focuses on measuring gene expression and using brain scanning to examine some of the biological and neurological effects of being grateful.

5MythsA friend of mine recently pointed out that media articles promoting Bullying Prevention Month seem to focus on the effects of bullying more often than strategies for prevention. I had to admit she had a point, so I immediately went off to write an article that focused on prevention in her honor.

This isn’t it.

You knew that though, because you clicked on a link titled “5 Myths about Bullying.” And frankly, I have to say it was pretty brilliant of you to do it. After all, you can’t actually prevent something until you can recognize it, right? So before I give you a link to the article on Bullying Prevention, let’s be as sure as we can about what the behavior we’re trying to prevent looks like. We’ll start by defining bullying. This is not as easy you might think.

A Google search will turn up a range of definitions for the term bullying, but the definition most commonly accepted by researchers amounts to: persistent aggressive behavior that often involves a power imbalance and intention to harm. It sounds simple enough on the surface, but it becomes complicated quickly because the power imbalance may be real or perceived, intentions may not always be clear, and harm may be physical or emotional. The key part of the definition is actually the presence of recurring aggressive behavior. Without considering a pattern of behavior, everyone could be considered a bully: we’ve all caused interpersonal harm to someone at some time in our lives.

No doubt we each have slightly different images in mind of a “typical” bully. One of the most common stereotypes in the media is that of a big bruiser of a schoolboy physically threatening a smaller child—perhaps stealing his lunch money or harassing him on the playground. Another stereotype, usually assigned to girls, consists of a group whispering about an ostracized classmate. Both are valid representations of bullying behavior as far as they go, but if we are interested in making real strides toward bullying prevention, we need to dispel some of the myths that restrict our thinking. I chose five, so this obviously isn’t an exhaustive list, but it offers some of the most fundamental misconceptions. If you’d like to bring up others, by all means, please add yours as a comment below.

Myth #1:  Bullying is mainly a childhood or teen issue taking place in the context of school.

People bully others in all kinds of settings at all ages. At home, at school, in the workplace, and online, bullies can be found among every age group. In fact, those who bully in one context also tend to have problems in their other relationships. They may bully online, and may have displayed similarly aggressive behaviors in preschool years at home among siblings or playmates. After high school, they may move on to bullying coworkers, intimate partners and/or children.

Different forms of bullying may carry one or two unique characteristics, but in the main, say researchers, bullies display relational aggression and in some cases, deficits in social problem-solving skills. This does not mean bullies are always loners, bereft of social skills. In fact, says University of Warwick researcher Dieter Wolke, when you look at relational bullying, for instance, certain social skills actually increase a bully’s capacity for harm. “Spreading rumors, excluding someone—these require that you know how to hurt someone without actually physically attacking them.” In some cases, otherwise socially engaged and/or self-righteous people may simply have learned to view the use of superiority or the degradation of others as acceptable forms of enforcing their will: perhaps after observing such behaviors at home, or through having themselves been victims of peer bullying.

Myth #2: Bullying is a harmless and necessary part of growing up. Kids will be kids, and they need to learn how to deal with life in the “real world.”

The best way for kids to learn how to deal with life “in the real world” is to be taught appropriate behavior toward others. While it’s certain we will each encounter bullies at various points in our lives, bystanders (whether adults or peers) should always intervene in bullying. Research finds that doing so does make a difference. Children can (and should) be taught prosocial skills whether they interact on a bus, a playground, at school, or online. As we are about to see, bullying is far from harmless and can impede, rather than encourage, the process of growing up.

Myth #3:  The effects of bullying are confined to its victims.

Those who are bullied indeed suffer, not only effects such as higher rates of incarceration and problems with health, poverty, and social relationships, but as one recent study found, “being bullied during childhood directly increases the likelihood of self-harm in late adolescence.” And the effects of social bullying in particular can linger long into adulthood in the form of mental health issues such as suicidal thoughts, anxiety and depression.

But bullying impacts everyone involved: including the bullies themselves and those bystanders who witness the behavior. As bystanders learn which behaviors are tolerated in their community, they may emulate the bully—or they may run the risk of falling prey to others who do. Bully victims who go on to become bullies themselves tend to end up with higher levels of all anxiety and depressive disorders, plus the highest levels of suicidal thoughts, depressive disorders, generalized anxiety and panic disorder. But even pure bullies, who tend to suffer relatively few consequences compared to their victims, are also at increased risk for some mental health issues, such as psychotic experiences and even antisocial personality disorder—a finding that held even after researchers controlled for other factors.

Myth #4: Cyberbullying is not “as bad” as face-to-face bullying.

It can be difficult to parse out the effects of cyberbullying and face-to-face bullying. As much as 90 percent of those who are cyberbullied are also bullied face-to-face: digital communication is simply one more tool in the bully’s arsenal. In some cases, says Wolke, cyberbullying offers the victim a chance to fight back that they may not have when face-to-face. But cyberbullying can be extremely stressful and may actually be worse than face-to-face bullying in other circumstances. Researchers have found that the degree of stress is much higher when humiliating photographs or videos are involved, since these materials can be proliferated across the Internet to an almost unlimited audience.

It’s true, of course, that a cyberbully may believe his or her actions are less hurtful than those of a schoolyard or workplace bully. However, this is a dangerous myth. All forms of bullying can cause intense emotional harm. It can be argued that traditional power imbalances (such as size and popularity) don’t exist in cyberbullying, but there are “non-traditional” or perceived power imbalances at work online that are not immediately obvious. For instance, when someone posts degrading or humiliating comments or photos about another person, the poster is often the only one with the power to remove them from public view. Depending on where and how the attack is posted, a victim may not even have access to a platform for responding, an imbalance of power that can impose a pervasive sense of helplessness and humiliation.

Myth #5: If we can define bullying precisely, it will be easy to recognize and address.

In a 2004 study published in the journal Children and Schools, researcher Faye Mishna found that even when children and adults agreed on a definition, they did not necessarily categorize the same incidents as bullying. One reason for this was that parents often did not see power imbalances or intention to hurt where children did, particularly in situations where bullying occurred among children that the adults considered to be friends and equals.

Mishna offers the example of one father describing a situation in which his daughter was bullied by friends. He and his wife struggled (in his words) “to get a sense of is it 50/50, or is it more your fault or more their fault?'” Another mother  wondered whether her daughter was really being bullied or whether the behavior could simply be considered ‘typical’ conflict.’  Was her friend being manipulative, or was it simply ‘an age thing” to attempt to control another child by threatening not to be her friend anymore?

Threatening to dissolve a friendship in an effort to control a playmate should not be considered harmless. It’s relational aggression, says University of Illinois researcher Laurie Kramer. “It’s very common and I think it happens because one child is essentially saying, ‘I’m frustrated that you don’t see the world the way I do, and that you don’t want to do what I want to do.’ It comes back to that lesson about perspective-taking and being willing to accept the other person’s feelings as valid, particularly when those feelings are different from their own. And there are ways to help kids learn how to have those conversations.” But adults won’t be having these conversations with children if they suffer under the misconception that kids should simply be left to work out their problems on their own.

Clearly this takes us back to Myth #2—and maybe even to the fundamental issue underlying bullying. The inescapable truth is that If children aren’t taught positive conflict resolution skills, leaving them to “work it out” is not going to magically endow them with the hoped-for “Aha!” moment. Unwanted behaviors that aren’t addressed can become habitual. That’s when they begin to slide from the category of “conflict” to “bullying.”

With these concepts in mind, where do we begin a strategy for bullying prevention? It would seem that laying the groundwork for prevention in workplaces, schools, and other institutions calls for creating a culture that refuses to tolerate aggressive behavior. But of course, there’s a level that’s even more fundamental than schoolrooms and workplaces.

Okay, you get the link to the prevention article now. There, that didn’t take long, did it? We still have two weeks left in Bullying Prevention Month:

Bullying Prevention Begins at Home

The Big DisconnectWhen I first undertook to review Harvard psychologist Catherine Steiner-Adair’s new book, I imagined it would be the typical rant against modern technology. Titled The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age, it certainly could have taken the easy route to success—which often seems to involve blaming all of society’s ills on the latest popular gadget, as though the human experience would be positively overflowing with love and sweetness and light if only we lived in a more innocent age (assuming there has ever been one). Of course, new technologies do tend to present new challenges, so Steiner-Adair could have been justified in sounding an alarmist note to ensure book sales, as social scaremongers have been known to do since even before the invention of the telephone. She could have taken such an approach. But she didn’t.

On the other hand, she didn’t ignore the challenges either. As I was pleasantly surprised to discover, The Big Disconnect  offers a fair and balanced assessment of our tech-infused culture, outlining the challenges—as well as pointing out the benefits—of digital connection, while also offering parents strategies for navigating digital dilemmas.

“A family is an ecosystem,” writes Steiner-Adair with co-author Teresa H. Barker. But even as we want this ecosystem to thrive, she says, we also realize that social media, texting, screen games, and other digital pulls can pose a risk to family well-being. “The good news,” she writes, ” is that we have everything we need to create sustainable families—loving, thriving human ecosystems. . . . It is never to late to turn a nurturing eye to family and in the process to update attitudes or patterns that aren’t working as you’d like.”

How does one go about doing this? In practical terms that include concrete, easily-implemented techniques, Steiner-Adair shows us how we can develop seven important qualities that are shared by the most resilient, sustainable families she encounters in her work as a psychologist and Harvard instructor. Essentially, she says, sustainable families:

1.  recognize the challenges posed by the pervasive presence of tech and develop a family philosophy toward its use. “The family has its own ways—tech and nontech—of hanging out, messing around, and geeking out,” Steiner-Adair writes.

2.  encourage play, and play together.

3.  nourish meaningful connection and thoughtful conversation that shares feelings, values, expectations, and optimism.

4.  understand the uniqueness of each person, encourage independence and individual interests, and foster their independence in the context of family.

5.  have built-in mechanisms for healthy disagreement. Parents set limits, act thoughtfully with parental authority, and do the hard parenting work of demonstrating accountability, authority, openness, transparency. Rather than simply demanding trust, they give their children good reason to trust.

6.  have values, wisdom, a link to past and future, and some common language that they share with family and friends.

7.  provide experiences offline in which children can cultivate an inner life, solitude, and connection to nature.

The real-life examples Steiner-Adair offers as support are convincing. They vividly illustrate the costs of ignoring these seven principles; and expose just how easily kids can conflate online illusions with real life scripts when their time spent in cyberspace outdistances time spent with those who love, guide and ground them in their physical space.

Clueless about how to make it clear to your kids that you love them and want to be there for them as they navigate choppy digital waters? Steiner-Adair addresses that too. After interviewing more than a thousand children about what makes a parent approachable, she brings it all back down to the issue of trust. Just as parents hope to trust their children, children crave to trust their parents.

Even as children’s lives become more complex, writes Steiner-Adair, “They continue, much as they did from birth, to watch us closely for cues that tell them whether we are approachable. They come to understand how each parent will react. . . . They develop a keen sense about which parent to approach with what kind of situation. Who goes ballistic over a B on a test? Who takes mistakes in stride? They learn when it’s okay to interrupt a parent at work and for what reason. And they know—or believe they know—when their parents are the last people in the world to approach. This is how we earn our reputation with them as reliable and trustworthy—or not.” No one is suggesting this is a new dynamic. But there’s no question that, like so many other social dynamics, it is heightened by our digital connectivity.

These are not straightforward times. As parents, we are still finding our footing in a world that has changed dramatically since we were children. To Steiner-Adair, this means that we need to be aware that the answers to our dilemmas are nuanced: meaning that there are complexities to them. We need to “resist facile, fast-twitch answers,” she says, and grasp the understanding that “the big questions about how we use media and tech are not simple.”

This does not mean we need to abandon what she calls “old truths.” Quite the contrary. Dealing with nuance does not mean abandoning truth: and the most basic truth, when it comes to children, is that they need our attention. “Children flourish in families that work hard at the hard work of being a family,” Steiner-Adair concludes. And while we haven’t yet succeeded in applying this kind of relationship on a global scale (as she argues we desperately need to do) nevertheless, “we can deepen connections, cultivate closeness, and push pause more often to savor the gift of time and the primacy of family.”

The research citations in this compelling book are extensive and impressive, but you don’t need to be an academic to connect with Steiner-Adair’s important message. Her common sense and positive tone offer parents a generous measure of confidence that, yes—it’s possible to foster secure family relationships even in our intensely digital age; as well as to set children on the path to successfully navigating their own relationships far into the future.

FacesOfEmotionSmBefore we get into the six dimensions of emotional style, a little background is called for. Most of us are familiar with the pop-psych approach to measuring personality, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), right? What may not be as well-known is the fact that this popular tool is based on Carl Jung‘s musings about the brain. Jung did the best he could to make guesses about the nature of personality in a pre-neuroscience world, but he was hampered by his time, mystic notions related to psychic energy, and limited research tools.

Skip forward about half a century, and you’ll find that, even though much more is known today about the brain, public practice hasn’t yet caught up. You will still find many schools and workplaces relying on a 50-year-old tool to make judgments about human potential; a tool which rests on the conventional assumption that we’re born with a specific personality and carry it with us until we die.

Looking at how little has changed in actual practice over 50 years, you would think the intervening revolution in genetics has happened silently, underground—without so much as fluttering the composure of the average human resources director or high-school counselor.

You know the revolution, I’m talking about, right? The one that overturned the idea that genetic equals unchangeable. I think most people have heard the phrase “nature plus nurture” by now, but its ramifications may not be so easy to grasp. The research is not controversial at all, and as neuroscientist Richard Davidson and Sharon Begley put it in The Emotional Life of Your Brain, it toppled the nature-versus-nurture debate “as thoroughly and dramatically as the statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad. Scientists made two startling, and related discoveries,” they write: “that a genetic trait will be expressed or not depending on the environment in which a child grows up, and that the actual gene—the double helix that winds through every single one of our cells—can be turned on or off depending on the experiences we have.”

To underscore what that means, they continue, “Contrary to the popular belief that if something is genetically based we’re stuck with it for life . . . even genetically based traits can be dramatically modified by how parents, teachers, and caregivers treat children and by the experiences children have.”

Yes, even traits we think of as innate parts of our personality. And even more interesting, some of the traits we’ve thought of as basic personality traits are not as basic as we once thought. Many of them are the result of a combination of more than one brain circuit related to emotion.

This is pretty big news, actually. What it means is that there is something more fundamental to who we are than what we’ve thought of as “personality.”

After studying the specific neural signatures that underlie what we’ve always thought of as “personality traits,” researchers have identified six dimensions, which Davidson refers to as Emotional Style. “Each dimension describes a continuum,” he and Begley explain. “Some people fall at one or the other extreme of that continuum, while others fall somewhere in the middle. The combination of where you fall on each dimension adds up to your overall Emotional Style fingerprint.”

The six dimensions are:

1. Resilience style: “If you have an argument with your significant other,” asks Davidson, “does it cast a pall on the remainder of your day, or are you able to recover quickly and put it behind you?” We fall between “Fast to Recover” or “Slow to Recover” on this dimension.

2. Outlook style: “Do you maintain a high level of energy and engagement even when things don’t go your way? Or do you tend toward cynicism and pessimism, struggling to see anything positive?” We fall between “Positive” and “Negative” on the Outlook dimension.

3. Social Intuition style: “Can you read people’s body language and tone of voice like a book? . . . Or are you puzzled by—even blind to—the outward indications of people’s mental and emotional states?” We are described as anywhere between “Socially Intuitive” and “Puzzled” on this dimension.

4. Self-Awareness style: “Are you aware of your own thoughts and feelings? . . . Or do you act and react without knowing why you do what you do?”  We fall between “Self-Aware” and “Self-Opaque” on this dimension.

5. Sensitivity to Context style: “Are you able to pick up the conventional rules of social interaction? . . .Or are you baffled when people tell you that your behavior is inappropriate?” On this dimension we’ll find ourselves somewhere between “Tuned In” and “Tuned Out.”

6. Attention style: “Can you screen out emotional or other distractions and stay focused? . . . Or do your thoughts flit from the task at hand to the fight you had with your spouse this morning or the anxiety you feel about an upcoming presentation for work?” We fall on this dimension between “Focused” and “Unfocused.”

Your “personality” is a cookie dough made up of differing dollops of these ingredients; with the old familiar personality traits being traced to combinations of these neural signatures . . . and we can adjust where we fall on these dimensions if we want to.

But we don’t have to. There is no ideal emotional style, says Davidson, but he also doesn’t see himself in the “I’m okay, you’re okay” camp. This, he says, is because, “some emotional styles simply make it harder to be a productive member of society, to forge meaningful relationships, and to achieve a sense of well-being.” That’s actually the test, he says. But whatever reason you may have for wanting to tweak your position on any of these dimensions, the point is that if you do want to alter your emotional style, you can. “Sorry, this is the way I was born,” is no longer a limitation.

This understanding might shed some light on why it can be so damaging to pin a “personality type” on a kid in grade school and set their life’s course accordingly. Or to skip hiring an employee based on a test that assesses his or her personality “potential” using the old “here’s who I am” paradigm.

But it may also come as a welcome realization: a gift, even. To think that we aren’t stuck with the aspects of our approach that aren’t working for us can be seen, in some respects, as an open door to a new way of life and a more effective way of relating to others.

Because at the root of it, the key to an effective emotional style is the key to the success of our relationships. And relationships are what make our lives worth living.

In future posts, we’ll go over some of the more familiar personality traits in more detail, tracing them to their underlying emotional styles. But you can catch a sneak peek at some of them in Emotions are Us, today’s featured article on Mom Psych.

July is Social Wellness Month, so it seemed an appropriate topic for a guest post on Chelsea’s Blog, published by the Chelsea Foundation:

The Chelsea Foundation's Official Parenting Blog

How to connect emotionally with your children and help them learn prosocial skills during Social Wellness Month! Family psychology writer Gina Stepp discusses the importance of forging and maintaining positive social bonds in children’s lives.

By Gina Stepp, www.mom-psych.com

As parents, we all want our children to lead happy and risk-free lives, right? But what makes the difference between kids who are at risk for mental-health or behavioral problems and those who will manage to hang on to their inner compass through life’s ups and downs?

There are several important skills or “competencies” children need for strong psychological health, but one of the most important of these has to do with their ability to forge and maintain positive social bonds.

This ability requires two almost inseparable characteristics. The first is the ability to regulate distress and negative emotions, which children begin to build from birth. The second is the later-developing…

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