Category Archives: Research

It’s Always Darkest Before the Yawn

She loves me, she loves me not: If you want to know how connected your pal feels to you, try yawning in her presence. The tighter your social bond, the more likely she is to yawn in response to you.

There are a lot of theories about why we yawn, why it’s contagious, and how come some people are more susceptible to infectious yawning than others. It could be genetic. It might be a survival instinct to keep a group out of danger. And it has something to do with age – older people and younger children seem more immune.

Currently, there’s a reasonable amount of evidence to suggest links with empathy. That’s why a group of biologists at the University of Pisa figured that since women are known to have more developed empathic abilities than men (sorry, guys, but it has to do with our traditional roles of tending the kids and making sure our clans get along), perhaps they’d be more susceptible to contagious yawns. They tested this out and found that not only were women, as expected, more likely to catch a yawn than men – but yawns were also more contagious between close friends and family members, and less contagious between people they barely knew.

So if you want to measure the loyalty of your female friend, catch her eye and do some dramatic yawning. (Either that, or ask for a loan, and see how that goes.)

Personally, I’m convinced I have a severe case of yawnitis. I yawn when I see someone else yawning, when I look at a picture of someone yawning, when I write the word yawning, when I think about yawning, even when I watch a drawbridge opening. In fact, I’ve yawned thirty-six times already while writing this blog. Either I’m tight as glue with every person on the planet… or I need another go at the morning coffee. Suspicions are strong it’s the latter.


Aw, look at that. She likes you, she really likes you. (Photo by David Castillo Dominici /

All Smiles

How about this new study from the Psychology department at the University of British Columbia? Researchers found that young children aged five to seven have stronger reactions to happy, smiling faces than angry ones. They perceive these positive facial expressions as more intense, and they’re more tuned in to the information conveyed by human beings who are beaming.

That’s a surprise, because apparently by adulthood we’re more attuned to negative faces than positive ones. Presumably, that’s because there’s survival value in picking up quickly on threats and other bad news. When someone is frowning, we know we ought to pay close attention to whatever it is they’re about to tell us. (If we’re lucky, it’s more on the scale of an outrageous dry-cleaning bill, as opposed to a massive alien invasion.)

So why do little kids show the opposite pattern? Why do they have a stronger response to happy smiles? Maybe it’s the way we’re raising them, suggests co-author Rebecca Todd in a press release, noting: “In North American culture we really give a lot of positive reinforcement to our kids.”

I guess what she’s saying is that our kids are used to receiving all their critical information – don’t pick your nose, keep your hands away from the stove, say thank you to Grandma – from a happy-looking face. We don’t scowl at them, but rather guide them with never-ending patience and sweetness. (Are you laughing as hard as I am right now? Hm, maybe that’s where the smiley-face business comes from.)

But seriously, as 21st-century parents go, we are a pretty nice sort. And I like the idea that we are capable of teaching them crucial life lessons without anger or physical force. That our children are getting a whole lot of loving-kindness in their lives. Maybe we do raise our voices once in a while – we’re not perfect. But at least our kids are learning that smiles are important.

If you ask me, that’s a crucial life lesson right there.


“Son, next we’re going to talk about why you shouldn’t flush the hamsters down the toilet… uh, ever again.” (Photo courtesy of stockimages /

Chocolate, Sweetness: Now I See the Connection

Today’s the fourth annual Giving Tuesday. It’s a relatively new tradition of taking stock of your wallet after Black Friday and Cyber Monday, and thinking more about charity, less about the sale price you scored on that stainless-steel, one-touch espresso machine.

A recent British survey by Galaxy Hot Chocolate shows we’re not too shabby when it comes to giving. (You already knew this, didn’t you, readers?) The survey found that about 3 in 4 people will pay it forward whenever someone does them a good deed. In fact, they do 1.27 acts of kindness for every one good deed done to them. That’s an average, of course – I don’t think these sweet-lovin’ folk are suggesting people will pick up only a quarter of a piece of garbage, or give a quarter of the directions to a lost stranger.

The same research found that the most frequent good deed – at least in Britain, although I can personally verify that this is not uncommon in Canada – is holding the door open for someone else. (Again, we recommend you go more than a quarter of the way on this one.)

These good deeds don’t take more than a few seconds of your time. And yet, if this survey is accurate, they spawn even more acts of kindness for other people. It’s like a virus, only with fewer sniffles…


I’m looking for the ripple effect, but it’s hard to see under all those mini-marshmallows… (Photo courtesy of OZphotography /


Happy Twits

“Boy, am I hungover!” Truthfully, as I’m writing this, I don’t yet know the outcome of our federal election. So I can’t actually predict how I’ll be feeling when this blog is posted on Tuesday morning. I suspect I’ll be tired, having stayed up past my bedtime for the voting results and speeches. And yes, maybe I really will be suffering the wrath of grapes, either from toasting a victory… or from trying to drown my sorrows.

I can guarantee, though, that social media channels will be humming like a high-powered jackhammer on Tuesday morning. Almost everyone will have something to say about the election results, whether positive or negative.

Believe it or not, that distinction makes a difference when it comes to the staying power of a post.

And you know I have a research study to back this up, don’t you? Computer scientists at the University of California just released an analysis of almost 20 million tweets. The messages were filtered through an automatic sorting program and assigned scores of positivity or negativity. So, for instance, “Pedicures are beautiful #footfetish” is assigned to the positive group, while “Over-boiled spinach is the bolus of Satan” gets put with the negatives. (Note: These are fabricated examples and are not extracted from actual study data.)

The researchers then looked at what happened to the tweets, and their retweets, over time. (Wow, now there’s a sentence that would fail you in English in 1999.) They found that positive messages did tend to spread more slowly than negative ones. But they were also shared and favourited more. Eventually, positive tweets reach more people than negative ones.

The researchers call this positive bias. You may recall a study I reported on back in March that found that languages around the world are universally skewed to the positive. Whether we’re writing or speaking or composing lyrics, we refer to flowers and sunshine more often than doom and gloom.

Nice to know we have a natural urge to share positivity. And it’s such an easy good deed: Click “Retweet”; make your followers happy. On that note, I just made a point of logging onto Twitter, saw something positive, and retweeted it.

You’re welcome.

Flowers and sunshine.

Flowers and sunshine.

Horrible Bosses

Do you manage front-line workers as part of your job? If so, are you more concerned with making a million bucks than making your employees feel like a million bucks? You might want to pay attention to a new study from the University of British Columbia. It suggests that the way supervisors treat their front-line employees can have a direct impact on the way those employees, in turn, treat the customers.

According to the researchers at UBC’s Sauder School of Business, customers in general are becoming increasingly snarky to call-centre employees and other front-line service workers. And when telemarketers or customer-service agents are at the receiving end of this over-the-phone abuse, naturally it’s tempting as hell to hang up on people, direct their calls to a nonexistent department of the company, or openly question a customer’s parentage.

But the study found that whether or not employees actually give in to that temptation hinges on the amount of respect they get from their supervisors. If the workers are consistently treated with dignity, they’re a lot less likely to behave badly to rude customers. And that, in turn, is good for the bottom line.

I doubt this phenomenon is confined to call centres. When we’re dealing with less stress on the job – any job – we’re less likely to snap. So if you’re a boss, be nice to your employees. It’ll be worth your while. Treat them fairly, say thank you, remember their birthdays. And it wouldn’t kill you to bring doughnuts every Monday.

“Since my boss treats me with respect, I’m resisting the urge right now to tell you how badly your gene pool is in need of chlorine…” (Photo courtesy of imagerymajestic /

“Since my boss treats me with respect, I’m resisting the urge right now to tell you how badly your gene pool is in need of chlorine…” (Photo courtesy of imagerymajestic /

Colour Me Happy

Researchers have recently discovered that people who are feeling sad become colour impaired. Seriously, they’re less likely to see vibrant, bright hues compared to folks who are feeling upbeat or neutral. Find this surprising? I’d always assumed it worked the other way… that we feel more depressed on a dull, drizzly, grey-weather day, and that we’re immensely cheered up by the dynamic colours of, say, an all-expenses-paid tropical vacation. At least, I’m pretty certain that’s how it works for me.

But a psychology team at the University of Rochester showed that study participants who watched sad video clips, instead of happy or neutral videos, were less able to distinguish between colours on the blue-yellow axis.

What does this mean in good-deeds terms? It means that when you buoy up someone who’s feeling down – a kid who’s bummed about going back to school, let’s say – you’re actually taking the grey away. So go ahead, brighten someone’s day. Literally.

One of my happy places – my flower garden, where the colours never fail to dazzle me. Now it all makes sense.

One of my happy places – my flower garden, where the colours never fail to dazzle me. Now it all makes sense.

Words to Live By

Joy to the world. Happy birthday. Good times. Scientists at the University of Vermont recently went to great effort to catalogue one hundred billion words in 10 different languages. (Some of us spend our time collecting stamps or coins.) For their study, they used a wide variety of word sources, including song lyrics, books, movie subtitles and even Tweets.

Every single word from the billions gathered was individually sorted on a scale of 1-9. Positive-sounding words like “laughter” were assigned a high score, and negative words like “terrorist” were at the bottom. Neutral words like “the” and “truck” got a score in the middle.

After the scores were averaged, the researchers came up with this uplifting conclusion: Every language is skewed to the positive. Or, as eloquently summarized by the mathematician who co-led the study: “[We] use more happy words than sad words.”

Fun fact: This theory was actually put forth in 1969 by University of Illinois psychologists, who called it the Pollyanna Hypothesis, but didn’t have much proof to back their proposal.

The University of Vermont researchers found their results to be universal across all 10 languages (although Spanish sources turned out to be the most positive, and Chinese the least. I’m not jumping to any conclusions, so you shouldn’t either).

It’s nice to know that no matter what language we speak, and whether we’re writing books, composing songs or tweeting about the utterly mundane, humans tend to look on the bright side of life.

Note: The above blog post contains a minimum of 77% happy words… and is fat- and sugar-free.

Together Through Thick and Thinner

I’m going to take it on faith that you love the one you’re with. So I’m fairly confident that, if you could, you’d extend your partner’s life. That’s a pretty radical sort of good deed, isn’t it? If you’re thinking kidney donation or four-alarm-fire rescue, you’ll be possibly relieved to know that there’s an even easier way to do add years to your beloved one’s life. And you’ll end up helping yourself in the process.

Here’s how: Quit a bad habit – or develop a healthy one – the same time your partner does.

Researchers at University College London recently investigated the lifestyle behaviours of men and women in long-term relationships, and reported some positive findings. They found that if one partner tried to quit smoking, get more exercise or shed a few pounds, they were much more likely to succeed if their mate made the attempt right along with them.

And I mean much more likely. For instance: Women who tried to quit smoking had a low success rate (8%) if their cig-addicted partners kept on smoking. If, on the other hand, their men quit with them, their success shot up to 50%. Compare that to a 17% percent success rate in relationships where the partners never smoked to begin with. That suggests it’s the actual joint effort to break this habit that makes the biggest difference.

Similarly, men and women were more likely to get fit or shed weight if their partner tried to do it with them.

Why does it help? Encouragement and moral support can do wonders, say the researchers. (And maybe a little healthy competition doesn’t hurt, says I.) This CBC report suggests it’s simply a lot more fun to run laps or swim lengths when you’re with a loved one.

If you’re single, don’t despair. Anyone can be your workout buddy, even a neighbour or a co-worker. The point is to have a cheering section.

As for all you supportive partners who are exercising, dieting or slapping on a nicotine patch for your significant other, give yourself a pat on the back. You’re performing an act of kindness that will ensure your better half has a long, healthy future ahead of them. And there’s kickback for you, ’cause you’ll end up improving your own physical condition. Plus, you know that by doing a good deed, you get an emotional lift. It’s not just a win-win situation, it’s a win-win-win-win-win-win…

Photo courtesy of gameanna /

Photo courtesy of gameanna /

Misery Loves Company

Would you describe yourself as a glass-half-empty kind of person? We can’t all have sunny dispositions. If you’re a bit of a morose sort – less Happy the Dwarf, perhaps, and more Marvin the Depressed Robot – you may believe you don’t have what it takes to support a pal who’s feeling bummed out. After all, a peppier person would do a better job turning someone’s bad mood around and lifting their spirits – wouldn’t they?

Perhaps not, say researchers in Yale University’s Psychology Department. They gathered groups of positive people and sad sacks, and showed them videos of speakers telling very personal stories. The researchers found that the more upbeat listeners weren’t so good at identifying the speakers’ negative emotions, like sadness. Yet since the positive people felt so darn confident about themselves, they were actually convinced they were stellar at picking up these emotions.

So why did their empathy skills fall flat? The perky people (the researchers theorize) were probably so focused on their own soaring moods that they were a tad oblivious to the misery around them. Call it one of the drawbacks of being high on life.

The downcast folks, on the other hand, were more empathetic when it came to negative emotions, and better at noticing them.

That means that when you want a buddy to commiserate with you, you ought to call on Grumpy Gus. At least he’ll feel your pain.

It should be noted that, in the study, positive people were good at picking up on someone’s emotions if they were in a happy state. My theory: It’s fun to be around fun people if you’re feeling fun.

So if you happen to be somewhat of a sad sack, don’t despair. It turns out you may have a lot of empathy to offer a friend who’s feeling down.

You may not be the life of the party, but you could still be someone’s lifeline.

Please don’t hate me because I’m happy…

Please don’t hate me because I’m happy…

A Sad State of Affairs

You may not have all the same chic outfits, fancy cars and new electronics as your neighbour (not to mention, you don’t show them off to the same obnoxious degree), but you may have something she doesn’t: happiness. People who are more materialistic are also more depressed and less satisfied than the rest of us, say psychology and business researchers at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. That’s because these folks are constantly obsessed with what they don’t have, instead of feeling grateful for what they’ve already got.

Humans are healthier when we focus on others. Since we can’t survive without each other’s support, the little lift we get by helping another individual is a hard-wired reward to make sure we keep doing it.

If people spend a lot of time buying new stuff for themselves, they simply wind up wanting more, and feeling grossly deprived in the process. Apparently, all this takes so much selfish inward concentration that they miss out on that happy little perk that comes from focusing on someone else’s needs.

Hence the crushing existential emptiness.

Hm. My house is modest, my clothes are sensibly priced and my iPhone 6 is, um, not yet a reality.

But now I feel much, much better about it.

Sure, she looks happy. But inside, her soul is dying. (Photo courtesy of photostock /

Sure, she looks happy. But inside, her soul is dying. (Photo courtesy of photostock /