Smiling to Death: The Hidden Dangers of Being ‘Nice’

We can learn to bring more awareness to our own emotions and needs.

Pushing down anger, prioritizing duty, and trying not to disappoint others are leading causes of chronic illness.
Ignoring or suppressing how we feel and what we need revs up our stress response, pushing our body toward inflammation.
Our need to maintain membership in our groups leads us to suppress our emotions in a tug-of-war between attachment and authenticity.

Being nice and pleasing others—while socially applauded and generally acknowledged as positive traits—actually can harm our health, says Gabor Maté.Decades of research point to the same conclusion: Pushing down our anger, prioritizing duty and the needs of others before our own, and trying not to disappoint others are leading causes of chronic illness, says the author of the New York Times bestseller, The Myth of Normal: Trauma, Illness and Healing in a Toxic Culture.

“Our physiology is inseparable from our social existence,” argues the Vancouver physician. Ignoring or suppressing how we feel and what we need—whether done consciously or unconsciously—revs up our stress response, pushing our body toward inflammation, at the cost of our immune system, he says.

“If we work our fingers to the bone, if we’re up all night serving our clients, if we’re always available, never taking time for ourselves, we’re rewarded financially and we’re rewarded with a lot of respect and admiration,” says Maté, “and we’re killing ourselves in the process.”

Personality Features of People With Chronic Illness
When Maté reviewed the research on the chronic illnesses he’d treated for more than 30 years, he discovered a pattern of personality features that most frequently present in people with chronic illness:

Automatic and compulsive concern for the emotional needs of others, while ignoring one’s own needs;
Rigid identification with social role, duty, and responsibility;
Overdriven, externally focused hyperresponsibility, based on the conviction that one must justify one’s existence by doing and giving;
Repression of healthy, self-protective anger; and
Harbouring and compulsively acting out two beliefs: I am responsible for how other people feel, and I must never disappoint anyone.
“Why these features and their striking prevalence in the personalities of chronically ill people are so often overlooked—or missed entirely,” is because they are among the “most normalized ways of being in this culture…largely by being regarded as admirable strengths rather than potential liabilities,” says Maté.
These characteristics have nothing to do with will or conscious choice, says Maté.
Coping Patterns
“No one wakes up in the morning and decides, ‘Today, I’ll put the needs of the whole world foremost, disregarding my own,’ or ‘I can’t wait to stuff down my anger and frustration and put on a happy face instead.’” Nor are we born with these traits—instead, they are coping patterns, adaptations to preserve our connection to others, sometimes at the expense of our very lives, he warns.

We develop these traits to be accepted, in what Maté describes as the tug-of-war between our competing needs for attachment and authenticity. We need attachment to survive, as we are a tribal species, wired for connection, conforming to the needs and rules of others to secure our membership in groups.

But we also need authenticity to keep us healthy. We’re designed to feel and act on emotions, especially the “negative” ones. It’s our alarm system to survive danger. Psychiatrist Randolph Nesse, founding director of the Centre for Evolution and Medicine at Arizona State University, explains that we’ve evolved to survive, not to be happy or calm.

Low mood, anger, shame, anxiety, guilt, grief—these are all helpful responses to help us meet the challenges of our specific environments. Having loud, sensitive protective functions like emotions that sound alarms when we’re threatened isn’t a design flaw. It’s a design success.

Our emotions act as smoke alarms to match the perceived threats around us, says Nesse. This seems most obvious with emotions, like fear, that scream out warnings of danger. But even more subtle emotional experiences help us navigate threats and rewards for survival. The discomfort of a low mood is signaling that there aren’t enough rewards in our environment to outweigh the risks of being there, motivating us to seek out circumstances that are more rewarding or conserve our energy in a safe place—like in bed bingeing Netflix—until the rewards return.
Anger, too, is a necessary response to fight inequities, violations, and having our needs blocked. It’s our most effective tool to mobilize action against injustice. The biggest obstacle to social justice is not heated opposition, but apathy. And, yet, society has socialized many of us to suppress anger. Even the vilified emotion of anger’s more subtle form, resentment, is helpful. When our body and brain pick up subtle cues that our boundaries are not being respected, the resentment alarm shouts out loud and clear to assert these boundaries before we even have time to reflect on the situation.

Suppressing Vital Emotions
Yet, the need to maintain membership in our groups has led us to suppress these vital emotional signals, disarming our ability to protect ourselves, says Maté. Even more problematic, says Maté, is that conscious suppression of emotions has been shown to heighten our stress response and lead to poor health outcomes. “We know that chronic stress, whatever its source, puts the nervous system on edge, distorts the hormonal apparatus, impairs immunity, promotes inflammation, and undermines physical and mental well-being,” says Maté. And numerous studies show that a body stuck in a chronic stress response stays in an inflamed state, Maté continues, the precursor of many chronic illnesses, such as heart disease, cancer, autoimmune diseases, Alzheimer’s, depression, and many others.

Maté is careful not to use this research to blame people for their own illnesses. “No person is their disease, and no one did it to themselves—not in any conscious, deliberate or culpable sense,” he says. “Disease is an outcome of generations of suffering, of social conditions, of cultural conditioning, of childhood trauma, of physiology bearing the brunt of peoples stresses and emotional histories, all interacting with the physical and psychological environment. It is often manifestations of ingrained personality traits, yes—but that personality is not who we are any more than are the illnesses to which it may predispose us.”

Our personality and coping styles reflect the needs of the larger social group in which we develop, says Maté. “The roles we are assigned or denied, how we fit into society or are excluded from it, and what the culture induces us to believe about ourselves, determine much about the health we enjoy or the diseases that plague us.” Illness and health are manifestations of our social macrocosm, he argues.

It’s no surprise, then, that the inequities of society deeply affect our health, with those more politically disempowered or economically disenfranchised being forced to shape and suppress their emotions and needs most gravely to survive, says Maté. This means systemic change to fight inequities and focus on social justice is the foundation of improving our health, a common thread in The Myth of Normal.

At the same time, we can work to unlearn these behaviour patterns by bringing more awareness to our own emotions, signals in our bodies, and our needs, rather than automatically ignoring them in the service of others.

“The personality is an adaptation,” says Maté. “What we call the personality is often a jumble of genuine traits and conditioned coping styles, including some that do not reflect our true self at all but rather the loss of it.”
Maté describes true healing as opening ourselves to the truths of our lives, past and present. “After enough noticing, actual opportunities for choice begin to appear before we betray our true wants and needs,” he says. “We might now find ourselves able to pause in the moment and say, ‘Hmm, I can tell I’m about to stuff down this feeling or thought—is that what I want to do? Is there another option?’

“The emergence of new choices in place of old, preprogrammed dynamics is a sure sign of our authentic selves coming back online.”
Reference :
Psychology today
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How Rudeness Can Negatively Affect Your Mind

Being exposed to someone who is rude can be unsettling, especially when it is completely unprovoked. New research shows how rudeness also affects your ability to think clearly.

When was the last time someone was unnecessarily rude to you? Perhaps you were happily minding your own business while reaching for an item on a high shelf at the drugstore. Unaware of the person standing behind you, you happened to step back and bumped into their foot. It was an innocent mistake, so you couldn’t understand why this person tapped you on the shoulder and yelled at you for being so clumsy. If you were in their place, you know you wouldn’t react with such venomous rage. Unsettled by the whole episode, you find that you can’t even concentrate on what else you were supposed to pick up at the store and leave empty-handed.
Rudeness and the Ability to Concentrate
As it turns out, the mental effects of exposure to rudeness have actually been studied in the laboratory. According to Carnegie Mellon University’s Binyamin Cooper and colleagues (2022), rudeness constitutes a “low intensity negative behavior that violates norms of civility” that can actually interfere with a person’s ability to get work done (p. 481). In the extreme, rudeness can even have life-or-death consequences. Previous research shows that medical personnel exposed to rudeness not only “perform at suboptimal levels” but also could actually make poor decisions with lethal consequences.
What might account for the detrimental effects of rudeness on someone’s mental capacity? Reflecting on the shopping example, you might be able to resonate with the idea that when you’re the target of an unprovoked attack, you simply cannot think straight.
The type of mental draining that Cooper and his colleagues believe has the most negative impact on an individual relates to the process of “anchoring.” This is a mental bias that occurs when people fixate on one idea to the exclusion of other possibilities. In the words of the authors, it “appears to pose a significant risk to the quality of individual judgment” (p. 482).
In their theoretical model, rudeness has this impact on your ability to think because it engenders negative arousal (sadness, anger). This pathway is further influenced by a loss of the ability to engage in perspective-taking, where you think about a situation from someone else’s point of view. You also become unable to lay out the ordinary set of possible solutions to the problems that face you. It’s as if you zero in on one idea, fixate on that, and become unable to see any alternatives. The problem occurs when that first thought is actually wrong.
Putting Rudeness to the Test
As indicated in the title of the study, “Trapped by a First Hypothesis,” the first step in testing their theoretical model required that the research team trap their participants by exposing them to rudeness and then seeing how their thought processes evolved as a result. Across a series of three studies, as well as a pilot, a combination of medical students and online participants imagined themselves in simulated situations that, in the rudeness condition, involved someone speaking to them in a highly inappropriate manner.
For example, in one study, participants were to imagine themselves as bookstore employees when a customer complained about the advertised price of a book being too high. In the rude condition, the customer said: “What kind of bookstore is this? Are you all a bunch of idiots who work here or something? There’s a sign there saying all the books in that area are SEVEN DOLLARS. It’s not that complicated—you put the price on a book, and that’s what it costs. It doesn’t take a genius to do that, but maybe that’s asking too much from someone who works at a bookstore. Forget it; I don’t want it.”
To assess the impact of rudeness on anchoring, the researchers used several variants of a task in which participants could be led to settle on an incorrect answer without considering others. In one of these, participants answered whether Mount Everest’s height is greater or less than 45,000 feet (anchoring) and then, in the second question, simply guessed what they thought the mountain’s height is. Anchoring would be shown by the extent to which the freely given answer was closer to the anchor than the actual height (which is 29,029 feet).
To examine whether the effect of rudeness could be mitigated, the research team investigated the effects of various manipulations such as giving participants a chance to engage in perspective-taking and an exercise that challenged them to think in more depth about the problem.
In this well-controlled and imaginative study, the authors were able to tease apart the various components of their overall model. The findings were consistent with the model’s predictions and showed that although exposure to rudeness engendered such negative emotions as anger, hostility, and disgust, the effect of this negative arousal on anchoring could be offset by simple interventions. These “rays of hope” (p. 495) can therefore provide an antidote to the effect of rudeness on an individual’s ability to think rationally.
Offsetting Rudeness in Your Own Life
With these findings in mind, you may now have a better idea of what it is about being subjected to rudeness that can be so deleterious to your mental ability. The raw emotions that become triggered narrow your focus and make it difficult for you to think of anything else other than the horribleness of the situation.
You don’t have to remain trapped in those negative emotions, however. You may not feel like thinking nice things (perspective-taking) about the person who wronged you, at least not in the heat of the situation. However, you can take advantage of information elaboration by forcing yourself to stick to the task at hand and figure out various ways to tackle it. In other words, as you roam about that drugstore boiling over with anger at the person who reacted so harshly to you, pull out the list you came in there with or just stop and think about all the items you could possibly need by looking up and down each aisle.
These situations can also help you develop your own resistance to becoming a rude person yourself. Knowing how harmful this behavior can be, it might be helpful for you to consider the value of civility the next time you’re tempted to lash out at a stranger.
To sum up, positive relationships benefit interpersonal civility as well as mental agility. Rudeness is unpleasant to encounter in your daily life, but it doesn’t have to rule your rationality.

psychology today

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Does Having a Baby Actually Make Parents Happy?

The first year tends to be great. The fifth, not so much.

For many couples, having a baby is one of their greatest wishes in life. But does having a baby really make parents happier? And if yes, how long does this baby bliss last? A new study published in the journal Emotion focused on answering these questions (Asselmann & Specht, 2023).
A New Study on How Parents Feel After Having a Baby
In the study, German scientists Eva Asselmann and Jule Specht analyzed data from more than 5,000 first-time parents from the German Socio-Economic Panel, a large-scale cohort study that started in 1984. All parents included in the study had experienced the birth of their first child between 2007 and 2019. The parents were interviewed yearly and asked about a number of different things. These included life satisfaction (“How satisfied are you currently with your life as a whole?”), as well as happiness, sadness, anxiety, and anger in the four weeks before the interview. These data were analyzed from five years before the couple became parents to five years after they became parents.
A Surprising Result
The scientists found out that having a baby changes psychological well-being in several ways.
The most pronounced effect was a strong increase in life satisfaction and happiness in the first year of parenthood – so baby bliss is indeed real! However, life satisfaction and happiness gradually bounced back in the years following the baby’s birth. Altogether, couples showed similar levels of life satisfaction and happiness five years after becoming parents compared to five years before becoming parents.
Regarding negative emotions, the strongest effect was found for anger. Anger decreases in the five years before a couple becomes parents and reaches its lowest point during the first year of parenthood. After that, it increases, and five years after the baby was born, anger was even larger than five years before the baby was born.
The authors of the study suggested that these higher anger levels reflect a reaction due to the stressful aspects of being a parent, such as sleep deprivation or time conflicts between family and work. For sadness and anxiety, the effects were only small. Sadness showed similar effects to anger but did not reach higher levels five years after the baby was born compared to five years before the baby was born, and anxiety gradually increased the five years before the baby was born, which may reflect anticipation effects.
An analysis of gender effects revealed that mothers experienced a more substantial increase in happiness and life satisfaction than fathers but also experienced stronger anger effects. The study's authors suggested that biological factors or gender role expectations may explain this effec.
Take-Away: Baby Bliss Lasts for a Short Time
Taken together, the results of the study clearly show that baby bliss exists. In the first year of a baby’s life, the parents are happier and more satisfied with their life than before. However, this effect only lasts shortly and when the child is five years old, both happiness and life satisfaction of his or her parents had bounced back to the level they were at five years before the child was born.
Moreover, anger levels rise, reflecting the stressful aspects of parenthood. This shows that having a baby has a lot of positive short-term effects on psychological well-being, but for high long-term life satisfaction, it is essential to find strategies to cope with the stressful aspects of having a child.

psychology today


The Promise of Studying Human Aggression in the Wild

The Promise of Studying Human Aggression in the Wild

What causes some individuals to act out violently when provoked, while others turn the other cheek? For decades, psychologists, criminologists, and sociologists (among others) have tried to understand the causes of this type of behavior, referred to as ‘reactive aggression’. From this work, we know that there are some vital ingredients that when combined, are a recipe for reactive aggression.
What makes some people likely to react aggressively?
Being angry is one key ingredient. Trait-level characteristics like being quick to anger, or temporarily being in an irritable emotional state, increase the likelihood that individuals will respond aggressively. Another common ingredient is a loosening of inhibitions, such as what is observed due to alcohol intoxication. In individuals with a history of reactive aggression, there are differences in brain activity that correspond to heightened reactivity to provocation and a hard time stopping oneself from reacting to an insult with violence.
But even if we don’t consider ourselves aggressive people or haven’t seriously harmed another person (intentionally), it’s a very human experience to want to lash out with words or fists, or just punch a pillow, when we’ve been angered by someone. Many pioneering social psychologists argued that, under the right circumstances, almost anyone could act immorally or aggressively. A less extreme version of this is the notion that all behaviors (good and bad) arise from the interaction of the person and their environment (Lewin, 1936). So can our environments make us aggressive?
What do we know about the role of our surroundings?
Unfortunately, understanding what role the external, physical or social environment plays in leading people to act aggressively is quite a challenge. Experimental research on human behavior is usually conducted in the lab, a distinctly unnatural environment for a human being**. And due to (reasonable) ethical constraints, scientists can’t ask participants to inflict significant physical harm on another human. Given this, how can we know what elements and features of our surroundings might lead to reactive aggression?
For example, say we want to know if and why nature exposure might reduce aggression. Some research has shown this through virtual nature interventions and lab-based aggression tasks in which people are ostensibly paired with a person in another room toward whom they are acting aggressively (Wang et al., 2018). But what about doing so in real natural environments?
Steps toward testing aggression in the wild
Trying to address this type of question is what led me and my colleagues to create a new task, which we call the Retaliate or Carry-on: Reactive AGgression Experiment (RC-RAGE for short), a browser-based task of impulsive, reactive aggression, recently published in Behavior Research Methods (Meidenbauer et al., 2023). We validated the task in a large online sample of US adults and found that, consistent with other literature, being in an angry emotional state and having a history of physical aggression or being quick to anger was associated with reactive aggression on our task.
Another interesting thing we found was that the people most likely to react aggressively when provoked were those who tended to act impulsively. We found this impactful in its own right, but given that research has suggested nature interactions can reduce impulsivity (Berry et al., 2014), this suggests another mechanism that might explain why we see less violence and aggression in people or areas with greater nature exposure.
Additionally, our task was designed to be portable and flexible enough to use outside the lab, opening up a variety of opportunities to study aggression in real environments. It should be noted that, like all other aggression tasks, ours suffers from some limitations; for example, we can’t inflict great harm for ethical reasons so our acts of aggression involve stealing money and shooting an avatar.
Changing our environments to reduce violence?
Nonetheless, it does create an exciting means to examine how different types of physical environments and social contexts can influence reactive aggression. And when it comes to the physical environment, it’s much easier to change an external environment than to change an individual. Thus, research on this topic can generate insights for reducing violence by changing individuals' physical surroundings. In fact, some researchers are already trying to reduce violence by greening vacant lots or planting trees, with very promising results (Kondo et al., 2018).
While there is still plenty of work to be done on this front, it’s a truly exciting time to see what we can learn by moving aggression research into real-world environments.

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