How can we define intelligence (I mean other than by IQ!)? I saw a great definition the other day which went something like this: Intelligence can be gauged by someone’s capacity to respond to unexpected events in unexpected but effective ways.
Trying to solve problems by sticking rigidly to ‘protocol’ without seeing the way context changes circumstances is a kind of stupidity – as the tangles of strangulating red tape in bureaucratic institutions continually demonstrate! Flexibility is, then, a key component of the intelligent mind and organization. But in order to be flexible, we need something else.
Seeing the forest and the trees
To instigate unexpected solutions to unexpected problems we need, I think, to be able to take a step back and see the bigger picture. Seeing wider as well as shifting contexts is a vital part of true intelligence.
Information, facts, and figures only truly help us when we can sift them into some kind of coherent pattern, which then becomes something we can use. We’re bombarded with facts, nuggets of research, all the time – but do we let this information settle in our minds so as to fit into a wider understanding of what it means to be human?
Reality flows and merges, and yet we fragment it into separate bits. This is useful sometimes, but we lose a sense of wholeness when we only approach knowledge that way.
Anyway, in this occasional series I take five recent psychological studies and attempt to see how they might fit into the bigger pattern of what it means to be human.
So what do I have for you this time?
This month’s gems
This month we’ll be looking at:
- How stress from work and social interactions may cause heart disease in women,
- Why venting feelings on social media doesn’t help,
- Some great news about generalized anxiety disorder,
- How play can fight dementia, and
- Why being more narcissistic may be linked to greater political participation.
Research piece one: Stress from work and social interactions may cause heart disease in women
A recent study that tracked 80,825 postmenopausal women for 14 years has uncovered a particularly toxic combination for the development of heart disease in women.1 The combined presence of both “job strain” – a difficult working environment – and “social strain” – difficult relationships outside of work – was associated with a 21% higher risk of developing coronary heart disease.
Job strain occurs, say the researchers, when a woman feels powerless in the workplace and unable to respond to the demands and expectations of her job.
Social strain alone was associated with a 9% increase in risk, while job strain alone did not appear to increase risk at all. It was the combination of the two that produced such a powerful result.
Basically, if a woman’s work and her home life are both stressful, the cumulative stress can cause serious problems for her heart.
Highly stressful ilfe events, such as divorce, physical or verbal abuse, or the death of a spouse, were also found to be associated with a 12% higher risk of coronary heart disease.
We know that diet and exercise are hugely significant when it comes to heart health,2 and we can’t dismiss hereditary factors either,3 but it’s increasingly clear that stress and emotional wellbeing also play a key role in the development of heart disease.4
This study looked specifically at women’s heart health and did not compare women to men. Feeling powerless in the workplace damages the vital human need for a sense of autonomy and control, and could reasonably be expected to affect men just as much as women – perhaps even more. But it may be that women are more likely to try to maintain relationship equilibrium at home, and therefore take it to heart (pun intended!) when things go wrong.
When we don’t meet our emotional needs, we suffer. And not just in the mind. Emotional suffering always correlates with reduced physical wellbeing, too.
Helping women (and presumably men, too) feel happier and more empowered in different areas of their lives can, it seems, help them stave off coronary heart disease.
It’s long been perceived that men suffer more from heart disease, and yes, there is truth in that.5 But the idea that “women don’t have heart attacks” is misguided, and dangerous in the sense that it may prevent some women from seeking help.
Regular relaxation and a focus on the meeting of needs, including the needs for fun, reasonable challenge, and a sense of control, may help women live longer. Effective social and emotional support can save lives.
Talking of controlling stress, sometimes we all feel the need to vent our feelings. This can be healthy, although not always! But how about when we vent on social media?
Research piece two: Venting feelings on social media doesn’t help
We know that having a good social network of supportive people around you aids mental health.6 And for some types of people it’s certainly important to vent their feelings now and then, to have someone they can trust with whom they can share how they really feel, especially when those feelings are strong. But can this need be fulfilled by venting your feelings on social media?
A 2021 study found that while seeking support via social media didn’t necessarily damage emotional wellbeing, it didn’t help it either.7 Real-life social interactions, on the other hand, were associated with a significant positive effect on mental health.
The study, conducted by Michigan State University, surveyed 403 students to ascertain the extent and nature of their social media use, and the extent of their real-life and online social support. Not surprisingly, they discovered that “problematic” social media use was negatively correlated with real-life social support and positively correlated with online social support. More importantly, they found that real-life social support was associated with reduced depression, anxiety, and social isolation, while online social support was not.
Lead author Dar Meshi said, “Only real-life social support was linked to better overall mental health. Typical interactions over social media are limited. We theorize that they don’t allow for more substantial connection, which may be needed to provide the type of support that protects against negative mental health.”
Approval and attention seeking, the need for reassurance, status seeking, self-display, bullying, genuine attempts at emotional connection, humour, and emotional support, as well as an innate tendency for tribalism, are all part of the overall human condition. I say part because we are all, at least potentially, more than the sum of these elements. As long as human groups have existed, these emotional patterns have been on display. It’s no surprise, then, that we see them writ large online.
To what extent online life is an echo or a dim shadow of ‘real life’ is an interesting area. I was surprised the researchers found no benefit whatsoever to online social support, but not at all surprised to learn that real-life contact with supportive others is what really makes a difference.
Nothing can quite, or perhaps at all, replace the sense of closeness, comradeship, community, and strength in numbers as real-life interaction. The online world is a represented world, and because of that it inevitably loses some of the immediacy of genuine, in-the-flesh encounters.
All else can only ever serve to mimic that.
Next, some encouraging news about another common part of being human.
Research piece three: Some great news about generalized anxiety disorder
The University of Toronto recently released a study looking at factors associated with recovery among 2,000 Canadians with a history of generalized anxiety disorder (GAD).8
The study found that 72% of participants had been anxiety-free for at least 12 months. What’s more, 40% were not just recovered but in excellent mental health! Now, what exactly is “excellent mental health”, you might quite reasonably ask!
The bar for “excellent mental health” is actually set pretty high. In this study, it means:
- Almost daily happiness or life satisfaction in the past 4 weeks
- High levels of psychological and social wellbeing in the past month
- No depressive thoughts, suicidal thoughts, generalized anxiety, or addictive behaviours in the past year.
Lead author Esme Fuller-Thomson said:
“We were so encouraged to learn that even among those whose anxiety disorders had lasted a decade or longer, half had been in remission from GAD for the past year and one-quarter had achieved excellent mental health and wellbeing. This research provides a very hopeful message for individuals struggling with anxiety, their families and health professionals. Our findings suggest that full recovery is possible, even among those who have suffered for many years with the disorder.”
The researchers found that people who had a confidant who gave them a sense of emotional security were three times as likely to be in excellent mental health than those who did not, while those who sought solace in spiritual or religious beliefs had a 36% higher probability of excellent mental health than those who did not.
Conversely, and not surprisingly, those with health problems, insomnia, and/or a history of depression were less likely to have excellent mental health.
It’s so easy to assume that once you have a condition you’re inevitably stuck with it for life. All you can do, so the idea goes, is to manage it as best you can. While this is certainly true of some conditions, many emotional problems can be left behind in the melange of life’s rich pattern.
So much of how well a person recovers is related to how well they meet their primal emotional needs. The researchers found a correlation with two important needs: that of intimacy and that of a sense of connection to a wider and deeper reality. But I suspect those with the greatest mental health were meeting all of their other needs as well.
The more we can all meet our basic emotional and physical needs, the healthier and happier we’ll all become. And that starts, I think, with being clear about those needs and just how important they are.
Now for something completely different: how play can help dementia patients.
Research piece four: How play can fight dementia
As the population ages,9 dementia, a condition in which the sufferer can have huge memory loss, confusion, loss of motor skills, and even a diminished sense of self, is being diagnosed at unprecedented rates.10 Ultimately, a dementing person can lose the ability to function in normal life and need comprehensive care.
What’s more, all attempts at a drug cure for dementia have essentially come to nothing – although there is some research showing that the anti-anxiety effects of hypnosis can bring some relief to dementia sufferers.11
However, a clinical study out of Belgium has, for the first time, successfully demonstrated that engaging in ‘exergaming’ – a type of fitness-focused video game – can improve both the physical skills and the cognitive skills of people with dementia.12
The study used an exergaming device consisting of a screen and a floor panel measuring weight displacement, balance, and steps taken. Users were asked to try to replicate a sequence of movements using their feet, as indicated on the screen in front of them.
An international team of researchers studied 45 patients with severe dementia symptoms living in long-term care facilities, with a mean age of 85 years. The treatment group played the game three times a week for 15 minutes, while the control group watched music videos of their choice for the same amount of time.
The cognitive, mental, and physical capacity of the subjects was measured at the start of the study, and again after 8 weeks. Cognitive function was measured using the Montreal Cognitive Assessment (MoCA), which assesses memory, language, executive functions, visuospatial skills, attention, concentration, abstraction, calculation, and orientation.
At the conclusion of the study period, the ‘game group’ had significantly improved lower-extremity functioning, cognitive functioning, step reaction time, and symptoms of depression compared with the control group.
These results offer genuine hope to dementia patients and their relatives.
Co-author Eling de Bruin said, “For the first time, there’s hope that through targeted play we will be able not only to delay the onset but also weaken the symptoms of dementia.”
Dementia, including the most common kind, Alzheimer’s disease, remains incurable. But this new research certainly offers some hope for sufferers and their families. And it’s food for thought for the rest of us, too.
If symptoms can be partially reversed by play in people with severe dementia, it makes me wonder just how important play is for the rest of us.
To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, life is too important to be taken seriously.
If we can stave off dementia and work our minds and bodies not by working but by playing and having fun, then we would all do well to include more play in our lives. And by play I mean challenging, fun activities.
The study also, I think, demonstrates how developing oneself, even through play, is a counterbalance to the passive idea that the only way we can stave off or slow down disease as we age is by taking medicinal drugs. We can, to some degree, help ourselves – and those we love.
Play is vital not just for children, but for all of us. We might say, “sure, play is important”, but how many of us actually prioritize it? After all, many of us seem to feel that we were put on this Earth to work! But from the cognitive and fitness benefits of ping pong13 and tennis14 to the mental health benefits of team sports15 and simply having fun,16 we need to play lifelong – and not simply on computers, but in a way that engages the whole body and mind.
Now, I’ve a feeling this next study may be a bit unpopular (so please don’t shoot the messenger!).
Research piece five: Being more narcissistic is linked to greater political participation
Recent research has found that those who are most narcissistic may also be the very people who are most politically active.
A series of three studies from Denmark and the United States has revealed that people who scored high on narcissism – a trait characterized by selfishness, self-aggrandizement, entitlement, need for admiration, and belittlement of others – were more likely to be politically active, whether through contacting politicians, demonstrating, or even just voting in elections.17A series of three studies from Denmark and the United States reveals that people who score high on narcissism are more likely to be politically active.Click To Tweet
Peter Hatemi, a professor of political science at Penn State University, said of the research:
“It is hard not to think that those high in narcissism taking part in the political process appears to have some role in the current state of our democracy. If people who are more interested in their own personal gain and status take a greater part in elections, then we can expect candidates to emerge who reflect their desires – narcissism begets narcissism.”
Hatemi surmised that in the current US political climate, more people are being and becoming politically active – but this trend is not evenly distributed among different personality types, with narcissists taking the lead role.
It’s long been considered that, along with show business, politics attracts its fair share of socialized psychopaths,18 and that would certainly include narcissists I would think. But this is the first research I’ve seen that shows a clear link between political engagement and narcissism.
Of course, this doesn’t mean someone who is politically engaged is necessarily narcissistic! People can feel passionately about big or small issues for all sorts of reasons. But the findings do make some sense.
Narcissists tend to discount other viewpoints, refuse to consider that they themselves could possibly be wrong, and demand attention. The political process can be a vehicle for meeting these needs or greeds, whether the engaged person recognizes that (which I doubt!) or not.
Self-righteousness is the stock in trade for a narcissistic person. And of course we can all feel, sometimes entirely justifiably, self-righteous on occasion. But for the narcissist, every occasion is one of self-righteousness.
Reasoned debate has perhaps been, to some extent, replaced by emotionalism, diatribes, intimidation, hubris, and attempts at not just countering but annihilating opposing viewpoints. We can see narcissistic tendencies in all of this.
If it’s true that the shoutiest narcissists are leading the way in politics, that solipsistic concerns are drowning out our civic ones, then it bodes ill for democracy – perhaps even for civilization itself.
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