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Research Roundup 17

5 fascinating research pieces that illuminate the human condition

In the blizzarding maelstrom of our information age, it can be hard to sift the useful from the meaningless. We risk having an information-without-wisdom age.

Facts grab our attention like browbeating, buttonholing strangers. And when we accumulate enough facts, we feel knowledgeable – just as someone might feel nourished after consuming hyper-processed food. But when facts float free of context, they do little more than produce mental bloating.

How do research findings connect to the bigger picture of reality? What do interesting psychological titbits actually tell us about the wider human condition? How can we increase understanding of ourselves and others, rather than simply accruing more information?

In this occasional series I take five pieces of recent research and offer my take on how it might fit into a broader understanding of what it means to be human.

So what do we have this time?

This month’s gems

This month we’re going to take a look at:

  • How having a good listener in your life improves your brain health
  • How the feeling of power helps love flourish in relationships
  • How acting extraverted (even when you’re not) creates happiness
  • Why we are more forgiving of bad behaviour in people we actually know
  • Why the idea that leisure time is a waste impacts negatively on mental health.

So let’s get to it!

Research piece one: Having a good listener in your life improves brain health

A recent study found that good social support in the form of at least one person who is a great listener helps stave off cognitive decline.1

The researchers observed that simply having someone readily available whom you can depend on to listen to you tracked alongside better ‘cognitive resilience’. This was defined as meaning there was a weaker association between age- or disease-related decreases in brain volume and actual decreases in cognitive function. Put simply, cognitive resilience means your brain functions better than would be expected as it reduces in volume with age or disease.

So significant was the benefit of having a good listener in life, and such was the detrimental effect of not having one, that lead researcher Joel Salinas MD suggested that asking whether someone has an available good listener in their life should be a standard part of a physician’s questioning when taking a patient’s social history.

Interestingly, the researchers did not find any protective effect of four other types of social interactions: advice, love-affection, emotional support, or sufficient contact. It appears that there is something about being attentively listened to that particularly improves cognitive resilience.

So social support seems to have powerful neurological effects.

My take?

The exchange of good quality attention is one of our primal, basic emotional needs. Chronic loneliness is associated with all kinds of mental and physical distress,2 and may even shorten our life.3

Age-related cognitive decline can, it seems, be offset by mental activity,4 physical activity,5 and a strong sense of meaning and purpose6 – all of which can be encouraged through healthy social interaction.

We all need good listeners, and to be good listeners. To listen attentively, not with one eye on social media status updates or online news. If we, humanity, become worse at listening to each other, to different communities and cultures, civilization may well be doomed. What is vital on the micro level is also paramount on the macro level.

The study provides further evidence, I think, that cognitive decline isn’t just something that happens to us, but another part of life’s rich pattern that we can influence – perhaps more than we realize.

And speaking of a sense of influence…

Research piece two: How the feeling of power determines relationship satisfaction

According to a new study, how romantic partners see the power dynamics in their relationship is vital to their relationship satisfaction.7

It was found that objective measures of power, such as income, didn’t play as big a role as how partners perceived power dynamics in their relationship. So one partner may earn much more than the other, but if both partners feel able to influence what the money is spent on then that power balance can help create feelings of relationship satisfaction.

The happiest couples were those in which both partners reported a high sense of personal influence on all kinds of decisions. Of course, one partner might take more of a lead in one area and the other in another, but the happiest couples reported an overall parity in decision-making influence.

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My take?

Romantic relationships aren’t just ‘power struggles’. ‘Power’ is itself an emotive word with connotations, perhaps, of oppression and suppression. But this research is less about power as a blunt instrument of force and more about power as an instrument of influence.

Power is about being able to influence people and events, not, at least in the context of this research, about controlling others or forcing your way on them.

We could perhaps exchange ‘power’ for ‘fairness’, or ‘mutual support’, or simply ‘autonomy’. A sense of autonomy, self-determination, is, of course, yet another primal basic human need.

We benefit from the feeling we can influence ourselves, others, and events in our lives, and we suffer when it is lacking8 – and not just within loving relationships. Bullying, for example, denies other people a sense not just of safety but of personal power.

When considering why a relationship isn’t working, be it at work, in love, or anywhere in between, we would do well to consider how much personal autonomy each person might feel and work towards helping balance things out.

Part of balancing the power in a relationship is about being tolerant and accepting of others’ ideas, perspectives, and wishes. But what determines the limits of our tolerance?

Research piece three: We are more forgiving of misbehaviour among people close to us

An intriguing 2021 study found that people were more forgiving and understanding of those closer to them, such as romantic partners, when they behaved unethically or immorally than they were of strangers, whom they felt should receive harsher punishments.9 If you’re interested in how the research was conducted, you can read about it here.

That we judge strangers more harshly and loved ones less so certainly doesn’t mean that bad behaviour in loved ones doesn’t or can’t damage our relationships with them, just that we are more likely to forgive them. But this comes with a twist.

The research also found that forgiving the bad behaviour of loved ones made people feel worse about themselves. It appears that being overly forgiving of those close to us may actually damage our self-esteem.

My take?

We have in groups and out groups, in people – those we know and love – and out people. It’s natural to favour those close to us. So far so obvious I think. Perceived distance or closeness of other people is important.

When we dehumanize people (for example, by calling them scum, or rats, or cockroaches) we distance them from us and even from humanity at large.

Conversely, I suspect that if we see strangers as like us, we may also be more likely to excuse their bad behaviour, as they feel closer. Lawyers certainly expect this to be the case: the defendant in a high-profile trial may be encouraged to dress more conservatively or in other ways appear such that the jury may identify with them more easily and therefore feel they are closer.

What was particularly interesting to me in this study was the damage to self-worth that forgiving or making allowances for the bad behaviour of those close to us seems to produce.

Cognitive dissonance is that horrible feeling when reality clashes with our cherished perceptions and beliefs. When faced with cognitive dissonance, we have two choices: either we change our beliefs, or we deny the new reality that has been presented to us.

When it’s the latter, I think a part of us knows we are lying to ourselves. We become, consciously or not, less inwardly certain of our beliefs – so we may feel the need to shore them up through strong emotion or extreme defensiveness when they are challenged. We may concoct all kinds of rationalizations to avoid having to change the way we see things.

So, how do you reconcile your love for someone with the realization that they have behaved badly? One way is to downplay the bad behaviour, to excuse it, or to not even see it.

This cognitive work can feel easier than having to totally change our cherished belief or perception about the person. But lying or distorting things to ourselves does have a cognitive cost, too.

I suspect that feeling bad about ourselves when we excuse the bad behaviour of those close to us may reflect the discomfort of knowing, on some level, that we have lied, and are still lying, to ourselves.

Mind you, it seems that sometimes kidding ourselves can turn lies into truth.

Research piece four: Acting as though you are an extravert makes you happier

Acting like an extravert can make you happier – even if you’re a natural introvert. At least, that’s what recent research would suggest.10 Both introverts and extraverts reported greater happiness after a week of being concertedly more spontaneous, talkative, and assertive.

Acting like an extravert can make you happier – even if you're a natural introvert. In a recent study, both introverts and extraverts reported greater happiness after a week of being concertedly more spontaneous, talkative, and assertive.Click To Tweet

For the study, 123 people were told to act like extraverts for 7 days, and later to act like introverts for 7 days. To avoid expectation bias, the participants were told that both would be equally beneficial. Yet the participants consistently and overwhelmingly found that only acting as an extravert – more outgoing, assertive and open – made them feel better than before.

My take?

Acting like an extravert seems to cause people’s personality to shift in that direction, resulting in the experience of greater wellbeing.

Innate personality plays a part in how prone we are to depression, or openness, and so on.11 But because human beings are so adaptive we can, to some extent, alter the expression of our innate characteristics.12

It seems to be a case of ‘fake it till you make it’. And this is something we can help clients to do through our hypnotic work.

I have found the following hypnotic technique to be a great way of helping someone develop new ways of being.

  • Ask the client how they would like to act in a problematic situation they’ve told you about.
  • Now ask them to think of (or imagine) a person they admire who would be able to deal with the situation in that way.
  • Have them hypnotically observe that person dealing with the situation in that way.
  • Suggest they experience becoming that person to ‘see what it feels like to be them in that situation.’
  • Lastly, ask them to simply absorb those qualities from the person and hypnotically experience exercising those capacities, their new capacities, in that situation.

Focusing outward in a more assertive, extraverted manner would help someone ruminate less because (a) more of their focus is outwards and (b) they are more assertive and therefore are resolving more emotional issues.

Excessive rumination is associated with depression.13 And I think extraverted behaviour, whether it comes naturally or not, will necessarily reduce rumination. If you are actively saying how you feel and proactively problem solving, then there will be less reason to negatively dwell or introspect.

None of this is to say that introverted traits are not valuable, but when it comes specifically to reported happiness, they do not seem to confer the benefits that extraverted traits do.

How you relate to leisure time may also tell us something about your mental wellbeing.

Research piece five: Why the idea that leisure time is a waste impacts negatively on mental health

Feeling that leisure time is simply unproductive and wasteful can lead to unhappiness and greater levels of stress and depression, at least according to new research.14

Psychologists conducted a series of studies to elucidate the effects of a common current societal belief: that unless we are being ‘productive’ we are wasting time. That ‘just’ having fun is pointless and useless.

In one of the studies, 199 university students were asked to rate their enjoyment of a range of leisure activities, as well as the extent to which they agreed with statements assessing the degree to which they felt leisure is wasteful, such as “Time spent on leisure activities is often wasted time.” They were also assessed to determine their levels of happiness, depression, anxiety, and stress.

It was found that those who identified strongly with the belief that leisure is wasteful enjoyed leisure less (not surprisingly!) but also experienced poorer mental health in general.

My take?

What was interesting to me was that the leisure activities many of the unhappier students felt to be a waste of time included exercise and meditation, activities which could be viewed as productive since they can lead to, or at least aid, good health and personal development.

So much evidence attests to the beneficial effects of leisure time, especially active leisure time,15 on both physical16 and mental health.17,18

Apart from the importance of simply enjoying yourself, it’s often when we ‘switch off’ during leisure that the mind is freed to work below the surface of consciousness. This is when so-called ‘Eureka moments‘ happen. The mind often finds new and creative solutions to problems when we are not thinking consciously about them.

Paradoxically, it’s when ‘being idle’ that we might be doing our best work!

All work and no play makes Jack and Jill a dull boy and girl. And not just dull, but less creative, vital, and energetic – all attributes of highly proficient and productive people.

The Universe often seems to work in contradictions!

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Mark Tyrrell

About Mark Tyrrell

Psychology is my passion. I've been a psychotherapist trainer since 1998, specializing in brief, solution focused approaches. I now teach practitioners all over the world via our online courses.

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