TV, video games, and kids

Posted on April 11, 2014 in FiM, WaW by Matt

Once again, researchers have studied the effects of video games and television watching on the well-being of children. These researchers used data from 3,600 children from across Europe that had been collected as part of a study on childhood obesity.

The results are subtle and mixed. The researchers tried hard to account for other factors that might influence children such as the family’s socioeconomic status, household income, and unemployment levels. They included baseline measures of the child’s wellbeing. On the whole, there were very few links between the use of electronic media  and well-being. But they did find a few important connections.

For girls, every additional hour they spent playing video games on weekdays was linked with a two-fold increase in the likelihood of experiencing emotional problems such as being unhappy, depressed, or worrying often.

For  boys and girls, every extra hour of television watched on weekdays was associated with a small (20-30%) increase in family problems like not getting along well with parents or being unhappy at home. But there were no links with problems with friends, self-esteem or ability to function well in social settings.

But there are many things this study was not able to address. We do not know whether families who watch a lot of TV experience problems since this study just only accounted for video game and TV use by children.  The study was not able to account for different television shows or different  video games, but the content of such media could be important. Finally, as the authors note, the study relied on parents’  reports rather than objective measures.

Even so, it does reinforce the idea that parents should probably limit their children’s use of video games and the hours they spend watching television. Of course, the results of this study probably won’t stop your kids from complaining when you turn of their electric fun machines, but as I always told my boys, “the only fun I have as a parent is making you do things you don’t want to do.” They knew I was joking, but somehow they stopped complaining when they rolled their eyes at me!

We hope you are flourishing, whether or not you are watching television.

~Matt and the entire Well-being At Work Team

 Research citation: Hinkley, T., Verbestel, V., Ahrens, W., Lissner, L., Molnár, D., Moreno, L., Pigeot, I., Pohlabeln, H., Reisch, L., Russo, P., Veidebaum, T., Tornaritis, M., Williams, G., De Henauw, S., & De Bourdeaudhuij, I. (2014). Early Childhood Electronic Media Use as a Predictor of Poorer Well-being JAMA Pediatrics DOI: 10.1001/jamapediatrics.2014.94

Help a man, make him feel bad?

Posted on February 17, 2014 in FiM, Uncategorized, WaW by Matt

Researchers recently explored what happens when we offer to help someone, but in a way that runs counter to social norms. In this study, male researchers waited near the entrances to university buildings, watching for men and women approaching. When a man or woman approached the door, sometimes the researcher went through a door adjacent to the arriving person (so that the person had to open the door for themselves) and on other occasions the researcher held open the door for the approaching person, then stepped aside for them to enter first. Once inside, the targeted men and women were approached by a female researcher who asked questions about their self-esteem and self-efficacy.

Results: Men who had the door held open for them scored lower on self-esteem and self-efficacy than men who didn’t have the door held open for them. Women’s self-esteem and self-efficacy scores were no different regardless of whether a man held a door open for them or not.

The researchers concluded that “[t]his work demonstrates that simple but unexpected helping behaviours as fleeting and seemingly innocuous as door holding can have unforeseen negative consequence. Thus, this work contributes to a growing literature on the consequences of helping for the recipients of help, as well as the growing literature on the influence of seemingly inconsequential everyday social behaviours.”

It is good to be aware of helping in the right way, but this research also suggests that sometimes we can make it very hard for someone to help us.

Here’s hoping someone helps you, and you feel better because of it. We hope you are flourishing

~matt and the entire team

Citation: Megan McCarty and Janice R. Kelly (2014). When door holding harms: gender and the consequences of non-normative help. Social Influence DOI: 10.1080/15534510.2013.869252

Read great fiction to build emotional intelligence

Posted on October 4, 2013 in FiM, Uncategorized, WaW by Matt

Many of us read for pleasure, and recent research suggests that what we read might impact our capacities for empathy &  social perception which are important components of emotional intelligence. Researchers at The New School for Social Research studied individuals 18 to 75 . They had some of these people read excerpts from award-winning literature, others read popular fiction  (e.g., books on the New York Times bestseller list), and still others read serious nonfiction such as excerpts from Smithsonian Magazine.

After reading their assigned materials, these individuals participated in computerized tests of their ability to accurately read other people’s emotions (empathy) or predict a person’s expectations or beliefs in a particular situation (social perception). These researchers found that people who read great fiction performed much better than those who read either popular fiction or serious nonfiction. It is important to note that this happened even though these individuals said they did not enjoy literary fiction as much as the other forms of reading material. It turned out that people who read popular fiction were no better at empathy or social perception than people who read nothing.

One impressive characteristic of this research is that the researchers conducted five separate studies, changing important elements for each study. They found the same results across all five studies. In other words, the results seem to be robust.

Of course, there are many important reasons for reading popular fiction and nonfiction. I like to read what I call “mind fodder” –  books that are easy and fun to read (e.g., detective stories, humorous fiction). And I also read a great deal of serious nonfiction. Popular fiction relaxes and entertains me, serious nonfiction educates me and expands my mental horizons. What this research emphasizes, however, is the need to read books that might not be as fun, but have many other merits. Mortimer Adler started The Great Book Academy because he believed reading great literature was a core component of great education. This research provides yet another reason for us to dig into some of those books we say we have always wanted to read, but just haven’t found the time to do so.

So, I’m off to start Joyce’s “Ulysses” again…wish me luck!

We hope you are flourishing!

~Matt and the entire Flourishing Team


Research citation: David Comer Kidd & Emanuele Castano, Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind, Science, DOI: 10.1126/science.1239918


Keep busy to avoid temptation

Posted on August 19, 2013 in FiM, WaW by Matt

Recent research suggests that the old adage that “idle hands are the devil’s workshop” may offer us very useful guidance for avoiding temptations. In recent years researchers have become very interested in learning about our “executive” system which includes things like our self-control, self-discipline, willpower, self-awareness, planning, goal setting, etc. High on the list of topics is learning more about how to help people make positive changes in their lives. Often times making a positive change requires resisting the temptation to give in to old, but maladaptive, ways of behaving. Examples include common things like avoiding too many sweet foods when we want to maintain better weight or keeping ourselves from being distracted when we want to focus on an important, but disagreeable task.

One group of researchers offers some help to those of us who want to be better at avoiding temptations. They were exploring whether being busy or distracted helped people be more likely to give into the temptations they really want to avoid. Some scientists have thought that, to be successful at avoiding temptation, we need to be able to focus our attention and thoughts on the things we want to avoid. These scientists thought that some amount of idleness was necessary. In a recent series of experiments researchers found the opposite: their studies indicate that, in fact, idleness made it harder, not easier, to resist temptations. They focused on what researchers call “cognitive load,” which refers to how busy our brains are thinking and working. We experience higher cognitive load when we are engaged on activities that require a great deal of attention. These can be tasks that are challenging or demanding for us (e.g., working through a difficult problem, completing our taxes) or they can be tasks that we find very engaging (e.g., reading a great book, participating in a fun conversation). These researchers summarize their studies by noting that:

Our findings suggest that recognizing the tempting value of attractive stimuli in our living environment requires cognitive resources. This has the important implication that, contrary to traditional views, performing a concurrent demanding task may actually diminish the captivating power of temptation and thus facilitate self-regulation.

Just distracting ourselves may not be enough. Instead, the lesson seems to be that occupying ourselves in a task that requires greater focus and deeper thought is what we need to help us a fend off temptations. The good news is that we can plan to increase our cognitive load during the times we find temptations the most difficult to resist. So, keep that good book, Sudoku puzzle, or thoughtful conversation partner close at hand, especially when temptation might loom the largest.

We hope you are flourishing!

Matt and the entire Flourishing in Ministry team




Research citation: Van Dillen, L. , Papies, E. , & Hofmann, W. (2013). Turning a blind eye to temptation: How cognitive load can facilitate self-regulation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 104(3), 427-443.

Thinking angry thoughts

Posted on July 18, 2013 in FiM, Uncategorized, WaW by Matt

Some people believe that thinking through their angry feelings — what researchers call angry rumination — helps them work through the causes and consequences of their anger. The basic idea is that they can work through their anger and, they hope, deal with it more effectively. Research suggests that this is not true, at least not very often.

Researchers define angry rumination is persistent thinking about a personally meaningful anger-inducing event. It typically involves repetitive, often intrusive thoughts about the event. Angry rumination is often accompanied by angry feelings and, in many cases, it instigates thoughts about justice or even revenge. It appears that, at least for most of us, when we try to think through the event we actually spend most of our time thinking about the event. Because the event made us angry, we all-to-often end up imagining ways to “make things right,” rather than dealing with our angry thoughts and emotions. Truth be told, sometimes it feels oh-so-good to imagine ways of turning the tables on someone who has done us wrong.

The costs of angry rumination can be pretty high. First, it reduces self-control which makes it difficult for us to deal effectively with our angry thoughts, feelings, and aggressive urges. So, the more we think about what made us angry, the less capable we are of controlling our selves. To make matters worse, angry rumination increases aggressive behavior. So, when we keep thinking about the angry situation, we tend to make ourselves more likely to act-out our anger in inappropriate ways and less capable of stopping ourselves from doing something bad. And if all of that was not bad enough, this potent cocktail increases the likelihood that we will lash-out toward undeserving people, animals, or objects. The old adage about “kicking the dog” is very apropos here.

There are constructive ways of working through an anger-inducing event, and there are good reasons for doing using these techniques. The challenge is to be very, very sure we are engaging in constructive thinking and not angry rumination. Perhaps sharing with a trusted person, someone who can empathize and deal with our experience, and also keep us from tipping into angry rumination.

How do you deal effectively with that person who cuts you off in traffic, or the guy who cuts in line at the grocery store, or that person who trash-talks when your favorite team loses the game? Right now I’m thinking of Bobby McFerrin’s song, “Don’t worry, be happy,” but I’ve changed the words a bit…”Don’t be angry…”

We hope you are flourishing!

Matt and the entire Flourishing in Ministry team

Research citation: Denson, T. (2013). The multiple systems model of angry rumination. Personality & Social Psychology Review (Sage Publications Inc.), 17(2), 103-123.

More reasons to meditate, part #2

Posted on June 19, 2013 in FiM, WaW by Matt

In the research world a “meta-analysis” is a powerful way to combine the results from a large number of studies to get a better idea of what is really going on. A meta-analysis gives us a much better sense of what really matters and helps to provide useful answers to important questions. Recently, a group of scholars conducted a meta-analysis on meditation to gain a better understanding of whether or not meditation really helps us. The authors make the following statement about the results of their meta-analysis:

Does meditation work in principle, that is, does it have positive effects? The evidence accumulated in the present meta-analysis yields a clear answer: yes.

Well, there you have it: mediation is good for us. More specifically, the authors found that meditation has its largest effects in reducing negative emotions. In other words, if you have had a bad day, been mistreated, are worried about something, or in some way experienced an event or interaction that made you feel bad in some way, meditation can help alleviate some of the bad feelings that you are experiencing. Meditation reduces our stress, and it also helps us relax, whether we are in a bad or good mood. This means that meditation has multiple effects that can help us feel better.

But there is more good news. Meditation can help us think better by bolstering our ability to focus our attention and concentrate. There are, of course, many activities and tasks in life that require concentration, focus, and clear thinking. Meditation can help us perform better in those activities and tasks.
These researchers noted that there are many different kinds of meditation, but all seem to have very positive effects. They group these methods into three categories:

  1. Concentrative techniques use an object of focus or attention, which can be a spiritually meaningful word or phrase, your breathing, or a picture or physical experience.
  2. Mindfulness methods that emphasize staying present in the current moment and maintaining an alert, aware state in a nonjudgmental way.
  3. Guided meditation in which the content of meditation is regarded as very important and is attended to in a mindful rather than analytic or judgmental way.

We encourage you to find even 5 minutes to try out some meditative or contemplative method.

We hope you are flourishing!

Matt and the entire team


Sedlmeier, P. , Eberth, J. , Schwarz, M. , Zimmermann, D. , Haarig, F. , et al. (2012). The psychological effects of meditation: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 138(6), 1139-1171.


More reasons to meditate, part #1

Posted on May 31, 2013 in FiM, WaW by Matt

In recent years, dozens of researchers have turned their attention to studying meditative and contemplative practices. This research continues to produce results that confirm how important these practices are for our physical, psychological, and mental health.  A very recent study adds yet another important benefit to the already long list: meditation helps us to focus attention and concentrate.

The authors studied college students who were preparing to take the Graduate Records Examination, an extremely important test for anyone wishing to pursue an advanced degree in the social sciences and humanities. Just two short weeks of meditation training and practice lead to a significant decrease in mind wandering and increase cognitive performance. The training improved both GRE reading-comprehension scores and working memory capacity. In in just two weeks!

The contemplate practice used in the study was simple and easy to use. The authors describe it this way:

Classes focused on (a) sitting in an upright posture with legs crossed and gaze lowered, (b) distinguishing between naturally arising thoughts and elaborated thinking, (c) minimizing the distracting quality of past and future concerns by reframing them as mental projections occurring in the present, (d) using the breath as an anchor for attention during meditation, (e) repeatedly counting up to 21 consecutive exhalations, and (f) allowing the mind to rest naturally rather than trying to suppress the occurrence of thoughts.

This entire practice could be done in less than 15 minutes. Perhaps this could be one of your coffee breaks, or a nice way to end your lunch?

We always have to be very careful in assuming too much from the results of any one study. I remember when oat bran was portrayed as the wonder food, based upon the results of a single study. We now know oat bran does have beneficial effects, but not quite as miraculous as we were initially told.

But this is one in a long and growing series of studies on the effects of meditative/contemplative practices. I will have more to post about meditation in the coming days. For now, remember that there are dozens and dozens of different kinds of meditative/contemplative practices, and all of them seem to have the same or very similar benefits. This means that all of us should be able to find a practice that works for us.

We hope that you are flourishing (and meditating)!

Matt and the entire Flourishing team

Mrazek, M. , Franklin, M. , Phillips, D. , Baird, B. , & Schooler, J. (2013). Mindfulness training improves working memory capacity and GRE performance while reducing mind wandering. Psychological Science, 24(5), 776-781.

Why most dieters fail but some succeed.

Posted on May 27, 2013 in FiM, Uncategorized, WaW by Matt

When I was in college I was very over-weight. I tried and tried to eat healthier, and exercise more, but each attempt seemed destined to lead to a new failure. Fortunately for me, a series of events (most importantly, meeting the woman I would marry) helped me to lose about 100 pounds, and I have maintained that weight for 30+ years. But I know many people who are still trying hard, but cannot seem to reach the level of weight they aspire to achieve.

Recent research sheds some light on this challenge, and offers at least some scientific help. People who are trying to control their eating to lose weight are known as restrained eaters. They are attempting to do the right thing — eat fewer calories and more nutritional food. One of the main reasons that chronic dieters continue to struggle with weight-loss is that they live in food-rich environments. Most of us are bombarded every day with advertisements, restaurants, and other food choices that play on our desires for filling, tasty foods.  This abundance of attractive, high- calorie food in our food-rich environments contributes to over-eating and thus to being overweight. Some people are emotional eaters as well, and for these people, food-rich environments can be especially challenging.

Successful restrained eaters overcome these challenges by forming “implementation intentions,” which is a fancy way of saying that they plan how they are going to deal with temptations and emotions that cause them to over-eat. Implementation intentions specify the when, where, and how of what we will do to reach our weight goals. We may need to have several different implementation plans to cover different situations (e.g., the plan for when coworkers invite me to lunch at a fast-food restaurant, the plan for when I come home late from work, hungry and tired, the plan for what I will do at a football tail-gating party).  Thinking ahead of time about how we will respond when we are confronted with temptations can dramatically increase the likelihood that we will make good choices.

Successful dieters also form clear goals about how a healthier weight will improve their lives. These goals are most successful when they are connected to real, positive changes such as being able to play with my children, creating more capacity to care for my family, being able to sleep better, or being able to enjoy recreational activities. Once these goals are formed, successful dieters share them with important people so that these others can help support the dieter. Successful dieters also use a variety of cues to remind themselves about their plans, and the goals these plans are designed to achieve. This way we can review our grocery-shopping plan right before we head into the store, and we are prepared to walk right past those tempting food samples.  And, lastly, successful dieters celebrate even seemingly small successes, and treat mis-steps as opportunities to try again rather than treating them as failures.

Science tells us that change, while sometimes hard, is possible. We need clear goals, a set of plans to achieve those goals, and people who will care for and support us as we strive toward our goals. Of course, hard work and perseverance are also necessary, but science tells us there is a lot to hope for if we follow these important guidelines.

We hope you are flourishing!


Stroebe, W. , van Koningsbruggen, G. , Papies, E. , & Aarts, H. (2013). Why most dieters fail but some succeed: A goal conflict model of eating behavior. Psychological Review, 120(1), 110-138.

Angry? Venting won’t help

Posted on July 30, 2012 in Uncategorized by Matt

In the past, when I was angry, I often thought that being able to express why I was mad would help me deal with my anger. My basic idea was that venting about my anger would operate like a release valve, and my anger would  subside. Unfortunately, I never kept track of whether or not venting worked, but thankfully there is research to help fill in those gaps.

The short answer is, venting doesn’t help. In fact, it probably makes things worse.

Researcher Brad Bushman has conducted several studies on the different ways people try to deal with their anger, taking careful note of those methods that work and those that do not. Thinking (also known as ruminating) or talking about why we are angry appears to make us more angry, and maybe also more aggressive. They also found that acting out anger in a so-called more “positive” way — such as hitting a punching bag — seems to make matters worse as well.

So, rather than alleviating our anger, venting makes us madder and more likely to lash out.

Bushman and his colleagues found, however, that distancing ourselves can work very well. In an experimental study they asked some angry people to think about their anger as if they were watching the situation from a distance. These people reported diminished levels of anger. This approach is also known as perspective taking — stepping back from the situation and, perhaps, trying to see what is happening through the eyes of another person. This process seems to diffuse our anger, perhaps because we do indeed see the bigger picture of the situation and are not lost in our own “righteous indignation.”

Recently when I was walking to work, I watched two cars playing an aggressive game of stoplight racing. The “game” became more aggressive as each driver tried to cutoff the other. It ended in angry shouts, obscene gestures, and one driver in a business suit hammering the car of the other. And all of this to see who could get to the next red light the fastest? Wish I could have helped these two distance themselves from the situation.

The sad punch line is that I knew one of the drivers, but no, I haven’t mentioned the scene. Yet.

We hope you are flourishing

Matt and the team

  • Bushman, B. (2002). Does venting anger feed or extinguish the flame? catharsis, rumination, distraction, anger and aggressive responding. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin28(6), 724-731.
  • Mischkowskia, D. Kross, E. & Bushman, B. J. (2012). Flies on the wall are less aggressive: Self-distancing “in the heat of the moment” reduces aggressive thoughts, angry feelings and aggressive behaviour. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology

Lectures: not just boring, useless too?

Posted on January 11, 2012 in FiM, WaW by Matt

A former student sent me this NPR story that describes how physics professors are learning (!) that a lecture-only approach produces a lot less learning. These professors have discovered more than new stars and black holes: they also found that small group discussions and active learning tasks work better. Compared to lectures, these approaches create much deeper understanding and ensure that students not only remember, but can actually use, the information they acquire. Of course, that is what true learning is all about: new knowledge that is turned into new thinking or action.

Then I found out about a research study that showed much the same thing. Researchers at the University of British Columbia put physics students into two groups. The first received lectures only. The second got no lectures. That’s right, no lectures whatsoever. Instead, these students took part in a series of small groups discussions, group-based learning activities, quizzes on pre-class reading, and got lots of instructor feedback on what they did. Remember, there was no formal lecturing. The results were pretty striking. The no-lecture group averaged 74% correct on tests whereas the lecture-only group averaged 41% correct. The researchers concluded that “deliberate practice teaching strategies can improve both learning and engagement in a large laboratory physics course…(and) [t]his result is likely to generalize to a variety of postsecondary courses.”

This serendipitous confluence of events really got me to thinking about the way we help people “learn” in other contexts. Professors (me included) still lecture a lot to students, clergy preach to people in churches, health care professionals tell patients how to be healthier, and parents often really do lecture their kids on a range of issues (my kids used to call it “yelling” at them. Even when my voiced was quiet, my lecturing must have felt like a yell). Compare that to how aerobics instructors teach, how people are taught to play an instrument, or how cooking & hobby classes are usually structured.

For me, this new information reinforces an old assumption: it’s hard to change behavior by just telling someone what to do. Now, I wonder how I will include this in my own classes, and in the way I lead my staff, and the way I parent. Good heavens, I might actually have to change my own behavior !

We hope you are flourishing,


Research citation: Deslauriers, L., Schelew, E., and Wieman, C. (2011). Improved Learning in a Large-Enrollment Physics Class. Science, 332 (6031), 862-864 DOI: 10.1126/science.1201783