behavior · creativity · school

Need a Job? Invent it. Want to learn how to invent? Play!

This article in the NYTimes really drives home for me the need to let everyone learn how to play and create on their own. The thesis of the article and the book it’s reviewing is basically that the next generation of workers will need to be able to identify needs and figure out how they can fill those needs, and monetize it.

“Today,” [book author Tony Wagner] said via e-mail, “because knowledge is available on every Internet-connected device, what you know matters far less than what you can do with what you know. The capacity to innovate — the ability to solve problems creatively or bring new possibilities to life — and skills like critical thinking, communication and collaboration are far more important than academic knowledge. As one executive told me, ‘We can teach new hires the content, and we will have to because it continues to change, but we can’t teach them how to think — to ask the right questions — and to take initiative.’ ”

Ok, so how do we teach kids to be innovative? Play! Play play play! Creativity! The opportunity for boredom, as one study recently found, and free play. Letting kids be kids! Letting them take stuff apart and put it back together. Letting them get messy and innovative!

So let your kids, and yourself, have some unstructured play time. It’s good for your brain, and will help you keep your job, or find or even make a new one.

anthropology · behavior · brain · community · culture · happiness · health · mental health · play · psychology · Social

Unhappy Employees Cost More (and how to reduce that cost)

Employment Exhibition
What does it take to reduce on-the-job depression and create an overall happier work environment? (Photo credit: Modern_Language_Center)

A recent study of health factors and their associated costs at seven companies, published in the journal Health Affairs, found that “depression is the most costly among 10 common risk factors linked to higher health spending on employees.”

The analysis, found that these factors — which also included obesity, high blood sugar and high blood pressure — were associated with nearly a quarter of the money spent on the health care of more than 92,000 workers.

First the employees were assessed for health risks, then researchers tracked their medical spending from 2005 through 2009.

The average medical spending for each employee was $3,961 a year. In total, $82 million, or 22 percent, of the $366 million annually spent on health care for the workers was attributed to the 10 risk factors, the study found.

The relationship between higher spending and depression was the strongest, with 48 percent more spending for workers with a propensity for that widespread problem.

via VPR News: Depression And Health Spending Go Together.

Now, to be fair, this is a fairly small study of just seven companies, and the article didn’t say how many employees worked at these companies. However, this is definitely a trend that has been spotted at least anecdotally by many HR managers, so it’s nice to see that there is some “official” analysis being done on the issue.

So what can employers do about this? My fear is that employers would discriminate, unintentionally or intentionally, against people who suffer from depression. But these days many people will be diagnosed with depression due to a temporary life situation such as a death in the family, or their jobs, so being fired for temporary sadness is probably not a good idea for companies.

Instead, my hope is that companies would invest more on making people’s job satisfaction higher. As of two years ago, Americans reported the lowest job satisfaction ever recorded. That means employers can be doing A LOT more to improve their employees’ lives at work. And a lot of that has to do with feeling supported by their managers, and feel like they are heard and respected and overall a part of the team. A lot of that comes from having fun at work.

This philosophy has been spouted in several different books and magazines, and has been shown to work well in classrooms as well, referred to as the “Responsive Classroom” approach.

The Responsive Classroom approach centers on several ostensibly mundane classroom practices. Each morning students form a circle, greet one another, share bits of news, engage in a brief, fun activity and review the day’s agenda. The idea is to build trust, ensure a little fun (which adolescents crave) and confront small problems before they become big. Students might welcome one another with salutations from a foreign language. An activity might involve tossing several balls around a circle in rapid succession. Students share weekend plans or explore topics like bullying before lessons begin. (New York Times)

This approach could very easily be applied to a business setting, in fact it sounds like a team kick-off meeting one might see in a corporate environment. Taking time to connect with other coworkers and laugh a little before diving in to the day’s work has been shown to work wonders for productivity and boost morality in both school and work settings.

There is definitely a  drive and expectation in many industries to work longer, faster, harder hours, and be available and working at all hours. But that drive is unsustainable, demonstrated by the low job satisfaction and high burnout rates in many industries, from high-tech to physicians. Taking time to play a little bit at work, or just connect with coworkers, is being shown as an effective way to reduce depression related to work and job burnout, increase productivity, and create a more cohesive company with more loyalty overall to the company’s mission.

So long story short: remember to bring the koosh ball to your next meeting.

anthropology · brain · children · education · health · learning · mental health

Attention Disorder or Not, Children Prescribed Pills to Help in School –

English: Adderall
Doctor’s are prescribing Aderall to kids without ADHD (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I find this article in today’s New York Times extremely disturbing:

When Dr. Michael Anderson hears about his low-income patients struggling in elementary school, he usually gives them a taste of some powerful medicine: Adderall.

The pills boost focus and impulse control in children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Although A.D.H.D is the diagnosis Dr. Anderson makes, he calls the disorder “made up” and “an excuse” to prescribe the pills to treat what he considers the children’s true ill — poor academic performance in inadequate schools.

“I don’t have a whole lot of choice,” said Dr. Anderson, a pediatrician for many poor families in Cherokee County, north of Atlanta. “We’ve decided as a society that it’s too expensive to modify the kid’s environment. So we have to modify the kid.”

via Attention Disorder or Not, Children Prescribed Pills to Help in School –

Sadly the doctor is correct that many schools refuse to change a child’s environment to improve academic success, namely that they are cutting out activities like recess and P.E. in order to make more time for studying.

However, P.E., recess, and just getting outside for a quick breath of fresh air have all shown to also be extremely effective ways to improve attention and academic success. Yet because these activities are getting cut out of the school day, doctor’s feel like they must prescribe these incredibly strong, brain-chemistry changing medications to growing brains, many of these drugs with strong side effects .

I have no problem with using these drugs for what they were originally intended for, but prescribing them basically as “performance-enhancing” drugs just seems unethical to me. We frown upon athletes and grown-ups in the business world from taking speed and other kinds of drugs that are supposed to improve performance (other than coffee of course, that seems pretty much like a must-have for adults), but it’s okay for students so they can do well in elementary and middle school? To put in mildly, yuck!

I hope other people will be as outraged as I am and stand up for a child’s right to recess and P.E., and actually NOT studying from time to time, rather than encouraging giving them strong medications in order to perform well on standardized tests.


anthropology · behavior · environment · Social

Letting the seasons influence work hours

English: New York, New York. Newsroom of the N...
Do you find yourself more or less productive during certain times of the year? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In this blog I often talk about play and creating space for play in our busy lives.  A recent article in Good magazine discussed the idea of changing our work habits to match the seasons, making more room for play (or at least less work time) in the summer:

Jason Fried, CEO of 37Signals, recently wrote for the New York Times that his company’s work schedules change with the seasons.

“For example, from May through October, we switch to a four-day workweek. And not 40 hours crammed into four days, but 32 hours comfortably fit into four days. We don’t work the same amount of time, we work less.”

We work less, he says. I can imagine it’s pretty easy to get buy-in for that idea around the office.

“When there’s less time to work, you waste less time. When you have a compressed workweek, you tend to focus on what’s important. Constraining time encourages quality time.”

This is a pretty rare set-up, but I have worked at places where they did offer 4 10-hour days in the summer, or 4 9-hour days and a half day on Friday, or some other kind of flexibility so people could take advantage of the nice weather. Europeans will often take a month off in later summer for vacation.

First, I think this is a great idea, and I think Fried makes a good argument that with less work time, people will prioritize work and really get the essential stuff done. From an anthropologist’s perspective, however, this dichotomy of summer equaling less time in the office, and theoretically less work, I find somewhat interesting, since as humans we traditionally tend to be MORE active and alert when we have more sunlight. In winter there was traditionally less food and worse weather conditions, so we would stay inside, hunkering down with our tribe or family, and maybe catch up on repairing clothing or tools. Late spring (when it stays light the longest) and late summer/early fall (just after the hottest temperatures) was a time of planting, hunting, gathering, harvesting, and getting stores up for the long winter months.

Today, we still hunker down inside during the colder months, but I find it interesting that this has translated into a tendency to stay inside busy over paperwork or computer work while summer, our traditionally busier work time, has become a time associated with leisure and play, or at least that’s what many of us would like it to be.

What are your thoughts? Do you like the idea of having work schedules that adjust with the seasons? Do you find yourself more or less productive in summer or winter, ignoring factors like kids home from school, etc.? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

children · cognition · community · neuroscience

Baby brain science explores human knowledge

A smiling baby lying in a soft cot (furniture).
Babies are born social scientists. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Happy Friday! I read this article in the New York Times about Dr. Liz Spelke, at Harvard University, who studies the neuroscience of babies.

Dr. Spelke is a pioneer in the use of the infant gaze as a key to the infant mind — that is, identifying the inherent expectations of babies as young as a week or two by measuring how long they stare at a scene in which those presumptions are upended or unmet.

While the article primarily focused on what we can glean from babies about human cognition and knowledge, I couldn’t help but pick up on the author’s observations that the main thing the baby test subjects want to do, and the main thing that is enriching to them, is engage with the people around them (and how enriching it is for the grown-ups involved too):

The 15-pound research subject … tracked conversations, stared at newcomers and burned off adult corneas with the brilliance of her smile. Dr. Spelke, who first came to prominence by delineating how infants learn about objects, numbers, the lay of the land, shook her head in self-mocking astonishment.

“Why did it take me 30 years to start studying this?” she said. “All this time I’ve been giving infants objects to hold, or spinning them around in a room to see how they navigate, when what they really wanted to do was engage with other people!”

Babies are born with a desire to learn and engage in their world. They are pretty helpless, and so the only thing they have to defend themselves, as well as learn, is to engage with others and beg for help. As soon as they figure out who’s safe, they look for more people like that:

Katherine D. Kinzler, now of the University of Chicago, and Kristin Shutts, now at the University of Wisconsin, have found that infants just a few weeks old show a clear liking for people who use speech patterns the babies have already been exposed to, and that includes the regional accents, twangs, and R’s or lack thereof. And in guiding early social leanings, accent trumps race.

But, babies are also fascinated with the unknown, and will stare at new concepts and objects for much longer than the known items and individuals.

To me the really interesting thing is that what most interests the baby subjects is getting to know the researchers. As grown-ups we don’t have to lose that sense of wonder. Many people grow up to be researchers (like Dr. Spelke). We can continue to be fascinated by our surroundings and new people and always seek knowledge about what’s around us.

P.S.: Also, just if you’re curious, according to the Spelke lab here are some of the things that babies know, generally before the age of 1:

  • They know what an object is. They know that objects can’t go through solid boundaries or occupy the same position as other objects, and that objects generally travel through space in a continuous trajectory.
  • Babies can estimate quantities and distinguish between more and less. They also can perform a kind of addition and subtraction, anticipating the relative abundance of groups of dots that are being pushed together or pulled apart.
  • Infants and toddlers use geometric clues to orient themselves in three-dimensional space, navigate through rooms and locate hidden treasures.
autism · behavior · children · health · Social

Dogs trained to help disabled kids lead more enriching lives

Your feel good story of the day, brought to you by the New York Times: a nonprofit organization trains dogs to help kids with all kinds of disorders, from autism to muscular dystrophy to seizures.

In October 1998, Shirk assembled a board and founded 4 Paws for Ability, a nonprofit corporation. She rescued Butler, a German shepherd mix, from a shelter; hired a trainer to prepare him for mobility work with the 12-year-old; and became a pioneer among service-dog agencies. “People started calling from all over to ask, Am I too young? Am I too old? Am I too disabled? Am I disabled enough?” she says. “I said, ‘If your life can be improved by a dog, and if you and your family can take good care of a dog, we’re going to give you a dog.’…” “We place dogs with kids in wheelchairs, kids on ventilators, kids with autism, kids with dwarfism, kids with seizure disorder and cognitive impairments; but if your dog does tricks, other kids want to meet you. Kids will ignore your disability if you’ve got a cool dog.”

Watch the video at the New York Times:

A trainer works with a dog on behavior modification techniques. Click the image to see the video.

It is also an amazing relationship dynamic to see occur between the children and their dogs, how the children with cognitive disabilities in particular are helped to see the world, in a way, through their dog’s eyes:

Alan M. Beck, the director of the Center for the Human-Animal Bond at Purdue University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, is among those intrigued by it. “There is a real bond between children and animals,” he told me. “The younger the child, the greater the suspension of disbelief about what an animal understands or doesn’t understand.” According to Beck, more than 70 percent of children confide in their dogs, and 48 percent of adults do. “The absolutely nonjudgmental responses from animals are especially important to children,” he says. “If your child with F.A.S.D. starts to misbehave, your face may show disapproval, but the dog doesn’t show disapproval. The performance anxiety this child may feel all the time is absent when he’s with his dog. Suddenly he’s relaxed, he’s with a peer who doesn’t criticize him.”

anthropology · behavior · brain · community · happiness · health · mental health · psychology

Life Lessons Passed On

English: Elderly Muslim during the Republic of...

I was really inspired by that blog post I shared a couple of months ago about cancer survivors and what they’d learned about life. I also posted a survey done with older folks last year giving advice on what NOT to do.

Well, thankfully all of that hard-earned knowledge is coming out in book form. Many of the interviews can also be at From the NYTimes:

Eventually, most of us learn valuable lessons about how to conduct a successful and satisfying life. But for far too many people, the learning comes too late to help them avoid painful mistakes and decades of wasted time and effort…

Enter an invaluable source of help, if anyone is willing to listen while there is still time to take corrective action. It is a new book called “30 Lessons for Living” (Hudson Street Press) that offers practical advice from more than 1,000 older Americans from different economic, educational and occupational strata who were interviewed as part of the ongoing Cornell Legacy Project.

Its author, Karl Pillemer, a professor of human development at the College of Human Ecology at Cornell and a gerontologist at the Weill Cornell Medical College, calls his subjects “the experts,” and their advice is based on what they did right and wrong in their long lives.

You can also read a summary of their advice in the article: Advice From Life’s Graying Edge on Finishing With No Regrets

What are your life lessons?

behavior · children · learning · school

When the future becomes detrimentally more important than the present

I read this article in the New York Times a couple of days ago, and it really bothered me:

Since second grade, Nathaly has taken advantage of a voluntary integration program here, leaving her home in one of the city’s poorer sections before 6:30 a.m. and riding a bus over an hour to Newton, a well-to-do suburb with top-quality schools. Some nights, she has so many activities that she does not get home until 10 p.m.; often she’s up past midnight studying.

“Nathaly gets so mad if she doesn’t make the honor roll,” says Stephanie Serrata, a classmate.

Last Wednesday, Nathaly did it again, with 5 A’s and 2 B’s for the first marking period.

via Let’s Get Ready Offers Help for College Admissions –

At first I couldn’t figure out why; it was a story essentially about all the great programs that our K-12 education system has for getting help and getting ahead in school and prepping to apply for prestigious colleges. Then, when I looked closer at the lead picture of the article it hit me:

Nathaly Lopera in her Passport class, one of several programs she attends to help her get into college. Article by MICHAEL WINERIP, New York Times, Nov 20th, 2011

This 17 year old girl is yawning in her class, and it’s not from boredom or because she stayed up too late the night before chatting with her friends online. It’s because she is working so hard to get into college she isn’t getting enough sleep. Her health is suffering for a future prospect of getting into a “good” secondary education facility.

I find this idea horrible. Yes, it’s great that all these programs exist for kids to get help in applying to college and help in school. I was a tutor in high school, and I took SAT-prep courses which helped me immensely. I applaud this girl’s dedication to her education and her future. I absolutely appreciate the idea of staying up late to study for finals every once in awhile. However, constant sleep deprivation is REALLY dangerous, both in the immediate present (poorer performance, slowed reaction times) and in the future (delayed physical and mental growth). Being sleepy is just as dangerous and being drunk behind the wheel of a car.

I truly believe that this push to get kids into a “good” school, focusing on the future, is a really bad idea.

There was the uproar earlier this year about the self-described “Tiger Mom” and her pride in how hard she pushed her kids. Again, while I appreciate how much she is dedicated to her daughters’ success, there have been numerous studies that show kids do just as well without the focused drilling by their parents. An extra push every now and then, and support driving them to piano lessons or football games? Absolutely! But a parent does not need to be a drill sergeant, nor does the kid need to be literally killing themselves to get into a decent college. A documentary came out in April discussing the phenomenon, called The Race To Nowhere, which does a really nice job of capturing how a lot of this college-prep focus is about as useful as a chicken running around with their head cut off.

I understand this kind of drive starts as early as preschool in many communities, but that doesn’t mean you have to buy into it! Yes, of course I want my future children to get a good college education. Yes, I want them to receive quality primary education. But focusing so much on the future is absolutely detrimental to the health of the child and to the parent.

I would love to hear back from people who have either dropped out of this school rat race to focus more on developing and spending time with their child now, or from people who feel this kind of dedication is essential and worth the health risks.

behavior · emotion · family · happiness · mental health

Steps to ease into being grateful, and how it benefits you psychologically

"The most psychologically correct holiday of the year is upon us." according to the New York Times article, A Serving of Gratitude May Save the Day.

Cultivating an “attitude of gratitude” has been linked to better health, sounder sleep, less anxiety and depression, higher long-term satisfaction with life and kinder behavior toward others, including romantic partners. A new study shows that feeling grateful makes people less likely to turn aggressive when provoked, which helps explain why so many brothers-in-law survive Thanksgiving without serious injury.

But say you’re not in the habit of giving thanks. After all, we’re only asked to officially do it once or twice a year. Well, there are some pointers in the article to get you going:

Start with “gratitude lite.” – start out with writing just five things, and maybe a sentence or two about why you’re appreciative of them.

Don’t confuse gratitude with indebtedness
– you don’t need to owe anybody anything to be grateful for them.

Try it on your family
– even if they are horribly dysfunctional, you can still be grateful they passed the peas without throwing you a dirty look.

Don’t counterattack
– okay, so maybe they did throw you a dirty look. By being grateful to them anyway, it puts individuals off guard and makes them more likely to be kinder in the future, according to some studies.

Share the feeling – … “More than other emotion, gratitude is the emotion of friendship,” Dr. McCullough says. “It is part of a psychological system that causes people to raise their estimates of how much value they hold in the eyes of another person. Gratitude is what happens when someone does something that causes you to realize that you matter more to that person than you thought you did.”

Try a gratitude visit.This exercise, recommended by Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania, begins with writing a 300-word letter to someone who changed your life for the better. Be specific about what the person did and how it affected you. Deliver it in person, preferably without telling the person in advance what the visit is about. When you get there, read the whole thing slowly to your benefactor. “You will be happier and less depressed one month from now,” Dr. Seligman guarantees in his book “Flourish.”

Contemplate a higher power. Religious individuals don’t necessarily act with more gratitude in a specific situation, but thinking about religion can cause people to feel and act more gratefully, as demonstrated in experiments by Jo-Ann Tsang and colleagues at Baylor University. Other research shows that praying can increase gratitude.

Go for deep gratitude. Once you’ve learned to count your blessings, Dr. Emmons says, you can think bigger…

And if that seems too daunting, you can least tell yourself —

Hey, it could always be worse. When your relatives force you to look at photos on their phones, be thankful they no longer have access to a slide projector. When your aunt expounds on politics, rejoice inwardly that she does not hold elected office. Instead of focusing on the dry, tasteless turkey on your plate, be grateful the six-hour roasting process killed any toxic bacteria.

Happy Thanksgiving!

anthropology · architecture · community · design · environment

Does adding art to slums improve poor’s quality of life?

I saw this article last week on Recycle Art, about a design company in Brazil that does outreach to poor communities by creating more aesthetically pleasing surroundings:

Brazilian design studio Rosenbaum and TV show Caldeirao do Huck help poor families to redecorate their homes and improve their surroundings, in the hope that they feel more comfortable and happier at home.

++ Do the green thing

See more at Plastic bottles garden | Recycle Art

I’m pleasantly surprised by this philosophy. And apparently this idea is starting to pick up steam.  The New York Times just published an article (also below) about a design show being presented at the United Nations right now focusing on design for third-world countries, trying to create effective, efficient, and hopefully beautiful tools, boats, and buildings.

I’m curious, however, if designing a new space or adding beauty to an already existing slum really works. Does having a more beautiful environment make you want to protect it and invest in it? Even the curators of the exhibit in the New York Times article state that building something new and getting people to adopt it are two entirely different challenges.

I know having a greener work space is correlated with better worker productivity, and many communities in the U.S. have installed public gardens or parks with some success regarding improved community involvement and improved outlook of the neighborhood. The groups featured in the exhibit claim successes all over the world. However, somewhat similar experiments have been tried out with movie stars and athletes installing movie theaters or centers in poor neighborhoods with mixed success with mixed results, as I remember.

I would be interested in seeing more studies that looked at parks or even residential gardens and patios correlated with crime rate, income, and so on.

Anecdotally, have you seen or know of anyone who has seen a correlation between greening or beautifying a space and better sociological stats?