Fulfillment at Any Age

How to remain productive and healthy into your later years

Five of Psychology's Most Practical Tips

Ideas you can put to use to improve yourself and your life

The field of psychology is burgeoning with reports covering the latest findings appearing daily in news feeds, magazines, and of course, right here on Psychology Today.  Recently, I published a blog with 101 of psychology’s greatest insights, intended to preview, review, or just fill readers in on all things psychological from the classics to the latest findings. However, that’s a lot to digest at one sitting. Many times, I’m asked by students, friends, and occasionally media writers, to give practical tips for solving a specific problem. Whether it’s relationship advice or ways to improve memory, it seems that people want hands-on information that they can apply right away. Therefore, I thought I would drill down to the basics of psychology’s general principles.  Mastering these can take you a long way toward handling whatever specific issue you’re facing in your life right now.

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1. Things aren’t always as they seem.

You don’t have to believe in Freud’s theory to appreciate the fact that situations, people, and relationships of all types are affected by factors not always visible to the naked eye.  Two people having a conversation may seem to be discussing a matter-of-fact problem, such as how to handle distribution of work load in the office or how to decide what to cook for dinner. Lurking underneath these everyday situations are all sorts of dynamics, from people’s feelings of insecurity (Does my boss think I’m not doing enough? Is my cooking really that bad?) to resentment (Why do I get stuck with all the work?) to genuine fondness and a sense of cooperation. Interpersonal relationships are complex and we each potentially bring a great deal of individual baggage to seemingly mundane situations.  Someone tells you that she’s accomplished something that makes you feel a twinge of jealousy. However, you cover this up by congratulating her, not wanting to admit (to yourself or to her) that her success makes you feel inadequate.

How can you translate this knowledge to help you in your everyday life?  First, by recognizing that simple situations are rarely simple, you can be better attuned to possible conflicts. Instead of assuming that the work load problem reflects simple rationality, recognize that you may inadvertently be causing someone to feel hurt or resentful. Or you may be the one with those feelings.  Instead of ignoring or denying them, by acknowledging those dynamics you can prevent flare-ups and misunderstandings. Having your friend’s success cause you to feel inadequate can lead you to feel ashamed and guilty.

Recognizing that jealousy is a natural reaction can help you be more self-accepting of your emotions. There’s no need to add shame to the already unpleasant reaction you’re experiencing. Everyone feels jealous.  The trick is for you to use that jealousy to gain insight into what you would like to change about yourself so that you don’t feel so inadequate and flawed.

Awareness of inner dynamics is just the first step, however, to reducing interpersonal tensions. This next tip will take you to a much better place so that you can have fewer of those unpleasant conflicted feelings.

2. Empathy works

Empathy is perhaps one of the most important skills that psychologists learn.  They are particularly crucial for those psychologists who practice psychotherapy or counseling. The legendary Carl Rogers, who developed client-centered (or person-centered) therapy made empathy the cornerstone of all of his teachings. Even psychologists trained in behavioral methods learn that they must first establish what’s called a “therapeutic alliance” with their clients before proceeding on to treatment. This means that they hone their listening skills and gain experience in seeing the world through their client’s eyes. Even outside the realm of the clinician’s office, however, psychologists recognize the value of empathy as a way to improve communication between people in all sorts of situations.

Returning to point #1 above, it’s empathy that can help you resolve some of those interpersonal difficulties that can ruin good relationships. Before you rush in to criticize your co-worker, friend, or partner, put yourself in that other person’s place. How would you feel if you were hearing your own words from someone else? You might not intend for what you say to sound critical, but if you really stopped and thought about it, you’d realize that’s how the other person is feeling when hearing your words. You might also be able to transform the jealousy twinges you feel toward your more successful friends if you put yourself in their shoes and realize how happy they are. 

Empathy has another facet, and that’s how you communicate your feelings to others. It may seem trite to say this, but there honestly are advantages to using “I” statements. Instead if saying “You do this,” by saying “I feel that when you act this way…,” you’re showing that the other person’s behavior is open to interpretation. I statements also sound less accusatory and therefore the other person is less likely to act defensively.  You don’t even have to limit your I statements to the people you are close to or work with.  You don’t lose anything, and have much to gain by expressing yourself in a way that communicates this sort of openness, respect, and empathy.

3. We are products of our environments

The popular press seems to be grabbing hold of genetic explanations for behavior with a vigorous tenacity.  The mapping of the human genome was clearly a tremendous advance for science, but it unfortunately seems to be associated with the search for pinning specific traits down to specific genes.  If you’re looking for practical advice from psychology, hoping to trace behavior to genetic causes won’t get you very far. We can’t change our genes, but we can change our environments.

Looking at environmental or situational causes of behavior can also help you achieve greater empathy. Due to the fundamental attribution error, we excuse ourselves from the very same behaviors that we blame others for doing. It’s easy to see how situations affect us, but more difficult to look at another person’s behavior and take those same situational factors into account. People may be acting selfishly, rudely, or inconsiderately due not to their personalities (or genes) but because they are stressed or being treated unfairly. Maybe you’re even the one who’s causing the stress or treating the other person unfairly. Many marriage and family therapists adopt a systems approach in which they see one family member’s behavior as an expression of dysfunctional relationships. A typical scenario of this nature occurs when parents have a conflicted relationship and the teenage child acts out.

Recognizing the role of the environment also helps you to be less deterministic in approaching your own mental and physical health. You’re not doomed by your genetics to have every single flaw or disease that runs in your family. It would be great if genetic testing would lead people not to assume that they’ll inevitably develop illnesses for which they’re at risk to work on modifying the behaviors that may stave illness off for years, if not indefinitely.

4. Don’t believe everything you read about psychology in the media.

Many psychological studies are incompletely described when they’re covered by reporters. Even if the study is correctly described, the reporter might push the study’s author to make statements that go beyond the limits of reason. From the media standpoint, the least interesting section of any scientific article is the part that describes the study’s limitations. Full of mea culpa’s, the authors must note the limitations of their sample, the methods, the analyses, and perhaps even the underlying theory.

If you’re really interested in a research report you read in the press, try to get your hands on the actual article.  A new therapeutic approach might sound great, but before you rush off to ask a therapist to try it on you, it would be worth the effort to do some more research on your own. Very often, the authors of scientific articles are happy to provide you with more information if you either can’t get the original article or can’t understand the technical jargon. This can also help give you insight into whether the research is truly applicable to you. A method that helps alleviate anxiety in college sophomores (who are often the participants in psych articles) may be completely inappropriate for people in their 30s or 40s, or people who are not college educated. You need to evaluate the appropriateness of any study you read about before applying it to your life.

5. Keep an open mind.

Psychological change is possible at any point in life, but only if you are open to change. It’s very easy to get set into a certain way of thinking or behaving, because the familiar is comfortable and easy.  We also get very pressured by time to want to stick with what we know will work. However, many situations in life require that we change, even if we don’t want to. You’ll be better prepared to make those adaptations if you’ve veered out of the straight and narrow from time to time.

The flip side of an open mind is mental set. When you constantly stick with the same way of solving a problem, you’ll be less efficient when a new problem comes your way.  We all have a tendency to think our first solution to a problem is correct, and as a result, may close off prematurely before considering all possibilities. Perhaps you’ve had experiences when one of your favorite products disappears off the shelves. It could be something as trivial as the toothpaste you've grown to love or workout shoes that fit your feet perfectly. After exhausting all availabilities on eBay or the more arcane sections of the Web, you now have to make the dreaded switch. Lo and behold, you actually like the replacement product better! Had you not been forced to make the change, you might have gone for years without being able to take advantage of this other alternative.

Similarly, keeping an open mind, whether it’s to new people, attitudes, places, or music can help you enrich your life and keep that mind sharper longer. Older adults who have a lifestyle characterized by open attitudes hang onto their mental and physical abilities for far longer than those who fear or avoid change and challenges.

To sum up, I hope you’ll find that this advice gives you some handy mental tools to improve your life, relationships, and health.  Psychology doesn’t have all the answers, but it certainly has some pretty good suggestions.

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.

Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Her latest book is The Search for Fulfillment.

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