Your Mood Makes a Difference to Others

>> Friday

Do you think improving your mood is a selfish indulgence? Do you think you should stop trying to feel better and do something productive instead? Well, get ready to overturn your thinking because a new study shows that your good mood has a strong influence on the happiness of others.

Improving your own mood does something valuable for the people who know you.

Using the voluminous data collected in the Framingham Heart Study, researchers looked at 5000 people over a period of twenty years. Many of the participants knew each other, so the researchers fed all the connections and their mood data over the two decades, and discovered something deeply heartening. Each person's happiness ripples out into others' lives.

In other words, your happiness — your good mood — causes a ripple of good moods for the people you know, and the closer people are to you, the stronger the effect.

Here's another uplifting finding from this study: Good moods have a greater ripple effect than bad moods. In other words, your good moods have more of a positive effect on others than your bad moods have a negative effect on them. And their good moods influence you more than their bad moods.

This is good news all around. Your good mood has a measurably positive effect on the people you know. And good moods are more influential than bad moods.

So from now on, take your mood more seriously, and encourage the people you know to do the same.

Adam Khan is the author of Self-Help Stuff That Works and Cultivating Fire: How to Keep Your Motivation White Hot


What You Know That Isn't So

>> Tuesday

One of the biggest sources of bad moods is something we all do very naturally: Make mistakes in our thinking. Even the best and smartest of us make mistakes in our thinking. We come to conclusions too quickly, we make assumptions based on very little evidence, we overgeneralize, and so on.

The results of these mistakes are many: Anxiety, depression, relationship problems, frustration, setbacks, demoralization, and so on.

Even when genuine misfortune occurs, mistaken beliefs make bad moods worse, and makes bad moods last longer.

That's why, whenever my mood is low — for any reason — the first tool I reach for is the Antivirus for the Mind. It is the most reliable. I sit down and write out something I believe about the situation, and then I look at my statement and try to see if I have made any of these 22 mistakes. I usually have.

As soon as you recognize a mistake in your thinking (if that mistake has been causing you to feel bad) you will feel better. It is immediate and long-lasting.

Remember this well. What you think has an enormous impact on the way you feel and on how effective you are in the world. The more accuracy in your thinking, the fewer mistaken assumptions in your thinking, the better off you will be in the future. And usually, the better you'll feel right now.

Read more:

Scientifically Speaking, There is No Reason to Be Miserable

How We Know What Isn't So (the book)

Unification Theory

Adam Khan is the author of Slotralogy and co-author with Klassy Evans of What Difference Does It Make?: How the Sexes Differ and What You Can Do About It.


Do You Work With Someone You Don't Like?

>> Saturday

When you have to work with someone or spend time with someone who makes you mad or irritates you, ponder this question: What could I like about this person? The question may seem repugnant at first, but it will help you counteract your brain’s natural negative bias.

Once you've decided you don't like someone, you automatically notice all the things about them you don't like, and you overlook things you do like about them. You're not doing this deliberately, of course, but it happens naturally and automatically.

If you think about something you like about the person, however, you don’t feel as much negative emotion when dealing with them, and you can deal with them more effectively.

I'm not talking about gritting your teeth and forcing yourself to be nice to someone. If you take a little time, you’ll find some things you genuinely like about the person. And when you genuinely like something about someone, you have a genuinely nicer feeling toward them. Ponder this question once in awhile. It will help you create and maintain that feeling.

One caveat here is: Some people are actually dangerous. One to four percent of the population are sociopaths who don’t care about you, who are incapable of normal human empathy, who will use and abuse you, and who cannot change. Do not try to find things you like about these people.

But chances are, the person who irritates you is not a sociopath and it would make a difference to ask yourself occasionally what you genuinely like about them.

Another good question along the same lines is: What does that person do (that I don’t like) that I have also done?

A third technique was expressed succinctly by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. “If we could read the secret history of our enemies,” he wrote, “we should find in each man’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.”

I just finished reading the book, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln and I found a good example of what Longfellow was talking about.

Before Lincoln ran for president, he was a small-time attorney. One day he was invited to participate in an important trial. He was to be co-counsel for the prosecution with a distinguished attorney named George Harding. Harding wanted Lincoln because the judge deciding the case knew Lincoln and liked him.

After Harding hired Lincoln, the case was moved to another city (with a different judge) so Harding hired a different co-counsel, Edwin Stanton. Lincoln didn’t know about the change, so he kept working on the case. But Harding and Stanton ignored and shunned Lincoln, at one point referring to him as a long-armed ape.

Stanton did not want Lincoln involved in the case, and Stanton made this painfully clear. Stanton avoided him at mealtimes, letting Lincoln eat alone even though the two attorneys ate and stayed at the same hotel. Stanton never asked Lincoln to even show him the considerable amount of work Lincoln had already done for the case.

As I was reading this, I thought Stanton was clearly a rude, mean person. Stanton insulted and humiliated Lincoln.

A little later in the book, I learned more about Stanton, and he had enough sorrow and suffering in his life to disarm all my hostility.

Earlier in his life, Stanton had been married and was deeply in love. He was happier than he’d ever been. They had two children together. Then one tragedy after another tore his world apart. First their daughter died of scarlet fever. While he was still reeling from that heartbreak, Stanton’s wife died of bilious fever.

Stanton almost went insane with grief. Stanton’s sister came to live with him, and she said he often wandered through the house at night sobbing, and screaming, “Where is Mary!?”

A little while later, a fever damaged the brain of Stanton’s younger brother. He was “unhinged” and purposefully cut his own neck with a sharp instrument and bled to death, spraying blood all over the room, even up to the ceiling.

His brother’s gruesome suicide was the last straw. Before these tragedies, Stanton was a cheerful man, full of goodwill toward others. From that point on, and for the rest of his life, Stanton was glum and grumpy. And sometimes rude.

I imagined losing my child, my wife, and my younger brother. Suddenly, I didn’t resent Stanton for his rudeness to Lincoln. I felt sorry for him and sympathized with the unendurable anguish he must have suffered. I believe that’s what Longfellow was talking about.

There is only one problem with Longfellow’s very sensible outlook — we don’t very often find out the secret history of our enemies. Maybe the point is to give people the benefit of the doubt. If someone treats you poorly, you can reasonably assume they have sorrow and suffering enough to disarm your hostility, and you’ll probably be right. And even if you’re not, you have saved yourself a little suffering. It is less painful to feel sympathy than to feel anger.


When you are stuck working with someone you don't like, try one or more of these:

1. Ask yourself, "What could I like about this person?"

2. Ask yourself, "What do they do (that I don't like) that I have also done?"

3. Assume the person has had sorrow and suffering in their personal history, and act accordingly.

Adam Khan is the author of Antivirus For Your Mind: How to Strengthen Your Persistence and Determination and Feel Good More Often and co-author with Klassy Evans of Viewfinder: How to Change the Way You Look at Things.


What Could Stop Our Divisiveness

If anyone's work is needed right now, it is Jonathan Haidt's. He's a researcher and the author of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. He was interviewed on TED earlier this month about the intense division we are seeing between people of different political persuasions. His answers are insightful. And he may be the first person I've listened to who doesn't seem to have taken sides politically.

Haidt says in his book that he was very liberal before he started his research. He now considers himself more of a centrist. He learned that both left and right have legitimate points to make and that several factors in our biology make it difficult to see the other side once we have chosen our tribe. But he has some great suggestions about what to do to stop our divisiveness.

Read more about the interview on the TED blog: The other side isn’t your enemy: Jonathan Haidt speaks at TEDNYC.

Read more about Haidt's work: Finding Common Ground During Election Season. 

Adam Khan is the author of Antivirus For Your Mind: How to Strengthen Your Persistence and Determination and Feel Good More Often and co-author with Klassy Evans of Viewfinder: How to Change the Way You Look at Things.


Beyond Mood Raising

>> Sunday

"Man is by nature a productive organism. When he ceases his productivity — whether he is producing a pail or a poem, an industry or an ideology — his life begins to lose its meaning. Though he may be finally buried twenty years after his death, the person who has no raison d'ĂȘtre is not really alive. He is merely the ghost of who he once was or might have become."

- Allen Wiesen, psychologist


How Worried Should You Be About the Dire Predictions of Experts?

>> Monday

I was going through some old notes, and came across this Wall Street Journal article from 2010 by Jonah Lehrer, author of How We Decide. It seemed so relevant to today, I had to share it:

It's an American tradition: In the final weeks before an election, the airwaves are saturated with pundits and their bold predictions. This time around, they might be forecasting a decade of tea-party dominance, or the imminent comeback of the Democrats or a return to recession in the face of political deadlock. And as these pundits rattle off their reasons, they sound as if they know what they're talking about.

But do they? Philip Tetlock, a psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, has spent 25 years trying to find out. He first got interested in the subject during the run-up to the 1984 presidential election, when dovish experts said Ronald Reagan's tough talk to the Soviets was needlessly antagonizing them, while hawkish experts were convinced that the Soviets needed to be aggressively contained. Mr. Tetlock began to monitor their predictions, and a few years later, he came to a sobering conclusion: Everyone was wrong. Both hawks and doves failed to anticipate the rise of Mikhail Gorbachev and glasnost, even if the pundits now claimed to have seen it coming all along.

The dismal performance of the experts inspired Mr. Tetlock to turn his case study into an epic experimental project. He picked 284 people who made their living "commenting or offering advice on political and economic trends," including journalists, foreign policy specialists, economists and intelligence analysts, and began asking them to make predictions. Over the next two decades, he peppered them with questions: Would George Bush be re-elected? Would apartheid in South Africa end peacefully? Would Quebec secede from Canada? Would the dot-com bubble burst? In each case, the pundits rated the probability of several possible outcomes. By the end of the study, Mr. Tetlock had quantified 82,361 predictions.

How did the experts do? When it came to predicting the likelihood of an outcome, the vast majority performed worse than random chance. In other words, they would have done better picking their answers blindly out of a hat. Liberals, moderates and conservatives were all equally ineffective. Although 96% of the subjects had post-graduate training, Mr. Tetlock found, the fancy degrees were mostly useless when it came to forecasting.

The main reason for the inaccuracy has to do with overconfidence. Because the experts were convinced that they were right, they tended to ignore all the evidence suggesting they were wrong. This is known as confirmation bias, and it leads people to hold all sorts of erroneous opinions. Famous experts were especially prone to overconfidence, which is why they tended to do the worst. Unfortunately, we are blind to this blind spot: Most of the experts in the study claimed that they were dispassionately analyzing the evidence. In reality, they were indulging in selective ignorance, as they explained away dissonant facts and contradictory data. The end result, Mr. Tetlock says, is that the pundits became "prisoners of their preconceptions." And their preconceptions were mostly worthless.

What's most disturbing about Mr. Tetlock's study is that the failures of the pundit class don't seem to matter. We rely on talking heads more than ever, even though the vast majority of them aren't worth their paychecks. Our political discourse is driven in large part by people whose opinions are less accurate than a coin toss.

Mr. Tetlock proposes forming a nonpartisan center to track the performance of experts, just as we track the batting averages of baseball players. In the meantime, he suggests that we learn to ignore those famous pundits who are full of bombastic convictions. "I'm always drawn to the experts on television who stumble a little on their words," he adds. "For me, that's a sign that they're actually thinking about the question, and not just giving a canned answer. If an expert sounds too smooth, then you should probably change the channel."

As Mr. Tetlock points out, the future is impossible to predict. Even with modern polling, we can barely anticipate the outcome of an election that is just a few days away. If a pundit looks far beyond that time horizon, to situations with a thousand variables and very little real information to back up a prediction, we should stop listening and get out a quarter.

—Jonah Lehrer is the author of How We Decide. His column appears every other week in the WSJ.

Originally published in WSJ here: Beware Our Blind Seers.


It Doesn't Work If You Don't Do It

>> Sunday

Awhile back I published an article about visualizing what you want. Have you been visualizing what you want? Let me ask you this: Did you do it for awhile and noticed that things really started working well and then stopped doing it?

This happens because negative events compel your attention with more insistence than positive events, so as you move toward your goal and problems arise, you will tend to fixate on what is in your way and forget to imagine how you want things to go.

If you have made this mistake, you know what to do. Take some time and relax your body. Remember, you need to relax first because otherwise your imaginings can be tainted by anxiety. Then just have fun imagining how you would like things to turn out.

Imagine the long term, but also imagine how you would like specific events to turn out. Stop struggling and let your imagination do its magic. Read more about visualizing here.

Adam Khan is the author of Self-Help Stuff That Works and Cultivating Fire: How to Keep Your Motivation White Hot.


Finding Common Ground During Election Season

>> Monday

Presidential elections are coming up. If that means uncomfortable conversations, or strife between you and family members or people you work with, or even just frustration at how members of the "opposing party" could possibly be so stupid, I've been doing something I'd like to share with you that creates a feeling of common ground rather than division.

It comes from an article in Scientific American Mind on the differences between liberals and conservatives, mostly about research by Jonathan Haidt, the author of The Righteous Mind. It seems counterintuitive that delving into the differences between liberals and conservatives would bring people together, but that's exactly what happens.

Several times now, when I've gotten into conversations with people about politics and the conversation started feeling divisive, I brought up some of Haidt's findings, and it shifted the conversation because his discoveries point to an important fact: Conservatives and liberals have a lot of common ground, and often share values. The priority of those values may be different, but they often both recognize that those values are important.

For example, in one study, when they showed people collages of photographs, conservatives' eyes spent more time looking at the more disturbing or unpleasant images in the collage. Many studies have demonstrated, in one way or another, that conservatives are more alert to threats, but that doesn't mean liberals are necessarily cavalier about safety and security. They may differ on their thresholds — differ on how bad it has to be before they are alarmed enough to do something about it — but they still care about it.

Conservatives are more anxious than liberals, generally speaking. That's one of the reasons they resist change. They want things to stay stable because change can be scary, and sometimes things change for the worse, not the better. Again, this is a sliding scale, not a black-and-white (or should I say "blue-and-red") division. Liberals also feel anxiety, just not as strongly as conservatives. And the feeling of safety versus anxiety is not fixed in any given person. In the SciAmMind article, the author writes:

When people feel safe and secure, they become more liberal; when they feel threatened, they become more conservative. Research conducted by Nail and his colleague in the weeks after September 11, 2001, showed that people of all political persuasions became more conservative in the wake of the terrorist attacks.

Haidt's work suggests that we all share six basic, inborn moral values, which are then influenced by culture and experience. The six values are:

1. Care for others.
2. Fairness and justice.
3. Liberty and freedom from oppression.
4. Loyalty and freedom from betrayal.
5. Respect for legitimate authority.
6. Aversion to harmful, disgusting things, foods, or actions.

Liberals tend to care more about some of these and less about others. Conservatives are just the opposite. What I think you'll find when you look at the studies is that the point of view of both right and left are necessary, rather than one being right and one being wrong, and that is an insight that can help bring us together.

So that's my recommendation for improving your mood during election season. When the conversation starts to feel divisive — even if you're talking to someone you agree with, but it starts feeling like "us versus them" — bring up some of this research. Just say something like, "I was reading an interesting article," and share some of the research findings. I think you'll find it improves your mood and the person's mood you're talking to. Maybe we can build more bridges between us this way.

Read the Scientific American Mind article here: Unconscious Reactions Separate Liberals and Conservatives.

Explore your own morals here: Test Your Morals.

Watch a TEDtalk with Jonathan Haidt: The Moral Roots of Liberals and Conservatives.

And here's another video, this one of Bill Moyers talking with Haidt: How Do Conservatives and Liberals See the World?


Meaningful Moodraiser

>> Tuesday

When something happens and you have a negative reaction, it is because of what you think the event means.

If someone gives you a dirty look, you might feel sad because you think it means they don’t like you any more. But what you think it means is only one possibility. The meaning of the event occurred to you automatically, and it's not necessarily the best thing you could come up with if you really thought about it.

What else could it mean?

That's the key question. Ask yourself, and keep asking, "What else could it mean?" Think of some alternatives and often it will change the way you feel.

When you are upset and you want to feel less upset, this is a great question to ask yourself. Ellen Langer, the researcher and author of Mindfulness, says a key to mindfulness is to question old mindsets. You have thought in certain ways for a long time and it has produced a kind of mindlessness.

To question those ways of thinking opens you up to new possibilities. The question, “What else could it mean?” can help.

When someone is diagnosed with a malignant tumor, says Langer, some people immediately sink into depression because they have the mindset that cancer is powerful and they are helpless to stop it.

But that mindset is not the only possible way to think about cancer, it is certainly not the best one, and it isn’t the most accurate one, either.

Ask yourself often, especially when something happens you think is bad, “Is that the only way to see it?”

Try to come up with different possible ways you could view the same situation.

Really it’s a dumb question. No matter how you’re looking at the situation, it is never the only possible point of view. Probably a better question would be, “What other way could I look at this?”

Or notice what you think the event means, and ask yourself what else it could mean.

Sit down with paper and pen and spend an hour coming up with different points of view you could take on the same event. That’ll shake you out of your automatic, upsetting opinion.

Now look at your list. What do you think is the most sensible point of view? Which one would help you handle the situation the best? Which one would your best friend think is the best point of view?

You can use this question with smaller events too, and you can do it on the fly. If someone treats you with less respect than usual, and you feel a little bothered by it, ask yourself what you think it means.

For example, "I think it means she is mad at me for some reason."

Now ask yourself what else it could mean. For example, "Maybe she is tired. Maybe she drank too much coffee today. Maybe she is jealous because I look so good today. Maybe she is pregnant and has morning sickness."

It only takes a minute or so to come up with some alternative meanings. And when you do, it will change the way you feel about it. You won't feel as bothered. It is a simple method that takes very little effort, but it has a real impact on your mood.

Read more: Feel Bad Less Often

Adam Khan is the author of Antivirus For Your Mind: How to Strengthen Your Persistence and Determination and Feel Good More Often and co-author with Klassy Evans of Viewfinder: How to Change the Way You Look at Things.


Which One Of These Will Boost Your Mood The Most?

>> Thursday

Peter Naish, a researcher at Open University, wanted to find out what raises someone's mood. He measured different kinds of changes in his volunteers' moods: Changes in how relaxed they felt, how calm they felt, how alert and bright they felt, and so on. He even measured how valued they felt. And he added all these up to produce a "happiness score."

His volunteers tried a variety of common things people do to improve their mood. This is the list he used:

1. eat a chocolate snack
2. drink some alcohol
3. watch TV
4. look at personal photos
5. listen to music

Most people like all of these, and use them occasionally to boost their moods.

There was one item on the list that worked a lot better than any of the others. Can you guess which one it was? I would have guessed everyone is different, and for me it would probably be listening to music. But results of studies are often surprising and counterintuitive. Our intuition sometimes isn't very good.

The music and the chocolate didn't really change the subjects' moods very much. That was surprising. The alcohol and TV each gave people a 1% rise in their happiness score. But the clear winner was looking at personal photos. It gave people, on average, an 11% rise in their mood. It worked far better than anything else.

While turning on the TV or having a beer might be easier, there's a way to make looking at photos at least as easy: It's a free program called gPhotoShow. Go to their web site and download their program, which becomes one of the screensavers on your computer. You tell it what file to use and it will show the photos in that file as a slide show. I've been using it for years, and I love it.

How often do you sit down and go through photo albums? As much as I enjoy it, I never get around to it. But when my keyboard is idle, my screensaver starts showing photos and displays them randomly, so over a period of several months, I see almost all of them. It reminds me of good times I've had, and people I love.

Just last night, Klassy (my wife) and I were kicking back talking, and my screensaver came on. We ended up watching it for awhile and talking about the different pictures, and it really did lift our moods.

Not only does it lift your mood a lot more than watching TV, but if you're looking at the screensaver with someone else, you can talk and connect while you're watching the slide show (something you can't do as well while watching TV) and connecting with someone you love is probably the best mood-booster there is.

Read about another, similar thing you can do to raise your mood.

Adam Khan is the author of Slotralogy and co-author with Klassy Evans of What Difference Does It Make?: How the Sexes Differ and What You Can Do About It.


Good Sleep For Good Moods And Good Health

>> Friday

Get enough sleep to improve your mood. That means seven to nine hours a night — whatever is enough to allow you to wake up feeling refreshed and to stay awake and alert the whole day. Getting enough sleep is a good idea for these six reasons:

1. You will remember things better and it will enhance your ability to solve problems.

2. You will find it easier to lose weight. Your body naturally produces leptin when you get enough sleep (a hormone that suppresses your appetite).

3. You'll be less likely to die in a car crash. People who don't get enough sleep tend to fall asleep for short periods when they're driving — just for seconds at a time, but that's enough to cause an accident.

4. Getting enough sleep will help you stay in a better mood, and your mood has consequences. You will do better work and get along with people better if you are in a better mood. And better work and better relationships have significant long-term consequences.

5. Your cardiovascular system will be healthier, so you're likely to live longer.

6. Your immune system will be more powerful. You're less likely to get sick if you regularly get enough sleep.

If you have trouble getting enough good quality sleep, read the tips in the article (go here to read it). If you want to be healthy and stay in a good mood, one of the most important fundamentals is to get enough good quality sleep.

Read more about the value of fundamentals: Beginner's Mind

Adam Khan is the author of the small but amazing book, Antivirus For Your Mind: How to Strengthen Your Persistence and Determination and Feel Good More Often and co-author with Klassy Evans of another astonishing book, Viewfinder: How to Change the Way You Look at Things.


Being in a Good Mood More Often Raises the Effectiveness of Your Immune System

In an experiment by Sheldon Cohen of Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh, he and his colleagues followed 193 people by interviewing them every night on the phone for two weeks. Each person was asked how they felt that day. These were their options: lively, happy, cheerful, calm, at ease, sad, unhappy, tense, on edge, angry, or hostile.

Everybody has ups and downs, so the researchers averaged each person's responses over the two weeks to get a general measurement of the person's normal mood.

The researchers then put the volunteers in a quarantined facility and gave each of them nasal drops of either a cold or a flu virus, and then tracked their symptoms for a few days.

So what did they find out? "The people who expressed more positive emotions overall," said Cohen, "were much less likely to become sick with a cold or the flu than those who expressed fewer positive emotions...And when they did get sick, they reported milder symptoms."

Your immune system works better when you're in a better mood. And your immune system does far more for you than preventing you from getting a cold or flu. It is worth taking the time and expending the energy to do things that improve your mood. Here is a good place to start: Top Ten Ways to Raise Your Mood.

Adam Khan is the author of Self-Help Stuff That Works and Cultivating Fire: How to Keep Your Motivation White Hot


Getting Perspective On Life: The Trick to Seeing Your Own Life With New Eyes

In the book, Adrift: Seventy-six Days Lost at Sea, Steven Callahan recounts his harrowing experience alone on a life raft. He lost 45 pounds during the trip and went through an amazing amount of deprivation and suffering. His description of what it was like to be back on land gives you a new appreciation for what we all take for granted.

Why would his account give us a new appreciation? Because taking something away for awhile allows you to compare the circumstances you are accustomed to with something worse.

And what you compare your life to determines how happy you are at the moment.

One of the reasons people go on fasts is that food is so amazingly delicious after fasting. Eating is almost like a religious experience. Why? Because eating is wonderful compared with not eating.

When Callahan was found offshore by three fisherman, they took him to their island in the Caribbean. Once ashore, they drove him in a Volkswagen bus to a hospital in another town. On the way there, Callahan was overwhelmed with the colors and the sounds and the aromas. While he was adrift on the ocean, he was surrounded for more than two months by nothing but blue sky and blue sea. He smelled nothing but the ocean and fish. Read his brief account of the car ride:

We pass long stretches of sugar cane fields. Ox carts are piled high with cut cane. I cannot believe how sensitive I am to the smells of the cut vegetation, of the flowers, of the bus. It is as if my nerve endings are plugged into an amplifier. The green fields, the pink and orange roadside flowers, practically vibrate with color. I am awash in stimuli.

The contrast between his previous situation and life on land was dramatic. He appreciated colors and smells we all take for granted every day. Why do we take them for granted? Because they've always been there. We haven't compared their presence with their absence.

During his voyage on the life raft, Callahan was often soaked in salt water for long periods of time. So it was especially pleasurable to simply be dry. When he got to the hospital, they cleaned him up and put him to bed. His description is ecstatic. Why? Because of the comparison between a cold, wet, abrasive, salt-encrusted life raft and an ordinary bed:

I lay back on the sheets, clean sheets, dry sheets. I can't remember ever feeling like this before, though I imagine that I might have felt this way at birth. I am as helpless as a baby, and each sensation is so strong that it's like seeing, smelling, and touching for the very first time.

Comparisons. Your mind makes them all the time. And whether you feel contentment or dissatisfaction largely depends on what you are comparing your life to.

One of the barriers to contentment is that advertisers are constantly giving us perfect images to compare ourselves with — people with perfect homes and cars and spouses and children — and they give us the illusion that this perfection is somehow possible.

The advertisers are taking advantage of the way our minds work naturally. You automatically and naturally compare yourself and your life with others' and with your own ideals and aspirations. When you compare your life to something worse, you feel more satisfaction. When you compare it to something better, you feel dissatisfaction and desire — feelings that may help an advertiser sell products, but feelings that ruin your good mood.

Although the process of comparison happens without your active effort, you can assume control of it. Like your own own breathing, it happens on its own, but you can make it do what you want at any time. All you have to do is pay attention to it.

Why would you want to bother? Because, as Robin Lloyd put it after looking at the research:

People who positively evaluate their well-being on average have stronger immune systems, are better citizens at work, earn more income, have better marriages, are more sociable, and cope better with difficulties.

It makes a difference to feel some contentment. It's good for you mood. And luckily, it can be accomplished pretty easily. It won't last for a long time, but neither does sleeping or exercising. The fact that it doesn't last is no reason to dismiss it. If you're willing to put out a little effort, you can feel satisfied with your life a lot more often.

Here's what to do: When you feel discontented, ask yourself, What could be worse? And really try to think of something specific. You can always think of something, and it's usually pretty easy.

If you feel unhappy because you haven't advanced in your job as fast as you'd hoped, for example, imagine how you'd feel if you lived in a country or a time when advancement wasn't possible. Imagine being an untouchable in India 500 years ago, sentenced to generation after generation of poverty with no chance of escape. Or imagine being born into a North Korean prison and living there your whole life. Imagine real situations other human beings have experienced that are much worse than anything you've ever had to endure.

Try this technique and you'll recognize that in many ways it is a fact that you're lucky to be where you are and who you are. That lucky feeling can put you instantly in a good mood. It's relaxing and peaceful. It won't last very long, but you can always do it again. The technique works every time and it never wears out.

In a way, it is a good thing the feeling doesn't last because as wonderful as contentment is, motivation is also wonderful. Striving for a goal — physical fitness, self-improvement, financial success, whatever — is practical and worthwhile also.

But when you want to feel some contentment, take a little time and think about how your situation could be worse, or how it used to be worse, or think about what others have gone through.

To help you find some real situations you can compare your own life with, read books like Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage, The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom, and Alive. Their difficulties will help you see your own life with new eyes.


Peace, Love, and Oxytocin

Doctors have known for a long time that oxytocin causes uterine contractions during childbirth. Oxytocin is a hormone. It also causes the mother's milk to "fall" (so the baby can breastfeed after birth). This much has been known for a long time. To induce labor, doctors inject a woman with oxytocin.

But researchers are discovering oxytocin has far more roles to play than this. And all its roles have to do with bonding.

The spike in oxytocin at birth causes the mother and newborn to bond to have feelings of affection for each other.

But childbirth isn't the only thing that releases oxytocin.

Sex does it too. So does massage. Even touching does it. Oxytocin is released in a flood during an orgasm.

So what does all this have to do with raising your mood?

Feelings of affection and bonding feel good. Feeling close to someone is a pleasure. Oxytocin is the opposite of stress hormones. Oxytocin makes you feel calm and relaxed, trusting, generous, and affectionate. It makes you feel unstressed. Some side-effects of oxytocin are: relaxation, lower stress, better face-reading, more open communication, feelings of connection, and feeling less isolated. Oxytocin also reduces pain and improves sociability.

All these results from oxytocin add up to one of the best moods you can have: The experience of feeling loved and loving.

The good news is that many of the things that produce oxytocin are in your control. You can take actions that increase those great feelings. The most important action you can take is to touch more. Touch and hug and hold hands with the people in your life.

In the 1960's, Sydney Jourard did an experiment to find out how often people touched each other in different countries. His study consisted of going to cities around the world and simply counting how many times people touched each other while sitting together in a cafe.

In Paris, the average was 110 times an hour. In San Juan (a city in Puerto Rico) the highest average of any city people touched each other 180 times per hour! In Florida, it was twice per hour, which wasn't quite as bad as London, where they didn't touch at all.

Have we improved how much we touch each other since then? I don't know. My guess is no, we haven't. It might even be less than it was in the 1960's. But that doesn't have to be the case with you personally.

You could do more touching, and it would have a positive effect on your mood, and on the moods of the people you love.

Being touched raises your loved ones' oxytocin level, and it will raise your own at the same time. Studies show getting a massage raises oxytocin level considerably. So does giving a massage. Even being in the same room with someone who has an elevated oxytocin level will elevate your own. Researchers aren't sure yet how this happens, but they have discovered that it happens. It might be something released in the air when oxytocin levels rise.

Another interesting feature of oxytocin is that it can create a positive or negative self-enhancing cycle. When you don't get touched much, your oxytocin level is low, and when it's low, you don't feel like being touched.

The more your oxytocin level goes up, the more you like being touched and want to be touched. Touching then raises your oxytocin even more. It's a positive, upward cycle.

Start today adding touch into your life. Give massages to your spouse. A good way to learn massage is to get a DVD showing you how to do it. Massage is good for your health and is one of the most reliable ways to raise oxytocin.

The physical effects of massage (such as relaxing muscles and moving lymph fluid) are good for your health, but the rise in your oxytocin level may be even better for your health recent research has shown a rise in oxytocin lowers stress, improves immune function, and speeds up the repair of physical injuries, even cuts. Wounds not only heal faster, but oxytocin reduces inflammation.

Massage is a powerful oxytocin-raiser. But even on a smaller and more casual scale, you can touch more and it will make a difference. Any touch that feels good raises oxytocin. Hold hands. Put your arms around your spouse. When you sit and talk, be in physical contact.

When you spend time with your children, make sure you touch and hug them. Raise their oxytocin level. Help them feel loved. When you go out to lunch with a friend, shake hands or do whatever you feel is appropriate to have some physical, friendly contact. It makes a difference.

Keep paying attention, and you'll find lots of opportunities throughout the day to touch and hold the ones you love.

Raise your oxytocin and you raise your mood and the moods of everyone around you.

Adam Khan is the author of Antivirus For Your Mind: How to Strengthen Your Persistence and Determination and Feel Good More Often and co-author with Klassy Evans of Viewfinder: How to Change the Way You Look at Things.


Eat Probiotics to Raise Your Mood and Boost Your Immune System

In a study of bacteria, mice were cured of depression and anxiety with probiotics. It reminds me of an earlier experiment done on humans showing that people who took probiotic supplements felt less stressed and had less anxiety and depression than people who had taken a placebo.

In the more recent study, researchers took normal mice, which are usually fairly timid (staying close to walls when they explore and being reluctant to walk in the open). They fed half the mice a brew containing a particular strain of gut bacteria — Lactobacillus rhamnosus (a strain found in some yogurts and probiotic supplements) — and the mice became less timid; they explored more freely.

And when the researchers put the mice under stress (by plunging them in water, for example), the “probiotic mice” were less stressed than normal mice (the stress hormones in their blood didn’t rise as much in response to the stress). You can read more details about the study here and here.

But the researchers wondered how a bacteria in the gut could alter the mice “psychologically.” So they cut the vagus nerve — the bundle of nerve fibers that connect the guts and the brain — and sure enough, this stopped the positive effects of the probiotics.

So somehow the bacteria did something to the mice guts that sent a signal through the vagus nerve to the brain, causing the mice to feel (or at least behave) less anxious and depressed, and to produce less stress hormones.

Probiotics are also good for your immune system, can help prevent gum disease and cavities, and might lower your risks of cancer and heart disease. Read more about how you can use probiotics to improve your health and mood here: Why Are Probiotics Good For You?

Adam Khan is the author of Antivirus For Your Mind: How to Strengthen Your Persistence and Determination and Feel Good More Often and co-author with Klassy Evans of Viewfinder: How to Change the Way You Look at Things.


A Walk in a Forest Might Be Anti-Cancer

>> Thursday

The following is an excerpt from the fascinating book, The Man Who Planted Trees, by Jim Robbins, science writer for the New York Times and Scientific American.

"Researchers at the Nippon Medical School took twelve healthy men, from thirty-five to fifty-six years of age, out of Tokyo and into the forest. For three days they followed a regimen: the first day they walked among the trees for two hours, the second day for four hours, and on day three they offered blood and urine samples and filled out a questionnaire. They were sampled a week and a month after the trips as well, and these results were compared to samples taken after walks on normal working days in Tokyo, in areas without trees.

"Analysis from the samples taken after the hikes in the forest showed significant increases in 'natural killer,' or NK cells, which prevent the formation of tumors; an increase in anticancer proteins in the cells; and a reduction in the concentration of adrenaline in urine, effects which lasted a week after the trips. Alpha and beta pinene (an aerosol released naturally into the air by pine trees) were found in the air in the forest, but not in the city, and the researchers assume phytoncides (germ-killing aerosols released into the air by the trees) to be the active ingredient in the health effects. Other studies of people who have spent time among trees have shown lower concentrations of the stress chemical cortisol, lower pulse rates, lower blood pressure, greater parasympathetic nervous system activity, and less sympathetic activity, which means that people are more relaxed."

Walking among trees makes you feel better. And it also looks like it makes you healthier.


Conspiracy To Make You Happy

>> Tuesday

You've heard people say, "everything happens for a reason," and they use the saying to raise their mood. If it is done a particular way, it can make you feel better and at the same time help you make the best of a situation. But I've heard people use the idea as a kind of fatalism, as a reason to do nothing, as a kind of lazy and passive determinism. It may make the person feel better at the moment, but in the long run, it won't. Fatalism is a form of helplessness, and feelings of helplessness can lead to depression.

Brian Tracy has what I think is a better saying: "Pretend the universe is in a conspiracy to make you happy and successful, and this is just what you need." This way of reframing a setback will improve your mood in the moment, and it will also raise your mood in the long run. It will help you learn and improve what you do in the future. It will help you make the most of whatever happens.

In the movie, The Game, Michael Douglas (and we, the viewers) have the uncanny experience of not knowing whether the things Douglas is going through are just bad luck or exactly what he needs to become happy. Douglas signed up for a life-changing experience that takes place in his own life rather than in a seminar room. He was a stuffy, bored rich man, and all kinds of bad luck suddenly leads him to become penniless and makes it necessary for him to rely on a waitress to survive. It is a humbling experience for him and that's exactly what he needed. He stops being stuffy, and he is no longer bored.

What circumstances do you have that you could look at in a new way? What unpleasant situation do you have? Is it teaching you something valuable? Could it, if you looked at it that way? Pretend the universe is in a conspiracy to help you become happier and more successful and look at your circumstances as the perfect thing to teach you what you need to learn.

Your ongoing mood has a lot to do with how things look to you. And how things look to you has a lot to do with how you look at things. You can use this to your advantage.

To learn more about changing your perspective in order to feel better, check out our book, Viewfinder.

 Adam Khan is the author of Self-Help Stuff That Works and Cultivating Fire: How to Keep Your Motivation White Hot.


Seeing The Same Thing a Different Way

>> Friday

If you can "reframe" a circumstance that makes you feel bad, you won't feel bad any more. Nothing has changed except how you're looking at it, but that's enough to change your feelings. Reframing means interpreting the situation differently. When something happens, you interpret it a certain way, and your mind usually does it automatically. The situation just seems a certain way to you, and you have feelings appropriate to the way you look at it.

For example, a few months ago I had to go to the dentist. I noticed I felt a little grumbly and nervous about it. In other words, I was in a bad mood about it. I realized the "frame" I was using to interpret this event was: "I have to go do this unpleasant thing." And my feelings were appropriate to that interpretation. I dreaded going and felt annoyed that I had to go.

So I asked myself, "Is there another way to look at this?" And instantly I realized that in most of human history, dentists didn't exist. People had horrible toothaches and couldn't do anything about it. Their teeth rotted out, and nothing could be done. Even a few hundred years ago, most of the "dentistry" consisted of pulling out a tooth that was causing pain (and pulling it out without novocaine!).

But I go to a very clean environment and my teeth are professionally maintained. Because of this, I'll probably have my teeth my whole life. My dentist goes out of his way to keep pain to a minimum. From this perspective, which is just as valid as my automatic interpretation, I am lucky to go to the dentist.

When I thought about it that way, my mood shifted. I felt better. I felt fortunate to live in a time when people can take care of their teeth. I felt lucky to live in a place where we have dentists.

That's how reframing works. It is surprisingly easy to do. All you have to do is 1) notice some circumstance is bringing you down, and 2) ask yourself if there is some other way to look at it than the way you automatically look at it.

Read another article about it: How to Gain Perspective.

Read a book about it: Viewfinder.


Moodraising is a High Purpose (or at Least, a Higher Purpose Than You'd Think)

Mood is different than pleasure. Pleasure can be produced by many things that harm you in the long run. But what raises your mood is almost always good for you. Your mood is an excellent indicator of healthy actions, healthy thoughts, and healthy emotions.

In other words, your mood reflects what is good. A good mood is a measure of many good, positive, uplifting, healthy, constructive qualities of your life at the moment.

If you do healthy things — mentally and physically healthy — it raises your mood. When good things happen to you, same thing. When you really connect with people, when you live your life lovingly, when you're inspired and inspiring, when you're motivated and motivating, when you are thinking and acting sanely, your mood is usually good.

A good mood is a good indicator of the quality of your life. What is something healthy you can do today that will raise your mood? Here are some suggestions: Top Ten Ways To Raise Your Mood.

Adam Khan is the author of Self-Help Stuff That Works and Cultivating Fire: How to Keep Your Motivation White Hot


Interesting Facts About Smiling

>> Monday

When I saw an article on smiling, I didn't think there could be much to write about, but I was wrong. In The Untapped Power of Smiling, Ron Gutman reveals quite a few interesting facts about smiling. Among them:

A Wayne State University research project "examined the baseball cards photos of Major League players in 1952. The study found that the span of a player’s smile could actually predict the span of his life!"

"Have you ever wondered why being around children who smile frequently makes you smile more often? Two studies from 2002 and 2011 at Uppsala University in Sweden confirmed that other people’s smiles actually suppress the control we usually have over our facial muscles, compelling us to smile. They also showed that it’s very difficult to frown when looking at someone who smiles."

"In a study conducted in the UK (using an electromagnetic brain scan machine and heart-rate monitor to create “mood-boosting values” for various stimuli), British researchers found that one smile can provide the same level of brain stimulation as up to 2,000 chocolate bars; they also found that smiling can be as stimulating as receiving up to 16,000 Pounds Sterling in cash."


Joyful Purpose

>> Sunday

When I want to improve my mood, I always look first for something in my complete control. Purposeful action is the best one. I can decide on a purpose and I can take actions toward that purpose. It doesn't depend on circumstances or the moods of others. Doing something purposeful is a self-reliant way to reliably raise your mood.

Think of one small goal you really want. And it's really important you think of something you want. You could do things you should do all day long, completing task after task, but if there's no juice in it, all that accomplishment won't raise your mood. (Well, that's not entirely true. If you have something worrying you or something you're dreading, and you get it done, it can be a relief.) But for the real enjoyment, you need: 1) something you want to accomplish, that 2) you enjoy accomplishing.

If all you're doing is the drudgery, thinking that "some day" you'll get around to doing the stuff you love, you can really improve your ongoing mood to add even a little of something you really want to accomplish.

So that's your assignment. Do a little of your joyful purpose today, or if the day is almost done, then start tomorrow. Think of something you really want to do that you really like to do, and get a little of it done.

And try to do a little every day. It will add a lot of fine feeling for a small amount of effort, and that good mood will linger. You'll get the benefit of anticipating it, enjoying it while it's happening, and feeling the lingering satisfaction afterwards.

If you want to get in shape, and you love to exercise, work some into your day today. Even a little bit. For me, I love to read. So I try to work in at least a little reading every day, and it boosts my mood even into the next day. I think about what I learned and I try things out, experimenting with the ideas. I share things with others, and it makes me happy.

What is it for you? Do just a little today.

If you would like to read more about this, here are two good (and short) articles:

The Ocelot Blues
A Lasting State Of Feeling Great

Adam Khan is the author of Self-Help Stuff That Works and Cultivating Fire: How to Keep Your Motivation White Hot.


Fasting Is Good For Your Health

>> Tuesday

I have fasted for three days (twice). I have fasted quite a few times for just one day and once for two days. And even though fasting is sometimes difficult, it has improved my mood overall, and the research seems to indicate it improved my health too.

A study in Utah found that those who fasted one day per month were 40 percent less likely to have clogged arteries. That's a pretty big difference.

Almost always, if something is good for your health, it's also good for your mood, and this is no exception. If you've never tried it, I recommend a simple one-day fast.

Do it on a day off (you may not feel very energetic). Don't eat anything at all from the time you get up in the morning until the following morning. Don't drink anything except water, and drink plenty of water. You will be thirsty. Don't do a lot of strenuous activity. Just take it easy and relax, but keep yourself busy on tasks that don't require a lot of physical energy.

If you normally drink coffee, stop drinking it a few days before your fast so you are over your withdrawals before you begin fasting.

At times, fasting doesn't feel good, but it is surprisingly easy, even for someone like me who usually never even considers skipping a meal. Occasionally throughout a fasting day, you'll feel really hungry. And then it goes away and you get involved in what you're doing and forget about food.

The most amazing thing is how much time you have when you're fasting. A day without food seems twice as long, and not because you're suffering. It's because food preparation and eating the food takes a lot of time.

Anyway, I recommend it. You'll appreciate food more in the days following a fast, you'll be in a better mood, and you'll be healthier.

Read more about it: Fasting and Health.

Adam Khan is the author of Self-Help Stuff That Works and Cultivating Fire: How to Keep Your Motivation White Hot


Lower Stress: The Top Seven Ways

>> Friday

A certain amount of stress is a good thing. But too much is bad for your health, bad for your relationships, and no fun. If you feel you're experiencing too much stress, use one of these to help lower your stress level:

1. Compare your situation to something worse. This is an easy mental action that can have a measurable impact on your feeling of stress.

2. Reduce the number of goals you're trying to accomplish. It is a common human tendency to continually increase the number of projects and goals you've decided to accomplish. You're not trying to add more goals. They just naturally tend to accumulate. To keep yourself from becoming buried in projects and overwhelmed, sort through your goals once in awhile and give up on some of them.

3. Make more money. The lack of money can obviously cause stress. If you can make more money without adding more stress, you'll be better off.

4. Get a dog. Having a dog measurably reduces your daily stress level, which has a greater impact on your health and mood than even deeply relaxing once in a while.

5. Meditate. Meditation is easier than most people realize. You don't have to "become a meditator" to benefit. You can do it once in awhile when you feel you need it, and you'll relieve yourself of stress.

6. Use Benjamin Franklin's technique for difficult decisions. Hard decisions can be stressful, and the lack of forward motion caused by indecision can be even more stressful. Franklin's technique will ease the strain of making difficult decisions and help you get moving forward again.

7. Take good care of yourself first. When you're taking care of others, it can be so time-consuming, you stop spending any effort taking care of yourself. This is not only unhealthy, it will ultimately impair your ability to take care of others by reducing your energy and perhaps even affecting your health.

Look at this list and find the principle you feel is most blatantly missing in your life. Follow the link, read the article, and take action starting today. It will lower your stress and improve your mood.

Adam Khan is the author of Antivirus For Your Mind: How to Strengthen Your Persistence and Determination and Feel Good More Often and co-author with Klassy Evans of Viewfinder: How to Change the Way You Look at Things.


Heighten Love by Capitalizing

When your spouse tells you some good news, how do you respond? Shelly Gable, an assistant professor of psychology at UCLA who studies what makes marriages great, discovered that the way you react matters a lot. When a husband or wife tells some good news to their spouse, the spouse's reaction can raise the husband's or wife's mood, or lower it.

Gable divided the possible responses into four categories. For example, if your spouse told you s/he just got a promotion at work, you might respond in one of these four ways:

Enthusiastically: "That's great, Honey! You're on your way!"

Negatively or critically: "Are they going to make you work longer hours?"

Positive, but subdued: "That's nice."

Uninterested: "Did you see they finally opened the new Macy's on 8th Street?"

When you typically respond enthusiastically, as opposed to any of the other ways, studies show it makes a big difference in how satisfied your spouse is in your marriage, how committed s/he is, and how in love s/he is with you.

And, of course, if your spouse is more satisfied with your marriage, is more committed to you, and more in love with you, that'll really raise your mood, and that's why I'm talking to you about it.

The moral to this story is clear: If your typical response is not enthusiasm, a simple way to make your relationship better is to pay attention to those moments, and heighten your response to them.

Adam Khan is the author of Slotralogy and co-author with Klassy Evans of What Difference Does It Make?: How the Sexes Differ and What You Can Do About It.


100 Great Tips To Improve Your Life

>> Thursday

In the excellent post, 100 Great Tips to Improve Your Life by Leo Babauta of Zen Habits, Leo compiled a list of principles, each with a link to an article. Improve your life in almost any way and it will improve your mood.

These were some of my favorites:

The Power of Ten Minutes. Ten minutes has gotten a bad rap. You can get an amazing amount of work done in a short spurt, and thinking about doing something for only ten minutes isn't daunting in the slightest, which encourages you dig in.

What Google Can Teach Us About Self-Image. The Google focused on what they did well and made their search engine as great as possible. Their success gave them confidence to branch out. But they do not rush into new things. They take their time and do things well.

Photographing Your Mementos. Save on space and lower clutter. A trophy, a teddy bear, and that gift from Aunt Mildred are great mementos but they all take up space. Digital photographs of those things can serve as mementos but don't take up any space.

Increase Personal Productivity with the Top 11 Multiple Positives. A multiple positive is something that benefits you in multiple ways, like biking to work (you're getting to work and exercising) or listening to audiobooks in the car (you're going where you need to go and reading a book you want to read). "The more multiple positives you use, the easier it is to get everything you want done without feeling stressed. They also free up loads of time and create a pleasant feeling of satisfaction and efficiency."

A Primer on Getting Things Done. David Allen's book, Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, is full of fundamental insights on staying organized while staying flexible. This article shares the meat of Allen's work.

Stick to a Regular Schedule of Exercise. The list of benefits you get from exercise is enormous. The hard part is doing it regularly. Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project, shares 14 hot tips on how to make exercise a regular part of your life. Excellent.

How NOT to Multitask – Work Simpler and Saner. Multitasking is more complicated and less efficient than doing one thing at a time. This article has some great principles and tips on how to prevent yourself from falling into the trap of multitasking.

Getting Things Done Cheatsheet. This is kind of a CliffNotes for Getting Things Done. It's a great overview of the process.

Eliminate All But the Absolute Essential Tasks. If you find that your workload just keeps increasing, and you find yourself squeezed for time you don't have, this is a good checklist for how to reduce and eliminate what isn't vitally important.

Use some of these great ideas to improve your life and improve your mood. Don't overwhelm yourself: Just choose one that seems promising, and put it into action. You can always come back to the list later and find another one.


Reading Fiction Improves Relationships (and Improves Your Mood)

>> Saturday

In an interesting study, researchers found that reading fictional stories will increase your empathy for others, improve your ability to see things from another's point of view, raise your social awareness, and make you more open to new experiences.

All these results improve the quality of relationships, which is, of course, one of the most important generators of good moods.

Reading fiction gets its power from your emotional connection to the characters in the story. While reading, you temporarily set aside your own point of view and goals and take on the goals and point of view of the characters in the story. This functions as a kind of training. "Just as computer simulations have helped us understand perception, learning and thinking," writes Keith Oatley, "stories are simulations of a kind that can help readers understand not just the characters in books but human character in general."

In another article, Oatley wrote, "In fiction...we are able to understand characters' actions from their interior point of view, by entering into their situations and minds, rather than the more exterior view of them that we usually have. And it turns out that psychologically there is a big difference between these two points of view. We usually take the exterior view of others, but that's too limited."

In addition to the long-term benefits, the process of reading stories is also relaxing and enjoyable. Reading is one of the most reliable ways to produce flow — a psychological state that positively influences your mood (read more about that here).

So reading fiction can improve your mood immediately, and then improve it again in a different way with its long term effect.

Reading books has gone out of fashion, especially in the last ten years, and especially among college-age people. It is probably not a coincidence that another study has shown a thirty-year decline in empathy in college-age people, "with an especially steep drop in the past ten years," says Jamil Zaki in a Scientific American article published earlier this year.

There is no need for this to happen to you. You can improve your relationships and be happier using this simple tool: Reading fiction.

Adam Khan is the author of Slotralogy and co-author with Klassy Evans of What Difference Does It Make?: How the Sexes Differ and What You Can Do About It.



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