Should I Put My Foot Down? People Pleasing 101

People ask me all the time what the secret to happiness is. “If you had to pick just one thing,” they wonder, “what would be the most important thing for leading a happy life?” Ten years ago, I would have told you a regular gratitude practice was the most important thing, and while that is still my favorite instant happiness booster, my answer has changed. I believe the most important thing for happiness is living truthfully. Here’s the specific advice I recently gave my kids:

Live with total integrity. Be transparent, honest, and authentic. Do not ever waiver from this; white lies and false smiles quickly snowball into a life lived out of alignment. It is better to be yourself and risk having people not like you than to suffer the stress and tension that comes from pretending to be someone you’re not, or professing to like something that you don’t. I promise you: Pretending will rob you of joy.

I’ve spent the better part of my life as a people-pleaser, trying to meet other people’s expectations, trying to keep everyone happy and liking me. But when we are trying to please others, we are usually out of sync with our own wants and needs. It’s not that it’s bad to be thinking of others — that’s a key to happiness, too — it’s that pleasing others is not the same as helping others.

People pleasing, in my extensive personal experience, is a process of guessing what other people want, or what will make them think favorably of us, and then acting accordingly. It’s an often subtle and usually unconscious attempt at manipulating other people’s perceptions of us. Anytime we pretend to be or feel something that we aren’t, we’re out of integrity with ourselves.

And anytime we’re doing something that is more about influencing what others think of us than it is about authentically expressing ourselves — even something as simple as a Facebook post that makes it seem like we are having a better day than we actually are — we end up out of integrity with ourselves.

Being out of integrity has pretty serious consequences for our happiness, and for our relationships. Here’s what happens when we aren’t being authentic:

#1: We don’t actually fool anyone.

Say you are at work, and you’re doing your best to put on a happy face even though your home life is feeling shaky. You may not want to reveal to your work friends that you and your significant other had a major fight over the weekend, but if you pretend that you are okay — and you’re not — you’ll probably make the people around you feel worse, too. Why?

We humans aren’t actually very good at hiding how we are feeling. We exhibit microexpressions that the people we are with unconsciously register. Our microexpresssions trigger mirror neurons in the brains of people around us — so a little part of their brain thinks that they are feeling our negative feelings. So trying to suppress negative emotions when we are talking with someone — like when we don’t want to trouble someone else with our own distress — actually increases  both our own stress levels and those of the people we are with — more than if we had shared our distress in the first place. (It also reduces rapport and inhibits the connection between two people.)

#2: We find it harder to focus.

Pretending takes a huge conscious effort — it’s an act of self-control that drains your brain of its power to focus and do deep work. That’s because performing or pretending to be or feel something you’re not requires tremendous willpower.

Tons of research suggests that our ability to repeatedly exert our self-control is actually quite limited. Like a muscle that tires and can no longer perform at its peak strength after a workout, our self-control is diminished by previous efforts at control, even if those efforts take place in a totally different realm.

So that little fib at the water cooler you told in order to make yourself seem happier than you actually are is going to make it hard for you to focus later in the afternoon. A performance or any attempt to hide who you really are or pretend to be something you aren’t is going to make it harder later to control your attention, your thoughts, and to regulate your emotions. It’ll increase the odds that you react more aggressively to a provocation, eat more tempting snacks, engage in riskier behaviors, and — this one is pretty compelling to me — you’ll perform more poorly on tasks that require executive function, like managing your time, planning, or organizing.

#3: You’ll become more stressed and anxious.

Let’s just call it like it is: Pretending to be or feel something that you don’t — even if it is a small thing, and even if it is relatively meaningless, and even if it is meant to protect someone else–is a lie.

And lying, even if we do it a lot, or are good at it, is very stressful to our brains and our body. The polygraph test depends on this: “Lie Detectors” don’t actually detect lies, but rather they detect the subconscious stress and fear that lying causes. These tests sense changes in our skin electricity, pulse rate, and breathing. They also detect when someone’s vocal pitch has changed in a nearly imperceptible way, a consequence of tension in the body that tightens vocal chords.

The physiological changes that lie detectors sense are caused by glucocorticoids, hormones that are released during a stress response. And as you well know, stress hormones are bad news for your health and happiness over the long run.

Research shows that people who are given instructions for how to lie less in their day-to-day lives are actually able to lie less, and when they do, their physical health improves. For example, they report less trouble sleeping, less tension, fewer headaches, and fewer sore throats. These improvements in health are likely caused by the relative absence of a stress response.

And that’s not all: When the people in the above study lied less, they also reported improvements in their relationships and less anxiety.

We don’t lie or pretend or perform all the time, of course. But when we do, it’s important to see the consequences: increased stress, decreased willpower, impaired relationships. Although we might actually be trying to feel better by putting on a happy face for others, pretending always backfires in the end. Living inauthentically makes life hard, eliminating any possibility that we will find our flow, or that we will be able to operate from our sweet spot, that place where we have both ease and power.

The Science of Falling In Love

"How on earth are you ever going to explain in terms of chemistry and physics so important a biological phenomenon as first love?—Albert Einstein

Einstein was correct—science will never clinically sterilize the wonderment of love (first or otherwise). But I think he’d also agree that it’s a mistake to confuse increased understanding with diminished meaning. No matter what we learn about love, it will continue to be one of the most meaningful and powerful forces on the planet, as it should be.

With that disclaimer, let’s jump in and discover what we've learned so far:

Love is addictive.

Thinking about one’s beloved—particularly in new relationships—triggers activity in the ventral tegmental area (VTA) of the brain, which releases a flood of the neurotransmitter dopamine (the so-called "pleasure chemical") into the brain’s reward (or pleasure) centers—the caudate nucleus and nucleus accumbens. This gives the lover a high not unlike the effect of narcotics, and it’s mighty addictive.

At the same time, the brain in love experiences an increase in the stress hormone norephinephrine, which increases heart rate and blood pressure, effects similar to those experienced by people using potent addictive stimulants like methamphetamine.

Love is obsessive.

The brain in love experiences a drop in the neurotransmitter serotonin. Serotonin provides a sense of being in control; it guards against the anxiety of uncertainty and instability. When it drops, our sense of control decreases and we become obsessively fixated on things that rattle our certainty and stability cages—and since love is by definition unpredictable, it’s a prime target for obsession. The term "crazy in love" isn't too far off the truth.

Love is prone to recklessness.

The prefrontal cortex—our brain’s reasoning, command, and control center—drops into low gear when we’re in love. At the same time, the amygdala, a key component of the brain’s threat-response system, also revs down. The combination of these effects is a willingness to take more risks, even ones that would normally seem reckless to us while in another state of mind. (For more, see this study.)

Love and lust can coexist in the brain—and not necessarily for the same person.

Love and lust appear to be separate but overlapping neural responses in the brain. They both produce a “high”; they're both addictive; and they affect many of the same parts of the brain—but they are distinct enough that you can be in love with one person and in lust with another.

Over time, the differences become more significant. For example, the brains of people in long-term love relationships show increased activity in the ventral pallidum, a region rich with oxytocin and vasopressin receptors that facilitate long-term pair-bonding and attachment. (See researcher Helen Fisher's work in this area for more information.)

Men in love are extremely visual beasts.

The brains of men in love show greater activity in the visual cortex than those of women in love. Add this to the fact that men seem to be more visually stimulated romantically than women in general.

Women in love remember the details.

The brains of women in love show greater activity in the hippocampus—a region associated with memory—than those of men in love. Add to this that a woman's hippocampus takes up a larger percentage of her brain than does the male counterpart. (Another lesson here for men in relationships: Women remember.)

Eye contact is a lover’s magic.

Newborns and lovers have this in common: More than any other factor, eye contact is the main conduit for emotional connection. When those in love speak of their lover's “entrancing gaze," it’s not just a romantic notion—it’s a biological reality. Eye contact and a smile is an especially potent combination.

Only voice interaction comes anywhere close to eye contact in this regard. Our voice carries more information than we think, and it can help facilitate an emotional connection, but it’s still a distant second to eye contact. (Check out Barbara L. Fredrickson's book, Love 2.0, for more on all of the above.)

Promiscuity and monogamy can be chemically influenced.

You may have heard about our furry little friends, the prairie voles. Scientists who study monogamy and promiscuity love the critters because they provide an excellent mirror for human relationships. One type of vole is monogamous—it bonds with one mate for life. Another type (the montane vole) is promiscuous. The key difference between the two types of voles appears to be genetic—an intriguing point when you consider that otherwise the voles are 99% genetically identical.

When researchers inject the promiscuous variety of vole with oxytocin and vasopressin—the neurochemicals linked to pair-bonding in humans (and in the monogamous voles)—the promiscuous voles become monogamous. While it’s not entirely clear if this effect would hold true to the same degree in humans, there’s good evidence that it might, if only for short periods of time. In two studies (described here) men who inhaled oxytocin became (temporarily) more empathetic, sensitive, and cuddly.

Women and men can just be friends…(at least women think they can).

Research suggests that when it comes to managing a platonic relationship, men really don't "get it" and are far more likely to want more than just friendship. Women, on the other hand, are able to keep friendship and romantic involvement separate in their minds. So the old question, "can men and women just be friends?" appears to depend entirely on who you're asking.

How Growing Up In Poverty Negatively Alters Your Brain

Poverty effects on children's brainsCrucial parts of the human brain are poorly connected in children of poverty, yet another study finds.

fMRI scans of 105 kids from seven to twelve indicated weaker associations in the hippocampus and amygdala.

The hippocampus is an important component of the brain linked to the storing of memories and the management of anxiety.

The amygdala is linked to handling feelings and stressors.

Poverty stricken kids showed the worst connectivity in the hippocampus and amygdala.

Being poor was likewise linked with elevated reports of depression.

[The US government poverty line for a house of 4 is $24,250 a year.]

Kids brought up in such circumstances are at a higher risk of developing mental illnesses and acting out.

Moreover, these children perform worse in school and on tests measuring thinking ability.

The lead researcher, Professor D. M. Barch said:

"Many things can be done to foster brain development and positive emotional development.

Poverty doesn’t put a child on a predetermined trajectory, but it behooves us to remember that adverse experiences early in life are influencing the development and function of the brain."

If these outcomes are to be avoided, it is clear that interventions into the children's lives should be taken on as early as possible.

The study was distributed in The American Journal of Psychiatry.