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Originally published Sunday, January 6, 2013 at 8:01 PM

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The science of making a better self

A year of tips for managing life better

Seattle Times staff columnist

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"Forbes magazine's list of top brain science and psychology stories included a... MORE
Wow, an essay from Mr. Large that I don't flatly disagree with. There is hope for one... MORE
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If you made resolutions last week, better understanding yourself and other people might help you keep them.

Over the past year I've accumulated a stash of insights into human behavior that you might find useful whether you've made resolutions or not, because the real point isn't resolutions, but managing life better.

For instance, if you want to stop yourself from doing something, like eating maple bars, be a person who doesn't eat maple bars. If someone offers you one, instead of saying "I can't eat doughnuts," say instead "I don't eat doughnuts." It's a choice, not a restriction, so your brain won't instinctively fight it.

If you're an introvert, don't resolve to turn yourself into an extrovert; you'll just make yourself miserable. More than a third of Americans are introverts, but our culture exalts outgoing, talkative types.

Introverts aren't necessarily shy; we like spending time with friends, but we also enjoy time alone, especially after a big dose of socializing. Extroverts get lonely if they're by themselves.

This past year, introverts went on the offensive in books, articles and videos. Look up "The Power of Introverts" on YouTube.

Here's something I saved from PsyBlog's list of top research from 2012, under counterintuitive studies: Brainstorming doesn't work. (Yes, this is a study an introvert might like.)

Apparently, people get lazy or intimidated when they're sitting around a table with a bunch of other people trying to come up with ideas. Most keep their mouths shut and a few ideas dominate.

If you're in charge, resolve to let people come up with ideas on their own, then present them to the group.

I read lots of tips on achieving happiness, something that many people focus on this time of year. But there's a caveat everyone should keep in mind.

The Center for the Greater Good, in Berkeley, Calif., said that according to some studies feeling happy can make people less creative and less safe and that wanting to be happy can actually make people feel lonely. Researchers speculate that the more people value happiness the more likely they are to focus on themselves at the expense of connecting with others.

Happiness tends to find people who are focused on others. Helping or giving are proven sources of happiness without the negative side.

You can make yourself and someone else feel better at the same time by offering a genuine compliment.

Forbes magazine's list of top brain science and psychology stories included a study that showed the brain is just as happy with a compliment as with a cash reward.

People asked to perform a task in a study did better when they repeated the task after receiving a compliment than people in groups that got no compliment and better than groups that got cash instead of a compliment.

Tell your boss about that, but don't mention the cash part. And resolve to give compliments to the people around you; it will make them smile, which will make you smile, and research has shown that can be contagious.

The magazine also mentioned a study that suggests how broadly shared our experiences are.

It appears that other apes also have midlife crises. Chimpanzees and orangutans in midlife appear less energetic, often bummed out and unambitious. And like people, they come out of it after a time.

Whatever your challenges, you probably aren't alone. And this year some researcher is bound to find the answer you're looking for.

Jerry Large's column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or Twitter: @jerrylarge.

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About Jerry Large

I try to write about the intersections of everyday life and big issues. I like to invite readers to think a little differently. The topics I choose represent the things in which I take an interest, and I try to deal with them the way most folks would, sometimes seriously, sometimes with a sense of humor. My column runs Mondays and Thursdays. | 206-464-3346


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