A Universal Truth: Research Confirms That Giving Makes You Feel Good

Prosocial Spending – aka, Charity – is a Psychological Universal

You’re walking down the street, and you see someone holding a sign, asking for help.

Just $20 for gas, $5 for food.

You feel the urge to give. You want to help.

While you might assume generosity and giving is not a universal value, this tug on the heartstrings may be more common than you think.

Prosocial Spending

In the last post, we talked about prosocial behavior – i.e. care given to other people and one’s community.

Prosocial spending – or charity – is one part of prosocial behavior.

It’s defined as using one’s financial resources to help others.

One study of over 600 North Americans showed that those selected at random to spend a small windfall of money on others were significantly happier than those directed to spend it on themselves.

And this happiness derived from generosity was found to be universal.

Research on Prosocial Spending and Well Being shows that those who give have greater well-being, the world over.

When survey data was analyzed across 136 countries using Gallup World Poll data, the study found that humans on a whole derive happiness and other emotional benefits from helping others financially.

As the study reads,

“In contrast to traditional economic thought—which places self-interest as the guiding principle of human motivation—our findings suggest that the reward experienced from helping others may be deeply ingrained in human nature, emerging in diverse cultural and economic contexts.”

Apart from the surveys, the researchers went on to conduct experiments for causality in two widely different countries: Uganda and Canada

Here’s what they found.

Uganda vs. Canada: Well-Being and Prosocial Spending

While controlling for household income, donating to charity had a positive effect on life evaluation/well-being across the board.

The study also found that while people in wealthier countries were able to donate at higher rates, the well-being was not greater.

Well-being based on giving monetarily is only weakened in less wealthy nations due to the infrequency of donations.

When investigating Canada (which falls within the top 15% of countries based on per capita income) and Uganda (which falls in the lower 15%), the study found that 66% of respondents in Canada reported donating frequently while only 13% did in Uganda.

However, the experimental study went on to assess prosocial spending in different cultural contexts other than charitable giving.

Approaching students at random on campuses in Uganda and Canada, researchers asked the participants to describe their experience after spending 10,000 Ugandan shillings or 20 Canadian dollars (each of which has equal buying power in these two countries) and also rate their happiness on the Subjective Happiness Scale.

Others were asked to rate self-spending and their corresponding happiness.

As past studies have shown, those who spent on others reported higher levels of happiness than those who spent on themselves.

But what emerged about the cultural differences in spending was interesting.

In Uganda, those who purchased something for themselves described a personal necessity at three times the rate as those in Canada. 

Additionally, Ugandans were more likely to have purchased something for others in response to a negative event, like medical services or supplies, while the same result was not met with at all in Canada.

Despite these differences in spending on others, the emotional benefits were the same in both countries.

6 Basic Emotions & How They Are Viewed by Different Cultures

Happiness. Sadness. Fear. Anger. Surprise. Disgust.

According to this study, titled “Two Sides of Emotion: Exploring Positivity and Negativity in Six Basic Emotions across Cultures,” universal emotions can be perceived positively or negatively by different cultures.

The study tested the affective and cognitive components of these emotions on Korean, Chinese, American, and Canadian students.

What the study found was that each of these emotions contain both positivity and negativity but were viewed differently among cultures.

Study’s Findings

Canadians and Americans (Westerners) and Chinese and Koreans (Easterners) have different thinking styles.

As the study notes

“Easterners tend to be dialectical when thinking about a situation in a manner that balances the positives and negatives. When things are going well, Easterners might expect a change for the worse, and when things are going badly, they might expect things to get better.”

On the other hand, Westerners’ thinking style can lead to imbalance.

“Westerners tend to focus more on one pattern—things will tend to stay as they are, good or bad. This thinking style may lead Westerners to think that things are rather consistent, leading them to concentrate on one side of an issue.”

Let’s see how this affects each group’s perspective on these six basic emotions.

Sadness

Stronger positivity of sadness was reported by Easterners, and stronger negativity was reported by Westerners.

This complies with past studies’ findings that negative emotions have motivational and cognitive utility

Other studies have found that Westerners tend to feel they shouldn’t have to face sadness, while Easterners embrace the experience of sadness.

Happiness

All four countries rated happiness as positive, though Easterners reported stronger negativity of happiness, while Westerners reported stronger positivity.

Past studies have found that happiness may be experienced differently and mean different things across cultures.

The study suggests that while happiness may be a bright sunny day in the West, it may be balanced with the negativity of a drizzle in the East.

Anger

Anger was viewed more positively by Easterners than by Westerners. 

A 2013 study found that anger was expressed more by those with lower social status in the U.S., while it was expressed by those with higher social status in Japan, probably to demonstrate authority. 

This may be one reason why Easterners view anger more positively than Westerners.

Fear

Americans were the only group to report stronger cognitive fear than affective fear.

Their thoughts and conceptualization of fear were more negative, as fear was anticipated more and felt less, or maybe suppressed, while the other three groups felt fear as more negative.

Koreans reported a stronger positivity of fear, which may be due to their history. 

As a threatened nation, they may view fear as a norm that they must simply live with.

Disgust

Similarly to fear, Americans were the only group to report stronger cognitive disgust than affective disgust.

This means that others felt disgust more negatively, while Americans thought and conceptualized it more negatively. 

Easterners reported a stronger positivity of disgust, which might suggest their duality of thinking/feeling that even “bad” things can be beneficial.

Surprise

Surprise was reported by Easterners to be more negative, while by Westerners it was reported to be more positive.

Unexpected events are viewed as more negative by Easterners, and although they expect change more than Westerners, it’s not as welcome.

Emotion Words: How Different Languages Express Feelings

Does the emotion word for happiness mean the same thing in all languages?

How about grief? Angst?

A scientific study looked at the semantic patterns in some 2,500 languages and discovered that emotion words may mean different things according to the language family from which they originate.

We’ve talked about emotion and culture over the past few weeks: how emotions are perceived differently and expressed differently.

Now, we learn that even the language of emotion is diverse.

Let’s take a look.

Universal Emotions

Some emotions, which English speakers might consider primary emotions – think happiness, sadness, anger, love, hate, etc. – are quite universal across world languages.

Most languages have words to describe the primary feelings shared by all humans.

However, just as cultures see color differently, even these primary emotions may be nuanced.

The primary emotion of anger blends into other feelings in different cultures.

Indo-European languages link anger to anxiety, while Austroasiatic languages link it to regret or grief.

Austronesian languages connect anger to pride and hate, while Nakh-Daghestanian languages connect it to envy.

This seems to indicate that cultures see even primary emotions in different shades.

But where culture and emotion become even more interesting is in the specificity of the language surrounding it.

German Specificity 

Some languages, like German, have words expressing very specific feelings for which other languages have no equivalent vocabulary.

“Sehnsucht,” for instance, means to yearn deeply for another life, while “schadenfreude” means to feel pleasure from another’s misfortune.

There are no direct translations in English, and the nuance would be lost in describing these feelings in pretty much any other language but German.

You might consider that these feelings, therefore, are deeply rooted in German culture.

Papua Guinea’s Hospitality

The word, “awumbuk,” is another example of a feeling expressed with language that is deeply rooted in culture.

This word comes from the Baining people of Papua Guinea.

It expresses the feeling felt after guests leave following an overnight stay.

According to cognitive scientist, Asifa Majid, it describes a feeling of listlessness, like a “social hangover.”

The different experiences of emotion across cultures are emphasized in language.

As the study’s senior author, psychologist and neuroscientist, Kristen Lindquist, put it,

“We walk around assuming that everyone else’s experience is the same as ours because we name it with the same word, and this suggests that that might not be the case.”

The Meaning of Well-Being: A Qualitative Cross-Cultural Study

What does “well-being” mean to you?

Back in 1984, the World Health Organization defined health and well-being as follows:

“Health is a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being.”

This universal definition of well-being differs from subjective well-being, which is how one evaluates one’s own quality of life, how one feels in it, and how one feels they function in it.

Research and literature surrounding subjective well-being focus on happiness, positive affect, and life satisfaction.

Social well-being is more in tune with social behaviors: how one interacts with social institutions and mores, how he/she interacts with others, and how others react to him/her.

Considering these differences, this study comparing well-being constructs between German and Chinese students looked at social support as an indicator of social well-being, and happiness and satisfaction with life as indicators of subjective well-being.

Well-Being Study

It can be assumed that the definitions of the above terms might differ between these two groups, based on their differing cultures, as might the objectives to accomplish each.

Via focus groups and questionnaires, the study assessed perceived social support through rated statements like:

  • “I experience a lot of understanding and security from others.”
  • “If necessary, I can easily borrow something I might need from neighbors or friends.”
  • “I have friends and family who will simply just hug me.”

Similarly, satisfaction was measured through statements like:

  • “The conditions of my life are excellent.”
  • “In most ways, my life is close to my ideal.” 
  • “I am satisfied with my life.”

And, lastly, happiness was measured via statements like:

  • “Some people are generally happy. They enjoy life regardless of what is going on, getting the most out of everything.”
  • “Some people are generally not very happy. Although they are not depressed, they never seem as happy as they might be.”

The Results

Happiness

Both groups defined happiness criteria as including social contacts, positive emotions, and quality of life. Where the two countries differed was in social contact.

Social contact was the most frequently mentioned aspect in China and the least in Germany.

Another interesting aspect of the way each group viewed happiness was in the angle they took. 

The Chinese groups saw happiness as pursuing a dream/goal and/or seeing it fulfilled, while the German groups saw two types of happiness: uncontrollable (which is designed by luck or fate, for instance) and controllable (as in achieving something). They also specified that happiness is subjective and brief.

Life Satisfaction

Both groups noted different kinds of satisfaction.

First, an individual realistic standard; second, an ideal standard that’s changeable. 

Lastly, they mentioned one’s perception of current satisfaction.

Quality of life was seen by both groups as a significant factor of life satisfaction, but the Chinese students focused on good living conditions (like high salary and economic conditions), while the German students focused on basic needs fulfillment (a home and food, etc.).

The researchers concluded that these differences may be based on the economic focuses of the two countries.

The Chinese groups saw contentment with one’s situation and a positive attitude about life as major contributing factors to life satisfaction, while the German students noted that satisfaction can come with comparing one’s current situation with the social norm or an individual standard.

Perceived Social Support

Chinese students focused on societal support, like charities, companies, and government policies, when discussing sources of perceived social support, while German students focused more on direct social networks.

German students mentioned financial and material support more frequently than their Chinese counterparts.

Both groups mentioned emotional support, while only the Chinese groups talked about “asking for help” indirectly, such as by posting on social media to gain empathy.

This study shows that though the themes of well-being may be universal, the contributing factors to well-being differ across cultures, often depending on cultural values, perspectives, and expectations.

Scientifically-Proven Tips on Learning a Second Language

Learning a language can be difficult.

But it will rewire your brain.

Over the past several weeks, we’ve discussed how the brain grows when learning a second language.

We’ve talked about how the left and right hemispheres process language and how the best approach to learning a language with an old brain is by dropping perfectionism.

This week, we’ll go over some practical tips and tricks for learning a language and improving your memory.

Vamos!

Sleep On It

Language learned just before bedtime ensures better long-term retention, according to a 2016 study in Psychological Science.

The study took two groups, each studying a foreign language 12 hours apart.

One group learned foreign vocabulary – practiced to perfect performance – in the morning and again in the evening.

The other group learned the new vocabulary in the evening, slept on it, and relearned it in the morning.

The study found that not only did the second group demonstrate better retention, but the amount of practice required was reduced by half.

The study concluded:

“Sleeping after learning is definitely a good strategy, but sleeping between two learning sessions is a better strategy.”

Spaced Repetition 

Online language learning sites, like Duolingo and Memrise, are so successful due to their algorithms involving spaced repetition.

Spaced repetition is a memory-strengthening method by which words or phrases are learned at intervals ideally spaced for retention. 

The intervals are small to begin with, reviewing new words several times in a single practice session until they become familiar, and reviewing them again the following day, mixed in with newer words and phrases.

Then, a day, a few days, a week will go by, and you review the word or phrase again.

Soon, you won’t forget them.

Research has proven that spaced repetition can lead to “a nearly threefold improvement of vocabulary learning gains.”

Now, that’s worth repeating.

Test Comprehension Through Content

When you’re comfortable with your basic language skills, incorporating some content into your learning will boost your abilities.

This can be anything from watching a movie in the foreign language to listening to a podcast or reading a news article.

A 2008 study published by Cambridge University Press showed that learning content in a foreign language, as opposed to strictly learning the language itself, can significantly improve the speaking part of language learning.

The study followed two groups – the control group, which studied French via traditional methods, and the experimental group, which studied a civilization course in French – and looked at four aspects of language learning: speaking, listening, reading, and writing.

While the experimental group outperformed the control group in speaking, the control group outperformed the experimental group in writing.

So, if speaking is the area you want to target, mixing in some media in the foreign language you’re studying will enhance it.

Part II – Left Brain or Right Brain: Which Side Gets More Exercise in Language Learning?

Both sides of the brain contribute to language learning and expression.

Last week, we found that the left side helps produce speech.

So, what does the right side do?

Let’s take a look.

Right Brain Activated

The left side of the brain is considered the language processing hub.

But when someone suffers a stroke or another injury that impacts the language center in the left hemisphere of the brain, something amazing happens: the right hemisphere takes over.

This made scientists curious as to how much each side of the brain is actually responsible for language processing and production.

This is what they found.

Processing Sounds

Studies have shown that the right hemisphere is specifically triggered when differentiating between sounds.

A study by the University of Delaware taught Mandarin Chinese to 24 native English-speaking adults.

Looking at the students’ brain scans during language acquisition, the study found that the right hemisphere of the brain took center stage when focusing on acoustic details while learning Mandarin Chinese.

Being that the right hemisphere of the brain has been largely overlooked in past language research, University of Delaware cognitive neuroscientist Zhenghan Qi believes these findings can help us understand language learning.

While the right side’s role in language diminishes as the student progresses, in the beginning stages, the right is crucial to pronunciation.

Qi explained:

“It turns out that the right hemisphere is very important in processing foreign speech sounds at the beginning of learning…We found that the more active the right hemisphere is, the more sensitive the listener is to acoustic differences in sound. Everyone has different levels of activation, but even if you don’t have that sensitivity to begin with, you can still learn successfully if your brain is plastic enough.”

Qi explained that adults can train themselves to “become more sensitive to foreign speech sounds.”

Another aspect of right-brain involvement in language was uncovered in the study by cognitive neuroscientist Kshipra Gurunandan, analyzed in last week’s post. 

The study found that the right hemisphere was most active in reading foreign language, followed by listening.

Researchers there also found greater right hemisphere involvement in adults who’d learned more than one language in early childhood versus monolingual adults.

So, while right-brain learners might think they don’t stand a chance at learning a second language, due to the stronger left-brain involvement, these studies tell a different story. 

Left or Right Brain: Which Side Gets More Exercise in Language Learning?

Are you a right-brain thinker? Or a left-brain thinker?

In other words, are you a creative, innovative type (right-brain)? Or are you logical and analytical (left-brain)?

And which side is a stronger language learner?

Never fear: both sides of the brain assist language learning, according to research. 

But to different degrees and in different ways.

Let’s see how.

Left Side Activated

The left hemisphere of the brain stores some 90 percent of our native language.

This is why it’s long been thought that left-brain thinkers may have a better capacity to learn a second language.

The left frontal lobe – specifically Broca’s area – activates the production and articulation of speech.

The left temporal lobe – specifically the Wernicke’s area – influences language comprehension and development.

This does not mean language learning only involves the left side of the brain; both sides work together in the learning and production of language.

Various parts of the brain are activated to degrees, depending on what aspect of language one is learning, whether it’s the lexicon (words), the sounds (phonology), or the syntax (grammar).

Speech

Studies have found that speaking a foreign language largely activates the left side of the brain.

A study by cognitive neuroscientist Kshipra Gurunandan, of the Basque Center on Cognition, Brain, and Language, looked at brain scans from Spanish speakers who were learning English or Basque.

Each group performed language tasks, involving reading, speaking, and listening in their native and foreign languages.

No matter the language level of the speaker, the left hemisphere of the brain was primarily activated during speaking tasks, while reading and listening were variable. 

Gurunandan explained:

“In the earliest stages of language learning the native and new languages tended to activate the same hemisphere, while in the more advanced learners they activated different hemispheres. And the switch from the same to the opposite hemispheres was largest in reading, it was slightly smaller in listening and it was non-existent in speaking.”

The researchers believe this left-brain focus during speech specifically is due to the specialized circuits in this hemisphere which control speech production.

The conclusion we draw here is that left-brain learners will have a greater propensity for learning how to speak a second language.

Next week, we’ll discuss where right-brain learners may have an edge.

Immersion Learning & Brain Growth: What Your Brain Looks Like When Speaking a Foreign Language

What happens in our brains when we speak a foreign language?

Do we think in that language?

Do our brains “Google translate” from our native tongue?

Through MRIs and electrophysiology, researchers took a look at the brain to see what visual effects manifest with foreign language learning.

They also analyzed what these effects can tell us about learning a language.

Brain Growth

In an article by Alison Mackey, an MRI study took a look at two groups: young military recruits with a propensity for language and a control group of medical and cognitive science students.

The language groups studied Dari, Arabic, and Russian, while the control group studied other intensive topics but not language.

Taking MRI scans of both the language students and the control group found that certain areas of the brain grew in size for the language group, while those of the control group did not.

Those in the language group who experienced more brain development in the hippocampus of the cerebral cortex (which has a primary role in learning and memory) demonstrated superior language skills to those who experienced more brain development in the motor region of the cerebral cortex (which has a primary role in speaking words).

The ease with which a language student learned, understood, and spoke the language saw a direct correlation with the areas of the brain that grew.

And brain development directly correlated to performance.

Immersion is Key

Another study, noted in an article by Guy Brockless on Bilingua, explored the inner workings of the brain via electrophysiology.

Completed by Professor Kara Morgan-Short at the University of Illinois, the study used an artificial language to identify the differences in the brain’s function when experiencing immersion learning versus rule learning.

Both groups learned the language, but the immersion group learned it via processes similar to native speakers, which is ideal if your goal is native-like fluency.

Morgan-Short said about the study:

“This brain-based research tells us not only that some adults can learn through immersion, like children, but might enable us to match individual adult learners with the optimal learning contexts for them.”

Both studies inform our understanding of how our brains work when learning a second language.

They also indicate that while not all brains work or develop the same during the process, that data can allow language learners to tailor and customize the best methods of language learning for their own personal growth.

Second Language Learning Improves One’s Command of Native Language

Those who fluently speak a second language (or more) are gifted with the opportunity to communicate with many different people and cultures.

But that’s not all.

Studies have shown that learning a second language also improves one’s command over their native tongue.

We’ve examined how language is learned in infancy and, for the past couple of weeks, we’ve discussed how second language learning can improve our cognitive learning and creativity.

While we’ve mainly looked at younger, elementary-school level students when analyzing the effects of second language learning, the positive impacts continue into adolescence and adulthood.

Let’s see what happens.

Greater Academic Success

A 1984 study by Robert Skelton examined the differences in academic achievement between college students who didn’t study a foreign language in high school and those who did.

Both groups of students had the same level of intelligence and the same socio-economic background.

And yet, the foreign language group showed superior academic achievement overall in college than those who had no foreign language experience.

The study concluded:

“Statistical analysis, reason, and the experience of generations force us to the conclusion that the study of foreign language does improve one’s command of his own language, thereby enhancing one’s control of subject matter in the fields in which language is the vehicle of instruction.”

Latin is Best

A further study by Patricia Davis Wiley, published in 1985, explored the same hypothesis and arrived at the same conclusion.

Wiley’s study, too, found a correlation between high school foreign language study and achievement in higher academia. 

High school students who studied Spanish, French, German, or Latin went on to perform better at a college level than their peers of equal academic ability.

In fact, those students who studied Latin proved to achieve the highest levels overall in college success, measured by GPA, and in freshman English grades specifically – possibly because over 60% of English words have Greek or Latin roots.

A 2001 study by Amedeo D’Angiulli of Italian/English bilingual students, ranging from 9 to 13 years old, also showed higher word-reading and spelling skills than their monolingual counterparts.

Do all of these positive aspects of second language learning make you want to become bilingual?

We’ll talk about how to learn a new language next week.

Creativity and Cognitivity: How Learning A Second Language Boosts Your Brain

We all know that learning a second language opens up new avenues in your brain.

Learn French, and you’ll soon be turning the roundabout of the Avenue des Champs-Élysées.

Attribution: Josh Hallett

Learn Spanish, and you’ll find yourself rambling down La Rambla.

Attribution: Jinx Vilhas

But how, exactly, does bilingualism influence your brain?

Last week, we saw the effects of second language learning on cognition.

This week, we’ll take a look at two additional studies that confirm that foreign language learning can make you a better learner and thinker.

Figural Creativity

A 1973 study by Richard G. Landry took a look at how learning a second language at the elementary school level can enhance figural creativity.

Landry hypothesized that when completing figural tasks – such as flexibility, originality, and creativity which rely on association, imagery, and other more abstract factors – second language learners have an edge over monolingual learners due to their flexibility in thinking. 

And his results confirmed this theory.

The study showed that the second language group scored significantly higher than the monolingual group on figural tasks, indicating that second language learning lends itself to divergent thinking to better complete these types of tasks.

Learning a second language at the elementary level also provided students with a broader range of linguistic and culturally rich resources which produces varied and fresh ideas.

The conclusion was that second language learning enables children to approach a problem differently, departing from traditional approaches more readily taken by monolingual students.

Cognitive & Language Development

Second language learning doesn’t just boost the creative mind.

A second study, completed in 1991 by Kathryn W. Bamford and Donald T. Mizokawa, examined the differences and degrees of nonverbal problem-solving and native language development between a monolingual classroom of second graders and an additive-bilingual Spanish-immersion classroom.

The study tested native language development between the two classrooms, measured by the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test-R, and found no significant differences, despite the bilingual group’s Spanish immersion.

However, there were significant differences in problem-solving between the two groups.

Using Raven’s Colored Progressive Matrices, which is a nonverbal test that measures “fluid intelligence”  – or general human intelligence and abstract reasoning – the study found that the Spanish-immersion group had a significant edge over their monolingual peers.

The conclusion drawn:

“The superior control of cognitive processing demonstrated by children in the early stages of additive bilingualism may enhance symbolic reasoning abilities.”

This pair of studies indicate that second language learning can boost both your creative and cognitive thinking at the elementary level.

Next week, we’ll take a look at how these effects evolve in higher academia.