Sunday, 19 January 2014

A surprisingly evidence-based thing you can do to be much happier

If there were one single thing I’d recommend to make you a happier person, I’d say meditate. But wait - this is an evidence-based blog. Isn’t meditation the definition of New Age woo? I used to think this until I started researching the best way to become happier.

Going in, I thought it was definitely going to be something like exercise. However, after looking at meta-analyses, I found that exercise, while decent for depression (effect size of 0.721), it had a pretty small effect on normal people (effect size of 0.22).

I’m not depressed - I want to go from pretty good to amazing. What works well for that? The answer kept popping up in all the literature - meditation.


A meta-analysis found that meditation had a 0.5 effect size on stress reduction3. This is a huge effect in social sciences and is double the effect of exercise. And you don’t even have to get off your butt. Literally!

It has also has dozens of randomized-controlled trials on nearly every effect under the sun finding positive results, including:

  • Reduced stress4
  • Reduced anger4
  • Self-compassion4
  • Being nicer to others4
  • Increased forgiveness4
  • Increased relationship satisfaction4
  • Health4
  • And the mother of all metrics, life satisfaction and quality4

What About the Placebo Effect?

You might wonder whether it’s a placebo effect and a big problem with many of the trials is that their controls often just didn’t do anything. However, if you look at studies comparing it to somatic relaxation techniques, it decreases distress 50% more and increases positive moods nearly three times more.5 It has also compared favorably to cognitive behavioral therapy, the most evidence-based psychology intervention.

How To Meditate

It’s a big topic and I’m no expert, so I recommend checking out:

  • Happiness, by Matthieu Ricard, a Western neuroscientist and Buddhist monk. Some meditation resources can become a bit New Agey for my tastes, but he explains it in a way that makes sense and is more palatable for the scientifically minded.
  • The Greater Good Science Center: a great free online source about meditation and all sorts of other evidence-based ways to flourish in life.


One of the top scientific values is to change your mind based on the evidence, and the evidence is strong - meditation is a scientifically backed path to a happier life.


1- Craft LL  Landers DM The effect of exercise on clinical depression and depression resulting from mental illness: A meta analysis J. Sport Exercise Psychol. 1998; 20(4): 339–57.
2- Arent, S. M., Landers, D. M., & Etnier, J. L. ( 2000). The effects of exercise on mood in older adults: A meta-analytic review. Journal of Aging and Physical Activity, 8, 407– 430.
3 - Paul Grossman, Ludger Niemann, Stefan Schmidt, Harald Walach (2004). Mindfulness-based stress reduction and health benefits: A meta-analysis. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, Volume 57, Issue 1, July 2004, Pages 35–43

Saturday, 12 October 2013

The Most Proven Parenting Style Out There

The Benefits

The Positive Parenting Program, otherwise known as the Triple P Program, is the most proven and effective parenting style out there. It has been show to decrease nearly every problem behaviour under the sun, including:
  • hitting other children
  • lying
  • bullying
  • suffering anxiety
  • being cruel to animals
  • not being able to concentrate
  • and many other things.

The evidence behind it is also incredibly strong. There have been 57 randomized controlled trials, even more regular studies, and 4 meta-analyses, which are studies of studies, where they summarize all of the data of multiple studies.1,2,3,4

How to Do It

Unfortunately the program is copyrighted and you cannot simply find information on the internet very easily. There is no download. I did however find a few free online resources.
  1. Lecture but aimed at Triple-P professionals rather than a beginner parent: part 1and part 2

It is a large group of multiple methods so is not readily summarized. For example, it recommends capitalizing on teaching children when they’re curious about something, rather than when you want them to be interested in something. It also recommends giving time outs that are never longer than 5 minutes, and paying attention to a child when they’re behaving, not just when they’re misbehaving.

Since it is not based on one overarching principle, it seems the only way to learn the material is to read their materials for sale, or go to one of their classes in your area, which are often free. When you’re done reading this I would Google “Triple P Parenting ______(the area you live)” to see if there are any classes nearby.

(1) For the science geeks, it had quite a large effect size for the social sciences. In one meta-analysis (an analysis of multiple studies, not just one) it showed an effect size of 0.35 and in another it found 0.54. In one meta-analysis they broke it down into parent-reported problems compared to others observing the effects and they were even higher at 0.73, however I’m less inclined to trust these results because parents are overly optimistic about their own children. Nonetheless, it does predict that if you practice their techniques you’ll think your child is doing better than before.
(4) Behavioral Outcomes of Parent-Child Interaction Therapy and Triple P—Positive Parenting Program: A Review and Meta-Analysis

Saturday, 5 October 2013

How To Decrease Your Chance of a Low Birth Weight or Premature Baby

What can you eat during pregnancy that will reduce the risk of a pre-mature or low birth weight baby? I scoured through Cochrane Reviews, a medical nonprofit known for its rigorous, in depth reviews of the scientific literature. They’re known for being skeptical buggers, only accepting the highest quality studies, and being very ready to say that there is not enough data to say one way or the other. If there’s one source to trust, it’s Cochrane Reviews.
So what did I find? Of the six interventions I read through, only two interventions were found to be effective - vitamin D and zinc.
Zinc had a small but significant effect. In 16 randomized controlled trials including over 7,000 women, those who took zinc supplements during pregnancy were 14% less likely to have pre-term babies. That and you’ll be 36% less likely to get a cold, and if you do, it’s half as likely it’ll last more than seven days. Talk about an excellent little pill. I recommend taking it as a pill rather than solely relying on your diet to provide because it’s very easy to be deficient in it, even if you eat a healthy, balanced diet.
Vitamin D was quite a winner! Gathering data from three randomized controlled trials involving 463 women, those given vitamin D supplements were about half as likely to have low birthweight babies compared to those given a placebo. Vitamin D is found in all sorts of food, but if you live in a place where the winters are long you’re very likely to be deficient in it, so I recommend taking supplements. And during the summer, get plenty of sun, as your skin turns sunshine into vitamin D, which I will guiltlessly take as a perfect excuse to bask in the sun. You can also get liquid vitamin D and put it in everything, like cereal, coffee, juice, baked goods, etc.
What else was tested that didn’t make the cut?

  1. Caffeine. Thank god! Not to say that caffeine does not have any negative or positive effects, but as a complete caffeine addict, I’m happy to say that two randomized controlled trials using decaf as a placebo involving over 1200 women showed no effect of caffeine of your risk of premature or underweight babies.
  2. Aerobic exercise isn’t something you eat but I’ll include it anyways. This was a surprise. Usually aerobic exercise is associated with everything good in life, from happiness, health, and even a good sex life. Nonetheless, there was not enough evidence or high enough quality studies to show that it reduces the chance of pre-term or low birthweight babies.
  3. Folate, which is the form of folic acid found in foods. 31 randomized controlled trials found it had no effect to lower the risk of premature, stillborn, or low birhtweight babies. Folic acid is still good to take because it reduces the chances of “neural tube defects”.

In summary:

  1. Take zinc and vitamin D daily during pregnancy.
  2. Cochrane reviews is a skeptical and trustworthy source for medical questions. Check out their summaries, they have all sorts of cool findings. Like does vitamin C prevent colds? Does stretching prevent soreness after exercise? The answers are no and no. Go Cochrane reviews for being a skeptical bugger!

Thursday, 26 September 2013

How To Get Your Child (And Yourself) To Eat Vitamins Regularly

I’m a self-admitted vitamin fanatic. I have one of those giant pillboxes with a small box for each day of the week that is usually only owned by grandmothers. I didn’t used to be this way though. I used to live off of a diet of ramen noodles, Doritos, and the occasional chocolate bar to even out the MSG. How did I start eating vitamins regularly? Well, first I got obsessed with the results. You can essentially become a better person if you just pop some pills. You can become smarter, happier, more attractive, more energetic, and live longer with just a minute a day’s worth of effort. And you can give that to your child too. Isn’t that magic?

So I went out and I bought all of the vitamins at the shop. I had tons of pills sitting in my cupboard. I took them religiously at first. Then after a week, I started forgetting. Soon enough I only took them once a week. It was such a pain to open each bottle individually, pop one pill, then put the lid back on. This may make me sound lazy, but I am no exception. You should never underestimate the future laziness of yourself.

The solution presented itself when I went to my partner’s house way back when we were first getting to know each other, and he was eating some gummy bears. He looked at me guiltily. “They’re healthy!” he exclaimed defensively. It turns out they were multi-vitamin gummy bears - and they were delicious. I had to control myself from eating so much I’d make myself sick. The next morning I had them immediately in the morning.

Then I had a eureka moment. What if put all of my vitamins in those gramma pill boxes, and make sure a third of the vitamins are tasty? I switched to this strategy, along with an alarm every day to remind me, and when that alarm goes off on my phone, saying “Gummy time”, you can be sure that I eat my vitamins.

There is the concern that the sugar in the vitamins is bad for you. However, what’s worse - a little bit of sugar and being chock full of all the vitamins you need, or a few grams less sugar per day and missing the optimal amount of all of your vitamins? It’s worth the trade and using this method, I never miss a day, and I assure you, your child won’t either.

In short:

  1. Use your sweet tooth to your advantage.
  2. Put your vitamins in gramma weekly pill boxes
  3. Set an alarm so you don’t have to remember.

What To Eat When Pregnant That Will Eat Increase Your Baby’s IQ

Does taking iron supplements increase your baby’s IQ?

Only if they’re deficient in iron. And unless you’re living in a poor country along the lines of Africa, that’s unlikely. 95% of infants get an adequate amount of iron in the United States. If you are deficient, then you should definitely take supplementations. However, if you’re average, which is good in this case, it won’t affect your child’s IQ. Two randomized controlled trials, the golden standard of science, were done on supplementing infants and no effect was found on their IQ’s.(1)

The bottom line? Iron supplementation does not affect the IQ’s of normal infants.

Does taking thiamine (vitamin B1), vitamin C, or vitamin B’s increase your baby’s IQ?

They ran a study in two different locations, with randomized placebos and - in one town, all of the different vitamins had large effects. In the other site though, none of the vitamins had an effect. What to make of this? It means there’s not enough data to be certain at this point. However, since it is very unlikely that taking supplements will harm the baby, and it is decently likely that it will help it (though maybe not on the IQ front), it’s worth it. Also, you should be taking your vitamins too! Vitamin decreases your risk for colorectal cancer, which sounds exceedingly shitty.  Here’s an article on how to get your kid (and yourself) to take their vitamins regularly. (1)

In short, take vitamin B and C supplements because it might increase IQ, but the chance is low.

Does taking zinc during pregnancy increase your baby’s IQ?

Nope. Pregnant women were given 25 mg of zinc or a placebo during their third trimester of pregnancy and they were tested five years later. No increase in IQ was found. (1)

Does eating omega-3’s increase your baby’s IQ?

The short answer is probably, but only a little. Twelve studies were done where either the mother ate omega-3 supplements while pregnant or lactating, or the infant was fed omega-3 enriched formula. The results were a small increase in IQ of 3 points.  A good way to remember this is omega-3’s increase a baby’s IQ by 3. (1)(2)

The bottom line? Omega-3s during pregnancy and while breastfeeding increases IQ by 3 points.

(1) Protzko, John, Joshua Aronson, and Clancy Blair. "How to Make a Young Child Smarter Evidence From the Database of Raising Intelligence." Sage Journals (2013): n. pag. Web.
(2)However, it’s quite probable that upon more studies, the effect will turn out to be smaller. The 95% confidence interval was between 0.043 and 0.429 standard deviation units, which means that it could likely be a negligible effect. I recommend keeping an eye out for the latest science and making sure to check the effect size. Don’t let scientists fool you by saying it increases the IQ statistically significantly. That just means the effect is unlikely to be by chance, not that the effect is significant in the usual sense of the term.

Monday, 23 September 2013

Donate $10 today!

You want to make a difference but what can you do if you are broke? A starving student? What if you’re still debating what charity to donate to or whether to put it into a donor advised fund. Or you're considering what percentage you should donate. Fortunately, you can still do a lot.

Sign up for a $10 per month donation today. Even a broke starving student can afford $10’s and you can always switch it to a more effective charity when you find one. It will get your brain and psychology in the habit of giving and do a world of good. Every dollar counts and with a monthly donation your effective charity can start to plan and build around their expected donations.

You can always increase or decrease your donation later or change the cause it goes to, but for now and until you decide you full plan, let’s start with something small.

$10s today to your favorite charity. If you don’t have a favorite AMF is a safe bet highly recommended by pretty much everyone and guarantees you to start helping save lives. Lets start making a difference today!

Monthly AMF donation page

How to incrementally improve your career impact set a impact baseline

There are a lot of ways to think about how to get the highest impact but sometimes there are two many choices. So many we can be overwhelmed or totally lost on how to compare so many options. One thing that would make it a lot easier is if we had a career baseline that was highest impact. The easiest one I have used is what income do I think I could earn and how much income could I live off of. Lets take the numbers of being able to earn $100,000 and I could live off of $20,000 this means I could donate $80,000 to my top charity (I could also get it matched for an extra $50,000 from general electric matching my donations). This is a pretty great number $130,000 to an effective charity.

I now can use this number as my baseline to compare other possible jobs to in terms of impact. For example do I think if I were to do research and get paid $60,000 would my research be more valuable than the extra $70,000 going to my top charity? This is a much easier question to answer than the vague notion of comparing research to earning to give.

Bringing your different career options down to comparing possible impact between how much you can donate and how much impact you think a certain part of your career might make.