Car horns, strangers on cell phones, people who stop walking right at the foot of an escalator—so many irritants vie for the privilege of tipping you over the edge that National Public Radio science nerds Joe Palca and Flora Lichtman decided to investigate.
Don’t be an eavesdropper. Cell phone chatter, they report in Annoying: The Science of What Bugs Us (John Wiley & Sons, $25.95), is much more bothersome than an overheard face-to-face conversation. One possible reason: Since you’re hearing not a dialogue but a “halfalogue,” you’re doomed to fail when you try to predict when it will end or figure out what’s going on. And people can’t stop themselves from trying to make those predictions, Palca and Lichtman write. “You may be able to finish your spouse’s sentences, but your mind wants to finish everyone’s sentences.”
Manage pain. Physical pain is a more insistent distraction than the most oblivious cell-phoning bus seatmate, and we could all use a nonpharmacological way to mute it. One remarkably simple method: Gaze at a photo of a loved one. As Ferris Jabr writes in Scientific American Mind, scientists applied nondamaging but painful heat to the palms of volunteers’ hands. When the volunteers were looking at a picture of their significant other, they reported about 45 percent less pain, compared with when the picture was of a mere acquaintance. Even the highest temps hurt 12 percent less.
Stop multitasking. Want to feel happier, no matter what? Pay attention. No, not to these words of wisdom—just pay attention to whatever you’re doing. A wandering mind is an unhappy mind, John Tierney writes in the New York Times. “Using an iPhone app called trackyourhappiness, psychologists at Harvard contacted people around the world at random intervals to ask how they were feeling, what they were doing, and what they were thinking,” Tierney writes. The responses produced the discovery that minds are wandering 47 percent of the time (though a good deal less often during sex). But whatever respondents were doing, they were happier if they were paying attention to the activity at hand. One moral, Tierney says: You stray, you pay.
Plus: How to Get Happy