People and spaces, the tragedy of commonsense morality, myths about meaning of life, and remaking love were on deck for yesterday’s Psychology in Action symposium at the SPSP meeting in Austin. Four dynamic speakers – Sam Gosling, Joshua Greene, Barbara Fredrickson, and Laura King – gave thought-provoking talks that hit on areas of psychology that reach into our everyday lives.

The full video of these talks is now available. Watch them and share them.

And here are some highlights, by talk…

Blueprint of emotions

I had never seen a blueprint of a home labeled with emotions until the other day: Bathroom labeled with “rejuvenation,” master bedroom with “privacy, passion, reflection.” Believe it or not, it was a real one, taken from Chris Travis, an architect who asks his clients to tell him about times in their lives when they felt safe and comfortable. His goal, as Sam Gosling of the University of Texas-Austin explained at the SPSP meeting in Austin on Friday, is to build a space that evokes those feelings.

The link between our emotions and our spaces is inseparable, Gosling said. As such, our spaces say a lot about us.

Even your choice of seating is a personalty tell, he said. People “tend to sit in same place over and over again,” he said, with the highly consciousness upfront and the highly neurotic on edge of rooms. People who are neurotic are very sensitive to what can go wrong so they want an easy escape.

We also select seats based on those around us. We sort ourselves into spaces where we can find like-minded others.

Read more about Gosling’s work in this recent post and in the press release about work with his grad student Lindsay Graham. (And in Gosling’s recent book, Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You.)

Fast and slow thinking on morality

Some of the oldest moral dilemmas in history involve questions of the public good. Would you save one life over many? Under what circumstances? What is right and wrong?

Josh Greene of Harvard has not only been exploring these questions in modern life but also has been seeking to understand how our brains make these decisions. As he explained in the SPSP session, moral questions can be broken down into “me vs. us” and “us vs. them”.

When we’re thinking about “me vs. us”, our intuitions are good. We automatically tune into guilt, gratitude and empathy to lead us to cooperate with others. But when it comes to questions of “we vs. us”, we run into clashes between communities and how we perceive fairness. The very forces that bring us closer together also build group loyalties that are difficult for us to break free of. To think about the greater good, we have to switch into “manual mode.”

His talk was full of interesting examples, including how distance shapes our moral decisions. In one study, people asked to imagine they were vacationing at a mountain home on an island, where a disaster struck the coast, were much more likely (68%) to offer financial assistance for disaster aid than if they were home and their friend called them from the same island (34%).

Another example: He asked the audience if you were driving and saw someone bleeding on the side of the road, would it be OK to not help them for fear of blood getting on your car’s new leather upholstery? Most people, unsurprisingly, indicated it would not be OK. But the framing of morals changes if asked whether you would take the money it would require to buy new leather seats to donate to help people injured in another country.

Greene’s recent book Moral Tribes has many more examples.

Remaking love

“What if everything that you know about making love was wrong?” That’s how Barbara Fredrickson of the University of North Carolina started her talk, which happened to be on Valentine’s Day. She went on to, sometimes emotionally, describe the many ways love affects us at the physical level and vice versa.

She made a compelling case for using science to enhance the experience of love: “Adding science to mix need not take sparkle out of love”

What science has shown, she says, is that there are vital, fleeting “micro-moments” in which we connect with others. The more you experience micro-moments, the more it will change you for the better.

Take the case of the vagus nerve, which, in part, regulates our emotions and is responsible for associated changes in our heartbeat. The nerve calms our racing hearts after a fight and helps keep our hearts on a healthy rhythm. It affects the body’s ability to regulate glucose and our biological capacity for connection, Fredrickson said.

Research has found that increasing micro-moments boosts the functioning of the vagus nerve. And those effects radiate out. “What happens in vagus does not stay in vagus,” she quipped. Even white blood cells register experiences of connections, as do changes of gene expression in immune system.

Because of this research, Fredrickson now views every every interaction as an opportunity to be more open and to reap the huge physiological benefits of giving and receiving energy to and from others. She ended with recommending loving-kindness meditation and reflection exercises to help us better appreciate the connections we make during the day.

Your life is probably pretty meaningful

We do not need to climb the proverbial mountain to find meaning in life, said Laura King of the University of Missouri. King studies meaning in life and says not only is meaning in life achievable but it is easier to come by and more common than we think.

One of the first myths of meaning in life she dispelled is that it is ineffable. “Meaning in life if quite effable,” she said. “We’re scientists; we can eff whatever we like.”

Easy, simple thing can bring us meaning, King said, like having a good mood, making social connections, and having routine associations with our environments. Realizing that our lives are indeed meaningful has manifold benefits for quality of life, satisfaction, and health.

“Your life is probably pretty meaningful,” she said. “Get over it.”

Read more about King’s work in this recent blog post.

-Lisa M.P. Munoz