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The Surprising Health Benefits of a Bad Economy

Being laid off might be better for you than you think.

When you consider what you could do to improve your physical health, you probably think about activities you’d make a New Year’s resolution about: Go to the gym more, ride your bike to work, don’t finish the whole pint of Chunky Monkey in one sitting. But there’s something else you probably never imagined could be good for your health in any way—a recession.

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Here's How Dangerous You Actually Are Behind the Wheel

The frightening simplicity of distracted driving.

Drivers today are overwhelmed by potential distractions. Whether you're eating a banana with one hand on the wheel, changing the radio station, or glancing over at the text message that just popped up, every moment you're not mindful of what's happening on the road is a potential danger. Getting from Point A to B requires your full attention--and driving with your brain on autopilot just isn't an option. Check out this video to find out why. (Just don't watch it while you're driving.)

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Why We Might Need an App to Save Us from Our Smartphones

The average smartphone user picks up his or her device 1,500 times per week.

Once upon a time in a world very much like this one, there were no smartphones. We used to suffer through awkward silences, ask strangers on the street for directions, and use cellular phones for, of all things, talking. Questions could not always be answered instantly, and getting lost at night was no fun, but in many ways we were “living in the moment.”

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The Secret Power of Our Daydreams

Humans spend 46.9 percent of their waking hours thinking about something else.

Staring into space may get a bad rap, but a study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences earlier this year found that cognitive capacity actually got a bit of a boost when scientists used electrodes to stimulate the part of the brain that caused the subjects’ minds to wander.

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Why Protecting the Night From Light Pollution Is Good for Our Health

80 percent of people have never seen the Milky Way.

When the power went out in Los Angeles after the Northridge earthquake of 1994, residents who could suddenly see the Milky Way called Griffith Observatory director Ed Krupp, perplexed. They asked about “the odd sky” they had seen. “Gradually, it became apparent that people were talking about the night sky and about the stars,” Krupp says, adding that an estimated 80 percent of the global population has never seen the Milky Way thanks, in part, to light pollution.

The night may belong to lovers, but it’s getting so bright outside that true darkness, the “blackness of darkness” referred to in historic texts, is hard to locate. Light pollution is all around us: Street lamps shine all night, flood lights illuminate alleyways, and we lie in bed, glued to glowing iPhones. “In this broad sense we have lost this profound contact with the night sky, which not that long ago our relatives and ancestors viewed regularly,” says Krupp. “The sky is responsible for things more than beauty; it gives us perspective. Here at the observatory we preserve the stars like an endangered species. The planetarium, which is artificial, is so thrilling to viewers that they respond emotionally,” Krupp says, explaining that the sight of stars projected in the dark often prompts applause.

The paradox is that it’s the same electric light that blots out stars that allows Krupp to project them. Since Thomas Edison flipped the switch in 1879, electric light has saved lives in hospitals, allowed industrial productivity, and eventually provided entertainment in the forms of film and television, both of which rely on bulbs. While the value of light is evident, the merits of darkness are less obvious.

Darkness scares us. It represents the unknown—all things dismal and evil. It’s often described as a quality to be vanquished, or referred to in religious texts as something from which we seek salvation. Still, there is no denying that to be human is to experience darkness in all its visual and metaphoric forms. “Because no man can ever feel his own identity aright except his eyes be closed;” Herman Melville wrote in Moby-Dick, “as if darkness were indeed the proper element of our essences, though light be more congenial to our clayey part.” Plus, darkness is romantic, according to a 2013 study by the National Sleep Foundation, which found that almost 50 percent of Americans surveyed thought that darkness sets the mood, joined by far greater percentages of Germans, Mexicans, British, and Japanese.

Romance aside, darkness is essential to the biological functions of most living things, according to University of Connecticut cancer epidemiology professor Richard Stevens, who in 1987 published a paper suggesting breast cancer could be linked with nighttime light exposure. Stevens says the idea came to him as he lay in bed dejected that studies were unable to link a rise in breast cancer in industrialized nations to the modern diet. “I woke up in the middle of the night, and then I realized I could almost read a newspaper from the street light,” he says, “and that’s a hallmark of industrialization. And then I started asking about what this light can do.”

Stevens and colleagues found that exposure to light at night can suppress the production of melatonin, a hormone that protects against tumor growth. He said at least 40 studies published after his paper have found that breast cancer is between 10 and 50 percent more prevalent among female night workers. “The circadian rhythm is the cornerstone of all of our biology,” he says. “A candle in the evening will [hardly] disrupt your circadian rhythm,” but light, particularly blue-spectrum light found in newer light bulbs and electronics, “delays our night circadian biology.”

More recently, light at night has been linked with increased risk for diabetes, sleep disorders, and even obesity, Stevens says, adding that it was just a matter of time before the human health hazards of night light exposure were widely recognized. “I think maybe 10 or 15 years from now the average person is going to say, ‘Whoa, that light at night is not good,’” Stevens says. He suggests limiting electronic use before bedtime and purchasing newer smart light bulbs like the Phillips Hue that can adjust their color based upon the time of day, so that when electric light is used at night it does not mimic daylight. “In the evening you don’t want to have something that’s going to be jazzing you up,” he says.

Like Stevens, proponents of dark skies also have suggestions: They advocate for fixtures that direct all light downward and recommend motion-activated systems that apply warm light only as needed, says John Barentine, program manager of the International Dark-Sky Association. The nonprofit offers certification to locations that offer the darkest skies in the world and provides educational resources regarding light pollution. “The good thing is, light pollution is one of the only forms of pollution that is completely reversible,” Barentine says, explaining that fixing the problem on an individual level could be as simple as changing a light fixture.

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