Friday, April 21, 2006

Learning to be happy.....and healthy?

"It is not God's will merely that we should be happy,
but that we should make ourselves happy"
Immanuel Kant

A British school has decided to offer students classes in happiness. Students will now receive training in life skills including how to manage relationships, physical and mental health, negative emotions and how to achieve one's ambitions.

Anthony Seldon, Master of Wellington College in Berkshire, states, "Celebrity, money and possessions are too often the touchstones for teenagers and yet these are not where happiness lies. Our children need to know that as societies become richer, they don't become happier -- a fact regularly shown by social science research."

The program is being supervised by Dr. Nick Baylis, who lectures on Positive Psychology at Cambridge University. In contrast to what many perceive as psychology's focus on the negative aspects of life, positive psychology examines how to achieve a healthy, successful and satisfying life, beneficial to both the individual and their community.

Similarly, in Australia, there has been a significant increase in the focus on the promotion of happiness. Dr Timothy Sharp, a Sydney-based Clinical Psychologist, has set up The Happiness Institute, an organisation devoted exclusively to the pursuit of happiness, and it's big business. Happiness is definitely the buzzword of the moment. Companies across Australia are making use of the services offered by the Institute with the goal of improving staff performance through fostering a positive outlook on life and work.

What does this have to do with health?

While the relationship between negative emotional states, such as depression, and health problems has been well documented, there have been few studies that have examined the impact of positive emotions on health.

A recent study by Andrew Steptoe, Jane Wardle and Michael Marmot from University College, London has attempted to rectify that. These British researchers have discovered evidence of a biological connection between a positive sense of well-being and reduced risk for disease among middle-aged men and women. The study revealed that being happy was directly related with specific bodily functions that protect against cardiovascular disease, diabetes, autoimmune deficiencies, and stress-related illnesses.

A key finding was that the happiest women and men had the lowest levels of cortisol, commonly known as the stress hormone. Higher levels of this hormone have been linked to a greater risk of disease, including high blood pressure, poor immune system function and diabetes. Happier individuals were also shown to have lower levels of a liver produced protein called plasma fibrinogen, high levels of which have been associated with a higher risk for cardiovascular disease. Heart rates in male subjects were also lower.

These findings remained significant after controlling for psychological distress.

While the study doesn't prove that happiness was responsible for those outcomes, it does suggest that improving our level of happiness could be important in terms of our health.

How do we increase our happiness?

That's a difficult question to answer because what constitutes happiness varies according to the individual. As Dr. Steptoe says, "I can't really prescribe how people should make themselves happier, because philosophers have failed at that for centuries. Most of our sense of happiness seems to relate to having good relationships with family and friends, and that's not something that can be maintained without some investment of effort, and keeping an appropriate balance. That balance, of course, is going to be different for different people."

For further consideration, some hints on being happy now courtesy of Dr. Timothy Sharp at The Happiness Institute.


Dear Jane said...

I read the hints on being happy and I think #20 is the most live in the present moment and make the most of it. We cannot change the past, we cannot worry about the future. the present is all we can control.

However, I think before one can be TRULY happy, one must examine and expel all past demons, which is what I am in the process of doing right now. I don't think one can be TRULY happy if one is hiding from, or covering up, or repressing things from the past.

Dr. Deborah Serani said...

It is so important to TEACH this.

healthpsych said...

Dear Jane and Deborah, thanks for visiting and commenting.

I agree with Deborah that a emphasis on positive psychology is important but I also share some of the reservations raised by Dear Jane.

Some of the tips for happiness might require a fair degree of work upfront. For example, tip 11 -'Learn to like and love yourself'. How many of us would struggle with that at least a little?

I personally would struggle with Tip 19 'Control what you can control. Learn to accept what you can't control.' As a self-confessed 'control freak', I'd do battle with that one.

I guess my concern is that while aiming for happiness is a good thing, it worries me that the current emphasis almost presents the pursuit of happiness as easily achieveable and an instantaneous, magical fix for everything.

el.cameleon said...

I believe that happiness is a quest for which some never achieve..a bit like looking for the holy grail