Avoid misery with a recipe for happiness

 

MEDICAL MATTERS:It is time to spread some positivity around

“The supreme happiness of life is the conviction that we are loved; loved for ourselves, or rather, loved in spite of ourselves.”– Victor Hugo

THESE DAYS, more and more consultations are peppered with remarks about the “doom and gloom” of our financial crisis. It has practically replaced the weather as a topic for chat for patients at the beginning and end of consultations. And if there is a theme emerging it is that people are sick of the “drip drip” nature of the past few weeks.

It has reminded me of research that suggests emotional states can be transferred directly from one individual to another by “emotional contagion”. People can “catch” emotional states they observe in others over time frames ranging from seconds to weeks. For example, students randomly assigned to a mildly depressed room-mate became increasingly depressed over a three-month period.

This emotional contagion also works positively, as has been documented by the effects of “service with a smile” on customer satisfaction and tipping. So, given the prevailing national mood, are there ways we could “spread” happiness?

Researchers from Harvard University set out to evaluate whether happiness can spread from person to person and whether niches of happiness form within social networks. They were especially interested in whether happiness spreads not just in direct relationships (such as between friends) but also indirect relationships (such as between friends of friends).

Their results show that a ‘happy’ friend living within a mile of another increases the probability of that person being happy by 25 per cent. Similar effects are seen in spouses who live together, siblings who live within a mile of each other, and next-door neighbours. Interestingly, the happiness effect is not seen between co-workers. The effect declines with time and with geographical separation. Clusters of happy and unhappy people are identifiable, and the relationship between people’s happiness extends to up to three degrees of separation.

How can this be? Happy people might share their good fortune – for example, by being helpful to others. They might become nicer or less hostile. Or they might exude an emotion that is genuinely contagious. At a physiological level, happiness has been associated with lower cortisol (stress hormone) output, reduced inflammatory responses and healthy patterns of heart-rate variability.

It has been shown that people hate loss more than they value gain, which helps to explain some of our post-Celtic Tiger psychological distress. And, while one cannot diminish the brutal effect of sudden job loss for the individual, there seems to be a growing anticipatory negative behaviour whereby others are almost “freezing” their existence. Not going out, not booking holidays even when we are personally unaffected by the downturn is not living. It suggests we have forgotten Charles Dickens’ definition of being happy: the result of an annual income of £20 with expenditure of £19, 19 shillings and 6 pence.

In truth, we need to move away from pounds, shillings and pence as a driver of personal happiness. Investing in social capital – the ties that bind families, communities and other social groups – is linked to greater wellbeing. It certainly contributes to good health and longevity.

It is time Ireland followed the example of the King of Bhutan, who famously announced that his nation would measure gross national happiness (GNH). That would certainly move us away from the relentless pursuit of greater GNP and higher GDP.

Here is a recipe for the emotional equivalent of the five fruit and veg a day recommended for physical health.

Give:we seem to be happier caring about other people’s happiness.

Relate:talk to more people more deeply.

Exercise:release some feel-good hormones.

Attend:try to engage with sight, sound and touch.

Engage:be open to learning something new.

Finally, mix in some emotional contagion and sprinkle liberally.


mhouston@irishtimes.com