Time for a change of targets


Despite being richer, we don't seem any happier, says Michelle McDonagh, looking at research into this intriguing subject

THE CELTIC Tiger may have transformed us, but as Ireland and other Western societies have become richer, we don't seem to have become any happier or more joyful. This finding has intrigued economists and psychologists, prompting these disciplines to start looking at the relationship between wealth and happiness directly.

Positive psychologists at University College Cork (UCC), Dr Zelda Di Blasi and Dr Anthony Montgomery, have started a positive health psychology group that is open to everyone at the university, and which will eventually include the wider community.

The vision of the group is to build a positive psychology in Ireland from the ground up. In this way, our approach to positive psychology will evolve in an organic fashion, in collaboration with the wider community, says Di Blasi.

Psychological research into the pursuit of happiness was announced at the start of the millennium by Martin Seligman, president of the American Psychological Association. Seligman set this as a new mission for psychologists who had mostly been focusing on negative psychological states.

Remarkably, the ratio between research into negative states such as depression and anxiety and positive psychological states such as optimism and joy was 21:1. In an attempt to redress this imbalance, happiness research suddenly became part of a new and rapidly growing movement within psychology, called positive psychology.

Positive psychology conferences, summer schools and university courses began to run annually. At Harvard University, positive psychology is currently the most popular course.

Di Blasi, who lectures in applied psychology at UCC, formed a group within the department to teach and research various areas within positive psychology. Di Blasi co-ordinates a module in positive psychology as a final-year option for psychology students and various final year students have done their final year projects in positive psychology areas, for example looking at the effects of gratitude or the effects of mindfulness.

Funded by the President's Award into Innovative Forms of Teaching, along with Anna O'Reilly, Di Blasi conducted short mindfulness exercises at the start of first-year lectures and is currently evaluating the effect this has had on motivation, attention and academic performance.

One of the reasons for the boom in this field is the advance in neurology, says Di Blasi.

We are now able to pinpoint where happiness lies in the brain. We also understand that, thanks to brain plasticity, we can change our levels of happiness and record such changes. Another reason for the growing interest in this area comes from study on the economics of happiness. We may be a lot better off than we were in the past, but our happiness levels have not changed. Instead we have seen increases in depression and anxiety, she comments.

Di Blasi's research for her PhD was on the placebo effect and in finding ways to harness mind-body mechanisms in a way that was safe and ethical. In one of her studies for her PhD (in Health Sciences from the University of York), she found at least some evidence to suggest that raising expectations and interacting with patients in a personal and social way was actually therapeutic.

Patients who had been given a placebo were more likely to get better if their doctor was warm and friendly, and their beliefs about the drug had been raised than patients who were given a placebo by a doctor who was cold and formal and who kept their expectations about the drug neutral.

While working at the University of California San Francisco, Di Blasi was based in a new centre that focused on integrative medicine, working with psychologist Prof Folkman, who discovered that experiencing positive emotions is a coping strategy for patients with a terminal illness. In fact, the illness may have given meaning to their lives. There is also some evidence that those who are optimistic tend to live longer.

Just as expectations can activate placebo effects, so can optimism influence wellbeing, says Di Blasi. The initiation of joy, laughter, hope or mindfulness is rarely rewarded or assessed according to Montgomery, an organisational health psychologist who has spent his career working with healthcare professionals in Ireland, Holland, Greece and Bahrain.

Montgomery joined UCC's Psychology Department last year and his work to date has been rooted in the observation that work environments, and hospitals in particular, tend to be places where positive emotions are either absent or have become incorrectly associated with a less professional way of behaving.

In fact, the formal culture of most healthcare environments encourages both patients and healthcare professionals to be stoic, mistakenly associating professionalism with austerity, he remarks.

Positive psychology gives us practical tools for better living, according to Montgomery. He points out that there are now validated interventions that increase happiness and wellbeing such as simplifying our lives, developing optimism, building on inner strengths, cultivating positive emotions through compassion, forgiveness, gratefulness, mindfulness, flow, humour and loving kindness.

Its practical applications are infinite. Just as stress and depression can negatively affect our immune system, so can happiness boost our health.