At least you have your health….

I’ve been ill lately, and it was like my life had fallen apart. I couldn’t get things done, I felt bad about myself, I wasn’t getting anywhere in life. It wasn’t a serious illness, just one of those nasty infections in the head and the chest. Coughing, sleeplessness, blocked-up head…. I’m sure you’re familiar with the story. It seems like it has been going on for months, but I think the worst is over now, and I’m feeling like I can get on top of things again.

Have I been happy? I’d have to say no, I’ve been fairly unhappy. Health – 5-6 out of 10; Happiness – 3-4 out of 10. I’ve been rereading Harry Potter instead of writing blogs and being productive, and as much as I’ve enjoyed Harry Potter it’s not making me as happy as I am when I’m achieving goals and doing constructive stuff. No blog, no business-building, not much of anything really. And things that I really dislike doing are not being done, like housework; and looking at the carpet that needs vacuuming and the kitchen floor that needs scrubbing makes me less happy than I am when I look at it after it has been cleaned (no matter who does the actual cleaning!).

And I’ve been relying a bit on that old fallback stress-reducer – retail therapy! It’s a while since I’ve fallen for this, making myself feel better by acquiring stuff on eBay or in the local shopping mall, and I’m sure it’s related to being ill, since I didn’t have these cravings earlier in the year. I’ve been craving chocolate as well, another sure sign of unhappiness. The story of how I had previously managed to reduce my chocolate cravings are another story…

Now that I’m feeling better, I’ve been getting some work done, which makes me feel better about myself, and I’ve been getting out and about and seeing other people. No longer locked in my house seeing nobody but my husband, I am a social creature again, and I’m sure that this is making me happier as well.

So I’m convinced, as if I needed to be, that bad health means less happiness. Not only do I feel physically terrible but I can’t do the things that make me happy – working on something I enjoy; seeing other people; being useful and all that; and even the chocolate and the shopping doesn’t really help except in a short-term, superficial way. Today I did something I enjoy that I haven’t done for months – I repotted some neglected plants – and I feel so pleased with myself that I’ve come inside to write a blog about happiness, something I haven’t done for weeks. So as my health has improved my happiness has increased as I’ve been able to do things that make me happy.

Does it work the other way around? Can happiness make you healthier? Apparently, yes; if you are happy you will live up to 9 years longer, according to my current favourite TV program The Happiness Formula on BBC World. I’ll be looking into that one more thoroughly in a future blog.

The Happiness Formula

BBC World’s The Happiness Formula

[I'm writing this as I watch the program on cable TV].

Measuring activity in the brain by oxygen levels when shown a happy or sad picture shows that happiness can be detected directly in the brain ….. or is it pleasure? Is pleasure and happiness the same thing? And does it last? Or is happiness something deeper and more lasting than mere pleasure?

Can you just ask people to rate their own happiness and get a valid result? Professor Ed Diener, psychologist and researcher into happiness, thinks we can. He finds that the happiest people in the world are the Swiss, and those in Belarus are the least happy. Happy countries are richer and democratic, but their happiness is not so much greater than poor, non-democratic ones.

[Why democratic, I wonder? Do we prefer to have some perception of control over our lives that democracy theoretically gives us? This is a question for another time, I think].

Measuring happiness in this way predicts outcomes in peoples’ lives. Are they more likely to commit suicide if they are less happy? Surprisingly, yes! Can someone who scores less on the happiness scale keep his hand in iced water for as long as someone who scored higher? The answer turns out to be no! So are happy people more persistent, more resilient, more likely to succeed in life? Perhaps extrapolating from iced water experiments are pushing the whole thing too far, but it is easy to see how it could work.

Another study, of nuns interviewed a few years ago, found that those who sounded happier in interviews lived longer than the less happy ones, up to 9 years longer. This is not something to be sneezed at! And another one, of performance during memory exercises, showed that people who are pampered a bit more are able to remember objects better.

Professor Layard, an economist, has come to the conclusion that money doesn’t make us happy. Striving to make more money doesn’t make us happier, and perhaps it makes us less happy when we are constantly comparing ourselves to others. Bhutanese polititians measure Gross Domestic Happiness rather than Gross Domestic Product, and make decisions according to whether people will be happier rather than richer. Plastic bags have been banned (not a bad idea). Bhutan is not as rich as it might have been, but the people are happier.

What do we need for lasting happiness? Not endless consumption, but volunteering is what gives our lives meaning, and meaning is necessary for real, lasting, happiness. Happy people volunteer, and volunteers are happier. They also are more likely to get married, stay married, become leaders and help others at work, and have better health, says Ed Diener.

A survey asking whether governments should aim to make us richer or happier, the overwhelming majority went for happiness.

[What would you choose? Will you wait for the government to do something, or will you do it yourself?]

Stay tuned for the next episode in this excellent series on BBC World.

Health and Happiness

I haven’t been well lately, and that’s why the blog hasn’t been forthcoming. It’s harder to write about happiness when you are not happy! And it is amazing how unhappy being ill makes you feel. It’s just a headcold, but it has been going on for so long that it is affecting the way I feel about myself.

Interesting, isn’t it? I feel ill and unable to concentrate, and I start thinking about how I am unable to do things, and I feel worse about myself, and I start feeling worse for real, and I go and sit in front of the TV and watch Buffy instead of writing a blog or any other of the worthwhile things I could be doing. It’s all connected – my thoughts, feelings, actions, and physical wellbeing and situation all affect each other.

This is a basic tenet of Cognitive Behavioural Coaching. If I can change one of these things then all the others will be affected, hopefully for the better. If I can get up out of my armchair and turn Buffy off and go for a walk I will feel better about myself, and when I get back I can do something more constructive. If I’m doing something constructive with my time I feel better about myself, or at least a bit less useless than I did before. If I feel a bit more useful then I will be a bit more useful, which will make me do more useful things, and I’ll feel better and better. Try it, it really works.

Your feelings influence your thinking, and what you are thinking influences your feelings. If you keep telling yourself how useless you are you will feel bad and you will be useless. So take the cold-and-flu tablets and do something when you feel ill, especially if the illness is going on for a long time. That’s what I’m doing!