Calibrating happiness

According to that archetypal pessimist, Murphy, if anything can wrong,
it will. Now science is telling us that, for the habitual worrier, a
lot really can go wrong.

In the early 1960s the Mayo Clinic ran a research project in which
50,000 representative people did a personality inventory test. Last
year a team led by Mayo neuropsychiatrist Yonas Geda revisited a sample
of those individuals -- or a relative -- to find out who among them had
developed dementia or other cognitive impairment. (1)

Sure enough. Those who had showed up as pessimistic, anxious or
depressed in the earlier test were 30 to 40 per cent more likely to be
suffering from dementia. Pessimists and chronic worriers with the
highest anxiety scores also had a moderately increased risk of
developing Parkinson’s disease during the same time-frame. This finding
comes with a salutary warning from Dr Geda and colleagues that
individuals should not leap to conclusions -- although that is exactly
what a pessimist is likely to do.

Other reports accentuate the positive. A study of people aged 65 to 85
in the Netherlands showed that, during a nine-year period, highly
optimistic people had half the risk of dying from all causes, and a 23
per cent lower risk of cardiovascular death compared to highly
pessimistic people. In short, optimists are likely to live longer, even
if they have something like heart disease. (2)

Furthermore, researchers at University College London studying a sample
of middle-aged public servants have found that a happy disposition
reduces the risk of getting heart disease in the first place, because
the happy person has lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol and
thus a lower risk of hypertension. “Perhaps laughter is the best
medicine,” says Jane Wardle, one of the team. (3)

A rising tide of depression

It is a timely reminder. The World Health Organization warns that a rising tide of depression is encircling the world -- particularly the
more developed part of it. In Europe alone depression is close to being
the second greatest burden of disease (after cardiovascular),
afflicting around 30 million people. (4)

Many depressed people end up taking their own lives. Suicides have
reached the level of 150,000 a year in Europe, and almost one million
globally. The highest rates are found in Eastern Europe and the lowest
in Latin America, Muslim countries and a few Asian nations -- a fact
that is worth revisiting. There is an alarming rise in depression rates
amongst young people.

But help is at hand. As economists count the cost of mental malaise in
billions of dollars of health expenditure and lost productivity, and as
governments, spurred on by the WHO, commit themselves to spending more
billions on treatment and prevention, mind benders are coming to the

Positive psychology

In January, Time magazine announced “The New Science of Happiness” -- a
benign conspiracy among some leading psychologists to use their
profession to increase the happiness of the human race rather than
simply relieve its misery. One of them, Martin Seligman, puts it this
way: “It wasn’t enough for us to nullify disabling conditions and get
[from minus five] to zero. We needed to ask, What are the enabling
conditions that make human beings flourish? How do we get from zero to
plus five?”

Positive psychology, as the new trend is called, has two main points of
reference: immediate experience and remembered experience. The first is
emphasized by Nobel-prizewinner Daniel Kahneman of Princeton
University, who says that, since time is a scarce resource, we should
get the most out of it by paying more attention to our immediate
experiences, choosing those which engage the mind and give us most
pleasure. In other words, if life is journey, let’s make it as
enjoyable as possible.

Seligman, on the other hand, is more concerned with where the journey
is leading. The author of several books on optimism and catalyst of the
positive psychology movement, he believes memory is a truer guide to
happiness, subordinating pleasure to the more important tests of
meaning (Did that game of golf serve my ultimate purpose in life?) and
engagement (Did it deepen my involvement with my friends and hobby?)

While it may be true that some of us should be more selective about our
“experiences” and live them more intensely, Kahneman’s focus on
pleasure seems to leave us on the same utilitarian, consumerist
treadmill that has fed our angst for so many decades. The lesson of
recent times, surely, is that the pursuit of pleasure actually diverts
us from the main sources of happiness.

The hardwiring of happiness

Seligman’s emphasis on larger meanings and deeper forms of engagement
is consistent with research in the fields of attachment theory and
meaning. In 2003 a major report on the mental health of American
children and adolescents appeared. Hardwired to Connect: The New
Scientific Case for Authoritative Communities
represents the combined
effort of 33 experts to get behind the worsening statistics, the drugs
and other therapies, and come up with a new model for improving the
mental and emotional lives of children. (5)

What they found at the bottom of childhood malaise was a lack of
connectedness -- close connections to other people and deep connections
to moral and spiritual meaning. And this was not, primarily, a
philosophical position but a scientific one: biology, psychology and
the social sciences increasingly reveal that the human brain is
“hardwired” for these connections, and that mental health -- including
the development of the brain itself -- depends on the extent to which
they are nurtured.

The essential link between attachment and meaning is captured in the
report’s idea of an “authoritative community” -- in the first place the
family, and after that all other groups or institutions that are able
to nurture children, transmit to them a shared understanding of what it
means to be a good person, and encourage them in religious seeking and
love of neighbour. “Authoritative” in this context refers to “that
particular combination of warmth and structure in which children in a
democratic society appear most likely to thrive,” says the report.

Religion -- but on the ‘inside’

One of the most interesting things about this fascinating report is the
evidence it uncovered for religion or spirituality as a “wired” need
and task -- especially for the adolescent. This is reflected in the
fact that 96 per cent of American teenagers say they believe in God and
40 per cent say they pray frequently. Despite such facts, little study
has been done on the influence of religion on young people. What has
been done, together with what is known from adult studies, suggests
that religious belief and practice is strongly correlated with
optimism, self-esteem, service, gratitude and other positive attitudes.

As one might expect, some psychologists and social scientists remain
wary of research showing links between religion and mental health. They
either find fault with the research itself, or attribute the
psychological benefits of religion to intermediary factors such as the
social support of belonging to a church. (6)

But the evidence keeps surfacing. At the annual meeting of the American
Academy of Neurology last month a small study was presented showing
that among patients with a probable diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease,
those with higher levels of religiosity experienced slower cognitive

Another recent study found that religious people were more satisfied
with life than others because their religious practice gave them
greater optimism and social support. But this was true only if their
religiousness was “intrinsic”, or internalized. Merely external
religious practice did not make people happier. (7)

This reinforces something noted in the Hardwired report: religion did
its best work, so to speak, for those adolescents who reported personal
devotion, or a “direct personal relationship with the Divine”. The
protective effects of personal devotion -- reduced risk-taking and
feelings of loneliness, greater regard for the self and others -- are
twice as great for adolescents as for adults.

Finally, there is that interesting fact referred to earlier: suicide
rates, which are one measure of the problem of depression, are lowest
in Latin America, Muslim countries and some Asian nations. Without
knowing exactly which Asian nations, two out of three items in this
list suggest a connection between religion and mental health -- as well
as, probably, family strength.

It makes sense. Throughout history the family and religion have given
individuals security and meaning. If these institutions are now in
meltdown, as they are in many societies, is it any wonder that a tide
of depression is lapping at our doorsteps? Public agencies, whether
governments or the WHO, that want to stave off a full-scale mental
health tsunami could start by putting the family -- the original
authoritative community -- at the center of their plans.

Carolyn Moynihan is the deputy editor of MercatorNet

(1) Mayo Clinic news release, April 21, 2005
(2) Archives of General Psychiatry, 2004;61:1126-1135
(3) “Happiness helps people stay happy”,, April 18, 2005.
(4) Briefing Paper, WHO European Ministerial Conference on Mental
Health: Facing the Challenges, Building Solutions, 13 December 2004
(5) Institute for American Values,
(6) American Academy of Neurology news release, April 2005
(7) John M Salsman et al, “The Link Between Religion and Spirituality and Psychological Adjustment…”, Personality and Social
Psychology Bulletin, Vol. 31, No. 4, 2005


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  • Jennifer Roback Morse