In his book, ‘Happy Ever After’, behavioural scientist Professor Paul Dolan says that we’ve been ‘lied to’ about what makes us happy. Speaking with Andrew Marr on BBC Radio 4 this week he said that it’s not success, or money, or status, that makes us happy. People at the top of the tree can be the most miserable. An example is Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid of Dubai, one of the richest men in the world. These days his photographs in the press show a deeply unhappy face, so different to when he was younger. (I lived in Dubai for many years, was a journalist there, and met him a few times.)
Science journalist Linda Geddes talked about the effect of sunlight on our minds and bodies. Going for a walk in daylight increases the light value a thousandfold, and it doesn’t even have to be in full sunshine. Studies have pointed out the benefits of going for a walk, especially in the countryside where there are trees. Perhaps GPs should write walks in the country as part of their social prescribing.
Our mood is affected by our bodies, as well as our mind, said Prof Edward Willmore. He has studied the link between mental health and physical inflammation. Where there is inflammation the immune system in the brain can overreact and cause depression, he said. (Interestingly, researchers are studying this same inflammatory response as being a cause of Alzheimer’s disease.) He mentioned studies looking at whether taking anti-inflammatory medication could reduce depression. Stress is said to start an inflammatory pathway.
The most striking story was writer Laura Freeman’s account of how she cured herself of anorexia. Anorexia is a notoriously difficult condition to treat. She did it by reading books, she said, ‘books and books and filling my mind with good things.’ Which is exactly what the Bible tells us to do – fill our minds with good things.
I often think (and probably say!) that if we followed our Designer’s Handbook, the Bible, we would be a lot healthier and happier. ‘Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise,’ the apostle Paul told the believers at Philippi (Philippians 4:8, NLT). Note that he says FIX our thoughts. As a counsellor I found that many people believe they have no control over their thoughts, but we do. We can choose what we want to dwell on. Going over and over negative thoughts (ruminating) is a major cause of depression – ruminating, it’s called.
Surely, Paul summed it up best when he said that in every situation (and he found himself in some pretty horrible ones) he had learnt to be content. He had also learnt that he could do ‘all things through Him who strengthens me.’ He didn’t wake up one morning feeling content – he had to learn to be, rather like Laura Freeman, who filled her mind with good things.
Let’s do that this year, then! Let’s not look for this elusive happiness, but learn to be content, whatever …