SUNDAY TIMES - Learning happiness skills key to better health for HIV patients, study shows
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Sunday Times Lifestyle By Claire Keeton, 2017-04-19 18:34:30.0

Learning happiness skills key to better health for HIV patients, study shows

Writing in a gratitude journal is a daily habit that could give you a happiness boost.
Image: iStock

Teaching happiness skills to men with HIV gives them greater control over the virus and reduces anti-depressant use‚ a new study shows.

Some 80 men who were coached in daily habits “to help them experience positive emotions” had a lower viral load in their blood than a comparable group of men who were not given this coaching said the lead author‚ Professor Judith Moskowitz from the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in the US.

Roughly double the percentage of men without the coaching went on anti-depressants to cope with the stress compared to those who benefited from it.

These results are encouraging for people in the early phase of other serious chronic illnesses. The research is ongoing with women with breast cancer‚ people with type 2 diabetes and the caregivers of people with dementia.

“Coaching people to feel happy‚ calm and satisfied — what we call positive affect — appears to influence important health outcomes‚" Moskowitz found.

The participants in the HIV study‚ who were mostly men based in San Francisco‚ were taught a set of eight skills (see below) over five weeks and the control group were not.

The research showed that 91% of the participants had a suppressed viral load after 15 months while only 76% of the men from the control group had a lower viral load.

Moskowitz said: “The reduced viral load could be because of a stronger immune system. Observational studies in people living with HIV have shown positive emotion is related to a higher CD4 count (an indicator of immune strength).

“Or‚ the reduced viral load may be the result of participants' better adherence to their antiretroviral drug therapy‚ which generally leads to a suppressed or undetectable viral load.”

The paper was published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology.

South Africans are lagging behind in the World Happiness Report released by the UN last year‚ with SA ranking 116 out of 157 of the happiest countries in the world.

But practising happiness skills‚ like those highlighted in this and other research‚ can make a difference in anyone irrespective of their health.

For example‚ wellbeing psychologist Martin Seligman‚ said that “kindness produces the single most reliable momentary increase in wellbeing of any exercise we have tested”.

At the end of the day reminding oneself about “what went well today”‚ can improve one’s perceptions as the brain tends to remember the peak and end points.

US and Australian psychologists found five personality traits associated with wellbeing: enthusiasm‚ industriousness‚ compassion‚ intellectual curiosity‚ and “low withdrawal” which meant not being easily embarrassed‚ overwhelmed and discouraged.

8 health-boosting happiness skills:

1) Recognising a positive event each day.

2) Savouring that positive event and logging it in a journal or telling someone about it.

3) Starting a daily gratitude journal.

4) Listing a personal strength each day and noting how you used this strength recently.

5) Setting an attainable goal each day and noting your progress.

6) Reporting a relatively minor stressor each day‚ then listing ways in which the event can be positively reappraised. This can lead to increased positive effect in the face of stress.

7) Understanding small acts of kindness can have a big impact on positive emotion and practising a small act of kindness each day.

8) Practising mindfulness with a daily 10-minute breathing exercise‚ concentrating on the breath. - TMG Digital/TimesLive