Do yourself a power of good: Learn 'happiness skills'
Teaching "happiness skills" to men with HIV gives them greater control over the virus and reduces antidepressant use, a new study shows.
The 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 in a control group who were not given this coaching, said Judith Moskowitz from the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in the US.
Roughly double the percentage of men without the coaching went on antidepressants to cope with the stress compared to those who benefited from it.
The results are encouraging for people with other chronic illnesses. The research continues 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 appears to influence important health outcomes," Moskowitz found.
The participants in the HIV study, who were mostly from San Francisco, were taught eight skills (see box) 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.
According to the World Happiness Report released by the UN last year, South Africa ranks 116 out of 157 of the happiest countries.
But practising happiness skills, like those highlighted in this and other research, can make a difference for 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".
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.
Eight skills for happiness
- Recognising a positive event each day;
- Savouring that positive event and logging it in a journal or telling someone about it;
- Starting a daily gratitude journal;
- Listing a personal strength each day and noting how you used this strength recently;
- Setting an attainable goal each day and noting your progress;
- 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;
- Understanding small acts of kindness can have a big impact on positive emotion, as can practising a small act of kindness each day;
- Practising mindfulness with a daily 10-minute breathing exercise, concentrating on the breath.