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The Health Benefits Of Happiness


Now it is claimed that happiness could be more important than smoking in determining your health.

Dr Derek Cox, Director of Public Health at Dumfries and Galloway NHS, suspects that for decades health professionals have been missing a big trick in improving the health of the nation.

"We've spent years saying that giving up smoking could be the single most important thing that we could do for the health of the nation.

"And yet there is mounting evidence that happiness might be at least as powerful a predictor, if not a more powerful predictor than some of the other lifestyle factors that we talk about in terms of cigarette smoking, diet, physical activity and those kind of things."

Like everyone else, for years he tried to prevent ill-health by anti-smoking and healthy lifestyle campaigns.

But there was little change. People were dying at roughly the same rates.

So he started looking into the health benefits of happiness.

"It's not just that if you're physically well you're likely to be happy but actually the opposite way round," said Dr Cox.

"If you are happy you are likely in the future to have less in the way of physical illness than those who are unhappy".

Dr Cox now has an ambition to make Dumfries and Galloway happier and healthier.

"I'd love to make the people of Dumfries and Galloway the happiest and healthiest people in Scotland," he said.

He argues people are happier if they are given more control at work, live in a safe neighbourhood and participate in community projects.

Happy talk

The science of happiness is increasingly suggesting a link between happiness and health.

Andrew Steptoe, the British Heart Foundation Professor of Psychology at University College London, has found that happier people also have greater protection against things like heart disease and stroke.

"We know that stress which has bad effects on biology, leads to those bad changes as far as health is concerned," said Mr Steptoe.

"What we think is happening is that happiness has the opposite effect and has a protective effect on these same biological pathways".

One of the ways in which Dr Cox has tried to increase happiness is by the use of a new kind of therapy.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) has been called a common sense approach to therapy.

Instead of a therapist lying you down on a couch and asking you what your relationship with your father or mother was like, a CBT therapist aims to help you to avoid dwelling on negative thoughts and to find ways to overcome them.

Because Dr Cox cannot afford the thousands of CBT therapists he would need in his area, he has started training local volunteers to do the counselling for him.

So far he claims that it has worked quite well: time with an amateur CBT therapist has had positive effects on the patients.

It is a vision which inspires Labour peer and happiness evangelist Richard Layard. He is lobbying government to employ another 10,000 therapists.

"We're talking about 1500 for a course of CBT. That can change somebody's life."

Professor Paul Salovskis, clinical psychologist at King's College London, is determined to get the government to put more money into CBT.

"It's a scandal actually that people cannot receive treatments which we know to be effective and indeed the health service knows to be effective.

"Potentially it's got colossal implications. We could see a future where people did not suffer from severe anxiety and depression.

"I don't think that's putting it too strongly. I also think that in terms of everyday worries we are in a position to give people the tools to deal with those that would then allow them to go forward and achieve the things which they want to achieve."

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