The paradox of our health and wellbeing
We might be delusional about the state of our health, but our health doesn’t really affect our sense of wellbeing.
Surprising as this may be, nor does stress (at least compared with other psychological factors). In fact, according to the ongoing research that forms The Australian Unity Wellbeing Index, “negative” emotions can have a positive impact on our wellbeing.
This is significant because despite our dodgy health, increasing rates of stress and anxiety, we are among the top 10 happiest countries in the world and our subjective wellbeing has stayed steady, at about 76 per cent, since the study started in 2001.
“There’s a lot of reason to suspect that the happiness levels of the population have changed, with different things that happen at a national level and changes in people’s lives but that’s the interesting thing about subjective wellbeing, it’s very stable, and for the most part positive,” says Dr Melissa Weinberg, one of the researchers who spoke about the findings at the Australian Psychological Society congress in Melbourne last week.
How is this possible?
Weinberg uses the analogy of our body’s temperature set point to explain some seemingly paradoxical findings.
“When something happens to affect your body temperature, your body reacts by adjusting,” says the honorary fellow at Deakin University’s school of psychology. “The same thing happens for our happiness, we have a set point for our happiness and there are things that affect our happiness and take us away from our set point but we adjust – that’s resilience, that process of adjusting and recovering our optimal level – our set point.”
So something like stress, for instance, we can generally cope with.
“People can tolerate high levels of stress without it affecting their wellbeing,” Weinberg says. “Most people like the feeling of being stressed – it means you’re doing something, you’re busy. If you’re not stressed are you doing anything meaningful. It’s not stress that’s the problem, it’s distress. Once it’s distress, then it’s a problem, then it affects your wellbeing, but stress isn’t as much of a problem as we tend to think it is.”
What causes us distress may not be what we expect. Take our health, for example.
“You would think overall health would affect our overall wellbeing more than it does,” Weinberg says. “People adjust very well to physical health conditions.”
She describes a study she was involved with several years ago on people receiving dialysis for “end-stage kidney disease”.
While their satisfaction with their health was lower than the rest of population, as we might expect, their health wasn’t the primary factor affecting their wellbeing. Rather, it was the absence of a sense of meaning.
“They were spending a lot of time managing their condition and sitting in a dialysis ward so they didn’t feel like they were actually doing anything with their lives,” Weinberg explains.
“It’s very easy when you think of someone with a health condition to think ‘oh they must be miserable’ … but for them, that’s often what they’re used to – that’s their life and they adjust to that in most cases.”
Similarly, Weinberg says we often consider that “those who have the most money in the world would have the best lives, but you hear stories of their troubles as well”.
Rather, one thing that causes us distress is the quality of our relationships and connection with others.
“Loneliness has a bigger effect on wellbeing than stress or anxiety,” says Weinberg, noting that our sense of social support has a significant effect on our sense of wellbeing. “Even just feeling a little bit lonely has a big impact on our wellbeing.”
Ongoing loneliness, distress and a lack of meaning throw our wellbeing thermostat way out, but “negative” feelings are not something to fear. In fact, allowing ourselves to feel the natural range of emotions when life throws us curve balls is healthy.
“We don’t always have to change and go from sad to happy all of a sudden – sometimes we feel down and sometimes that’s OK,” Weinberg says. “There’s a lot of research that says that there are some good reasons why we don’t always feel happy all the time.
“There are some benefits to being in what’s called a mildly negative mood sometime – we shouldn’t feel pressured to always be happy, but if we find that we try things and they don’t work and we notice that we really haven’t been happy for some time, then it’s time to seek help and reach out.”
Weinberg says that the overarching research has highlighted how strong we tend to be.
“What we have learned from this project is that we are as humans inherently resilient,” she says. “When bad things happen we do have this internal process that acts to try and help us get better. The analogy is that if your body temp drops, you will start to shiver which is its attempt to restore itself, but sometimes that shivering isn’t enough, sometimes you might need to put on a layer of clothing and if it gets really bad, you might need to seek help.”
What is wellbeing?
Wellbeing is not Tom Cruise jumping on Oprah’s couch in a crazed state of ecstasy, Weinberg explains.
“If you imagine that we have a set point, where we’re meant to be and that’s in this positive, mildly alert state – it’s a happiness, but not a joyful, over-the-top happiness – it’s more a state of contentment,” she says. “If you think of our anchor – that’s where we’re trying to be – yes, there are times when we might feel lonely, yes, there are times when we might feel sad, but our body’s actually always trying to bring us back to that set point of happiness.”
How’s your wellbeing?
“The simplest and best way to measure subjective wellbeing is a single question ‘when you think about your life in general, how satisfied are you with your life as a whole?’ ” Weinberg says. “It’s a question about satisfaction. Then we break that down further by asking about the different domains of life that contribute to your overall life satisfaction.”
These domains include relationships, what you’re achieving in life (work/family/volunteering etc) and health.
Who is struggling the most?
“We did a big project a couple of years ago where we explored the subjective wellbeing of informal carers,” says Weinberg, explaining that informal means unpaid carers.
The 4000 people studied, who generally became carers because a family member or friend had experienced a severe health condition and needed care, had the lowest measure of wellbeing of any group, including the person they were caring for, including people who earn a very low income, or people who were unemployed.
“Usually, in a carer’s situation, there are two ways out of it – one is that you leave the person and the other is that the person dies and neither is a good outcome,” Weinberg explains. “People think that caring is a really altruistic thing to do, but caring is really taxing on a person, it’s really really hard work and we really need people to care for the carers.”
How do the Wellbeing Index findings help us?
“The most interesting thing for me, that has big implications, is that when we’re looking for evidence that something is wrong, we wait until symptoms emerge to act, pick up a problem, so a lot of people who measure things like depression, anxiety and stress and say they’re measuring wellbeing, they’re not, they’re actually measuring ill-being,” Weinberg says.
“You need symptoms to emerge before your scale picks it up. What we can do with the wellbeing index is actually infer that there is a vulnerability to experiencing those symptoms just by showing a sudden or slight drop in satisfaction – we can go ‘alright, something is happening here’. Just like when your body temp drops just a little bit it might be a symptom that somebody is vulnerable – you can detect vulnerability before symptoms actually emerge.”
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