“A neurotic is a man who builds a castle in the air. A psychotic is the man who lives in it. A psychiatrist is the man who collects the rent”

Jerome Lawrence

Happiness and optimism have long been considered a positive asset in dealing with illness or life challenge.

Happy individuals tend to have more responsive immune systems, less hormonal reactions to stress and are more likely to utilize health lifestyle practices that can make a difference in long term health and well-being ((Nowack, K. M. (1989). Coping style, cognitive hardiness, & health status. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 12, 145-158)).

We all seem to have a  genetic  “set point” about just how happy we are and whether we win the lottery, are diagnosed with a chronic illness or find ourselves out of a job we all tend to approach some predetermined level of happiness. So, just how much is happiness something we can change?

Past studies suggest that while 10% of happiness is due to situational factors like health, relationships, and career, 40% is due to intentional activity and the other 50% is due to genes.

A recent study by Weiss et al. (2008) involved more than 900 identical and non-identical twin pairs who completed a standardized survey designed to identify personality traits (five factor personality model). The researchers were able to identify evidence for genes tied to certain personality traits and genes that predispose people to psychological well-being and happiness.

The researchers found that people who don’t worry excessively and are extraverted and conscientious tend to be happier, according to the study reported in the March issue of Psychological Science ((Weiss, A., Bates, T. & Luciano, M. (2008). Happiness Is a Personal(ity) Thing: The Genetics of Personality and Well-Being in a Representative Sample. Psychological Science, 19, 205-308)). Those lucky enough to have the right mix of inherited genes appear to have a disposition for happiness when times are tough.

The Healthy Neurotic

Maybe there is a profile of a “healthy neurotic” after all.

A recent 2013 study revealed that those high in both the personality factors of Conscientiousness (drive, diligence, achievement striving) and Neuroticism had lower circulating inflammatory markers in the blood stream (IL-6) than people with all other configurations of Conscientiousness and Neuroticism ((Turiano, N. et al. (2013). Big 5 personality traits and interleukin-6: Evidence for “healthy Neuroticism” in a US population sample. Brain, Behavior and Immunity, 28, 83-89)).

These findings suggest that average to higher levels of Neuroticism can in some cases be associated with health benefits – in this case only when it is accompanied by high Conscientiousness. People who naturally worry and who don’t report high levels of happiness might actually get a boost in health by being high in drive and achievement orientation.

Whether You are Neurotic or Not–Can Happiness Be Changed?

Is there any evidence that we can change our level of happiness? Indeed, researchers like Marty Seligman at the University of Pennsylvania and other researchers have convincingly shown that 40% of how happy we are daily is directly associated with what we do, how we think and how we view things each day.

In fact, in some of our own research with individuals diagnosed with one of the most baffling auto-immune disorders called multiple sclerosis, we have been able to demonstrate a significant increase in psychological well-being after participating in a 12-week “Living Well” program ((Giesser, B., Coleman, L., Fisher, S., Guttry, M., Herlihy, E., Nonoguch, S., Nowack, D., Roberts, C. & Nowack, K. (2007). Living Well with Multiple Sclerosis: Lessons Learned from a 12-Week Community Based Quality of Life Program. Paper presented at 17th Annual Art & Science of Health Promotion Conference, March, 2007, San Francisco, CA.)).

It appears that even when life is totally unpredictable and our body is literally attacking ourselves we can still maximize our happiness level independent of our natural “set point.” Here are few of the exercises we encourage our MS clients do:

  • Gratitude Gift: Write a letter to someone who has meant a great deal to the individual and express how they have influenced his/her life.
  • Identify/Deploy Your Passions: Identify things that truly bring pleasure and joy and make some time to seek these things out on a weekly basis.
  • Written Emotional Expression: Write down, at least once a week, how you feel about your work, life and current situation expressing all the emotions you are feelings about them.
  • Gratitude Reflections: At least once a day (when you get up or when you go to bed) reflect on at least 1-2 things that made the day special for you and reflect on what you are fortunate for.
  • Forgiveness Gift: Find someone who has done something to hurt you or you are angry with and write a note to share how you are willing to let go of the negative emotions you have with this person or the situation they were involved in.

We might not be able to change the world or even our own genetic set point, but we do have a great capacity to “stretch” the emotional rubber band in a positive direction each day.

It now actually appears to be some scientific evidence to support Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer after all….Be well….

Kenneth Nowack, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist (PSY13758) and President & Chief Research Officer/Co-Founder of Envisia Learning, is a member of the Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence in Organizations. Ken also serves as the Associate Editor of Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research. His recent book Clueless: Coaching People Who Just Don’t Get It is available for free for a limited time by signing up for free blog updates (Learn more at our website)

Posted in Engagement, Wellness

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