Happiness in challenging times

24 Mar 2020 / 21:06 H.

    IT is often said happiness is a choice. But it is easier said than done. Can people really choose to be happy at such a stressful time? Research suggests there are several reasons why people can and should choose to be happy.

    There is a growing body of evidence indicating that being happy is associated with a better immune system. In a landmark study, researchers Sheldon Cohen and his colleagues from Carnegie Mellon University infected 334 healthy volunteers aged 18 to 54 years with rhinovirus (that causes the common cold). The results showed volunteers, who were happier and exhibited more positive emotions were less likely to get the cold. This finding was maintained after controlling for prechallenge virus-specific antibodies, virus-type, age, sex, education, race, and body mass. Other researchers reported similar results with influenza virus (that causes flu).

    At times of stress and uncertainty, it is easy to panic and become irrational, making decisions that may not be in our best interest. To defeat Covid-19, it is essential to remain positive, optimistic and collaborative; choosing to be happy will support all of that.

    Life will always throw things at us, many of them unexpected. The way we choose to respond will make a big difference. So, what practical steps can we can take to be happy and positive? Here are five suggestions.

    » Have an impact statement

    People with a clear sense of purpose are happy and successful. At my university, we ask every staff and student to develop a statement that describes how they will use their lives, capabilities and personal influence to have a positive impact on the world.

    » Say thank you

    Expressing gratitude improves the level of happiness of both the giver and the recipient, and strengthens their relationships. Thank at least one person who has made a difference in your life each week. This will change your life.

    » Stay active

    Choose a physical activity you enjoy and can do regularly. I like walking, and climb the stairs. Others may choose running, walking or yoga. Whatever you choose, do it at least three times a week.

    » Use positive language

    We live in a world of words. Choose to communicate and frame situations using positive language. This will help make us and those around us more positive.

    » Rewire your brain

    Our brains are wired to protect us. That is why it easier to pick up negative stimuli. Having a daily practice of writing down the five things that we are grateful for will build more positive and happy connections in the brain making it more likely to choose happiness.

    Choosing happiness is a rational choice, not only on a personal level but also on an organisational and national level.

    Happiness increases productivity and reduces time taken off work. A 2019 study by Professor Jan-Emmanuel De Neve from Saïd, George Ward from MIT and Clement Bellet of Erasmus University Rotterdam has found that happy workers are 13% more productive. The researchers studied 1,793 BT workers in 11 call centres across the UK and showed that the happiest workers were also the ones with the most productive output.

    Since the pioneering initiative by Bhutan in 1972 to introduce Gross National Happiness as a measure of the success of the nation, alongside Gross National Product, a number of nations have followed suit. In 2016, the United Arab Emirates announced the establishment of a Ministry for Happiness to coordinate the state’s work in this area. Last year, New Zealand’s government announced its “world-first” wellbeing budget. The budget allocated billions of dollars for mental health services and child poverty as well as record investment in measures to tackle family violence.

    Nicola Sturgeon, the first minister of Scotland said in a speech earlier this year that Scotland is redefining what it means to be a successful nation. According to Sturgeon “Scotland is creating an economy where ‘collective wellbeing’ is as fundamental as GDP.”

    This progressive global move towards a focus on happiness and wellbeing is not surprising. Mental health is becoming a global issue that is threatening national productivity and competitiveness, as well as increasing risk. A recent study by Relate Mental Health Malaysia titled “Workplace mental health - The business cost” estimated that mental health issues afflicting the workforce in Malaysia may have cost the economy as much as RM14.46 billion, or more than 1% of Malaysia’s total gross domestic product (GDP).

    Although Covid-19 has impacted our lives and our economy, it also showed us how connected we are to each other. While I have no doubt that we will prevail – humans always do – my hope is that we do so in a way that brings the best out of us, our compassion, wisdom and innovation.

    Happiness is a choice. It is a choice that we need to make every day. Let us keep on making this choice no matter how difficult it may be. Happy International Day of Happiness.

    Prof Mushtak Al-Atabi is provost and CEO of Heriot-Watt University Malaysia. Comments:


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