The Scientific Method: 'Continual well-being could be a nauseating treacle that prevents imaginative action'

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The Independent Online

How mentally well would you like to be? Most research efforts on mental health have been investigations into illnesses such as schizophrenia and depression. Now it is claimed that when all mental illness is removed or absent in an individual the result is not happiness or well-being. Well-being is not that easy to define but we all have some intuition as to what it refers. It can range from a sense of achievement to a feeling of good health. And, curiously, well-being is not an accepted emotion like sadness or anger. But now there is serious research into how to make us feel happy, good, and content. Research has shown that positive emotions spark the urge to play and explore, and contentment sparks the urge to savour and integrate one's life activities. Such positive emotions promote creativity and this finding should be contrasted with a widely argued case that manic depression has, for those in the arts, a very positive effect on creativity.

There is also evidence from a study of nuns that those with positive emotions live some 10 years longer. There are programmes to strengthen positive emotions such as reflecting on one's strengths, and at night recording three positive events. It is also suggested that one should visit or write to someone who has helped one in the past to express one's thanks. But well-being is complex, and a distinction has been drawn between two types: that which involves purposeful pursuits and realisation of one's talents, while the other emphasises happiness and contentment. It is the former that has the more positive effects on the body.

How about money? There is evidence that an increase in the general wealth of a society does not increase well-being. There is also the problem that however much one has, it is always relative, and one tends to compare it with the wealth of others; and having less does not lead to positive emotions. But other people matter a great deal and a key factor in well-being is what has been termed "social capital". This relates to the social support available; the number of people you can rely on, the social network of people you know by their first names. Crime rates in any society are inversely proportional to social capital.

The approach from neuroscience emphasises the variability of the emotional responses of individuals to similar situations. Investigation of the neural basis of positive affect has found that this is associated with high levels of activation of the left frontal cortex of the brain and fast recovery from negative events. Self esteem is a key component of well-being and this has been found to be linked to an increased size in the hippocampus in the brain.

In addition, low levels of the stress hormone cortisol is linked to a positive approach to life. While there are genetic contributions to these feelings - it has been said some are born with more cerebral joy juice - it is clear that well-being is a learned skill. This is particularly true with respect to acquiring resilience - one has to work at it. It is also possible to increase a sense of well-being by meditating, which can increase one's resistance to flu.

What about a happiness pill? If cigarettes and alcohol and cannabis and cocaine and LSD can all induce in their own ways feelings associated with great well-being, it must surely be possible to create a safe pill for just this purpose. If it really worked it might also get rid of mental illness. I know this is just fantasy but it still worth considering, for could one bear to live a completely happy life and what effect would it have on society as a whole? Is not the effect of stress and unhappiness essential in order for humans to try and solve problems?

Our negative emotions were not selected by evolution without good reason. Sadness is essential for trying to make up a loss and plays a fundamental role in mother-child attachment as in good marriages, and fear is obviously protective in dangerous situations. Continual well-being could be a nauseating and dangerous treacle preventing imaginative action. And of course there is, in a way, a "pill" for well-being: it is called exercise.

Lewis Wolpert is Professor of Biology as Applied to Medicine at University College, London