Mar 13

Thomas, recovering in the hospital with a femoral neck fracture, is still a happy person. His best friend lives in the tropics and no longer needs to work – but is always grumpy.

Several good friends have suggested to Jane that she seek therapeutic help, but she says that ‘it isn’t that bad!’. Her neighbor on the other hand, takes coaching or counseling sessions whenever she has the feeling that she wants to improve her situation, but can’t get ahead.

Everybody has different tolerance levels, compensation capabilities and expectations of life. Some people seem to have an ‘elephant skin’ and are able to take a lot of hammerings. The impression of being able to take anything however, can be because the person simply has fewer expectations of life. If he or she has to deal with relationship issues or other difficulties, they are still doing okay, because they never ever expected anything better in their lives!

Other people in turn are thinner-skinned, sensitive and seriously suffer even from relatively low stresses, conflicts and obstacles in their lives. Maybe they just have higher expectations of happiness and don’t just simply put up with every difficulty and move on as if nothing had happened.

From a psychological point of view, these approaches to our lives are coined very early in our childhood. A child growing up under difficult conditions will usually expect the same during the rest of their life and be trained to rather push them aside than to face them. Children who are raised in a stable and supportive environment, however, measure their experiences in later life based on their happy childhood and will most likely be willing to work on improving their situation, because they learned that a better way of life is indeed possible.

And how would you describe your character? Are you ‘thin-skinned’ or ‘thick-skinned’? Do you hold high standards for your life and how you want to use your time, or are you satisfied if you make it through the day without too many scrapes? And last but not least: do you want to change something about your life – or is it good enough?

(This short article is part of a weekly series dealing with psychological expat problems and general mental health issues and was published in various newspapers and magazines in Thailand, 2011)

Jan 26

The grass might not be greener on the other side of the border, a new study from the University of Leicester has found. According to it, economic migrants travelling to different shores for greater income could be set for disappointment, because the pursuit of wealth does not necessarily equate with happiness.

Sociologist Dr David Bartram carried out the study: “Economic Migration and Happiness: Comparing Immigrants’ and Natives’ Happiness Gains from Income.”, in which he sought to establish whether those people who were motivated by higher incomes in a wealthy country actually gain greater happiness via migration. He also examined whether these economic migrants might have exaggerated expectations about what they will achieve and experience, such that there is some significant disappointment.

The result, according to Dr. Bartram: “The study of happiness tells us that people generally do not gain greater happiness from earning higher incomes – which suggests that migrants might be mistaken in believing that they will be better off if they can move to a wealthy country. (..) I also considered whether those who choose to migrate to a wealthy country are different from most people in this regard – perhaps they do gain greater happiness from higher incomes. So, the research seeks to determine whether in general we should be pessimistic or optimistic about the consequences of migration for the migrants themselves.”

“The results suggest that economic migrants might well experience disappointment. Migrants do gain happiness from higher incomes, to a greater extent than natives – but the relationship is weak even for migrants. In fact, it also works out that migrants are less happy than natives. The probable reason is that they expect to be happier by virtue of earning the greater incomes available in a wealthy country — but they end up wanting even more after they get there: aspirations probably increase at least as much as incomes! In short, even after an increase migrants find it difficult to feel satisfied with their incomes — just like the rest of us.
Many of us are guilty of believing that money is more important for happiness than it is – and this research suggests that migrants are not terribly different in this regard. Life as an immigrant in a wealthy country can be very hard.”

The research examined responses from 1400 people in the World Values Survey (existing survey data). Dr Bartram said that his study might also serve to allay some media fears and people’s concerns about being “overrun” by immigrants: “The fact is, most people around the world do not want to move to a wealthy country like the UK: perhaps they understand that money is not the most important thing, that there would be a real price to pay in leaving one’s family and community. And perhaps the research could also help potential migrants, especially those who are attracted by wealthy-country income prospects, to develop a better understanding of what life as an immigrant in a wealthy country would really be like.”

(Sources: ScienceDaily; Bartram, D.: “Economic Migration and Happiness: Comparing Immigrants’ and Natives’ Happiness Gains From Income.” in: Social Indicators Research, 2010; DOI: 10.1007/s11205-010-9696-2)

Nov 18

How can we become happier in our lives, and what do we need to stay happy?

Researchers have put a lot of effort into answering these questions and came up with some interesting facts that define the scientific basis of the so-called ‘positive psychology’. Today we know that about 50% of one’s happiness depends on his or her genes. About 10-15% are a result of different measurable life circumstances variables, such as socioeconomic status, marital status, health, income, sex, age and others. Research in the US, for instance, has found that older Americans are generally happier than younger adults, or that 28% of those with an annual income of $35,000 described themselves as happy while 38% were of those bringing home $75,000 or more a year. The remaining 40% of factors influencing happiness, however, are mostly the results of actions that individuals deliberately engage in to become happier. This is also where we can also deliberately start to change something right away: physical exercise or eating chocolate, for example, are both proven to release endorphines which make us feel more energetic and happy. Proximity to other happy people was also found to be an important factor – if we have a tendency to isolate ourselves or to get stuck in negative emotions out of an inability to communicate them effectively or to resolve difficult situations, it comes as no surprise that happiness will not be a frequent visitor in our homes. Even worse: if conflicts are not resolved, we frequently end up in a downward spiral that can cause chronic distress, frustration and anger, and ultimately develop psychosomatic illness.

There is also extensive research data available now suggesting that religious people are happier and less stressed. It is not clear, however, whether this is because of the social contact and support that result from religious activities, the greater likelihood of behaviors related to good health (such as less substance abuse), or of a generally greater peace of mind (‘reason for being’, ‘life after death’). However, in countries where being without religion is not unusual, the happiness rates have to be found higher as well. So there is still much to be learned about the factors that influence happiness – but while we wait for the results, we can still aspire to improve the 40% we have control over.

(This short article is part of a weekly series dealing with psychological expat problems and general mental health issues and was published in various newspapers and magazines in Thailand, 2010)

Apr 22

There is a high number of research studies about strategies to treat and fight pain – so, what does really help?

In psychology and hypnotherapy it is well-known that our psyche is one of the most important control points for pain relief. Many readers of this blog will already have read about the surprisingly good effect of placebos in pain management. Now psychologists at the Sun Yat-Sen University, the University of Minnesota and the University of Florida recently discovered that money also shows effects similar to placebos or at least has comparably positive influences on people suffering from pain. Although the trials did not really meet the highest scientific standards, they showed a clear tendency for the subjects who previously had physical contact with banknotes or induced fantasies of wealth, to respond with significantly reduced pain perception. Similarly, a reverse effect was apparent, namely higher expectation of pain at the loss of money. Money images relaxed stressful situations, and psychological and physical pain and suffering, while lack of money increased the suffering.