In part three from her series introducing us to maternal mental health, Anne Marie McKinley (who is a Midwife and Birth Trauma Specialist at Afterthoughts NI) guides us through ‘happiness’ – some of the research done, how it affects our lives and how it can shape our future generations.
Happiness has been studied in many ways. One study which looked at the biological factors that influence happiness and health and concluded that both biological and health factors underlie happiness. Genetics play a role too, and have a clear and significant effect on happiness (Dfarhud et al., 2014). 1 Another study demonstrates that about 33% of the variation in human life satisfaction is explained by genetics (De Neve etal., 2012/2013). 2
Oxytocin is a hormone new mums will hear spoken about. It maintains natural contractions in labour and, if allowed to in the circumstances of birth, will play its part in connecting mums and newborn babies. The role of Oxytocin enhances our sociability and facilitates our relationships with others. The presence of Oxytocin creates a sense of wellbeing or happiness.
Individuals with higher levels of “personal growth” and “purpose in life” register lower and more stable levels of salivary Cortisol (Ryff et al., 2004). 3 A sense of lower levels of happiness on a daily basis, or accompanied by periods of depression, may subtract hope. Evidence though is very positive when it comes to changing this status quo. Sad can become glad. Emotional health and wellbeing can inhabit and challenge the status quo.
Happiness. Did you know there is score for your country’s level of happiness? Finland is routinely the happiest country. Ireland was 14th on the world’s list; USA 18th and the UK 19th in 2018. It might be surprising to consider that the levels replicate year on year. It leads to more questions than answers really. What makes a country happy? What influences those levels?
Happiness is life experience marked by a preponderance of positive emotion. Feelings of #happiness and thoughts of satisfaction with life are two prime components of subjective wellbeing. Click To Tweet
Research, in the field of positive psychology and happiness, defines a happy person as someone who experiences frequent positive emotions, such as joy, interest, and pride, and infrequent (though not absent) negative emotions, such as sadness, anxiety and anger (Lyubomirsky et al., 2005). 4 The conclusions of this study demonstrated that what precedes numerous successful outcomes, influences the human behaviours which correlate with success, and describes the positive effects of happiness as the hallmark of wellbeing.
The counselling assessments we use (myself included) to provide measurements, predict a preponderance to symptoms of anxiety, of depression, or risk. We have impact of events scales, anxiety and depression scores, assessments for risk. Essentially, we look for the worst that a person has been feeling. Of course, in terms of dialogue, there is a much more robust assessment of general physical or mental health. However, measurements for happiness 5 are not in any way a routine construct of establishing wellness levels. Yet, the majority of those who regularly drop into dark and difficult emotional places will still be able to recall periods or moments they define in terms of happiness or joy.
Energetics Institute recognises that numbers of studies indicate the question of happiness is multidimensional, and demonstrate that much has to do with expectations and beliefs alongside relationships and values. 6 In his concluding comments on DNA and happiness genes, Richard Boyd remarks that managing the mind is very effective and can rapidly improve wellbeing. This is worth reiterating. The mind can be managed; new habits formed, neural pathways invented and secure large structures associated in the brain with many aspects of daily living.
While we may all have a baseline for contentment or joy or happiness – a level that almost remains fairly stable throughout most days, quantity of happiness is also influenced by life’s seasons and events.
Happiness is used in the context of mental or emotional states, including positive or pleasant emotions ranging from contentment to intense joy. It is also used in the context of life satisfaction, subjective well-being, eudaimonia, flourishing and well-being. Wikipedia
While biology provides a baseline sense of everyday contentment, we still have the capacity to influence our own sense of wellbeing and those of others around us. The brain has a natural bias to focus on the negative. Neuroplasticity, however, means that we have the capacity to influence what is stored in our minds. Paying attention to happy feelings and thoughts, recalling happy events of the day and remembering how we felt in that moment can create an emotional change with practice.
In seasons where depression or anxiety accompany us on our journey, it may take resolute belief to create a greater degree of daily happiness. Leaning into the desire to be happy can change our outlook over time. Research provides encouragement to those who feel able, to start to seek the more contented road whatever the circumstances. Realistic truth, honest connections and some hard work can germinate the seeds of hope for a richer happier life in the future.
- Dfarhud D, Malmir M, Khanahmadi M (2014) Happiness and Health: The biological factors – systemic review arcticle. Iran J Public Health
- De Neve JE, Christakis NA, Fowler JH, and Bruno SF (2012). Genes, Economics and Happiness. Journal of Neuroscience, Psychology and Economics
- Ryff CD, Singer BH, Love GD (2004). Positive health: Connecting well-being with biology. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci., 359: 1383–1394.
- Lyubomirsky S, King L, Diener E, The benefits of frequent positive affect: does happiness lead to success? Psychol Bull. 2005 Nov;131(6):803-55
- Oxford Happiness Questionnaire – developed by psychologists Michael Argyle and Peter Hills at Oxford University
- The Epigenetics of Human Happiness – Richard Boyd, Energetics Institute
A growing list of other support, weekly:
How to Be Happy – This is a very practical look at growing happiness.
This article is meant to be a source of encouragement. In the meantime, if you are suffering from mental health concerns please take courage and discuss with your midwife, health visitor and GP. Counselling can help.
Call Samaritans UK and ROI at 116 123 if you are feeling overwhelmed.
Part 4 → Birth Trauma: Part 1 of 3