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Some things that can make you feel better ...
As well as being important to your health, regular exercise is now believed to improve your psychological state by releasing endorphins or ‘happy chemicals' into the brain. Some researchers consider it can be just as valuable as psychotherapyin helping depression and engendering a more positive outlook.
Even a brisk ten-minute walk every day can help according to researchers. In one project, unemployed urban youths who undertook intensive sports training for several months, not only became involved in that sport, but also in other activities such as study, politics, and voluntary work.
A lively social life
According to experts, companionship and social support are vital to both our psychological and physical well-being – one reason, perhaps, why married people tend to live longer than unmarried ones. Modern researchers emphasise the value of group social activities in this respect. 'Relationships we form at church or in clubs tend to be more supportive and uncritical than those we form at work or in the family,’ says Professor Michael Argyle of Oxford Brookes University, 'and these positive relationships improve our self-esteem, which is vital to our physical and mental health.’ This is backed up by recent research which shows, perhaps surprisingly, that people who spend more time with others actually get fewer colds and viruses than those who stay at home on their own. In fact social support is so important to our mental and physical well-being that it may even increase our life expectancy! Another piece of research found that people who belong to strong church groups not only claim to be happier than those who don't, they suffer from less than half the number of heart attacks than the rest of the population, and live up to four years longer!
Watching soap operas on TV
One rather surprising piece of research found that on average, people who regularly watch soaps on television are significantly happier than those who don't! Psychologists believe that this is because such programmes provide viewers withan imaginary set of friends, and a sense of belonging to a community, in the same way that a club or a church might.
Many scientists these days believe that indulging in life's little pleasures – a bar of chocolate, a glass of wine, a shopping trip, even a cigarette – can actually improve your health, because of the psychological lift it gives you. There is evidence, for example,' says Professor David Warburton of Reading University, 'that old people living in residential homes who have a cocktail hour each day actually live longer! Indulging – in moderation – in the small pleasures of life can make people calmer, alleviate stress and provide positive health benefits. There is a lot of truth in the old saying that "a little of what you fancy does you good."
... and some that can make you feel worse
Feeling like an underdog, it seems, can damage your health. Research by the National Rheumatism and Arthritis Council showed that workers who feel undervalued or out of control at work are significantly more likely to suffer from back problems. Depression, a spokesman claimed, is actually far more likely to cause backache than heavy lifting. Professor Warburton of Reading University believes that one of the greatest health threats comes from negative feelings such as depression or guilt, which create stress hormones, producing cholesterol.’ It's quite likely that by worrying about whether or not you should be eating a chocolate bar you are doing yourself more harm than just getting on and eating it,’ says the professor!
Lack of bright light
Scientists have known for some time about Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD): a form of depression caused by lack of light in winter, and thought to explain the relatively high suicide rates in countries such as Sweden, where for parts of the year days are very short. However, recent research has shown that those working night shifts in factories can suffer from the same problem, leading to stress and depression. The problem can be overcome by illuminating workplaces with lights three times brighter than usual, making workers feel happier and more alert.
A low-fat diet
A low-fat diet may be good for your waistline, but the latest research suggests that it is less beneficial psychologically. A team of volunteers at Sheffield University, asked to follow a diet consisting of just twenty-five per cent fat (the level recommended by the World Health Organisation) reported a marked increase in feelings of hostility and depression. And an earlier piece of research revealed, startingly, that people on low-fat diets are more likely to meet a violent death!
Many of us are already aware that drinking coffee raises your blood pressure and can cause anxiety, but according to the latest research it can also make you bad-tempered. Mice who were given regular doses of caffeine by researchers, were found to be unusually aggressive!
The wrong genes
Despite all the changes we make to our behaviour, diet, and environment, there is growing evidence that at the end of the day, whether we are cheerful or miserable is largely a question of our genes. 'Of course what happens to you in your life will make a difference to how happy you are,’ say scientists, 'but there are two or three vital genes which probably decide how cheerful you are in comparison to others in a similar situation.' So whatever else you do, make sure you choose your genes carefully!