The happiest person alive

Happiness is that state of being it seems almost everyone is striving for. Many people ask me what it takes to be happy, to have a happy life.

Of course, the idea of happiness and the experience of it can be different for everyone and there can be significant barriers to happiness including mental and physical health issues, addiction, poverty or abuse to name only a few.

I read an interesting article about a man scientists have called the happiest in the world. He offered a perspective on happiness I found refreshing.

French biologist-turned Tibetan monk Mattieu Ricard earned his reputation as the happiest man in the world after scans of his brain showed the highest activity ever recorded in areas associated with positive emotion.

Ricard published a book called Altruism and claims happiness doesn’t come from the places we typically think it might. The title gives away his direction.

Although our North American culture places a high value on personal pleasure as the root of happiness, Ricard argues something different. Rather than focusing on a selfish pursuit of pleasurable experiences, he says true happiness is more readily found in helping and focusing on the needs of others.

Ricard’s book looks at scientific data from the fields of neuroscience, economic and psychology to examine what factors combine to cause human happiness. He says altruism and compassion, as well as a clear and stable mind, resilience and feelings of serenity and fulfillment combine to create happiness.

Ricard suggests that obsession with self tends to lead to an amplification of hopes and fears and brooding on things that might affect us. As a result, even small events impact our well-being.

According to Ricard, it is altruistic love that activates positive emotions in the brain and creates a profound feeling of fullness.

He suggests a shift from our current selfish economy to a ‘caring economy’ where we concern ourselves with others and creating a society with good working conditions and social supports with an eye to the well-being of future generations.

Ricard believes people are naturally altruistic, but bad education can stifle that natural state. If we teach children they are kind, they will behave that way.

We are at an important time in history right now. Many people around the world and in our own community are vulnerable because of war, poverty and oppression and our planet is struggling with climate change and its effects.

There is no shortage of places to focus our compassion. Not only will an outward focus make a difference in the world, but we may get the added benefit of an improved sense of well-being.

Wisdom trumps intelligence

Wisdom trumps intelligence for life satisfaction

It turns out being smart isn’t the secret to happiness and life satisfaction – and it doesn’t predict good choices or behaviour either.

Although it may seem as though a person with a higher IQ would be more likely to be happy and successful, some research shows this isn’t necessarily the case.

In fact, psychologists studying a group of 1,500 gifted children from the mid 1920s and throughout their lives found that although the group did well financially, their lives were average in terms of divorce, alcohol use and suicide and they also tended to worry more than the general population.

Interestingly, people who do well on standard intelligence tests are also more likely to have a bigger "bias blind spot," meaning they tend to be less likely to see their own flaws even though they can point them out in others.

A researcher at the University of Waterloo thinks life achievement is more closely linked with wisdom than innate intelligence. In his studies on the topic, Igor Grossmann defines wisdom as the ability to make good, unbiased judgment.

In one experiment, volunteers were faced with different social dilemmas and a panel of psychologists examined their reasoning.

Wisdom was determined by:

  • sound reasoning
  • less weakness to bias
  • volunteers who were willing to admit the limits of their knowledge.

High scores related to better life satisfaction, relationship quality and lower anxiety. Wiser people from this experiment also lived longer.

Grossmann found IQ was not related to any of these things and also did not predict greater wisdom.

In further good news, Grossmann believes wisdom can be trained regardless of IQ.

He says it is easier to abandon biases when we consider other people rather than ourselves – a simple trick is to rephrase problems using third person rather than first person and this often creates an emotional distance that reduces prejudice and leads to wiser arguments.

With further research, wisdom and judgment training could become a useful tool in our educational system. This kind of training has potential to help future generations be better equipped to make sound, rational choices in life regardless of IQ.

From my perspective, Grossmann’s work certainly has a ring of truth. There is no shortage of very smart people with all sorts of problems related to unwise personal choices.

One problem I see is that there are so many factors influencing the choices we make, it is sometimes difficult to know where to start in terms of teaching wisdom.

Also, wisdom may not be permanent or all pervasive. People can make wise choices in some areas of their lives and not in others.

One factor the average person may not be aware of is the influence of mood. The wisdom of choices made by people with mood disorders can vary widely depending on mood.

When someone is manic they tend to feel invincible, full of confidence, and much more willing to take risks. They often make choices they would never make when their mood is normal.

The opposite occurs when they are depressed. When depressed, people lack confidence, are indecisive and only see the negative side of everything.

Although wisdom and judgment training may have a role to play, they will have limitations.

Helping depressed teens

Depression is a common and serious issue affecting as many as 10 per cent of youth between 12 and 17.

Unfortunately, due to stigma and incorrect understanding about what is normal emotional turmoil associated with this age, most depressed teens don’t get any professional help.

A study of treatment for adolescent depression found 62 per cent of depressed teens don’t receive any counseling or medication for their condition. Those who do receive treatment report positive results.

A study of more than 9,000 teens in the U.S. with a major depressive episode found 22 per cent received counselling, but no medication, 13 per cent received a combination of counselling and medication and three per cent received medication only. 

Of those receiving just counselling support, 32 per cent reported it was extremely helpful or helped a lot and 25 per cent said it helped somewhat, and 44 per cent reported it was not helpful or only a little helpful. 

Results were a little better for those receiving both counselling and medication with 47 per cent saying it was extremely helpful or helped a lot and 22 per cent saying it helped somewhat.

It is encouraging to see that more than half of teens who do receive some treatment for depression find it is helpful. Still, more than half of depressed teens are not seeking treatment and this is concerning. 

Depression is not a normal part of adolescence and should not be ignored. It is a mental illness than can greatly impact a teen’s ability to function and reach his or her potential during these formative years.

Not only will it negatively affect quality of life and opportunities, but it poses a significant risk for suicide and substance abuse. 

Adolescent services in B.C. are difficult to access in a timely fashion. Also many teens are resistant to seeking help even when it is offered. Many deny their problems or seek help in the wrong places. Sometimes they are wary of help when it is offered. 

Depression tends to be a chronic, life-long condition. Outcomes are better with earlier intervention. 

Symptoms to watch for include:

  • persistent sadness
  • loss of interest in activities
  • withdrawal from friends and family
  • changes in sleep or eating habits
  • irritability
  • restlessness and agitation
  • fatigue or lack of energy
  • lack of enthusiasm
  • feelings of worthlessness or guilt
  • difficulty concentrating
  • thoughts of death or suicide. 

If you think your child is depressed, speak to your doctor. Help is available.

Face your fear of panic

Can you remember the last time you felt panic?

Sudden fear accompanied by intense physical symptoms: racing heart, sweaty palms, body shakes, dizziness or shortness of breath.

Panic attacks occur when you experience brief, but intense periods of anxiety. Many people will experience a panic attack at some point in life, but for some with panic disorder, they can be recurring throughout adult life.

Physical symptoms such as the ones described above are common in a panic attack and people often believe they are experiencing a heart attack or other serious illness. Many feel they are losing control or going crazy.

Of course, the body’s natural fight or flight response is very helpful in dangerous situations, but people with panic disorder have sudden attacks for little or no reason. The level of fear is not appropriate to the situation and is often completely unrelated or unprovoked.

Usually, panic attacks subside after a few minutes, but recurring attacks can go on for hours. They are terrifying and physically exhausting.

Panic disorder occurs when attacks are recurrent and at least one attack is followed by a month or more of concern about having more attacks, worry about the implications of the attack or a significant change in behaviour (such as avoiding activities).

Approximately one in 75 individuals will develop panic disorder and it is usually a chronic illness that lasts throughout a person’s adult life. It is treatable, but often takes a long time to diagnose because the physical symptoms tend to mimic other serious illnesses.

Panic attacks in themselves are not dangerous, but they are very frightening and make it nearly impossible to function in certain situations. Also, individuals with panic disorder often develop phobias, depression, substance abuse and other complications.

Cognitive behaviour therapy is typically very effective in treating panic disorder. This kind of therapy helps individuals understand their symptoms and learn techniques to lessen their effects. The most important element of this treatment is to eliminate avoidance behaviour, which can become more debilitating than the actual panic attacks.

I encourage people with panic attacks to deliberately seek out the situations they usually avoid such as crowded stores, the mall or certain driving conditions. If they do one of these and feel anxious they should try to remain there until the anxiety begins to lessen rather than escape or take ativan.

Medications, such as newer anti-depressant or anti-anxiety medications, can also be helpful when used appropriately to reduce anxiety and prevent future panic attacks. Medications such as benzodiazepines are often prescribed to be taken in the moment to relieve anxiety.

This is not a helpful strategy as it encourages a psychological dependency on the pills when what is desired is the ability to continue daily routines regardless of the possibility of a panic attack.

Some lifestyle tips such as getting enough sleep and exercise and avoiding stimulants such as caffeine can also help to minimize anxiety. Alcohol should also be avoided and relaxation techniques may also be helpful for those with anxiety.

Stress is often an unavoidable part of life, but it is important to find ways to cope with it.

More States of Mind articles

About the Author

Paul Latimer has over 25 years experience in clinical practice, research, and administration.

After obtaining his medical degree from Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, he did psychiatric training at Queen's, Oxford and Temple Universities. After his residency he did a doctorate in medical science at McMaster University where he was also a Medical Research Council of Canada Scholar.

Since 1983 he has been practicing psychiatry in Kelowna, BC, where he has held many administrative positions and conducted numerous clinical trials.

He has published many scientific papers and one book on the psychophysiology of the functional bowel disorders.

He is an avid photographer, skier and outdoorsman.

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The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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