The Science of Happiness - The Gloss Magazine
4 weeks ago

The Science of Happiness


Professor Ciaran O’Boyle reveals how lifestyle diseases and mental health disorders can be addressed with two new disciplines – lifestyle medicine and positive psychology …

The RCSI University of Medicine and Health Sciences has established a new Centre for Positive Psychology and Health. Last month it launched a ten-lecture public programme called the Science of Health and Happiness. In the first week, nearly 16,000 people signed up to take the course. We will be providing summaries of these lectures on Positively The Gloss over the next ten weeks. Professor Ciaran O’Boyle, the Centre’s director explains:

“Lifestyle medicine is a new specialty that focuses on educating and motivating people to change their personal habits and behaviours in relation to nutrition, physical activity, sleep, managing stress, avoiding risky substances and building and maintaining positive social relationships. Positive psychology is the scientific study of optimal human functioning that aims to discover and promote the factors that allow individuals and communities to thrive.”

“Our first lecture explored the increase in diseases of lifestyle and the emergence of lifestyle medicine and positive psychology as two scientific disciplines for addressing these diseases. The World Health Organisation estimates that 80 per cent of heart disease, stroke and Type 2 diabetes and 40 per cent of cancer could be prevented, primarily through improvements in diet and lifestyle. In addition, mental illness, particularly depression, is a growing problem across the globe and the fallout from the COVID pandemic is likely to accelerate this trend.

“According to the WHO, taken together, five conditions – diabetes, heart disease, cancer, lung disease and mental health disorders – account for an estimated 86 per cent of the deaths and 77 per cent of the disease burden in the European Region.

“McKinsey Global Institute has reported that, using interventions that already exist today, the global disease burden could be reduced by about 40 per cent and active middle age extended by ten per cent over the next decades. Over 70 per cent of the gains could be achieved from prevention by creating cleaner and safer environments, by encouraging healthier behaviours and by addressing the social factors that lie behind these, as well as broadening access to vaccines and preventive medicine. McKinsey estimates that better health could add $12tn to global GDP in 2040, far more than the cost of implementation. Furthermore, the social benefits of improved health would far exceed the economic benefits, estimated to be approximately $100tn by 2040.

“We are seeing an increasing interest in empowering people to take better care of their own health and to learn strategies to optimise their happiness and wellbeing. Our starting point is the definition of health included in the constitution of the World Health Organisation: “Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”. This means that health is about more than our physical wellbeing and, crucially, includes our psychological and social wellbeing. Also, not being ill is not the same as being healthy – the definition suggests that the absence of disease or infirmity does not alone equate to health. The WHO goes on to define mental health as state of wellbeing in which every individual realises his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.

The Science of Happiness

Research from the science of positive psychology has demonstrated that about 50 per cent of our level of happiness is genetic, 10 per cent is determined by our circumstances and 40 per cent by the way we think. This means that we can significantly influence our level of happiness by changing our thinking. It is important to understand that happiness is about more than just positive emotions, although these are important.

A useful way of thinking about happiness is that the pleasant life is devoted to the pursuit of positive emotions, the good life involves using one’s dominant characteristics to engage fully in things and the meaningful life is about using your strengths in the service of something greater than yourself. The leading positive psychologist Martin Seligman’s PERMA model of happiness describes our happiness as being based on Positive emotions, Engagement in activities that absorb us, building and maintain good Relationships, finding Meaning and Accomplishing goals. In future lectures we will be looking at how we can increase each of these.

Registration for the RCSI Science of Health and Happiness course is available at The course is free and consists of one pre-recorded lecture per week. Registration is open until the end of May.


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