Tag Archives: Depression

Summer, time of darkness

Happiness is always a good thing, right? At least, all over my life I’ve assumed that happiness is something pretty and beautiful, and always worth pursuing for its own sake.

A recent TEDx talk by Meik Wiking of the Danish Happiness Research Institute has opened my eyes. Everything in life has a dark side, and that even applies to happiness.

800,000 suicides per year

Wiking starts his talk on The Dark Side of Happiness by pointing out that around 500 Danes commit suicide every year, although they live in the country that tops the World Happiness Report as happiest country of the world. Some people think that suicide rates are particularly high in Nordic countries like Sweden, Finland and Denmark, with long and dark winters (sometimes it is even thought that happiness rates remain high, because unhappy people filter themselves out by suicide!).

This is not the case, and many countries in Eastern Europe and across the East of Africa rank worse, as the WHO data show. To some extent, suicide rates might be affected by cultural factors, such as the high pressure to perform and strong shame notions in Korea and Japan. Lower levels in a country like Mexico may also be a result of strong social support. Either way, every year around 800,000 commit suicide. That figure is massive, especially when you consider that the death toll of one the most bloody conflicts and biggest human tragedies always in our headlines, the Syrian civil war, is estimated at around 400,000 in the last five years.

 

Suicide rates per 100,000 citizens. Data: World Health Organisation, 2016

Suicide rates per 100,000 citizens. Data: World Health Organisation, 2016

 

Social positions matter… a lot! 

But is there any correlation between happiness levels in society and the suicide? Wiking suggests that there could be a link. He claims that it is more difficult to be unhappy in a happy society. Imagine that Stine is unemployed and that she has had trouble in finding a job for some months. At the same time, most of her friends have great jobs, and excitedly tell her about their promotions or new cool projects when they meet for drinks together. Sounds sad, right? Now imagine the case of Jaime. He has also been looking for a job some time, but some of his friends are in the same boat. When they meet up, they exchange funny stories about failed job applications, or  share tips on how to land a dream job.

All things equal, Jaime will likely be happier than Stine. Our peer group, and the people who we compare to, matter for how we feel. Hence, it’s tougher to be unhappy in a country like Denmark, which scores a 7.526 in the World Happiness Report, than say in Spain, which scores 6.361. Our social position counts!

Wiking shares a couple of interesting experiments that reinforce that feeling. For instance, tests with social media show that when people are not exposed to other people’s seemingly perfect online lives for a week, happiness rates go up. Similarly, imagine asking hundred people if they’d rather earn €50,000 when everybody else earns half that amount, or €100,00 when everybody earns double. Typically, around 50% would prefer to earn less in absolute terms, but be richer than others.

Summer, a time of darkness

But one of the most shocking pieces of evidence are the quotes from depressed people. Contrasting what you might think, it is not Christmas that is the most difficult of the time for lonely people. In the survey that Wiking cites, spring and summer are worse: “Summer is a nightmare.” Everybody is sitting in parks, holding picknicks and barbecues with friends. For lonely people, this is the hardest time of the year. Other’s people happiness can generate a lot of unhappiness. And the impact of loneliness or happiness inequality is likely a lot bigger than the economic inequality.

Happiness also has a dark side, and summer may be a time of darkness. That truth is worth taking into account when we are thinking about happiness and public policies shaping quality of life.

Celebrate Blue Monday

garfield_83_centerFeeling down today? Suffering from the grey weather and the cold?

You are not alone: today is Blue Monday. According to calculations, it is the most depressing day of the year. Christmas and New Year’s are a far away. Your presents already have found an anonymous place in between all your other material possessions, but you’re still on a low budget to compensate for your Christmas spending spree. And rather then thinking of good moments together, it’s the slight expansion of your waste-line that reminds you most of the holidays. The only thing you are looking forward to is Valentine’s Day, an awful commercial holiday, especially if you aren’t seeing anybody at the moment. And to make things worse, the first cracks are beginning to show in your New Year’s Resolution – maybe next year is the best time to work on the better you…

You recognise all this? Then you are likely to be a victim of the Blue Monday. Today, like every grey Monday in mid-to-late January, allegedly is ‘the most depressing day of the year’.

Except that it is not. Blue Monday is a phenomenon grounded in some reality – a grey January Monday isn’t likely to bring us the most fulfillment – but it’s not based on any serious science. According to the bogus formula, the bluest Monday was determined as such:

\frac{[W + D-d] T^Q}{M N_a}

where W=weather, D=debt, d=monthly salary, T=time since Christmas, Q=time since failing our new year’s resolutions, M=low motivational levels, and Na=the feeling of a need to take action. How a factor like ‘weather’ is determined is completely left aside. And the same accounts for the other elements of the formula. None of them are grounded in science. And actually, it’s Wednesday, not Monday which is the saddest day of the week.

Blue Monday has been devised by marketeers to sell holidays. But in a way, there is also a positive message. Marking a negative day can be helpful in our process to deal with negative emotions. Light needs darkness. Positive emotions, to some extent, exist only next to negative ones. Blue Monday offers us an opportunity to be melancholic, to dwell in misery for a day.

Or even better, being aware of the day can motivate and inspire us not to be miserable. It can motivate us to seek the company of others, to host dinners, to invite friends for a drink, as I did yesterday at my own ‘anti-Blue Monday’ party. Fight negative stimuli with positive experiences.

Celebrate Blue Monday – that is my advice!

monday1

Teaching my smartphone empathy – Matt Dobson at TEDxBrussels

Once again, I had the chance to experience the magic of TED during TEDxBrussels this year. I’ve already written about the scrub for the brain I got for the blog of TEDxAmsterdam. For me, some of the highlights were Diana Reiss‘ research on the intelligence of dolphins, TEDx regular Mikko Hypponen on the protection of a free internet and Antony Evans, who creates glowing plants just for the heck of it and to replace street lamps by fluorescent trees (and still manages not to sound completely ridiculous).

As a happiness blogger, though, here I’d like to focus on the talk by Matt Dobson. Dobson is the co-founder of the UK tech startup EI Technologies, which aims to ‘teach smartphones empathy’. That is, he has created an app that based on a speech sample of half a second to a couple of seconds long can recognise emotions. The 7 second video below from Dobson’s blog gives a feel of how it works:

In his TEDx talk, he explains how the app that he and his co-founder Duncan Barclay have conceived works. Human beings – and dogs alike – are able to recognise emotions in people’s voices, even if they don’t understand what is being said. These skills can even be ‘taught’ to smartphones! Whilst human beings can distinguish between emotions intuitively, the story becomes a question of physics and maths for your phone. In physics, spoken text moves in sound waves, and wave lengths vary with emotion. All these acoustic features – loudness, pitch, patterns can be measured, analysed and interpreted, allowing the app to recognise how you feel. Dobson explains it in full in his talk:

And than the million dollar (or Pounds, for a Brit) question: what can you do with this? Is the next step a smartphone also be taught to tell us jokes, make us read feelgood articles or send us a funny cat video whenever we are down? Well, even when the smartphone is invading our lives, our happiness does not depend on it.

But the smartphone may come to the rescue. Around 50% of the population in Western countries suffers distress, or has stress levels that reduce their life expectancy. 15 to 20% has anxiety or depressions. Despite these large numbers, other, more visible, diseases and therapies get way more investment than mental health problems.

A fundamental problem in psychotherapy is that therapists rely on the feelings that depressed people report. Often, people are asked to report their feelings through a mood diary with their feelings. But as depressed people are not the most motivated ones, data in these diaries is often not very reliable. Based on very short samples and data points at several moments in the data, Dobson’s Xpression app can help. Even if the app can’t directly respond itself, it can help you, or your therapist, to understand your feelings during different moments in the day. When the data is there, human empathy does the rest.

Further reading:

Matt Dobson at TEDxBrussels. Photo copyright: TEDxBrussels

Matt Dobson at TEDxBrussels. Photo copyright: TEDxBrussels

I do like Mondays

When I launched this blog, fourteen long days ago, I got many positive reactions. I’ve received many stories about happiness. They really make me happy, so please keep on sending them.

I was also requested to provide the option to subscribe to new posts. I’ll certainly do that with the rebranding in a couple of months. This is just the beta version. It’s like washing powder: you’ll get a new and improved version every couple of months. But to make it easier: my main blog posts will be published on Mondays.

Why Mondays? Well, I decided I do like Mondays. In principle, I attempt to leave my office at six and dedicate some part of my evening to cook a decent meal and write some lines on happiness. Having this set writing day disciplines and hopefully provides some clarity to my reader when it’s best to check this page.

Thinking about it, there is also a case to write about happiness on Mondays. With the weekend past and a long full working week ahead, you would think that a little of spark of happiness would be very welcome on Monday, right?

garfield_83_centerMondays are generally seen as the most depressing day of the week. Hate of Monday’s is everywhere, and was even at the origin of the Cleveland Elementary School shooting in 1979. In court, the perpetrator shockingly claimed “I don’t like Mondays. This lives up the day”. This is also how we got the Boomtown Rats song.

Pseudo scientists hired by a travel agency even have created a formula to determine ‘Blue Monday’, or the most depressing day of the year. As post-holiday season chubby thighs and bellies remain as the promising New Year resolutions on the new and improved version of yourself starts fading away, 21 January is sold as the best day to book a trip to the sun.

Whilst Blue Monday is a marketing stunt, there is some serious research on this topic. Somewhat disappointingly, studies contradict each other. With the exception of higher happiness levels on Fridays, this study by Ryan et al. does not find significant differences between Monday and other weekdays. The conclusion of Peter Dodds and Christopher Danforth’s amazing ‘Hedonometer’ however is different. In their research, they assess the emotional state of people as expressed in tweets and conclude that it is Wednesday, not Monday, that is the saddest day of the week.

Anyway. Less depressing or not, I am sticking with Mondays. But of course it’s up to you when to read this post. Whether you prefer a gloomy Monday, a depressing Wednesday or a happy Saturday, you’re always welcome.