December 1, 2023

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Reduce Disease and Flourish | Psychology Today

Human flourishing is the highest level of psychological, social, and emotional well-being. It is a place many of us want to reach, but only a few know how to get there. This post will show you one of the pathways.

It is good to flourish. Flourishers bounce back faster from adversities and get the best out of life. They enjoy an optimal balance of positive and negative emotions and report higher life satisfaction and quality of life. They embrace their community and receive support from the people around them. They feel in control of their lives and environment and see it as meaningful. They accept themselves for who they are and enjoy steep personal growth. In other words, they have the resources to help them live good lives.

Nonetheless, flourishing is not something we catch and keep. It is a fluid state. Just because we experience it today does not mean we will sustain it. For example, in a longitudinal study assessing levels of flourishing over a decade, half of the flourishers experienced a decline over time. Furthermore, a decline from flourishing to moderate health, which most of us experience, is associated with a higher risk of depression and other mental health issues. Thus taking action to improve and sustain our well-being is essential.

Flourishing does not mean that our lives are perfect. The opposite is true. Flourishers might be the people who have just been diagnosed with long-term illness, are experiencing a divorce, or are juggling several daily hassles associated with their growing family. However, despite their circumstances, they have developed a range of resources that help them live good lives. These may include a support network, an ability to balance negative emotions with positive ones, or they have a hobby that allows them to lose themselves and take a break from life challenges.

Positive psychology contributes to various interventions that help individuals improve their well-being and flourish. They include activities such as:

  • Gratitude: Count your blessings or write a letter of gratitude to someone you have not thanked.
  • Acts of kindness: Random or not-so-random acts of kindness.
  • Savoring: Think of the past or future event and savor it in your mind.

However, while most positive psychology activities aim to change individuals’ thoughts or emotions, subsequently impacting their flourishing states, they often ignore the body. Thus, when it comes to flourishing, we were sometimes viewed as floating heads, not connected to our torsos and limbs, as somatopsychic and psychosomatic effects are often ignored.

In search of evidence of alternative interventions that lead to psychological, emotional, and social flourishing, my colleague Padraic Dunne from the RCSI University of Medicine and Health Sciences explored how engaging in lifestyle medicine interventions impacts psychological flourishing.

Lifestyle medicine is the fastest-growing medical branch that aims to save lives by preventing, treating, and helping people manage non-communicable diseases. According to the World Health Organisation, 74 percent of annual deaths are caused by non-communicable diseases such as stroke, heart disease, cancer, chronic respiratory disease, and diabetes. Most of these deaths are preventable. Six pillars of lifestyle medicine can contribute significantly to disease and death reduction worldwide.

The six pillars recommended by doctors are good nutrition, physical activity, sleep quality, stress management, relationships, and reducing substance use and abuse. For each one of the pillars, a range of interventions have been developed. For example:

  • Good nutrition: Eat one extra vegetable a day.
  • Physical activity: Go outside for 120 minutes a week.
  • Sleep: Switch off your phone one hour before bed.
  • Stress management: Practice 10 min of mindfulness a day.
  • Relationships: Connect meaningfully with one person (can be a stranger) a day.
  • Substance: Drink one less alcohol unit a week.

We have sufficient evidence to suggest that taking action and making small changes in each one of the pillars of lifestyle medicine reduces disease and hospital visits and prolongs life. However, until recently, we had no evidence of their impact on psychological, emotional, and social well-being.

This is why Dunne and I recently conducted research with over a thousand participants and identified that not only is there a link between engaging in lifestyle improvements and well-being, but also that using lifestyle medicine predicts flourishing.

Specifically, those who were flourishing were three times more likely to use interventions for three plus lifestyle medicine pillars than moderately well participants. Moreover, flourishers were nine times more likely to engage in lifestyle medicine pillars than those whose well-being was poor.

Which lifestyle medicine interventions will you practice today to prevent or help you manage your non-communicable disease and contribute to your psychological, emotional, and social well-being?