Almost 90% of the Dutch population is happy. These are the results of a recent study by Statistics Netherlands. In addition, many of the people who said they had relationship or health problems said they were happy anyway. What’s their secret? Bertus Jeronimus researches happiness, something he thinks receives too little attention from GPs and psychologists. He argues that rather than focus on which factors cause people to develop mental-health problems, the healthcare system should instead research why people don’t develop these problems.
Text: Nynke Broersma, Communication / Photos: Hesterliena Wolthuis
Jeronimus’ fascination for subjective wellbeing, or ‘happiness’, arose a few years ago when he worked on a study at the UMCG Department of Psychiatry. What struck him was the perspective from which mental-health problems were viewed: ‘Let’s say two people are discharged. One develops symptoms and the other doesn’t. During the research I realized that the healthcare system mainly focuses on the people who develop symptoms. That fascinated me. What about the rest of the people, those who don’t receive any attention? What makes them less vulnerable to negative life events?’
Jeronimus is currently working on a major grant application for research into people with a neurotic personality who thus have a high score on the emotional instability scale. ‘Some of the people with a high score on the scale are still happy. What do these happy ones do differently in their lives? That’s what I want to know. Because we will never fully understand mental-health problems if we look only at the negative factors.’
It would seem like a no-brainer: focus on happiness to help people feel better and prevent problems. But Jeronimus thinks not enough attention is paid to it in the healthcare system: ‘The World Health Organization recognizes that happiness is an essential part of health. But in practice very little is done about it.’ Whereas shifting the focus can bring about so many positive effects. ‘If, for example, someone is in a bad state of health, the treatment is often about the negative feelings that result from this. But research has shown that in many cases stimulating positive feelings, so improving people’s emotional wellbeing, helps reduce the physical symptoms.’
Happiness, wellbeing, positive feelings – what exactly do we mean here? ‘Everyone has an immediate association if you mention the word “happiness”. But there is no one definition. Happiness is so personal. Some people love to go to a party with lots of people, whereas others – like me – prefer to stay at home with a book,’ Jeronimus explains. ‘And there are two different types of wellbeing: emotional wellbeing and mental wellbeing. Emotional wellbeing is about snapshots, like a good chat with someone or doing something fun. Mental wellbeing is more about meaning and a general feeling of wellbeing over the longer term. Do I have enough social contact? Am I productive? Do I belong to a community? Someone can therefore be unhappy in the area of mental wellbeing but can still claim to be are happy because of moments of emotional wellbeing – the smaller moments of happiness.’
Jeronimus is working on various studies that aim to help people appreciate what makes them happy. One of these is HoeGekIsNL? ('HowNutsAreTheDutch?'). Participants in this study keep an online diary for 30 days and answer questions about how they feel, think and behave. At the end they receive a personal report showing how the three are related. But don’t we already know what makes us happy? Not by a long shot, says Jeronimus. ‘In the Leefplezierapp (an app for the over 55s that also involves keeping a diary) one man discovered that he watched a lot of TV but that it didn’t make him happy at all.’
The researchers are also using the data from HoeGekIsNL? to get a better idea of mental-health problems. How common are they? And why do some people develop serious mental-health problems whereas others don’t? Jeronimus also hopes that studies like HoeGekIsNL? will remove the stigma from mental-health problems. Because many people are unaware how big the grey area is between ‘normal’ and ‘mad’. ‘People often think it’s very black and white: you have a disorder or you don’t. But we’re all a bit mad. We all have our strengths and weaknesses. There’s no such thing as the ideal person. An anxious nature is a disadvantage in some situations but often also means that you are more sensitive. That may make you a better nurse or teacher.’
It’s a bit of a personal question to ask someone what makes them happy. But Jeronimus answers without hesitation. ‘I’ve got a nine-month-old daughter,’ he beams. ‘My emotional wellbeing has dropped, because I have much less time for the things that normally make me happy, like curling up with a book. But my mental wellbeing, the feeling of meaning, has become much stronger. What also makes me happy is doing something that is meaningful to other people. And swimming. And gardening. And running. And music!’
We all have our own answers. It could be a long list of hobbies, seeing your family or spending an evening with friends. Or a good chat about happiness on a bright sunny day.
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