Can we be happy when we’re ill?

Can we be happy when we’re ill? A few years ago I would have suggested no – I thought it just wasn’t possible to be truly happy when unwell. That was my experience. But then I wondered if this was really true – does illness necessarily equate to unhappiness?

Research shows not so – and that actually because our happiness is so dependent on our mindset, us humans are actually capable of happiness when poorly.

The work of Erik Angner, from George Mason University, suggested that happiness depends, not on how ill people are, but rather by how much their illness disrupts their daily lives. So some serious conditions such as cancer can have a surprisingly small effect on happiness, whereas non life-threatening conditions like rheumatoid arthritis may have a bigger impact on happiness.

This used to be my experience. Although my illness was not terminal, it was debilitating, leaving me bedbound for weeks on end. The pain and physical discomfort was one thing (pending which point of the cycle I was in) but the mental despair that went with it was almost worse: the isolation, the inability to fend for my self, the feelings of uselessness and hopelessness.

At my worst, the biggest obstacle was this lack of hope, and the belief that I could never be OK again. Whatever OK was. I think I’d forgotten.

Being in pain is horrid, that is indisputable… But, and please hang onto this but those out there who are like this, THERE ARE STILL THINGS WE CAN DO. Because so much of our happiness depends on our mindset, we can change the way we think to change the way we feel.
This was my experience. At first, futile attempts at tiny mind exercises seemed out of the question, I couldn’t believe they were going to be useful when I was really this bad. But I had to try to help myself, so I thought – start small. Five minutes meditation a day (this often felt like climbing a mountain, and some days I couldn’t even manage that). Two or three things in my gratitude diary, which seemed at times pointless, and sometimes, if I’m honest, didn’t really fill me with deep gratitude. Finding the smallest of happy activities: a hand massage; scented oil on my scalp; a chat with a friend and a cup of tea. And the more I introduced these tiny things… slowly, slowly my outlook shifted.

Bad health can make it hard to do our ‘happy things’ – but actually, I’ve learnt, that’s when we need it most, and should try to persevere. Small things make us feel better, and can speed our recovery. Along with acceptance I think. When I finally stopped fighting it, when I finally went, this is how it is, I think I let go.

During many types of illness, we can’t or don’t exercise so much, and this makes us feel less happy. Even gentle exercise (like simply walking around if you can) produces endorphins, which reduce our sensitivity to pain improving our mood and sense of well-being. But if you can’t exercise, don’t despair, I couldn’t and yet I have managed to genuinely shift my mindset. Now, when I am ill, I feel physically horrid, but mentally strong. This waivers, depending on the intensity of the discomfort, but always I feel ‘OK’. I’ve put things in place for my ‘ill times’ so I am not alone; things that make me laugh; things that fill me with love; and things that give me hope.

One final piece of research I’d like to share with you. Sometimes illness can actually improve our happiness! Many people, not long after their diagnosis with a serious condition or onset of symptoms, start to adapt and compensate by deriving pleasure from other parts of their lives. This phenomenon has been called “well-being with illness” or resilience. In her paper, ‘Chronic Illness as a Source of Happiness’ Silke Hoppe from the University of Amsterdam examines the happiness levels of people who suffer from Multiple Sclerosis, and she concludes that people with a chronic illness can experience happiness not only in spite of illness, but also as a consequence of it.

So for all you ‘well’ people out there, please never take your health for granted and be grateful on a daily basis! And for those who are poorly, I am sending you my love. Please stay hopeful. Stay positive. And smile. However hard it may seem.

Please click here for further research on Happiness and Health