Stress, Health, and
Human Flourishing
by Jim Foley
© 2013 Worth
Module 33: Health and Happiness
How to go from coping to thriving
 Problem-focused and
emotion-focused coping
 Perceived Locus of control
and self-control
 Benefits of optimism, social
 Aerobic exercise, relaxation
and meditation
 Faith communities and
 Positive
Psychology and
 Wealth and other
impacts on wellbeing
 Happiness is
adaptation and
 Predictors of
Promoting Health
Some ways to
reduce the health
effects of stress
 address the
 soothe
 increase one’s
sense of control
over stressors.
 exchange
optimism for
 get social
Ways that help some people to reduce
levels of stress, and to improve health:
 aerobic exercise
 relaxation and meditation
 participation in communities of faith
 alternative medicine
Coping with Stress
Problem-focused coping
means reducing the
stressors, such as by
working out a conflict, or
tackling a difficult
 Risk: magnifying
emotional distress,
especially if trying to
change something that’s
difficult to change (e.g.
another person’s traits).
Emotion-focused coping
means reducing the
emotional impact of
stress by getting
support, comfort, and
perspective from others.
 Risk: ignoring the
 We might focus on this
style of coping when we
perceive the stressor as
something we cannot
Learned Helplessness vs.
Personal Control
Experiment by
Martin Seligman:
Give a dog no
chance of escape
from repeated
Result: It will give
up on trying to
escape pain, even
when it later has
the option to do
Normally, most creatures
try to escape or end a
painful situation. But
experience can make us
lose hope.
Declining to help
oneself after
attempts to do so
have failed.
Personal Control:
When people are
given some choices
(not too many), they
Stress factor: Perceived Level of Control
Experiment: the left and middle rats below
received shocks. The rat on the left was able to
turn off the shocks for both rats. Which rat had
the worst stress and health problems?
 Only the
rat had
 It is not the
level of shock,
but the level
of control
over the
shock, which
External vs. Internal Locus of Control
Locus of control: Our perception of where the seat of
power over our lives is located.
Internal locus of control: we
feel that we are in charge of
ourselves and our
Too much internal locus of
control: We blame ourselves
for bad events, or have the
illusion that we have the
power to prevent bad events.
External locus of control:
we picture that a force
outside of ourselves controls
our fate.
Too much external locus of
control: We lose initiative,
lose motivation to achieve,
have more anxiety about
what might happen to us,
don’t bother developing
Self-Control: Resource, Skill, Trait
 The ability to control impulses and
delay gratification, sometimes called
 This is a finite resource, an expenditure
of brain energy, which is replenished
but can be depleted short-term:
People asked to resist eating cookies
later gave up sooner on a tedious task
 With practice, we can improve our selfcontrol
 There seem to be individual
differences in this trait in childhood
 The Marshmallow study: Kids who
resisted the temptation to eat
marshmallows later had more success
in school and socially
Optimism vs. Pessimism
We can be optimistic or pessimistic
in various ways:
 Prediction: We can expect the
best or the worst. At the
extremes, we can get ourselves
overconfident or simply depressed
or anxious about the future.
 Focus of attention: We can focus
on what we have (half full) or what
we don’t have (empty).
 Attribution of intent: We can assume that people meant to
hurt us or that they were having a bad day.
 Valuation: We can assume that we or others are useless, or
that we are lovable, valuable.
 Potential for change: We can assume that bad things can’t be
changed, or have hope.
I can’t do it, might as
well forget it.
It might be hard; I’d
better plan.
It will be easy, I
won’t think about
I’m trapped, can’t
get out of this
I want to make
changes or get
Someone will
rescue me.
That person hates
me, he is against
I should ask what
he feels about me,
what he wants.
I’m sure he just
wants what’s best
for me, I’ll trust
Excessive pessimism can leave us depressed, inactive.
Excessive optimism can leave us unprepared, unsafe.
Promoting Health: Social Support
 Having close relationships is
associated with improved health,
immune functioning, and longevity.
 Social support, including from pets,
provides a calming effect that
reduces blood pressure and stress
 Confiding in others helps manage
painful feelings.
 Laughter helps too.
“Well, I think you’re wonderful.”
Aerobic Exercise and Health
 Aerobic exercise triggers certain
Aerobic exercise refers
genes to produce proteins which
to sustained activity that
guard against more than 20
raises heart rate and
chronic diseases and conditions.
oxygen consumption.
 Aerobic exercise reduces the risk
of heart disease, cognitive
decline and dementia, and early
Ultimate (Frisbee): you must run
often to “get open” for a pass, then
run more to cover the other team
and block their passes.
Aerobic Exercise and Mental Health
 Aerobic exercise reduces
depression and anxiety, and
improves management of
stress. How do we know?
 Aerobic exercise is correlated
with high confidence, vitality,
and energy, and good mood.
 Is there causation? Perhaps
depression simply reduces
 One study establishing
causation: mildly depressed
young women randomly
assigned to an exercise group
showed reduced depression
caused by exercise alone.
Lifestyle Modification
 In one study, a control group was given diet, medication,
and exercise advice.
 An experimental group practiced lifestyle modification,
a plan to slow down the pace of one’s life, accept
imperfection, and renew faith.
Result: modifying
lifestyle led to
reduced heart
attack rates.
Relaxation and Meditation
 Use of relaxation techniques can
reduce headaches, high blood
pressure, anxiety, and insomnia,
and improve immune functioning.
 People who meditate can learn to
create a relaxation response:
relaxed muscles, lower blood
pressure, and slowed heart rate
and breathing.
 Meditation also increases brain
activity associated with positive
 Steps to get the relaxation
response: focus attention on
breathing, a focus word, and
relaxing muscles from toes
Faith Communities and Health
While attendance at religious services may not directly save
lives, it may make other healthy practices more likely.
seems to have
especially for
comparable to
the benefit of
healthy lifestyle
Faith Communities and Health:
Intervening Factors
The health impact of religious involvement may be indirect.
Health may improve because of the lifestyle and emotional
factors associated with religious involvement, and not [just]
the faith.
Closer Look at a Particular Emotion: Happiness
Happiness is:
 a mood.
 an attitude.
 a social phenomenon.
 a cognitive filter.
 a way to stay hopeful,
motivated, and connected to
The feel-good, do-good
phenomenon: when in a good
mood, we do more for others.
The reverse is also true: doing
good feels good.
A More Positive Psychology
 Martin Seligman, who earlier
kept dogs from escaping his
shocks until they developed
learned helplessness.
 Developed Positive Psychology,
the “scientific study of optimal
human functioning,” finding
ways to help people thrive.
 Focus: building strengths, virtue,
emotional well-being, resilience,
optimism, sense of meaning.
Three pillars of Positive Psychology:
1. Emotions, e.g. engagement
2. Character, e.g. courage
3. Groups, Culture, Institutions
Over the Course of a Week
has its ups
and downs.
Levels of
happiness, as
well as other
emotions, can
vary over the
course of a week
(we like the
weekend), and
even over the
course of a day
(don’t stay awake
too long!).
Over the Course of a Day
Wealth and Well-Being:
A Change in Goals
 In the late 1960s, students entering college had a primary
goal of developing a meaningful life philosophy.
 Since 1977, being very well-off financially has become
more of a primary goal for first year students.
Can Money Buy Happiness?
Money seems to buy
happiness when it lifts
people out of extreme
poverty. Otherwise, money
doesn’t seem to help our
mood much.
1. The average level of
income (adjusted for
inflation) and
purchasing power has
increased in the United
2. The percentage of
people feeling very
happy, though, has not
followed the same
trend of improvement.
Adaptation-Level Phenomenon
 When we step into the sunshine, it seems very bright at
first. Then our senses adapt and we develop a “new
normal.” If a cloud covers the sun, it may seem “dark” in
 The “very bright” sensation is temporary.
 The adaptation-level phenomenon: when our wealth or
other life conditions improve, we are happier compared to
our past condition.
 However, then we adapt, form a “new normal” level, and
most people must get another boost to feel the same
Adapting Attitudes
Instead of Circumstances
 Because of the adaptation-level phenomenon, our level of
contentment does not permanently stay higher when we gain
income and wealth; we keep adjusting our expectations.
 It is also true that misfortune, disability, and loss do not
result in a permanent decrease in happiness.
 In both cases, humans tend to adapt.
Relative Deprivation
 If the average income has risen by
10 percent in your area, it might be
hard to feel great about a 5 percent
rise in your income because of
 People who were satisfied with their
own lives might become less
satisfied if other people get more
power, recognition, and income.
 We can affect our happiness by
choosing the people to whom we
compare ourselves.
 However, the tendency is to
compare ourselves to people who
are more successful.
worse off by
yourself to
people who
are doing
Correlates of Happiness
There are behaviors that seem to go with
happiness. Whether they are the cause or the
effect of happiness is not clear, but it can’t
hurt to try them.
Researchers have found that happy
people tend to:
Happiness seems not much
related to other factors:
Have high self-esteem (in individualistic  Age (example: the woman at
the laptop in the picture)
Be optimistic, outgoing, and agreeable  Gender (women are more
Have close friendships or a satisfying
often depressed, but also
Have work and leisure that engage their
more often joyful)
 Parenthood (having children
Have an active religious faith
or not)
Sleep well and exercise
 Physical attractiveness
There also may be a genetic basis for a predisposition to happiness.
Whether because of genes, culture, or personal history, we each
seem to develop a mood “set point,” a level of happiness to which we
keep returning.
Possible Ways to
Increase Your Chances
at Happiness
 Look beyond wealth for satisfaction.
 Bring your habits in line with your goals; take control
of your time.
 Smile and act happy.
 Find work and leisure that engages your skills.
 Exercise, or just move!
 Focus on the needs and wishes of others.
 Work, rest, …and SLEEP.
 Notice what goes well, and express gratitude.
 Nurture spirituality, meaning, and community.
 Make your close relationships a priority.