DR MAX THE MIND DOCTOR: What Harvard and Yale can teach YOU about how to lead a happier life

  • Here’s how to help people impacted by Covid-19

Yale University in the U.S. is one of the most august educational institutions in the world, with 62 Nobel Prize winners to its name in fields as varied as literature, chemistry and economics.

But its most popular online course as the planet comes to terms with the coronavirus pandemic is one called ‘The Science of Wellbeing’. Originally taught on campus in spring 2018 by psychology professor Laurie Santos, it now has nearly 2.5million subscribers.

This astonishing level of interest does not surprise me. So much of modern life is built around consumerism, the belief that material wealth will make us happy. As long ago as 2005, 71 per cent of respondents in a large survey of U.S. college students said that being well off financially was important to them. And I think we can all agree that there has been no let-up in the tide of consumerism.

In many cases, however, an obsession with material things can lead to feelings of inadequacy and misery. Indeed, most surveys of the national mood show we are slightly less happy now than we were in the 1940s.

If ever there was a time to focus on wellbeing, then it is now, when the world is being held to ransom by Covid-19 (file image)

And if ever there was a time to focus on wellbeing, then it is now, when the world is being held to ransom by Covid-19.

For those who have lost a loved one to the coronavirus, these are obviously incredibly difficult times. For others, it’s been a period of reflection and learning.

Readers of last week’s column will know that I’ve signed up for Harvard University’s online course in opera. I know nothing about the subject and it’s free, so why not!

But I’ve also become fascinated by Professor Santos’s thinking on the subject of wellbeing.

Her course reveals misconceptions about what makes us happy — and the steps we can take to live a more fulfilling life. And I’m rather chuffed to see that she recommends some of the things I’ve advised in this column over the years. For example, showing gratitude, focusing on small, everyday pleasures, and so on.

But it’s one thing to know what should be done and quite another to act upon it.

This issue is addressed by Professor Santos. She calls it the ‘GI Joe Fallacy’, a reference to the 1980s American action hero of a cartoon strip who signed off with the words: ‘Now you know. And knowing is half the battle.’

But if we are to change our behaviour, it’s not enough to just know what should be done, we need to enact the solutions repeatedly in order for it to become a habit.

This is something I’ve seen when working in drugs services. It’s all very well spending years doing therapy, trying to understand what led you to become an addict, but you still have to stop taking drugs and make changes in your life.

The same is true with issues relating to our mood. These can be tackled with Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), which helps people manage their problems by changing the way they think.

Because happiness isn’t something that just befalls us, it’s something we have to work on.

This is why I suspect the Yale course is so popular. It combines theory with what it calls ‘re-wirements’ — practical tasks aimed at changing habits.

Patients embarking on CBT often ask: can we really teach ourselves to be happy? Professor Santos addresses this by quoting research that shows about 50 per cent of our happiness is down to genetics. Our personality dictates if we are a glass half-full or glass half-empty kind of person.

Only 10 per cent of our happiness can be attributed to external life events. But 40 per cent is down to our thoughts and actions. And these are things we can change.

It’s easily said, I know, but less straightforward to carry out, for it involves challenging things we take for granted.

One of the exercises the course recommends, and it doesn’t require much effort, is to practise being kind every day for a week.

It sounds simple and yet it’s an incredibly powerful exercise. It has been shown to have a greater impact on our happiness than a pay rise or job promotion.

After all, it’s the little things like this that help us embark on a path of making ourselves happier. As GI Joe would say: ‘Now you know!’

Bravery that may protect billions 

Would you be willing to knowingly catch Covid-19? No, I thought not.

But thousands of people around the world have agreed to be infected with the virus in a bid to help accelerate the search for a life-saving vaccine.

This despite the fact that we are yet to identify a safe dose of the virus and there are no failsafe treatments if things go wrong.

Such ‘challenge trials’ have even been endorsed by the World Health Organization (as long as strict criteria are met).

Thousands of people around the world have agreed to be infected with the virus in a bid to help accelerate the search for a life-saving vaccine

The idea of infecting healthy individuals with a potentially deadly pathogen may sound shocking, but according to Professor Nir Eyal, the director of Rutgers University’s Center for Population-Level Bioethics in the U.S., the risk of death from Covid-19 for someone in their 20s is around one in 3,000.

To put that in perspective, it is similar to the risk a kidney donor submits to when making a live kidney donation.

Given the extraordinary situation we find ourselves in, it’s an approach I wholeheartedly support. After all, the potential benefits of such trials are huge. They could lead to the discovery of a treatment that would protect billions of people.

In the U.S., a campaign group called 1DaySooner has already signed up more than 20,000 volunteers from 102 countries.

When I mentioned this phenomenon to friends, I was surprised by how many of them said they would do the same.

This pandemic has made people feel powerless and they’re desperate to help in any way they can.

Much has been made of the fact that people with serious medical conditions are delaying getting medical help, either through fear of catching Covid-19 or because they don’t want to be a burden on the NHS.

But let’s not forget those with severe mental health problems.

I worry that some patients, so desperate that they are on the verge of suicide, think the NHS is ‘closed’ to them and are trying to cope alone.

If you are worried about your mental health, contact your GP. And if you’re already receiving treatment from a mental health service and you’re struggling, don’t hesitate to contact them.

Masks, yes… but no gloves please 

To mask or not to mask? It’s the question everyone has been asking as we try to work out how best to protect ourselves from the coronavirus.

I’m all for the wearing of face masks during these uncertain times, and I’m glad the Government is recommending them, too.

However, I am not in favour of people wearing latex or surgical gloves.

The virus is not contracted through the skin — it has to be passed from the hands to the mouth, nose or eyes. Gloves don’t stop this.

To mask or not to mask? It’s the question everyone has been asking as we try to work out how best to protect ourselves from the coronavirus 

I’ve seen people touching their face while wearing gloves after coming into contact with handrails or supermarket trolleys.

They don’t seem to realise that the gloves are immediately contaminated and, unless they change them, they risk infecting themselves.

What’s more, gloves form part of the personal protective equipment many of our frontline workers are so desperately in need of.

Wear face coverings but, please, ditch the gloves.

I once attended a lecture by distinguished physician Sir Muir Grey during which he said that if exercise was distilled into medication, it would be hailed as a miracle cure.

This is because the benefits of exercise are manifold — for both our physical and mental health.

Just last week, Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson, chair of ukactive — which represents gym and leisure centres — urged the Prime Minister to bring forward the date when gyms can reopen rather than forcing them to wait until the autumn.

This move has my full support. If you think about it, gyms are well-placed to minimise the risk of users infecting each other. Numbers of visitors can be restricted, and equipment can be positioned to maintain social distancing during exercise and disinfected before and after use.

Dr Max prescribes….The Power in you by Henry Fraser 

This is an inspirational book, published last week, by a young man paralysed from the neck down following a freak accident.

After battling depression brought on by his horrific circumstances, Fraser decided to change his outlook. He became a public speaker and taught himself to paint by using a brush held in his mouth, and now has fans including J.K. Rowling and the England rugby and cricket teams.

Sometimes we think we have it bad until we take a look at someone else’s life. This book really puts things into perspective.

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