The Science of Well-being

The Naked Scientists spoke to Professor Felicia Huppert, Department of Psychiatry, University of Cambridge
28 May 2006

Interview with 

Professor Felicia Huppert, Department of Psychiatry, University of Cambridge


Chris - What are you going to be talking about when you go to Borders on Wednesday?

Felicia - The science of well-being. There's an enormous amount of interest at the moment in happiness and we're going to broaden this out an talk about the fundamental science that underlies all this interest.

Chris - So why people want to be happy, as opposed to being sad.

Felicia - Exactly, and that's an important part of it. Up until now, medicine and psychology has always been focussing on the problems people have and disorder and dysfunction. But it's time to start asking questions about what makes people well and what makes them feel good. And there are a whole load of different things that make people feel good and we need to try to understand.

Chris - What are nature's feel-good factors then, Felicia?

Felicia - Well I'll come back to that in a second. Feeling good is important because it makes us function well and this is why we talk about the science of well-being as opposed to just the science of happiness. So what makes people feel good? It turns out that, not surprisingly, friends and family are incredibly important. Knowing your strengths and utilising them; being really engaged in the things you do, and actually doing things for other people. These all seem very key.

Chris - So it almost seems as though the good Samaritan was something we were programmed to do. Why is it good for us to have friends, sing in a choir, go to church, play a musical instrument or say our prayers? All these things have been proven to help people live longer. Why should that be a fact?

Felicia - We evolved as social animals and so presumably in a part of our evolution, those of us who had good friendships and worked for other people were the ones that were more likely to survive in hard times. That stayed with us.

Chris - Animals are the same aren't they?

Felicia - Absolutely right, yes. There are a lot of social animals and there are other animals that are less so.

Chris - In insects such as ants, wasps and bees, they might not as far as I know experience sensations of pleasure, but they must get some sort of reward from helping each other.

Felicia - Yes.

Kat - So recently David Cameron the leader of the Conservative Party made a speech saying that we need to be happy and we need to think about general well-being rather than money in the pocket. If you were running this country, how would you go about increasing general well-being?

Felicia - I think you can do it at various different stages of the life course. I think we should start very early because the evidence from animal research is that how you nurture very small animals makes an enormous difference to their mental health and their capability throughout the rest of their life. So we need to focus on those early years to make sure that parents know how to bring that child up in a way that maximises their physical and mental health. In the school years, encouraging children to learn about social and emotional intelligence is really very important. It increases their own well-being and increases the chance of them having friends. There is a lot of evidence too that if you are feeling positive, you perform much better in every aspect of your life. You concentrate much better, you generate more ideas and are more resilient in a stressful situation. You bounce back much faster and these are all very good reasons. At the other end of the spectrum, because I'm quite interested in older people as well, one reason why older people may not function as well as possible is due to our negative stereotypes of aging. If in our society we could make people more positive about aging, and there's experimental evidence for this, if old people feel more positive they are more confident, their memory and learning is better, their numerical skills are better, and their stress reactivity is better. So by feeling confident you get into this upward spiral where everything is better. So at every stage in the life course I think there are things we could be doing in our society to improve well-being generally.


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