According to the 2019 World Happiness Report (WHR), there are three important factors for finding happiness. On a rainy Monday in Sydney, Dr Michael Mosley said he has learned them the hard way.
“Lots of factors make you happy,” Mosley told the 1300-strong audience at the Happiness and Its Causes conference. "But the three most important things… are relationships, money and health.”
Dr Michael Mosley speaks at Happiness and Its Causes.Credit:Brendan Read
Arguably the world’s most famous human guinea pig, the British GP and TV presenter, started his own personal quest to find happiness as a university student at Oxford in the 1970s.
“Like most 18-year-olds I wanted to find my place in the world, my purpose,” he said. So he began studying philosophy and economics and, unsure of what to do when he graduated, became a banker.
Despite earning good money, he didn’t “feel satisfied”. “It wasn’t making me happy,” he revealed.
According to the WHR – which found Finland is the happiest country in the world (Australia is 11th) – money matters for happiness, but only up to a point.
“How much do you think you need to be relatively happy? The minimum? Turns out to be $50,000. The maximum, the point at which you get satiated where actually having more money won’t make you more happy? That turns out to be $90,000… beyond that point you don’t get a lot happier.
“Another measure of happiness is when you feel you’ve 'made it'. That turns out to be much higher… about $140,000… to have bragging rights.”
Having discovered for himself that money alone didn’t make him happy, Mosley ditched banking and returned to university to study medicine.
On his first day of medical school, he met his wife, Clare, to whom he has been married for 39 years.
“She filled an enormous emotional void in my life,” Mosley said. Through their relationship, Mosley discovered the second, and most significant, factor for happiness: our relationships. “That was something I didn’t know until I met Clare.”
Dr Michael Mosley on Monday.Credit:Brendan Read
The WHR has quantified the impact relationships have by asking a simple question of 1.4 million people in over 150 countries: If you were in trouble, do you have relatives or friends that can help you, whether you need them or not?
“This is the greatest single predictor of whether or not someone reports they are happy or not,” Mosley said.
The final “incredibly powerful predictor of happiness” is a healthy lifespan.
As we age, the risk of chronic diseases rises exponentially. Over the age of 65, 87 per cent of Australians live with at least one chronic illness.
Mosley himself was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes in 2012.
“I was in my early 50s, I felt fit… so it was a nasty shock,” said Mosley, whose father died prematurely from type 2 diabetes complications.
Keen to avoid a similar fate, he decided to embark on a journey to try and reverse the diagnosis.
During his exploration, he discovered animal studies which found energy restriction, along with exercise, stimulated BDNF (brain derived neurotrophic factor), a natural substance which is “like fertiliser for the brain”.
“It supports the growth of new brain cells,” Mosley explained, adding that“semi-starved mice” live about 40 per cent longer than normal mice. “Long-term calorie restriction is the only sure of extending healthy life, but I didn’t fancy it so I was relieved intermittent fasting also worked.”
After eight weeks of eating normally for five days a week and limiting his intake to 600 calories on Mondays and Thursdays, he lost 11 cm around his waist and his blood sugars returned to – and have remained at – normal levels. He also wrote the internationally best-selling 5:2 Diet book and the new “evolution”, The Fast 800.
Staying within a healthy weight range does not just reduce the risk of chronic illnesses.
“Fat is active in terms of inflammatory markers for your brain and it makes you unhappy,” Mosley said. “It’s true whether you are obese or whether you are overweight – you have an increased risk of becoming depressed by about 27 per cent.”
Its not just weight, it’s what you eat, added Mosley, who favours the Mediterranean diet: “People do say to me ‘if the Mediterranean diet is so good, then why are people in Greece so fat?’ and I say, ‘Because they’re not eating the Mediterranean diet anymore.’”
Those who are eating the real deal – which is a diet rich in oily fish, leafy vegetables, fruit and nuts – like the Swedes, are seeing the benefits.
Research by the Food and Mood Centre has found depressed participants who ate a Mediterranean diet for three months experienced a ”much greater reduction in their depressive symptoms”, compared with those who received standard psychiatric care over the same period.
The keys to happiness, Mosley said, is surprisingly simple.
“My guide to a happy life? Prioritise your relationships, eat a Mediterranean-style diet, fast sometimes – it’s surprisingly enjoyable, keep a waist less than half your height… try and do something that gets your heart rate up three times a week, meditate most mornings… and be grateful for people that make you happy.”
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