Dr Muiris Houston explains why we shouldn't let the economic depression keep us from being happy
So, the IMF is here; it and the ECB will effectively govern this country for the next four years.
Leaving aside any feelings about our loss of sovereignty after 90 years of independence, what will it mean for healthcare in this little island of ours?
We got some taste of what lies ahead with the recent publication of Pfizer's 2010 Health Index.
The effects of two years of recession are clear with more than two in five people having been affected by either job loss, salary and/or working hours reduction.
Two things in particular stand out – a consistent reduction in the level of people’s recent interaction with the health system, and a marked vulnerability among the C2 socio-demographic group.
Representing almost a quarter of the population, the C2s are principally skilled manual workers.
We know from previous recessions how vulnerable they are to loss of income and how it prevents them from accessing healthcare.
They are the largest segment of the population which does not have either a medical card or private health insurance.
What does this mean in practice?
If you come from the lower socio-demographic groups, you are 2.5 times more likely to suffer from arthritis, twice as likely to have heart disease, and three times more likely to experience depression.
And we know from previous research that mental health has a knock-on effect on our physical health.
Depression doubles the risk of developing coronary heart disease.
And the relationship exists in reverse also – people with two or more long-term physical illnesses have a seven-times greater risk of depression than those who are physically healthy.
The Index confirms what every GP and his accountant could have told you months ago; people are avoiding doctors until their illness reaches a serious or unbearable level.
When feeling unwell, just 66 per cent said they would visit their GP in 2010 compared with 73 per cent two years ago – a big drop.
Inevitably there was a fall-off in the numbers visiting a family doctor for a check-up as well as a drop in the percentage of people availing of medical screening between 2008 and 2010.
When people were asked about specific illnesses in the Pfizer study, diagnoses that can be directly related to stress went up.
Depression rates more than doubled, as did infections. And those reporting blood pressure went up by 40 per cent.
When asked about their future health intentions, 25 per cent would like to take steps to be less stressed.
With all the uncertainty we face nationally and growing levels of personal stress, is there anything we can do apart from adding Prozac to the water supply? How about some positive ‘emotional contagion’?
Given the prevailing national mood, are there ways we could spread happiness?
A paper in the BMJ suggests there is.
Researchers from Harvard University set out to evaluate whether happiness can spread from person to person and whether niches of happiness form within social networks.
They were especially interested in whether the spread of happiness pertains not just to direct relationships (such as friends), but also to indirect relationships (such as friends of friends).
The results show that a friend who lives within a mile and who becomes happy increases the probability that another person is happy by 25 per cent.
Similar effects are seen in spouses who live together, siblings who live within a mile of each other, and next door neighbours.
Interestingly, the happiness effect is not seen between co-workers.
The effect decays with time and with geographical separation.
Clusters of happy and unhappy people are identifiable, and the relationship between people’s happiness extends up to three degrees of separation.
Admittedly it sounds a bit happy clappy. Is it because people become nicer or less hostile?
Or could it be that they exude an emotion that is genuinely contagious?
We do know that, at a physiological level, happiness has been associated with lower cortisol output, reduced inflammatory responses, and healthy patterns of heart rate variability.
In its favour, emotional contagion doesn’t cost anything.
And it could be argued that we are already in the grip of a negative contagion as people grapple with an unprecedented economic depression, so at the very least it might help counter a prevailing anxious public mood.
At least we would feel we are doing something.