Chronic pain is common among people living with conditions like arthritis, stroke, spinal cord injury, and multiple sclerosis. Different from acute pain, chronic pain doesn’t go away and lasts longer than 6 months. Pain can seep into all aspects of our lives – getting out and doing the activities we enjoy, socializing with our friends, taking care of ourselves and our families, as well as our health and well-being.
Typically, chronic pain is treated with medication. However, many of these pills do not provide much relief from pain and even cause negative side effects. Alternative treatments such as massage, heat, acupuncture and physical therapy show promise. Counseling with a psychologist or therapist is another way to manage chronic pain. One type of counseling focuses on changing pain-related thoughts and behaviors that aren’t helpful into ones that help us cope and adjust. Another type of counseling, called positive psychology, focuses on our strengths and resources to lead us on the path to happiness. In our study, we looked at whether happiness had any impact on our experience of pain and distress. We also looked at the role of different approaches to happiness in individuals with chronic pain.
We surveyed 400 individuals with different kinds of conditions, including arthritis, diabetes, or spinal cord injury who reported having pain. We asked them how bad their pain was (pain intensity) as well as how much pain got in the way of their daily lives (pain interference). We asked other questions about depression, stress, and anxiety (distress). Lastly, we asked about 3 different ways of experiencing happiness 1) having a life with lasting meaning, 2) living a pleasurable life, and 3) being involved or participating in valued activities.
Happy people were more likely to report lower levels of pain. Happy people reported that pain was less likely to get in the way of their daily lives and they were less likely to feel distressed when we also looked at the impact of happiness on pain intensity. We found only one of the three types of happiness had an impact on chronic pain - people who reported having a life with lasting meaning were more likely to report lower levels of pain, pain that didn’t get in the way of their lives, and they experienced less distress. However, as with all statistical associations, these relationships do not necessarily mean a ‘cause’ and ‘effect’ relationship.
Our happiness may influence how and how much pain we experience. Here are a few tips on how to harness the power of happiness in your life:
Müller, R., Terrill, A.L., Jensen, M.P., Molton, I.R., Ravesloot, C., & Ipsen, C. Happiness, pain intensity, pain interference and distress in individuals with physical disabilities. Am J Phys Med Rehabil. 2015 Mar 24. [Epub ahead of print]
Rachel Müller is a clinical psychologist with a PhD in human biology. She is interested in strengths- and resource-based psychological interventions to support individuals living with chronic pain.