The Role of Happiness in People Living with Chronic Pain

An older couple smilingWhat is this research about?

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.

What did the researchers do?

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.

What did the researchers find?

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.

How can you use this research?

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:

  • Lend a helping hand or give back to others – Taking the focus off ourselves (and our pain) by connecting with people in need among your family, friends, or people in your community. For example, call, write or visit a friend in need; volunteer at a food bank, homeless shelter, church or animal shelter; or simply smile at someone who needs a smile.
  • Work towards a personal goal – Go after something personally important and rewarding. Here are some tips on how to reach your personal goal:
    • Make your goal “visible.” Discuss your goals and how you would like to pursue them with your friends and family.
    • Think about and imagine yourself pursuing and reaching your goal.
    • Think ahead and anticipate barriers (e.g. lack of time or frustration). Find strategies to manage them (e.g., set aside time when your energy level is high).
  • Some people may find meaning in spiritual activities: Becoming more involved in religion or spirituality by, for example, seeking meaning and purpose, finding the sacred in ordinary life and mindful meditating.
  • Nurturing relationships: Strengthening and enjoying relationships by making time for people, expressing admiration, appreciation, and affection, capitalizing on good fortunes, being supportive and loyal, managing conflict and sharing your inner life.
  • Expressing gratitude: writing down things that you are currently grateful for in your life. Keep a journal and add 3-5 things that happened during the day that you are thankful for.

Original research article:

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]

About the researchers:

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.