Photo: Kirstin Sinclair
Slim people are happier people. Moreover, their happiness is more profound. Despite the eternal stereotypes of the ever-smiling, rotund, fairy godmother, and the paunchy, ho-hoing Santa Claus, the research supports a rather different reality. This, however, is not a story of causality. This is a story of association. Losing weight will not make you happy, but happy people are generally slimmer. So, what is the relationship between happiness and weight loss? The link is the elusive word ‘meaning’.
As a doctor and psychiatrist, I subspecialise in only three areas of psychiatry: the psychotherapy of weight loss, trauma therapy and relationship therapy. The most difficult of these three areas, not by a little way, but by a very long way, is obesity. If only losing weight was a simple as ‘just eating less and exercising more.’ Of course, if it was, we would not have the obesity plague that we’re faced with currently. The truth is that most people know precisely what healthy eating looks like. Moreover, they want to lose weight, but something sabotages the process.
While we continue to think of obesity as a condition in its own right, rather than as a symptom of an underlying problem, our abject failure in treating it will continue to haunt those of us in the medical and related health professions.
Dr George Blair-West.
You do not need to be Freud to know that a significant amount of overeating is self-medicating unhappiness in all its forms – stress, anxiety, depression. (‘Comfort Eating’ should go down in history as one of the greatest over-simplifications of all time.) Chocolate (the other major food group) is the most widely used antidepressant on the planet. The first step in therapy then, is helping people to develop alternative and more effective ways of managing these emotions – this is ‘Treating Obesity Psych 101’ – it is also just the tip of an iceberg of considerable complexity.
Over more than a decade, as I have drilled deeper into the minds of my obese patients, another issue emerged. For many people food and eating was the most meaningful part of their day-to-day life. If you are going to put somebody, for whom food is the high point of their day, on a diet, please do not be surprised by the inevitable failure that follows.
(Mind you, this does not stop health professionals from making this mistake over and over again. The unfortunate cost is the creation of confusion and a failure mindset in our hard done by patients.)
My intrigue with what I was seeing clinically took me to the profound research, spanning the last 20 years, of Professor Carol Ryff at the University of Wisconsin, USA. In one particular, well-designed study she looked closely at two groups of women. With 135 in total, members of both groups rated themselves as ‘happy’.
This was no airy-fairy investigation of warm fuzzy feelings. Ryff was interested in the correlation between hard biological markers like cortisol (an immune system marker), HDL cholesterol and body weight, with two different forms of happiness. One group were defined by being satisfied with their life, enjoying its pleasures and generally having a subjective sense of well-being. The other group had a deeper sense of well-being built around the desire for personal growth, meaningful experiences and relationships, along with a sense of purpose in their life.
Ryff found statistically significant differences when she looked at those who lived with meaning and purpose in their life. Not only did they have lower weight, but their good cholesterol levels were higher and their cortisol levels were better. In short, happiness built around meaning and purpose is not a luxury in life – your weight and your health depend on it.
I was surprised to find that, much more than most challenges in therapy, my patients really struggled with trying to find what was meaningful in their life – let alone the purpose this would guide them to. Too often they would make the challenge more problematic by adding the ‘ion’ to what is fundamentally a ‘quest’ - making it a ‘question’ – a question they could not answer. At school, a question without an answer equalled ‘idiot’. Like most of us, when faced with a question we do not know the answer to, my patients pushed it away. Once they understood it was a journey, a quest, they needed to pursue over time, they settled into the process.
Slowly but surely as my patients found more meaningful pursuits in their life than eating, they began losing weight. More importantly they lost the weight and kept it off, while at the same time saying to me, ‘This is strange, because I don’t feel like I’m on a diet at all.’
Finding meaning is not about quitting your day job and going in search of your soul in a third world country. This journey begins at home. It begins with a detailed examination of what you found meaningful in your past and which aspects of your life and work now are meaningful. I also get my patients to look at their dreams for the future, some of which they have held since they were children. Once we have found what is meaningful we look at what purpose this guides us to.
This all takes time, self-exploration and regular reflection. Managing the powerful physiological and psychological forces that drive overeating, requires us to bring out the big guns. There are no bigger guns than meaning and purpose.
Dr George Blair-West is the author of the internationally acclaimed, award-winning The Way of The Quest that explains the ‘how to’ of finding meaning and purpose. His first book, the best selling Weight Loss for Food Lovers: Understanding our minds and why we sabotage our weight loss has been translated into Dutch and Chinese. For more information about his latest work into the motivation and mindset of weight loss visit www.weightlossforfoodlovers.com