The following article completes a condensation of a literature review by Dr. Roger Walsh. The review appeared recently in the American Psychologist, a journal of the American Psychological Association. Dr. Walsh offered numerous Therapeutic Lifestyle Changes (TLC), based upon his examination of medical and psychological literature. It is hoped that these scientifically derived principles for living may benefit those suffering from cognitive and emotional impairments.
Dr. Walsh’s fourth area of consideration was the role of nature as a mediator of mental health. The psychological cost of indoor living includes disruption of mood, sleep and diurnal rhythms. Cognitive costs of indoor living include impairment of attention, decreased academic performance in the young and a greater cognitive decline in the elderly. Dr. Walsh did report that natural settings reduce stress and depression, but the amount of time spent outdoors to secure this benefit was lacking. Most of the studies he examined appeared to focus on poets and philosophers, such that scientific rigor was minimal. In a normal population, natural settings may enhance cognition, attention, and subjective well-being.
The role of relationships in all social animals is very important. A strong social attachment to a psychologist is more important than the school of therapy that is utilized. Said another way, what the therapist says is less important than their bond with the patient. Good relationships are associated with happiness, resilience, and cognitive capacity. The health risks of social isolation are believed to be comparable to risks of high blood pressure, smoking and obesity. Similar to the section on “Nature,” Dr. Walsh’s analysis of the literature did not include any guidelines for what defines a satisfying relationship, how many are sufficient, and the frequency which one must engage in good relationships to be therapeutic.
This ancient practice of meditation ameliorates a wide array of stress-related psychological and psychosomatic disorders. Mediation has received much more attention from researchers than yoga, and its benefits may overlap with other strategies to induce muscular relaxation. It is clear that meditation is beneficial for normal populations, as well as multiple clinical samples . Dr. Walsh noted that it is less clear how meditation practices compare with each other, or with other therapies; such as relaxation, yoga and self-hypnosis.
Spiritual involvement may be an important mediator of mental and physical health. It appears to be most beneficial when centered on themes of love and forgiveness. Themes of guilt and punishment are less likely to be helpful to one’s mental health. Those who attend religious services at least weekly live about seven years longer than those who do not attend. Those who experience a rich spiritual life have reduced rates of mental disorders; such as anxiety, depression, substance abuse and suicide. The only significant link between spirituality and physical health is a reduced incidence of hypertension. A common criticism of this area of research is that the sample of people who attend church are less likely to smoke, drink and abuse drugs. Since their lifestyle is inherently different, it would need to be compared to spiritual people who indulged in these common vices.
In the concluding section of the literature review, Dr. Walsh discussed the so-called paradox of happiness. The nature of the paradox is that spending time helping others may accentuate one’s personal happiness. A major exception to this category is caretaker burnout. When family members take care of a demented spouse or parent, the sense of internal pressure and obligation may negate the positive affects of contributing to others. There is considerable research to link selfless behavior (altruism) with psychological, physical and social well-being. In some cases, providing social support may actually be more beneficial than receiving the help.