Is Happiness a Definable Goal in Health? Thoughts from the Health Care and Social Action Course

A Bahá’í who wishes to remain anonymous is one of some thirty-three learners enrolled in the new Wilmette Institute course Health Care and Social Action 2016 (faculty, Babak Etemad, Stephen Karnick, and John Safapour), posted the essay below in one of the units in the course. We think it raises some interesting ideas that we hope one day will become a regular part of health care, or as the author puts it: healthcare professions should have “the goal of happy patients (rather than non-depressed patients)”:

“In the Western medical model, as discussed in the chapter from Mabel Aghadiuno’s book Soul Matters: The Spiritual Dimension Within Healthcare, a goal typically must be scientifically quantifiable—testable—in order to be recognized as valid and achievable.

“Mood disorders are well-defined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders and can be diagnosed according to set criteria. Psychiatrists, counselors, and primary-care practitioners alike are trained in the detection and management of such disorders. As we know, depression screening is a routine component of wellness checks in many settings. During such screening, seemingly unquantifiable, subjective, emotional experiences—such as hopelessness, lack of pleasure, and guilt—are quantified and scored using standardized, validated tools (for example, The PHQ-9, The Patient Health Questionnaire, a depression module used to monitor the severity of depression and response to treatment).  A positive score indicates the need for counseling and other interventions. Interestingly, I have never questioned the fact that patient progress is measured in a reduction of these negative feelings, rather than increases in happiness.

“How can happiness be quantified? Although we can never fully define happiness objectively, if there are medical criteria delineating the opposite (or near-opposite) of happiness, there must similarly be a way to develop basic criteria measuring happiness itself. Christopher Peterson et al (in ‘Orientations to Happiness and Life Satisfaction: The Full Life Versus the Empty Life,’ Journal of Happiness Studies 6:25–41) have provided a partial framework, suggesting it is possible to examine contributors to happiness (engagement, pleasure, meaning) using certain scales.

“Although the Bahá’í writings tell us that true happiness is spiritual and lies in our connection with God (‘Rejoice not save that thou art drawing near and returning unto Us.’—Bahá’u’lláh, The Hidden Words Arabic 35), we can imagine today’s HMOs incorporating member programs, such as service opportunities, meditation, and mindfulness training, into their healthy lifestyle offerings to start patients on a pathway toward engagement and meaning. Even though true happiness involves other, spiritual dimensions that are not likely within the purview of health care, there certainly are ways in which the healthcare system could contribute to the goal of happy patients (rather than non-depressed patients). A quotation from ‘Abdu’l-Bahá reminds me (daily, before clinic!) that happiness is actually an important medical goal and can have a profound effect on patient well-being: ‘When giving medical treatment . . . cure the sorely afflicted by imparting to them blissful glad tidings. . . . When at the bedside of a patient, cheer and gladden his heart and enrapture his spirit through celestial power. Indeed, such a heavenly breath quickeneth every mouldering bone and reviveth the spirit of every sick and ailing one’ (Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá 131: 151).”

Leave a Reply