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9 Evidence-based guidelines for a 'good life'

February’s talk brought an explanation of evidence-based “rules for life” from clinical psychologist Gary Bakker. From the Ten Commandments to the 2018 book 12 Rules For Life, there’s a plethora of instructions for the ‘best’ way to live, but very few of them are actually proven, and are generally based on the political ideals of the creators. So, here’s skeptic and scientific rationalist Gary’s take on positive living and maximising the benefit for individuals and the community from a clinical perspective.

1. Moderate daily physical activity is a natural stress reliever with a better success rate than most antidepressant medications, while intellectually stimulating activities such as music or languages help maintain cognitive function.

2. Deliberately acknowledge and appreciate positive aspects of the day to reinforce the habit of positive thinking

3. Almost as much joy and pain can be derived from others’ experiences as from one’s own, so you can break a habit of self-pity or self-absorption and fill your happiness bucket by doing nice things for others.

4. The correlation between wealth and happiness levels off once you achieve stable housing, health insurance, enough time for holidays, and the respect and affection of the people closest to you; with the exception of massive socioeconomic inequity, anything above that is more likely to make you miserable than happy.

5. Social discussions often revolve around work, and peoples’ jobs are generally a significant component of their self-identity. But spending the majority of your waking hours neglecting your relationships benefits society’s priorities more than your own. Affluent societies depend on the relative exploitation of the masses to ensure the success of the upper classes, but sacrificing your personal life and living for your work isn’t likely to make you one of them.

6. It’s easy to lapse into self-consciousness and social anxiety when you lose perspective, especially among young people. You’re the centre of your own world, but everyone else is too focused on themselves to be too worried about anything you might possibly be doing wrong.

7. Overprotective parenting makes kids more sensitive and less resilient, and overcomplimenting makes positive feedback meaningless. Rather than making them happy, teach them how to cope with life so they can make themselves happy. Don’t impose unnecessary challenges or make them feel like you don’t care, but be a coping model instead of a mastery model.

8. The most significant influences on our capability to change our habits and perspectives are genes, environment, and conscious reasoning. You can’t make changes overnight – it depends on your circumstances and surroundings, as well as your willingness to put in the effort.

9. When you’re stressed or depressed, you worry about things you’d normally dismiss if you were in a better mood. A lot of worrying outcomes are very unlikely, or are simply beyond our control, and so aren’t worth the concern, but it’s important to know how to filter these worries to save yourself unnecessary stress.

So what exactly constitutes ‘happiness’ in life? Most of the accepted definitions are vague and philosophical, but Gary’s experiences with patients have allowed him to create a more objective metric, involving criteria such as the ability to work, reduced depressive symptoms and social difficulties, and treatment cessation. Humans, as social animals, derive much of our survival abilities from being integrated in the community, so our physical and emotional health is dependent to an extent on our interactions with others. Generally, the worse you feel, the worse you cope, so addressing all dimensions of health improves your overall outcomes. Effective coping strategies are an essential part of wellbeing, although they sometimes have to be deliberate rather than reflexive – improving your life is a conscious decision.

Listen to Gary's talk: here Slides: here

About the speaker:

Dr Gary Bakker

Gary Bakker is a clinical psychologist, recently retired from clinical practice, but still teaching at the University of Tasmania, and writing books and articles in both the skeptical and clinical psychological spheres. He also presented at Skepticon 2020.

He has been obsessed with evidence-based psychotherapy for 40 years, so don’t bother asking him about hypnotherapy, psychoanalysis, past life regression therapy, or any of the 500+ other psychological therapies that have no controlled outcome study support behind them whatsoever. Engineers aren’t allowed to make up bridge designs as they go along, so why can psychotherapists?


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