Does Michael Mosley Know the Truth about Happiness?

Last year I watched a Horizon documentary by Michael Mosley (Eat, Fast, and Live Longer) where he convinced me to attempt the 5:2 fasting diet. This turned out to be a nice adventure even if it didn’t provide me with the key to everlasting health. His latest documentary for Horizon is called The Truth about Personality, and it is about his search for happiness. This is something that has been on my mind a great deal recently, so this is one documentary I wasn’t going to miss.


Michael Mosley is a Real Human – I Like That

I tend to be a bit skeptical of sciency-people who make bold health claims based on the latest research, but I can’t help but trust Michael Mosley. He comes across as being as confused about life as I am, just someone muddling through, and I find this a wonderfully reassuring thing about him. Michael is a trained doctor, but his documentaries are about him looking for answers and not about telling other people what to do. I trusted him enough to go on a fasting diet for 14 days last year. I wouldn’t say that I’d be willing to follow him to hell and back, but I’m certainly interested enough to listen to what he says about happiness.

The Truth about Personality

Michael Mosley describes himself as a ‘catastrophic thinker’ – a pessimist who is just waiting for the next shitty thing to happen in his world. His attitude means there is a great deal of stress in his life – a predicament I can certainly appreciate. This Horizon documentary follows his search to find the cause of his pessimism as well as his hunt for a cure. Michael Mosley not only desires to be happier but he also wants to be a warmer and more open to life – just like I do. Basically, his goal with this project is to change his mind over the course of seven weeks.

The Power of Optimism

As to be expected with a Horizon documentary, his first port of call is science. The hunt for happiness starts off by looking at some studies that have shown that optimistic people tend to live longer. I have no problem believing this. During my time working as a nurse, I witnessed many examples of positive people who seemed to be able to shake off illness easier than the negative types. Pessimists tend to just give up when they become ill, and this means they can end up suffering more and even die much sooner. There was also an interesting article in the Huffington Post this week where Paul Spector MD suggested that having a negative view of our future-self may lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy because it encourages us to make bad decisions now – it does make sense.

Negative People Tune into the Negative Aspects of Life

Near the beginning of the documentary, Michael Mosley takes part in a brain-experiment to see if science proves that he is a ‘glass half-empty’ kind of guy. His brain is monitored to see if he is better at focusing on negative or positive images – he is much better at focusing on negative images. Other tests confirm that his brain is ‘tuned to the dark side’. Science therefore proves that he is not faking his pessimism. More interestingly, the implications of the results are that negative people are just better at seeing the bad in life. This claim sounds reasonable enough. I remember during my alcoholic years it felt like the whole world revolved around alcohol because that was where my attention was always directed. Negative people are viewing the world through a filter that confirms their negativity. The good news is that we can modify our brains so we develop a more positive outlook on life.

Michael Mosley Changes His Mind

The first approach Michael turns to in order to change his negative outlook is cognitive bias modification (CBM). This basically is all about trying to train the mind to focus more on the positive things in life. It involves playing a type of computer game where he has to find happy faces. Apparently CBM works well for things like anxiety, but it doesn’t look to be any wonder cure for pessimism.

Meditation at Big Green Gathering 2006 Festival

The most interesting part of the documentary is when Michael seeks the help of Andy Puddicombe (an ex-Buddhist monk). Andy teaches simple meditation techniques – he claims that as little as 10 minutes per day can help people become more optimistic. Michael Mosley does seem to benefit from his first meditation lesson. I laughed when I read how this reaction to the practice was described by Neil Midgley in the Telegraph article (see the first paragraph for the link):

“Mosley then started to witter about whether he was feeling more cheerful or not, sounding like a clubber who’d taken an ecstasy pill and wasn’t sure if it was working.”

For seven weeks, Michael Mosley combines CBM with meditation to see if he can change his mind. The first person to notice an improvement was his wife. He then began to sleep better and feel generally more positive about things. When he repeats brain tests in the laboratory it is confirmed that he has become significantly better at focusing on the positive in life. There are also changes in his brain to a pattern that is usually associated with an optimist.

Does Michael Mosley Know the Truth about Happiness?

I’ve benefited a great deal from meditation, so I’m not surprised that it worked so well here. In the past, I’ve been attracted to long meditation sessions, hours at a time, and looking back this may have been a form of escapism. I’m prone to strange and intense experiences when I meditate, so I can become a bit obsessive about it. Meditation works best for me when I combine it with physical exercises because this helps to keep me grounded.

Update – you can try some of the tests that Michael Mosley underwent to check his optimism levels at Rainy Brain, Sunny Brain. If the results are correct, I’m far more of an optimism than I realized.

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3 thoughts on “Does Michael Mosley Know the Truth about Happiness?

  1. There are a couple if things I’ve come to find useful knowledge in this area. First, is the whole fight/flight vs. relaxation function of the nervous system. When we are in fight/flight/fear/stress mode, we are naturally more attuned to danger (aka negative stuff). So anything that calms you can make tuning into safety cues (positive stuff) much easier. Second, successful meditation has been described by at least one neurobiological researcher as moving from using the part of the brain that thinks about breathing to the part of the brain which experiences feeling the breath which is where we find ecstasy and this is not just for breathing it is for everything we experience. Feel it instead if thinking about it. Not sure how that relates to optimism but I think it definitely relates to experiencing happiness in the present moment.

    1. I think the problem with pessimists is that it is all about being focused on the future. The benefit of practices like meditation could be that it brings us back to the present. Most of our problems tend to be in the future, so if our focus isn’t directed there, maybe it will be easier for us? I think you are right about the whole fight/flight mode.

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