I know it’s a little perverse to begin an article about Pos Psych with a distressing event, but as F. Scott Fitzgerald said, ‘”Show me a hero and I will write you a tragedy”.
The untimely death this week of the Australian actor Heath Ledger, star of the film Brokeback Mountain, has shocked many; he was gifted of course, but more than that he was young, only 28 years old, and had a young daughter. Reports suggest that he may have taken an accidental overdose of prescribed sleeping tablets; ironically in this interview on the Ellen DeGeneres Show, he talks about the exhaustion and sleepless nights that a new baby brings.
I’m sure most of us have suffered from insomnia at some point in our lives; thankfully it’s usually short-lived and we get back to our normal routine pretty quickly. Chronic insomnia, however, is a different matter. It’s long been known that inability to sleep, waking early or disturbed sleep are related to physical ill-health, stress, depression and anxiety.
In Ledger’s case, of course, we can only surmise what was going on in his head, but to describe him at this point as one of the ‘Worried Well’, as he was in The UK’s Telegraph today, seems extraordinarily insensitive.
Depression and other psychological conditions aside, researchers Hamilton, Gallagher and Preacher (2007) provide evidence that insomnia and well-being are linked. After adjusting for both demographic factors and persistent mental and physical health problems, their studies have found a significant relationship between insomnia and both psychological and subjective well–being, with a stronger relationship to the latter, suggesting that being able to sleep (or not) is linked to one’s ability to enjoy life (or not).
Figure 1. Correlates of subjective and psychological well-being. This figure illustrates a model in which the effects of insomnia on PWB and SWB are estimated after adjusting for age, gender, race, stomach trouble, trouble with teeth, emotional disorder, and alcohol or drug problems.
That insomnia might lead to a lack of pleasure and satisfaction in life is easy enough to grasp; if you’ve ever wrestled with something as simple as a family reunion the day after a sleepless night for instance, you’ll know what I mean – it’s hard to feel peppy when you’ve got eye-bags the size of Samsonites.
But what we don’t know from Hamilton et al’s study is which of insomnia and lack of well-being is cause, and which effect. Assuming the absence of a third variable, the implication is that, ‘z’ medicines aside, the symptoms of sleeplessness might persist as long as well-being remains out of reach, regardless of physical and psychological health. If that’s the case, they argue, maybe the problem of insomnia could be addressed by applying some of the positive psychology interventions aimed at increasing well-being. Counting blessings instead of counting sheep, for example? I mentioned the positive interventions approach to several insomniac friends, but the majority were sceptical…
What Hamilton et al’s research highlights very well is that:
- The dividing line between traditional psychology and positive psychology is more blurred than we think.
- Positive psychologists who are not trained therapists or clinicians need to be wary of ‘diagnosing’ clients and proposing positive interventions in such circumstances.
- There is a clear need for further research into the efficacy of positive interventions.
Hamilton, N.A., Gallagher, M.W. & Preacher, K.J. (2007). Insomnia and well-being. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 75(6), 939-946.