By Dr. Sally Shaw
Broadly speaking, ‘quality of life’ refers to an individual’s level of health and happiness. And as you know, there are a multitude of factors that can impact on someone’s experience of life, and how happy and healthy they are. Finances, where they live, who they have relationships with, if they are working, how healthy they are… it goes on. The MSIF (Multiple Sclerosis International Federation) published a ‘refreshed’ list of Quality of Life principles last year, after extensive consultation with people from 30 countries in 2016 (I felt very privileged to have been included in that conversation!). The result was the publication of 7 principles relating to quality of life, that identify:
‘the main areas in which every bit of progress can make a real difference to individuals’
Already, I love the wording they use here when referring to quality of life! It’s not black and white. It’s not that you have it or you don’t. Every bit of progress to improve quality of life in any area of someone’s life is worthwhile and important, and should be seized and acted on.
The authors tell us that these quality of life principles are ‘intended to inspire and challenge us all’. Not just health professionals, who bang on about this stuff all the time, but people with MS themselves. Finally, we have come to a point where it is recognised that your quality of life is there for you to assess, for you to challenge, and for you to improve. Health professionals, MS organisations, researchers, and governments are also called on to understand that what they do, and how they do it, affects your quality of life, but finally, it has been named. It is actually all about the Person with MS, because ‘quality of life is highly personal and changeable’, and ‘it is for individuals to determine what matters to them’. Gone are the days when a Doctor would loosely assess your quality of life based on how far you can walk down a corridor. Thank god, because it’s not about that. It never has been.
So I wanted to write a piece that might encourage you to have a think about what quality of life means for you, and why the MSIF principles are worthy of your consideration. Then I want to ask you to think about ways that you can improve your quality of life. Seriously. I believe that if you can identify the bits that are both important to you and within your control, you can then decide to make small, but extremely beneficial changes to increase your own experience of health and happiness in life. And surely that’s got to be worth giving a crack.
I did not want to write an article that merely regurgitates what is very well put already, on the MSIF’s website. Their list of principles to improve quality of life with MS is concise. They describe each principle in real world terms, and then list some key features of each. You can find the Seven Principles to improve a Quality of Life with MS on the MSIF website here (or at the top of this article), and you can go further and read about the factors that influence quality of life with MS here.
However, I will give a little detail about the factors that can influence quality of life, as they are divided into three groups – ‘Me’, ‘My immediate circumstances’, and ‘My wider environment’. As a psychologist, no prize will be given to you for guessing that I’m most interested in the first group, as it encompasses an individual’s gender, age and physical health, together with their mental health, and their attitudes and beliefs – such critical components in one’s assessment of their own experience, and most excitedly, components that can be challenged and changed. One of my all time favourite quotes from the guy that is thought of as the ‘father of the positive psychology movement’ is:
“Habits of thinking need not be forever. One of the most significant findings in psychology in the last 20 years is that individuals can choose the way they think” (Martin Seligman, Learned Optimism, 2006).
The ways in which this discovery can be used to enhance and increase quality of life is immeasurable.
Physical health is a major contributor to quality of life. Of course it is. That’s why there is such an emphasis in our society on physical health, exercise and maintaining a good diet. However, it is interesting to note that Mental Health features more prominently in the factors provided as examples that can influence the Quality of Life principles (6 of the 7, as opposed to Physical Health featuring in 2 of the 7). Maybe if we paid a little more attention to our own mental health, we could improve our own quality of life. I’m not saying cancel the gym membership, I’m just saying that maybe it’s a good time to see what else you could be doing to help yourself, to enhance your quality of life, to see if you can turn it up a notch?
Are you allowed to have a favourite Quality of Life Principle? Is that a thing? Well, let’s say it is. Mine is the first one on the list:
“Empowerment, independence, and a central role for people affected by MS in decisions that affect their lives”.
It’s the empowerment that gets me. Who doesn’t want to be empowered? Who doesn’t want to seize a little more control over their experience of life? It’s a great place for the individual to start. The MSIF invite people with MS to think about their own quality of life and to act to enhance it. Why wouldn’t you give it some thought, and then give it a shot? Every bit of progress can make a real difference!