Understanding Society

Tilburg University is convinced that it can contribute to solving social issues by developing and transferring knowledge and bringing together people from various disciplines and organizations.

Johan Denollet, Professor Medical Psychology

‘Societal value helps you persevere in your research’

Johan Denollet

Professor Johan Denollet is an original thinker whose research pushes the boundaries in investigating the relationship between personality and the development and progression of disease. In 2016, the director of the CoRPS Research Institute was awarded the J.J. Groen Prize for his entire body of work. Denollet is also committed to the university’s Impact Program. ‘Our knowledge can help patients.’

“Helping people. That is what I wanted to do after I had finished my studies in psychology at the University of Ghent. I took a training course in behavioral therapy after which I began monitoring patients in the Antwerp University Hospital. I worked there for eighteen years as a therapist monitoring people with cardiovascular diseases and patients experiencing pain. While I was working there, over the years, I was confronted with an unexpectedly large variation in cardiovascular patients’ responses to interventions. I also noticed that there was unexpectedly little relation between the seriousness of the situation and the complaints.”  

“I was so intrigued by the differences that this motivated me to do research on the subject. I wanted to know more about the relationship between the patients’ personality and the way they experience their illness. This knowledge might be useful in psychological care, particularly after medical interventions: how do patients deal with fear, depression and changes after an operation? Besides this, I saw possibilities for prevention. To what extent can emotional stress augment the risk of cardiovascular disease? In 1992, I got my PhD based on a thesis on the influence of personality on rehabilitation in the case of coronary heart disease.”

“I had developed a taste for doing research and wanted to do more of it. That is how I came to Tilburg University. I was attracted to the Netherlands because it is at the international forefront in psychology, and to Tilburg for its tradition in health psychology. Here, I continued my research but the path was not always easy. As a researcher you need to be curious and creative, but above all you need perseverance. You need to overcome obstacles such as unwelcome research results, rejected research proposals, and sometimes also strong criticism from colleagues. Fortunately, the will to solve puzzles and the societal relevance of what you are doing keep you going: our knowledge can help patients.”

“The work that we do as medical psychologists contributes to better health care. Thanks to our efforts, the recommendation to screen for psychological risks was added to the guidelines of the European Association of Cardiology in 2012. We also develop questionnaires they use for this screening.”

“What I also look upon as a reward for passionate work is the start of a two-year Master’s program in Medical Psychology in 2005. There is a lot of enthusiasm for his program, which proves that our discipline is gaining prestige. After ten years, we are now also seeing that it is professionalizing. Thanks to the Master’s program we are not only adding to the knowledge in our field; the many behavioral specialist graduating here mean a lot to patients straight away.” 

“Scientists and scholars should strive for maximum societal impact, for instance by sharing their knowledge. That is why I urge colleagues to use open access publication sources whenever possible. Besides that, I am committed to the university’s Impact Program, in which we focus on three societal issues. The program makes it easier for us to join the forces of the various disciplines within the university. It also increases our recognizability for societal partners that we could work together with. That way we will hopefully be able to start up bigger research projects.”

“Contributing to making ours a better university than it already is, is important, but doing research remains my greatest passion. Health problems are currently forcing me to reduce my aspirations a little. While this is unfortunate, I do know better now than ever what patients actually feel.”

Impact Program

To further strengthen its societal relevance, Tilburg University has set up an Impact Program. The program focuses on three themes: Creating Value from Data, Empowering the resilient society and Enhancing Health & Wellbeing. Johan Denollet is the leading representative of the third theme.