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The Happiness Cure

David Spero

March 9, 2011

Forget diet and exercise for now. I’ve got a better plan: Be happy! A new review of 160 studies shows that good moods may be one of the most important things for good health. But how do we get good moods?

I’ve written about this before, but this time I’m serious! The new paper by University of Illinois professor emeritus Ed Diener, PhD, in Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being, analyzed all kinds of studies and found consistently that positive mood leads to longer life and better health.

Some of these studies are fascinating. One followed nearly 5,000 university students for more than 40 years. It found that those who were most pessimistic as students tended to die younger than their peers. Another study followed 180 Catholic nuns for over 70 years! The nuns were asked in 1930 to write one-page autobiographies of their lives. In 2001, University of Kentucky researchers found that those who reported more positive emotions in their 20s tended to outlive those who wrote more negative accounts by 7–10 years on average.

Another study looked at Harvard students who had participated in a study about how much they felt their parents loved them. The researchers located these students 35 years later and found that those who were sure of their parents’ love were much healthier than those who were less sure.

Those cheerful people are so annoying! They’ve got it all, apparently. Not only are they having more fun; they are healthier too.

The reasons for the health benefits of happiness aren’t hard to find. Emotions strongly affect the immune system. According to Dr. Diener’s study, “laboratory experiments on humans have found that positive moods reduce stress-related hormones, increase immune function and promote the speedy recovery of the heart after exertion. In other studies, marital conflicts and high hostility in married couples were associated with slow wound healing and a poorer immune response.”

OK, I’m sold. I’m going to drop the bad feelings and “marital conflicts” like they were cigarettes or Twinkies. But wait a minute. How do I do that? It’s hard enough to change the way I eat; how am I supposed to change the way I feel? I figured I better do some research.

First of all, what is happiness? Dr. Diener says he was studying “feeling positive about your life, not stressed out, not depressed.” That’s close to Merriam-Webster’s definition of happiness: “a state of well-being and contentment.” I guess it’s not about having big parties or owning lots of stuff or traveling. It’s about feeling good about yourself and your life.

So, what brings feelings of well-being and contentment? I’ve heard the mantra “something to do, someone to love, and something to look forward to.” Check. I’ve got those covered, but I wouldn’t say I’m especially “happy.” What else?

Acceptance seems to be important. My favorite happiness quote is from the French writer Colette, best known for her sexual adventures. Colette said, “What a wonderful life I’ve had! I only wish I had realized it sooner.” I’ll work on that.

But the thing all these happiness people seem to ignore is how much of happiness is physical. Can you be happy when you’re in pain? How positive can you be when you’re fatigued and dragging through a day? It seems circular — if you want to be healthy, you should be happy, but if you want to be happy, it really helps to be healthy.

That’s probably why, in dozens of studies, exercise raises people’s mood better than therapy or medicine. In fact, physical activity is one of only two things that reliably improve happiness (as measured by mood scales) in the long term. The other is love. I think good glucose control helps, though.

Pets promote happiness. In response to my 2009 piece about happiness, CalgaryDiabetic wrote “A source of happiness is our furry friend. We went to Costco and he was basking in all the admiration from the humans passing by. I was happy because the creature was so happy.” But I don’t have energy or mobility for taking care of a pet.

Elaine wrote to recommend meditation, St. John’s Wort, positive self-talk and adequate sleep, which Calgary also mentioned. Come to think of it, I have another herb that actually is making me a little happier and more content, although it may not be legal where you live. Maybe I’ll write more about it another time.

So what’s the plan? The best I can come up with is to keep doing what I’m doing, but be more accepting about it. Like, do my exercises every day, but when I miss, don’t beat myself up about it.

I’m going to try to be more aware of good things that happen with me and enjoy them more. Like my new blog Reasons to Live. I love it. I posted a story there last week about a woman moving to senior housing — how traumatic, but ultimately rewarding, it was for her. Please check it out and comment if you like it.



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