Health and Happiness

Last week we had a game party at our apartment. My son the park ranger was in town. He likes poker, so we had friends over and played cards and Taboo until 11:30. As a writer and a disabled person, I spend a lot of time alone, so it was great to have people over and to have fun.


A guest named Carol got me thinking, though. She said she has made happiness her only goal. She judges whether things are worth doing or having by whether they make her happy.

Happiness as a goal made me uncomfortable. I’ve not been so happy lately, but it seemed kind of selfish, and also maybe self-defeating, to pursue happiness. I like what Nathaniel Hawthorne said: “Happiness is a butterfly, which when pursued, is always just beyond your grasp, but which, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you.”

I think one of the things that screws up the U.S. is our belief in the “pursuit of happiness.” It’s right there in the Declaration of Independence, but I think pursuing happiness is likely to make you miserable.

Happiness as a realistic goal for people is a fairly recent idea. Confucius and the Buddha talked about it 2500 years ago, but most people throughout history have been too busy surviving to think much about being happy. If you got a few good days in between birth and death, you considered yourself blessed.

Now we expect happiness. If we don’t have it, we think there’s something wrong with us or with the people who are “making us miserable.” There’s a new field of “positive psychology” that looks at what makes people happy, rather than what is bringing them down.

The founder of the positive psychology movement, Martin Seligman, made his reputation by discovering “learned helplessness” as a cause of depression. He found out about helplessness by delivering electric shocks to dogs until they learned to be helpless. I guess he saw the error of his ways and is now trying a more positive approach, but his alleged history makes me a bit suspicious.

Studies seem to show that happiness leads to better health all over the world. Psychologist Sarah Pressman of the University of Kansas says of her research that the relationship between emotion and health was actually stronger “in countries where they’re only living into their Forties, places where they consistently go hungry, don’t have shelter. In those places, positive emotion was actually more strongly connected to health.”

So now we should be happy as a health practice. As a recent study shows, happiness may even help blood glucose control. But it is hard to be happy when your body doesn’t feel good. I’m pretty sure that happiness is mostly physical. If your body is full of energy, comfortable, and strong, it’s easy to be happy. Not guaranteed, but likely. If you feel weak, tired, pained, and tight, happiness will be much harder to come by.

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 blood glucose control helps, though.

But how do you get happiness if you can’t pursue it? Exercise and love, OK, but is there anything else? Perhaps learning acceptance and cultivating inner peace. My favorite happiness quote is from the French writer Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, who said, “What a wonderful life I’ve had! I only wish I had realized it sooner.” I’m taking Colette’s approach and trying to realize that it’s all pretty wonderful.

How about you? What do you do to be happy, and does it work? Does it matter? I’ll probably be back on some hard emotion next week, so if you want to speak on happiness, act now!

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  • CalgaryDiabetic

    Dear David.

    I think there is no doubt if you can be happy you will be healthier than being unhappy. I think being happy with a chronic disease is much harder. And this sets up another one of those nasty feedback loops. Ever since I developped diabetes 12 years ago I have felt kind of exhausted constantly. Loosing weight and exercise and good blood sugar control help a bit but the lack of adequate sleep is overwhealming. The reason why is that to fall asleep my blood sugar has to be in the lower range of normal and to stay asleep it must not drop futher or increase which I find impossible to achieve. Then even going fishing which does make me happy is a chore. Buying material goods used to make my favorite and I happy but our house is so full of everything we have ever bought that now material goods become oppressive.

    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. I can see why it is seals 100% and cod fish 0%.

    I was in Cuba in the early 80’s and was observing which nationalities present where having the most fun: the Italian capitalist rip roaring fun the most by far, then close by the italian communists, then the French Canadians, trailing far behind the English Canadians, then West Germans, far beind them the East Germans and the most sour looking bunch the Russians. I could be that genetics have a roll as usual.

  • Elaine

    Depression sucks. I went through four years of it and didn’t realize how bad it was until it lifted (mostly due to improvement in my personal circumstances). After that, I was more able to recognize it and took some proactive steps to avoid falling into that state again. I take St. John’s Wort when I feel that “what’s-the-use?” feeling coming on. It helps, since I am not afflicted by major depression. I have been working on teaching myself to meditate and have noticed that any negativity I’ve experienced before that scales back significantly after a 10-minute session. Self-talk works for me as well. Interestingly, the one thing that makes more of a difference than anything is getting adequate sleep. Without it, I’m nearly psychotic.

    However, I’ve held fast to one principle: I am not responsible for ANYONE else’s emotional state, and no one else is responsible for mine. This comes from growing up with a mother who often wistfully wished for “peace and happiness,” while doing absolutely nothing to secure it for herself. It comes from inside of you. Sometimes the lack of it is physical, but you can’t look to anyone else to inject it into you.

  • You Tv