The Happiness Cure

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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  • Beth

    Here is a fairly simple happiness technique: Make a list of at least 7 inexpensive, noncaloric, highly sensory experiences that you enjoy. (For example, I like : looking at the sky, singing with a choir, taking a warm shower, petting my dog, listening to jazz, smelling flowers, and hugging my grandchildren. The things you like are probably different!) Then, make sure that every day of the week, you do at least one of these things, and that you focus intently on simply enjoying it. Presto! Your happiness increases.

    Another very helpful practice: Every day, before going to sleep, review everything that happened that day for which you are honestly thankful. Make sure to include things you may usually take for granted — for example, I have had asthma, so every day that I breathe easily, I am thankful for breath. I am thankful for my husband, my brother and sisters, my dog, my adult children; and I am thankful for the buckeye tree in my yard — and so on. This counteracts an easy tendency to think only of what needs improvement, and fosters contentment. And that, in turn, increases happiness.

  • David Spero RN

    Thanks for these great ideas, Beth.

  • jim snell

    WIth a good mood and positive attitude; one has a chance at life. When I get runover in the freeway of life; I need to stop; drop the crap, let go and listen to my music tapes to recharge.

    Important article, one can litterly end up with batteries flat and dejected – stalled.

    May your god or gods go with you David.

    Thank you.

  • calgarydiabetic

    David is right about a pet. The effort in keeping his Lordship (a wheaten Terrier) happy is equivalent of that of a toddler. Cats may be less.

  • Moti Weisbrot

    Moti Weisbrot – Lessons on Lifetime Happiness

    Happiness is a religion . Moti weisbrot – מוטי ויסברוט
    First thing in order to be happy is to live the present .Moti weisbrot – מוטי ויסברוט

    With the past, I have nothing to do; nor with the future. I live now !Moti weisbrot – מוטי ויסברוט

    The main problem with looking too frequently into the past is that we may turn around one day and find out the future has run out on us .Moti weisbrot – מוטי ויסברוט

    Don’t let the past or the ” future” steal your present . Moti weisbrot – מוטי ויסברוט

    Remember happiness doesn’t depend upon who you are or what you have; it depends solely upon what you think.Moti weisbrot – מוטי ויסברוט

    Just try your best in order to be happy. Unhappiness starts with wanting to be happier.Moti weisbrot – מוטי ויסברוט

    Happiness is not something you postpone for the future; it is something you make for the present .Moti weisbrot – מוטי ויסברוט

    Happiness is not a destination or a ” target” to reach . It is a method of life , to live daily .Moti weisbrot – מוטי ויסברוט

    Happiness is a religion, and should never be rationalized. Remeber it !Moti weisbrot – מוטי ויסברוט

    It is the paradox of life that the way to miss pleasure is to seek it first.Moti weisbrot – מוטי ויסברוט

    The happiness desire is never extinguished in the heart of man.Moti weisbrot – מוטי ויסברוט

    Happiness is like a butterfly which appears and delights us for one brief moment, but soon flits away.Moti weisbrot – מוטי ויסברוט

    Real deep happiness comes from your own inside. Nobody can give it to you.Moti weisbrot – מוטי ויסברוט

    Happiness is not a matter of events; it depends upon the tides of the mind.Moti weisbrot – מוטי ויסברוט

    To fill and live the minute and the hour and the day , that is happiness.Moti weisbrot – מוטי ויסברוט

    Happiness is like those palaces in fairy tales … The state of your Happiness is nothing more than a reflection of your state of mind . Moti weisbrot – מוטי ויסברוט

    Enjoy the little things.Moti weisbrot – מוטי ויסברוט

    One day you will look back and realize they were the big things. Moti weisbrot – מוטי ויסברוט

    Happiness is not having what you want, but wanting what you already have .Moti weisbrot – מוטי ויסברוט

  • amy

    I recently re-united with an EX after 13 years. In the past 6 he became diabetic after his father passed away – in the past two weeks since we have been together – he has not had a need to take his insulin shots! It’s a little crazy to think he became diabetic over unhappiness & a traumatic experience and that his happy pheromones have kicked in so strongly he no longer needs his insulin??? LOVE is crazy… AND yes, very healing!

  • Christine Duval

    5/17/17 I was just diagnosed with diabetes. It wouldn’t bother me so much if my vision wasn’t affected. My vision is very blurry. It cleared up with proper eating but then I ate French fries and it got blurry again. I believe in the power of positive thinking and of course prayer. I’m going to repeat i’m 100% healthy. I was going to say and diabetic free, but I don’t even want that word in the sentence.

    • Christine, positive thinking and prayer are good, but eating right and keeping your sugar level down are better. At least your vision tells you if your sugar is in control. Please don’t eat a lot of starches, and if you do, walk afterward to get your sugar down. Consider taking a spoonful of vinegar before any meal with starches.

    • TastefulBleach

      Hope you enjoy it