Happier & Healthier?

You know that you’re happier when you’re healthy, but did you know that you’re also healthier when you’re happy?  It’s an interesting, though not well known fact that people who choose to have moresmiley-face joyful, optimistic outlooks on life tend to get fewer illnesses, and when they do get sick, the symptoms they experience are less severe and don’t last as long as in people who tend to be more negative.

That smile on your face is a virtual shield wall against invading viruses and bacteria.  Your immune system is highly responsive to emotional triggers, and there are several studies that show how happier, calmer, more positive emotional states can decrease the likelihood of catching a cold.  The more these individuals felt positive feelings, the less likely they were to experience symptoms associated with the cold virus they were exposed to, which also means that those who felt the fewest moments of joy had the most symptoms.  It’s fascinating to see that those who reported high positive emotions had a significantly higher antibody response to a Hepatitis B vaccine, so it’s lab-tested and proven that your emotional state isn’t just all in your head.  It’s actually affecting your whole biochemical composition.

I’m not just talking about this season’s cold or flu, either.  There was a 2005 paper published that looked at how happiness affects heart health.  In it, they found that the happier a person tended to be, the lower their heart rate and blood pressure were.  Since we all know that elevated blood pressure is a factor in all forms of coronary disease, finding ways to have a sunnier disposition can instantly improve your longevity.  Another subject related to heart health that has been getting more attention is heart rate variability.  This is the heart’s ability to regulate its beating patterns dependent on the situation and stress levels of the individual.  If a person has very high stress levels (and subsequently very high cortisol levels) the heartbeat will be extremely regular, and this is highly detrimental to overall cardiovascular health.  Finding ways to reduce stress and increase happiness have been shown to improve the heart’s ability to self-regulate.

Are you a stress junkie?  Or do you find yourself in stressful situations more often than you’d like?  Research has shown that stress-junkypeople who have a higher baseline of positive emotions feel less stress in difficult situations, and are able to recover from extreme stress much faster than those with fewer moments of joy.  This is tied to the hormone cortisol, which is often referred to as the stress hormone.  This is another piece of evidence that is easily tested in the lab, as in this 2009 study.  If you read through it, you get to see the perspective of several (consensually) highly stressed out psychology students.  The ones who reported the most positive emotions before their torture session recovered significantly faster.

Another way that health starts with happiness is that it directly decreases pain and unpleasant symptoms, and this is especially helpful information for those with chronic diseases like arthritis.  You read that correctly, that choosing to have a brighter outlook on life is a drug-free way to help manage, and even improve, pain, as well as dizziness, muscle strain, and even heartburn.  There was a 2005 study that showed, not only the stability of symptoms in happier people, but actual improvement.  This is in sharp contrast to those with more negative emotions, who showed a decline, suffering with greater pain and other symptoms.

This directly ties in with more chronic and severe conditions, such as severe vision disturbances, loss of strength and coordination, heart disease, and even cancer.  As we age, it can be tempting to succumb to bitterness, anxiety, fear, anger, and depression.  These negative emotions actually feed the hormonal triggers that CAUSE more symptoms of disease and aging.  As we talked about earlier, positive emotions help manage blood pressure.  In the elderly, this is seen in a significant reduction in the risk factors for stroke and the development of frailty.

On the topic of aging, we all want to live a little longer, right?  A longer life with less pain and disease seems like a pretty desirable outcome.  Ed Diener, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Illinois, led a study published showing the direct correlation between happiness and longevity.  This is an extensive review of long term subjects, in both animal and human trials.  As an example, a group of almost 5,000 university students were followed for more than 4 decades.  Those with more negative outlooks on life through school and the intervening years correlated very closely with incidents of earlier and more severe diseases and a definitely shorter lifespan.  These same studies also illustrate a visible link between stress and negativity as compared to individuals with poor health.  Lack of enjoyment of activities, pessimism, anxiety, and stress were all shown to compromise immune health, heart health, and endocrine balance.

So what do you do?  Fortunately, we are in control of our own minds and emotional states.  Yes, I know that often it might not feel that way.  We’re bombarded on all sides by things that pressure us and cause us stress and misery…but you can choose how you react to these things.  One of the best tactics is meditation.  Meditating, even if it’s only for 5 or 10 minutes a day, can empty your mind like a clean slate, and allow you to manage your life more smoothly and calmly.  This is one of the most proven ways to reduce stress.  It will also allow you to pause and look at the many things in your life that are cause for happiness.  Take a deep breath and look outside.  Really see your landscape.  The beauty of the trees or ocean, or the wonder at the sprawling cities built by human hands.  It can also be helpful to verbalize positive statements.  Tell someone you love them or appreciate them, and mean it.  Speak about things that you are grateful for, and take a break from negative conversations like complaining or gossiping.

Simple changes in our daily lives can dramatically impact our attitude, and can serve as reminders that we are alive, and that the world is a wondrous and amazing place.  It’s easy to get lost in all the daily things that can go wrong.  Take a deep breath, decide to be happy, and you’ll live a much healthier, longer, fuller life because of it.

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