Week Eight: Health and Happiness – How They Connect

Are people who are generally more upbeat and happy also more healthy – or is it the other way around? Is there at all a connection between health and happiness?

Numerous studies have been conducted on this subject, but no scientific evidence has ever been established either way. What has been shown in clinical trials, however, is that participants with a predominantly positive attitude have on average much lower levels of cortisol (a stress hormone) than those whose outlook is rather pessimistic and downtrodden. No surprise here!

Health and happiness – how they connect
Research has also produced a number of indications that feelings of happiness and contentment may have direct implications for your physical well-being. Cardiovascular disease and negative emotions, such as stress, fear and anxiety, have long been associated. However, the idea that positive emotions, like love, joy and laughter, could have significant health consequences is a relatively new consideration.

Although, it is not yet fully understood how both positive and negative emotions affect, for example, cardiovascular conditions, it is clear that such links exist. We know that heart problems are likely to occur when people are exposed to severe stress over prolonged periods of time. Those who handle stress well appear to be far less vulnerable to these effects.

Humor and laughter have long been appreciated for their healing powers. Norman Cousins, the author of a book titled “Anatomy of an Illness as Perceived by the Patient,” has described in great detail how watching funny movies and allowing himself only positive thoughts has helped him to recover from a life-threatening illness.

Yet, when we think of happiness, we envision something more, something larger than being able to cope with stress or recover from illnesses. Happiness, for most people, is having dreams and wishes come true, achieving goals and being free from concerns and struggles. And, of course, there is the widespread belief that money can “buy” happiness – at least to some extent.

Ask yourself what would make you happy
It goes without saying that a basic amount of financial stability is necessary in life. Ultimately, however, lasting happiness cannot be measured in economic terms. According to numerous surveys, only a minority of Americans name “making lots of money” as their primary goal in life. “Good health” ranks on top, followed by the importance of having friends, a happy family life as well as work that is meaningful and fulfilling. Somewhat surprisingly, most Americans say they wished they had more “time” for themselves, even if that required a reduction in income.

In truth, it probably doesn’t matter so much what you do or what happens to you when it comes to happiness. Running a successful business, writing a novel or creating beautiful art can be exceptionally rewarding – even though they may absorb a lot of time and energy. By contrast, wasting time and feeling bored and uninspired can be terribly frustrating – and yes, also unhealthy.

While you can’t make yourself feel happy when you’re not, you can increase your “happiness level.” How? When asked, most people seem to have a pretty good idea what it would take to make them happy: If I could get this promotion or this dream job, if I could afford this car, this house, this vacation, send my kids to college, or could save up enough money for retirement, etc., then I would be happy.

Some of these wishes may come true, others won’t. The trick is to embrace what is real and let go of the unattainable and elusive. You can only be satisfied with what you have, not with what you wished you had. Learning to look for happiness in your reality instead of your dreams is a good first step.

My guess is that the secret of true happiness lies in both, a bit of excitement and a bit of tranquility. And once in a while, it would be nice to have a few moments of sheer bliss added. These don’t come often, but they can happen at any time and when they are the least expected. This is best said by a quote from Ashley Montagu: “The moments of happiness we enjoy take us by surprise. It is not that we seize them, but that they seize us.”

Understand what keeps you from being happy
It is one thing to feel dissatisfied but another to recognize the reasons behind your unhappiness. It is hard to change your situation when you don’t understand what makes you unhappy. Sometimes, a departure from an unhappy place, a dissolve of a dysfunctional relationship, or simply a change of scenery will do the trick. In many cases, however, we carry the reasons for our unhappiness inside and bring them along wherever we go.

If you are not happy with certain situations or choices you’ve made in your life, you can either try to change the circumstances you’re in or change the way you feel about them. Either way, you have take responsibility and take action. Keep in mind that staying passive and not doing anything at all is a choice too and has its own consequences.

Making changes requires a position of strength. Your physical and mental health is an important part of that. If you are dispirited, depressed, exhausted, sluggish and the likes, you cannot muster the energy you need to turn things around. Eating a healthy diet is as important as physical exercise and avoidance of drugs, nicotine and alcohol. If you have a tendency to use any numbing substances to escape your unhappiness, quit that sort of behavior by any means necessary. If you find yourself under a lot of stress, deal with it constructively by taking care of your health needs first.

Focus on the good
Especially when you are seriously unhappy, making yourself focus on the positive things in your life can be a stretch. Yet, that may be just the right medicine. Make an effort to be grateful for what you have and make peace with past disappointments. Visualize what can be, not on what could have been. If you allow your negative thoughts to linger, you won’t be open for new experiences. This includes forgiveness. Forgiving those who have wronged you is not something you must do for their benefit, but for the sake of your own healing.

Feeling unappreciated ranks high among the many reasons for unhappiness. In fact, unemployment, underemployment, menial and boring labor together with abuse at the work place are all sources for severe stress. Being unable to find challenging and inspiring work is a particularly painful experience for young people who are anxious to start their careers and put their talents to use.

If you find yourself in this kind of situation, exploring other outlets for your creativity can be helpful. Doing things you’re good at, even if they don’t pay off in monetary terms, can still be gratifying and also take your mind off other misgivings. Being part of something bigger than yourself, e.g. by volunteering for a worthy cause or sharing your skills through teaching can have many rewards and will do wonders for your self-esteem. Continue to Week Nine »

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