Happiness and Health
Monday, July 24, 2017
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
-Declaration of Independence
“The pursuit of happiness” – an interesting phrase used by the founders of this country in the Declaration of Independence. Happiness was not a right but rather the pursuit, the chase, the hunt, the search of happiness was the right endowed by the creator. Our forefathers believed the pursuit of happiness was as important as life and liberty. The Book of Proverbs written and compiled sometime between the 6th and 10th centuries BC contains the verse “A merry heart does good like a medicine, but a broken spirit dries the bones.” In recent times, the beautiful Ingrid Bergman said, “Happiness is good health and a bad memory.” Throughout the centuries, humans have realized that happiness is tied to a good life, physical, and mental health. With advances in the understanding of brain function and cellular biology, science is now confirming that indeed there is a link between our happiness and health. Happiness can make our hearts healthier, our immune systems stronger, and our lives longer.
A 2005 study in Neurobiology of Aging found happiness predicts a lower heart rate and blood pressure. Researchers collected various saliva and blood samples to test for stress reactions and hormones. People who reported greater happiness had lower cortisol (stress hormone) levels. Patients with lower cortisol levels have lower blood pressure and heart rates, which equals better cardiovascular health. Over time being happy pays off. The European Heart Journal published a Canadian study in 2010. The study followed nearly 2,000 Canadians over ten years. The results were astonishing as increased happiness was protective against coronary heart disease over the course of ten years.
A 2003 study in the Psychosomatic Medicine assessed 334 healthy people for positive versus negative emotions. These folks were then given nasal drops with a cold virus and monitored in quarantine for the development of the common cold. Two findings: 1) those with positive emotions had a greater resistance to colds and 2) even if they developed a cold, the happy people reported fewer symptoms. In 2006, a study found that people with better moods actually have higher antibody responses, a sign of a robust immune system. While more research is needed, it appears that positive emotions like being happy and content work at the cellular level and directly affect our health.
Not So Many Ouchies
In a 2001 Journal of Research in Personality study, researchers concluded, “positive affectivity (happiness) emerged as a significant predictor of good health.” In the study, they rated emotional states of patients. Five weeks later researchers asked participants how much they experienced muscle strain, dizziness, heartburn, and the like over the 5-week period. The happiest people actually became healthier over the weeks while the unhappy participants reported being sicker.
Some of the most convincing evidence that happiness affects health comes from longevity studies. In 2000, University of Kentucky researchers conducted an interesting study. They examined autobiographical essays written by 180 Catholic nuns decades earlier when the women first arrived at the convent. They looked for positive expressions of feelings like amusement, contentment, gratitude, and love. In the end, the happiest-seeming nuns lived an amazing 7-10 years longer than the least happy. A 2011 National Academy of Sciences report suggests similar results. In that study, almost 4,000 English adults ages 52-79 reported how happy, excited, and content they were multiple times in a single day. They found happier people were 35 percent less likely to die over the course of about five years than their unhappier counterparts. Yet another study published in 2010 in Health Psychology followed almost 7,000 people for almost 30 years. They found people more satisfied with life at the beginning were less likely to die during the course of the study.
In years past, scientists believed that being healthy lead to happiness. It now appears that being happy to begin with plays a major role in our physical and mental health. Of course, happiness by itself is not the cure all. Other factors such as genetics, diet, exercise, substance use, and geographical location all play a role. At this point, however, a myriad of studies confirm a strong link between health and happiness. Next week, we will look at how to pursue happiness at any age.
Lorraine Wichtowski is a community health educator for UR Medicine Noyes Health. If you have questions or suggestions for future articles, contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 585-335-4327.