Health isn’t just about what you eat and how much physical exercise you get. Your happiness—an enduring positive state of mind, can also directly affect your mental and physical health. We will explore why happiness is critical to your wellbeing and what you can do to boost your rating on the happy meter. This story will also discuss the Health Benefits of Being Happy.
What makes you happy?
Everyone has a different answer to the loaded question: “What makes you happy?” Even if you’re not suffering from an illness or misfortunate, the answer isn’t easy. A study from Harvard Medical School explores three specific sources of happiness. From hundreds of interviews with study respondents, the study identifies three main paths that lead to positive thoughts.
Paths to happiness:
- State of feeling good: People seek pleasure through emotions and sensations from food to falling in love. This state is whatever helps someone lessen pain and maximize pleasure.
- Immersion: The study also found that people who threw themselves into pastimes that completely absorbed their attention gave them the greatest joy. The researchers called this state “flow.” Think of pastimes that require intense concentration, from athletics to crafts or hard physical labor. Activities that give you a sense of accomplishment and a sense of purpose also make you happy
- Helping Others: The act of helping others also is often traced to positive feelings.
Happiness factors are not what you think
Factors that many people equate with happiness might not be what you think. Think of the stories about lottery winners. Many people invest their money and share their winnings with others. But unfortunately, there are many stories about individuals whose lives are ruined by the sudden onset of wealth. Here are more factors researchers say don’t equal happiness.
Money and material things: The Harvard study found that excessive money and more “things,” don’t affect one’s happiness.
Being young and attractive: This and other studies show that young and physically attractive people aren’t guaranteed happiness. (This is contrary to what you see on social media.) People’s happiness tends to increase through middle age and then decline in older age as health falters.
Children: Children are a source of joy for parents, but caregiving for them can be stressful. Studies such as this one show raising kids can put pressure on your marriage. Meanwhile, being married in a healthy relationship and having friends all contributed to happiness, as did being part of a community like a church or other faith community.
Two writers offer solutions
There are many things out of your control that might affect your state of mind. The good news is that there are probably more things that you can control. We found two recent books that explore happiness. Speaker, author and comedian Karith Foster’s new book is “You Can Be Perfect or You Can Be Happy, How to Let Go, Worry Less and Get a Life.” In it, she breaks down people’s obsession with perfection. (This is often made worse with social media promoting unrealistic personas.) Foster explains how it often stands in the way of our own happiness and unintentionally harms relationships with our friends and family members. It can also stop us from achieving our life goals.
Letting go of perfectionism
For instance, an obsession with perfectionism can generate a plethora of negative emotions such as anger, resentment and fear, Foster writes. “I think we can all agree that is no way to live a happy life.” Foster says a life-changing epiphany of trying to be perfect inspired her to write the book. “Not only did it hit me how much time I’d spent on perfectionism, but how much energy I had spent as well,” she says. It takes an emotional, physical and financial toll on you, she says. Foster sensed she wasn’t alone and that other people, especially women, also struggle with perfectionism. “I wanted to help them get off the proverbial wheel of insanity,” she says. “I wanted to give people hope, confidence and tools to love themselves, forgive themselves and have grace in their lives. This comes only when we understand that perfection isn’t real, but our happiness is and although it may not be a constant, it is attainable.”
No. 1 Reason Keeping People from Happiness
Foster believes that fear is a top reason keeping people from happiness. “Fear shows up in many iterations, one of the most prevalent being perfectionism,” she says. “We tend to think if I’m not perfect at a task I’ll be seen as a failure. If I’m not the perfect size or look the perfect way I won’t be desirable. If I don’t get perfect grades I won’t be successful, the list goes on and on. And at the root of this need to be perfect is fear: The fear of not being enough. And, this fear, this desire to be perfect absolutely keeps people from being happy.”
It’s OK to be human and imperfect
Did writing about happiness make her happier? “Firstly, I’m happy it got done,” Foster says. “I assure you the perfectionist in me would still be making edits today. But the recovering perfectionist in me had a come-to-Jesus meeting with the other me and said, ‘Darling this is great work, it’s good enough and it will NEVER be perfect and that’s okay.’ I am beyond happy when I present the speaking program and training seminar I created based on the principles of ‘You Can Be Perfect or You Can Be Happy.’ And my heart swells with joy when I hear from people who share that this book gave them what they needed when they needed it, which I believe means permission to be human, with all of our fallacies and in all of our glory.”
Inspiration from others
If reading about acts of kindness inspires you, Janice Dean’s new book, “Make Your Own Sunshine: Inspiring Stories of People Who Find Light in Dark Times” is your ticket. This is the second book from Dean, the New York Times bestselling author and Fox News senior meteorologist. She is an eternal optimist, writing the book last year when both of her in-laws tragically passed away in a nursing home from Covid. Her first book is called “Mostly Sunny: How I Learned to Keep Smiling Through the Rainiest Day.” In it, she explains how she overcame health issues and discrimination in the workplace, and still managed to find joy in life. In “Make Your Own Sunshine,” she seeks to uncover feel-good stories of people helping each other. She wants to give readers hope and optimism about life. In the end, she challenges readers with this takeaway: “If we don’t make our own sunshine—who will?”
Health Benefits of Being Happy
In case you still need reasons to strive for happiness, there’s plenty. Mounting research shows how happiness is integral to health. Individuals who experience prolonged periods of happiness often enjoy better health and live longer, something we’ve already touched on in 6 Benefits of Laughter. Below we explore a few specific ways happiness is good for your health.
Lower heart rate and blood pressure
In this 2005 study, people who reported positive outlooks reported lower heart rate and blood pressure. Study participants rated their happiness over two dozen times in one day and then three years later. People reporting the happiest moods, had lower heart rates and better blood pressure.
Research shows how one’s positivity affects immunity. In one study, 350 adult participants were exposed to the common cold and asked to track their emotions. Did they feel energetic, pleased or calm? After five days, the study found that those with the most positive emotions were less likely to be sick with a cold. Similar research followed people exposed to the hepatitis B vaccine. Researches say that the people with the most positive emotions were twice as likely to develop a high antibody response to the vaccine.
Fewer incidents of disease, better able to cope with pain
Positive people experience fewer diseases, studies say. Studies show this is especially profound in the elderly. Happier elderly men in one study, were less likely to have a stroke six years after the the study started. Additionally, researchers from Zautra, Johnson & Davis, show happy people coped with chronic pain better. In it, people with arthritis recorded their emotions during a three-month period. They also rated their experiences with pain relating to the arthritis. People who recorded more positive emotions also reported fewer increases in pain. Happy people also report lower levels of stress, in a number of studies. This is beneficial because chronic stress can trigger inflammation in your body, which can attribute to a number of health issues.
So, as you seek to improve your overall wellness through fitness and nutrition, don’t forget to spread some kindness and make your own sunshine, too!
Patty finds happiness in hiking, skiing, sailing, cooking and tending her butterfly garden. What makes you happy?
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