The science of happiness: happier people are healthier

source: “Thrive with Kaiser Permanente”

Look back at the past month and consider: Have you been happy? Overall, how satisfied are you with your life? Take note of your answers, because they could predict your future health.

A study of nearly 10,000 people found that, 2 years later, those with higher rates of happiness and life satisfaction reported 50 percent better health and less long-term, limiting health conditions. Another long-term study of nuns discovered that those who wrote autobiographies reflecting happiness, love, and hope at a young age had a 2.5 times lower risk of dying early than their gloomier young counterparts.

“Happier people tend to be healthier,” says David Sobel, MD, medical director of Health Education for Kaiser Permanente in Northern California. “Research now shows that people who express positive emotions like joy, cheerfulness, and enthusiasm are 22 percent less likely to develop heart disease over the next 10 years.” Dr. Sobel adds, “This doesn’t mean they will never have heart attacks, but science proves that smiling and cheerfulness are linked to heart protection.”

If there were a happiness pill, your doctor would surely prescribe it. Happier people are more successful at work, have better relationships, are more creative, and have fewer stress hormones. They also tend to have more energy, get more exercise, have better immune function, sleep better, and live longer.

What’s the source of happiness:

In his book, Healthy Pleasures, Dr. Sobel writes that, “many of us believe our well-being depends almost solely upon success on the job; so we separate work form life and aim for wealth, status, power and property.” But research shows that for most people, only about 10 percent of happiness comes from life circumstances. Upturns in work, money, marital status, and material goods are unlikely to bring long-term increased happiness. “About 50 percent of what determines happiness appears to be genetic,” says Dr. Sobel. “Some people are wired for cheerfulness, optimism, and joy, while others tend toward fearfulness, pessimism, and depression.”

Studies of twins separated at birth suggest that we are born with a set point for happiness. Humans adapt quickly, so our set point stays about the same, with slight, temporary shifts following major events.

Can I become happier?

“The good news,” says Dr. Sobel, “is that about 40 percent of happiness comes from things within our control: thoughts, feelings, moods, plans, and activities. It’s the combined effect of often overlooked daily events that add up to more lasting happiness.”

So indulge yourself in healthy pleasures – spend time in a garden, walk the dog, play on the floor with the kids, savor your food, or relax to your favorite music. And the holidays are a great time for activities with family and friends – make decorations, go to a musical event, take a winter walk. “These small activities can momentarily boost your mood and enjoyment,” says Dr. Sobel, “while adding up to more overall life satisfaction, happiness, and good health.” Choose enjoyable activities that fit your personality and offer variety. When an activity feels good, continue to adjust the “when, where, how, and with whom” to keep it fresh.

Won’t money make me happier?

Except for the very poor, more money usually doesn’t bring lasting happiness. Studies show that very wealthy people are only slightly happier than blue-collar workers, and that happiness levels among Americans have stayed flat over the past 50 years while nationwide incomes levels have greatly increased. “As income rises,” says Dr. Sobel, “people tend to spend more time working and commuting and less time doing things they associate with greater happiness. One study did find that money can make you happier – if you give it away or spend it on someone else!”

What if I just don’t feel happy?

“Momentary periods of sadness are a natural, healthy part of life,” says Dr. Sobel. “We’re not saying that you should never feel sad. The holidays can be especially difficult for some people.” But if sadness tips toward depression, it’s time to ask for help. Signs of depression include feeling down or hopeless; changes in sleep, appetite, or energy level; and a loss of interest in activities, friends, or family for most of the day, on most days, for more than two weeks.

Kindness + gratitude = happiness

Here are some scientifically proven exercises that can help you increase happiness by changing actions, behaviors, and thoughts.

Commit five acts of kindness: Bring in your neighbor’s paper, offer someone your place in line, share your lunch. Studies show that people who commit five acts on the same day had a measurable increase in happiness.

Count five blessings: Good weekend weather, a friend’s improved health, a rosebush in bloom. At the end of the week, write down five things you’re grateful for.

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