Staying healthy – being happy
By: Jessica Woodward, M.D.
People do a lot of things to stay healthy. They exercise, eat right, drink plenty of water, stay away from smoking or excessive alcohol use and get regular medical check-ups and recommended tests. All these habits work together to promote a healthy lifestyle. But, if you are serious about being as healthy as you can be, there’s one more thing you should seek: happiness.
Numerous studies have shown that happiness and other positive emotions play an important role in health. Among other things, people who are happy are less likely to become ill when they are exposed to a cold virus. This could be due to the fact that happy people have healthier levels of key body chemicals when compared to people who are not happy.
Until recently, most people thought that happiness was something you had, or didn’t have. It is true that some people are more naturally optimistic than others, and therefore more prone to happiness. But, what science is discovering is that even people who see the glass as half-empty can increase their happiness by making certain habit and lifestyle changes.
This should not be confused with diseases like depression. A person cannot think-away depression; it is not a choice. For people without mental health concerns, however, happiness can be a choice – and that choice can improve your overall health.
How do you choose happiness?
There are a number of books written on the subject and the first directive given by most authors is to become aware of happiness. This can be accomplished by consciously choosing attitudes and behaviors that lead to happiness, not unhappiness. In other words, try to find the good in a situation. If something can be interpreted negatively or positively, choose positive. Wake up each morning and tell yourself, “I’m going to be happy today.”
Being grateful increases happiness. Take time each day to think about the things you are grateful for. Say them out loud, or better yet, write them down. You are reminding yourself of the good things in your life, and that can lead to happiness.
The act of forgiving increases happiness. This can be a tough one. Sometimes it’s difficult to let go of a grudge, but experts tell us that the only person a grudge hurts is the person holding it. It takes a lot of energy to be angry with someone. This increases stress and can affect psychological and physical well-being. One way to foster forgiveness is to remember a time in your life when someone forgave you for something you did. You might want to write your feelings down in a letter or journal. Finally, when you find forgiveness, work to hold on to it. Dwell on the positive feelings that come from forgiving.
Take time to relax and decrease stress. Stress is a hindrance to happiness, and we all have stress in our lives. Find an activity that decreases your stress.
Practice meditation, take a walk, relax in a hot bath or shower, learn rhythmic breathing, yoga or other relaxation techniques to promote serenity in your day.
Make time for fun. It seems pretty obvious; fun leads to happiness. But sometimes there aren’t enough hours in the day for something that’s fun. If you are an extremely busy, schedule-oriented person, block out time in your planner for fun. Make time to pursue a forgotten hobby or take up a new one. Meet up with friends. Read a good book. Play a board game with your kids. Remember, having fun leads to happiness, and that leads to better health.
A welcome consequence to fun is often laughter. Laughter decreases stress hormones, boosting immunity and infection-fighting antibodies. It releases tension and promotes relaxation. It triggers the release of endorphins, which naturally make you feel happier.
Get enough sleep. It’s hard to be happy when you are dog-tired. In fact, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians, sleep-deprivation can lead to the opposite of happiness; it can make you cranky. Most adults need at least seven hours of shuteye each night.
Stay socially active. Relationships with others keep us connected and are good for both physical and mental health. One of the best antidotes to unhappiness is to surround yourself with people who care about you. Friends can laugh with you during the good times and provide support during difficult ones.
Find a balance in your life. There are a lot of pressures in every day living: school, work, family and other commitments can make you wish there were 48 hours in a day. Sometimes the best way to increase your happiness is by saying “No.” Prioritize your schedule and say no to activities and obligations that don’t make the list. You’ll be at your best for the work and activities that are your priorities, and you’ll be happier as well.
Happiness. Is it an elusive state just beyond our reach, or is it something we can look for and choose? Research shows that most of us can decide to dwell on the positive and increase our level of happiness. This, in turn, leads to physical and psychological benefits that can contribute in a positive way to our overall health and well-being. If that isn’t a good reason to laugh at the next knock-knock joke you hear, I don’t know what is.
Dr. Woodward is a board certified family practice physician at Raiter Clinic.