As we begin 2017, with New Year’s resolutions and hopes for change, I am reminded of my favorite research, the body of science that says that happiness and gratitude produce magnificent clinical benefits. And this coming from a cardiologist, for whom matters of the heart are paramount. Happiness is a state of fulfillment and purpose. Some might equate it to well-being, others to love. No one would debate happiness carries connotations of positivity, optimism, and light.
But could happiness really be beneficial to one’s overall health?
The science on the matter is quite clear. A growing body of evidence links happiness, well-being, optimism, and positive psychology to better health outcomes. There are physiologic benefits including lower heart rate and blood pressure, lower levels of C reactive protein, an inflammatory marker and correlate of many disease states, and even lower cortisol levels, a stress hormone. In a recent study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology by researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health, optimism was linked to lower overall mortality in more than 70,000 women included in the Nurses’ Health Study. These findings held true even after accounting for demographic variables as well as healthy and unhealthy behaviors, such as exercise and smoking habits.
If happiness is of such great clinical benefit, how might one achieve it? First is to note that happiness is not decided in fate. It can, in fact, be cultivated. And here are three suggestions for how to cultivate happiness in your life:
One approach to cultivating happiness is to be grateful. In a landmark 2003 paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Robert Emmons, the godfather of gratitude research, and his colleague Michael McCullough put research participants through a simple test. He asked them to either keep a ‘gratitude journal’ recording either daily or weekly those things for which they were thankful. A second group was asked to record their daily ‘hassles,’ and the third was asked to record more neutral life events. You may already have guessed the results. The participants who were asked to be grateful had greater well-being and positive affect. They exercised more regularly and were more optimistic about their lives. They also achieved better sleep and had fewer physical ailments and symptoms than those in the other groups.
Physical activity is good for all that ails you. There is no shortage of data showing that exercise improves blood pressure, cholesterol, weight, and reduces the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and many other conditions. Exercise can boost mood and self-esteem. Studies also show that exercise can improve mood in individuals with mild to moderate depression and can even have an impact on those with more severe depressive symptoms. In a series of studies published by David Blumenthal and colleagues from Duke University, exercise was as good as anti-depressant medication in reducing depressive symptoms, and continued exercise may even reduce the risk of relapse. Even small amounts of exercise may be beneficial in boosting mood.
We live in an era of unprecedented digital connectedness, thanks to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and so on. But despite technology, social isolation is a malady for many of us. Loneliness and social isolation are linked to poorer health, including worse sleep patterns, stress, earlier cognitive decline, and even increased risk of heart disease and stroke. As a risk factor for mortality, loneliness is on par with diabetes and obesity. On the other hand, social connectedness, be it through marriage, family, or community, can keep us healthy. As Dhruv Kullar noted in a recent New York Times piece, “Human connection lies at the heart of human well-being. It’s up to all of us — doctors, patients, neighborhoods and communities — to maintain bonds where they’re fading, and create ones where they haven’t existed.”
So here are my goals for 2017 — to be grateful, to exercise regularly, and to stay connected. We have the power to create happiness in our lives and in the lives of others, and ensure our own emotional well-being. We need to make it a way of life, a way of living, a way of staying healthy.
Today’s prescription = Happiness.