Health and happiness. Are the two linked? We can assume that those with good health are generally happy to be well. But what about the other way around? If someone is sick, can happiness make them feel better physically?
The answer is a resounding yes, according to recent research. Multiple studies have shown that a positive outlook on life reaps many tangible benefits: “‘Happy’ people cope better with stress and trauma, are more resilient, have stronger immune systems, and live longer,” says Barbara Santay, therapist for Franciscan Alliance’s Employee Assistance Program.
The statistics are staggering: according to Santay, two-thirds of female breast cancer survivors who attend support groups report that their lives were altered for the better after developing the disease. Women who have strong social connections live an average of 18 months longer than those who have little to no connections. Bereavement has been associated with stress hormones, and friendly social contact has been proven to decrease those hormones.
“One of the big ways we see [the correlation] clinically is with chronic pain,” says Michael Mirochna, M.D., a family medicine physician with Lake Porter Primary Care and Porter Physician Group of Porter Regional Hospital. “When a patient’s mood is good, they’ll be in less pain. If they start to feel worse and you dig into their psychosocial history, you find that something happened (their dog died, relationship problems, etc.). There’s a close correlation with mood and pain in that regard.”
It’s clear to see that happiness fosters good—or at least improved—physical health. But what, exactly, is happiness?
“I think we need to differentiate between happiness and joy,” says Tanaz Bamboat, certified laughter yoga instructor from Munster. “Happiness depends on things. Joy is unconditional.”
Santay adds, “People think they would be happy if only they were to get married, have a baby, get plastic surgery, win the lottery… These things do provide a temporary boost in happiness but after a certain time has passed, people return to their happiness set point.”
Experts agree that what leads to a continual state of happiness has nothing to do with circumstances or material possessions, which can be fleeting. Rather, it comes from one’s outlook on life.
Fortunately, such an outlook can be cultivated and exercised, so that even the biggest curmudgeon on the block can take control of his or her mental and emotional—and therefore physical—health.
We’ve outlined five ways to develop a positive perspective:
Be physically active. There is bountiful research backing the premise that exercise improves mood. “We strongly encourage physical activity with our patients diagnosed with depression,” says Mirochna. “If their depression is so bad that they don’t feel like doing anything at all, we encourage them to at least do some physical activity, and it immediately makes them feel better.” In fact, according to Santay, aerobic exercise is shown to be just as effective as depression medications.
Dawn Wood, certified therapeutic recreation specialist and instructor of the Benefits of Exercise class at Methodist Hospitals, says, “One of the emotional benefits of exercise is that you are doing good for your body and yourself. When you feel good about yourself, it gives you confidence to meet daily challenges, meet goals, and communicate with others.”
Meditate/Focus. Santay lists meditation, avoiding overthinking, and increasing “flow experiences” (activities that engage you, cause you to lose track of time) as ways to get the mind right. She also encourages two minutes of writing every day. “The immune system works better when we write,” she says. According to a study by the University of Missouri and Columbia, the psychological and physical benefits of two minutes of journaling are greater than those that come from writing in longer time segments.
Wood suggests “true relaxation… allow yourself to take a mental and physical break from your responsibilities from time to time, so when you return, you have a better frame of mind.”
Laugh. The phrase “laughter is the best medicine” isn’t just a euphemism. Laughter is proven to prevent heart disease, lower stress hormones, strengthen the immune system, and reduce food cravings. It also has anti-aging benefits.
While a comedy show or YouTube video provides a temporary laugh, the greater health benefit comes from intentional, continuous laughter that can be learned in a class like laughter yoga. In this practice, participants are taught to laugh from the belly, and for no reason, so they learn to laugh despite their circumstances. They’re also instructed to breathe properly, which improves blood flow.
Bamboat, who teaches laughter yoga classes throughout Northwest Indiana, works often with cancer patients. “Laughter brings movement up into the lymph nodes,” which play a big role in cancer care.
“Laughter brings you back to a childlike state,” Bamboat says. “We were born with a spirit of laughter but have forgotten it because of stress. If you condition your body to laugh unconditionally, you will relieve your social, medical and physical stress.”
Be social. When we’re not feeling well, we tend to isolate ourselves. In reality, that’s the worse thing we can do. Having social connections and a strong support system can greatly improve one’s health.
“We tell our patients it’s important to have a sense of community,” says Mirochna. “What kind of social support structure do they have in place? If they are elderly, we ask if they have kids or a family.” Mirochna points out that Porter Hospital has a group for senior citizens in which they can participate in lectures and trips and develop friendships with other people in their stage of life.
Santay also urges her clients to nurture social relationships, learn to forgive, and practice acts of random kindness. Wood adds that helping others has been “the biggest factor I have noticed with patients’ happiness. It helps them feel worthwhile, capable.”
Be spiritual. Getting in touch with your spiritual side can do wonders to your physical health. Those active in religion live longer, use drugs less often, have longer marriages, and are healthier in general, according to Santay.
Father Tony Janik of Franciscan St. Anthony Health-Crown Point explains spirituality’s medicinal qualities: “Those with a spiritual outlook can face the difficult parts of life by having a greater sense of value. They have a source of perspective and hope… They find strength in that hope and have better coping mechanisms.”
This is especially valuable for those going through the end of life. “Not everyone gets cured, but they can be healed, from a spiritual perspective,” Janik adds. “We believe that everyone is made in the image of God and that they can have a life beyond here. That gives our patients hope.”