Happiness is defined as enjoying, showing, or marked by pleasure, satisfaction, or joy. Pharrell Williams’ recent song “Happy” has helped popularize the common notion of happiness. But is being happy related to public health? Studies over the last couple of years seem to suggest that it is.
A prescription for Happiness
A 2012 review of more than 200 studies found a connection between positive psychological attributes, such as happiness, optimism and life satisfaction, and a lowered risk of cardiovascular disease. Lower blood pressure, normal body weight, and healthier blood fat profiles have also been associated with a better sense of well-being. Studies on happiness and longevity show that it does not predict longevity in sick populations, but it does among healthy ones. The size of the effect is comparable to that of smoking or not. Harvard School of Public Health researchers published these findings in the journal Psychological Bulletin.
If what you mean by happiness is specifically “enjoyment of life,” there’s newer evidence to support that, too. A recent study in the Canadian Medical Association Journal found that people ages 60 and older who said they enjoyed life less were more likely to develop disability over an eight-year period. Mobility was also related to enjoyment of life.
For now, these studies can only show associations; they do not provide hard evidence of cause and effect. But how might happiness make a person healthier and live longer? Some researchers speculate that positive mental states do have a direct effect on the body and its immune system, perhaps by reducing damaging physical processes. For instance, another study coming from the Harvard School of Public Health found that optimism is associated with lower levels of inflammation. Happiness also may help people form social connections (a known factor in good health and one of the five Live Well San Diego areas of influence), or encourage healthy behaviors such as weight monitoring.
Wellbeing: The Five Essential Elements
As well, Gallup has published Wellbeing: The Five Essential Elements. Wellbeing is defined as the state of being happy, healthy, or prosperous. The book proposes that career, social life, financial, physical, and community wellbeing are all interconnected components that shape our lives, and hence, I propose, contribute to one’s happiness. Of note, research shows that social connectedness or support is a greater predictor of long-term happiness and is a greater predictor of how long someone will live than obesity, hypertension, or smoking. The message shouldn’t be happiness prevents strokes or heart attacks, rather improving one’s happiness and sense of wellbeing will make it easier to maintain good habits, such as exercising, eating a balanced diet, and getting enough sleep.
If all this is true, it can be argued that happiness is a public health concern. It would be imperative that public health promote policies that strive for greater happiness by strengthening an individual’s ability to maintain happiness and by improving social environments. Improving efforts to encourage institutions, such as schools and nursing homes, to pay greater attention to the happiness of their members will not only improve their health, but may also provide other benefits of happiness, such as better citizenship.
Lastly, Harvard professor, psychologist, and author Shawn Achor defines happiness as the “joy we feel striving for our potential.” Unhappiness is the “loss of joy resulting in apathy.” So we have to find a way to be positive and happy in the present, then the happiness advantage is created. The brain at “positive” performs better and is more productive. In the workplace, a prevailing perception about happiness is driven by one’s success. Many believe that we should work to be successful, and this will lead to happiness. Others, including Achor, think that this is backwards. He states that actually happiness inspires productivity, but first one must develop the ability to see that positive change is possible. He suggests that you can train people to be positive by deepening social connection, changing optimism, and changing the way stress is viewed (as a challenge instead of a threat – an optimistic view).
21 Days to Happiness
In his famous TEDtalk™, Achor offers five actions to practice for 21 days to turn on the learning centers of the brain to create positivity and redefine your happy meter. These actions include: 1) gratitude, 2) journaling, 3) exercise, 4) meditation, 5) and random acts of kindness.
For the next 21 days (the time it takes to establish a habit), spend two minutes a day doing the following:
1) Gratitude – Write down three new things that you are grateful for each day.
2) Journal – Write down one positive experience you have had in the past 24 hours.
3) Random Acts of Kindness – At the beginning of each day, send an email praising someone in your social network.
4) Meditation – Spend just two minutes to slow down and focus.
5) Exercise – Start with two minutes working out each day to create a habit. Exercise increases dopamine in the brain, which makes you happier and turns on all the learning centers in the brain. Increase to 20 minutes over time.
Take this 21-day challenge to create positivity in your life and open the path to increased level of happiness!
This article was prepared by Dr. Wilma Wooten, Public Health Officer and director of Public Health Services for San Diego County, the 5th most populous county in the United States. Live Well San Diego is a countywide plan for collective impact to achieve a vision of healthy, safe, and thriving people and communities in San Diego County. Check out http://livewellsd.org/ for more on Live Well San Diego.