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Don’t Worry, Be Happy!

By Dana Rose Falcone
Posted On Mar 22, 2011

By: Andrea Concepcion

According to the experts, a little happiness can go a long way for health and longevity

When it comes to improving your health, most people think of the obvious solutions: eat a balanced diet, exercise, stay away from harmful substances. What might come as a surprise, however, is that a positive attitude plays a major role.

Happy = Healthy?

Yeah, that’s right. Recent research shows that having a positive attitude can help you live a longer and healthier life.

By The Numbers

A positive attitude leads to healthier hearts, according to researchers at the University College London, UK. In a study of 216 middle-aged men and women, participants were asked to fill out a 33-point survey on how happy they felt at the end of their work and leisure days. At the same time, their heart rate and blood pressure were measured. Saliva samples were taken to test for cortisol levels, a stress hormone tied to abdominal obesity, hypertension and type II diabetes. Results showed that those who were happier had lower cortisol levels and for men, those who were happier had lower heart rates.

Another study conducted by the Columbia University Medical Center examined the correlation between happiness and cardiovascular health. They wanted to find out if positive attitudes were independent of negative attitudes, so they looked at hostility and depressive and anxious symptoms. Researchers collected data on cholesterol, blood pressure, diabetes, cigarette smoking and demographics from 1,739 volunteers who were asked situational questions that evaluated their stress levels and expressions of anger. Those participants with more positive attitudes had lower cholesterol levels and were less likely to have high levels of hostility or anxiety symptoms. Within the 10-year observation, only 145 cardiovascular incidents occurred, 9 fatal, 136 non-fatal.

In the New England Centenarian Study, Boston University School of Medicine scholars wanted to answer the question: Why do some of us live well into old age while others do not? So they examined people over the age of 100 to find the answer. By looking at psychosocial data—demographics, personal history, life events, cognitive functioning and economic adequacy—and how these related to biomedical functions, research results showed that both the psychosocial and biomedical functions were equally important for this long-lived population.

Happy Is As Happy Does

According to Chris Peterson, Ph.D, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, the research is clear but the real question is how to attain happiness. He says optimists behave and act differently. “They believe in doing things that bolster themselves, like watching their weight, exercising and seeing a doctor,” Dr. Peterson says. “They don’t drink, smoke or do the usual structures of poor health.” Thus, great health does not just come from an upbeat disposition, but an active lifestyle too. Most people don’t want to hear this, but as Dr. Peterson says, “Optimism is hard work.”

As the co-author of Characters and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification, Dr. Peterson talks about human strengths and virtues, including enthusiasm, gratitude, love and hope, all of which enable us to thrive. “They make people better connected to other people,” Dr. Peterson says. “I’m a big believer that human nature is social and people should be healthier because of it.”

Co-founder of The American Academy of Anti-Aging Medicine and exercise guru Bob Goldman, MD, agrees. He believes actions like getting enough sleep, enjoying your financial situation or job, and eating healthy can have profound effects on positive attitudes and functions. “A good positive outlook on life and being positive about yourself makes you want to take care of yourself,” he says.

Finding Your Happy Place

Peter Spinogatti, Ph.D, believes that finding your happy place begins with how you look at the world. A former psychotherapist and marriage counselor, he was Director of the Riverdale Consultation Center in New York City for 30 years. Currently, Dr. Spinogatti is a life coach and author of Explaining Unhappiness. His book explains that the key to happiness is resolving our unhappiness.

“How we perceive the world is how we see ourselves,” says Dr. Spinogatti. Take the old saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words may never hurt me.” While we’ve been taught that words can indeed be hurtful, he says words only hurt if you believe them to be true. According to Dr. Spinogatti, criticism is a trigger to what you already feel about yourself. In other words, a negative attitude doesn’t come from someone else’s view, but from our pre-meditated perceptions of ourselves.

“So in order to resolve unhappiness we need to resolve our own inadequacies,” he says. And the only reason we feel we have these inadequacies, says Dr. Spinogatti, is to punish ourselves. We chastise ourselves, thinking that in the process we’ll become better people. But in reality, it only stunts our development.

Dr. Spinogatti can see the possibility of happiness and good health being interconnected, but does not see happiness as a means to an end. “It is the end,” he says. “It’s probably statistically true that happier people live longer, but that’s not why you are living…that’s a bonus.”

We shouldn’t be happy just to be healthier, he says, we should just be happy.