The Health Benefits of Happiness

The pursuit of happiness has been the subject of numerous books and movies as it is something we all desire.  How to define happiness and how to achieve it, however, remain elusive goals.  Nobody wants to go through life being sad and miserable.  Depression is a tragic illness that is all too common and has complicated and multiple causes – many of which are not in our control.  Happiness, too, has multiple causes and there are strategies to improve our happiness which will be the topic of this article.  

As health and happiness are closely linked, and as factors that make us healthy also make us happy, it is useful to discuss them together.

Aristotle, the Greek philosopher, reflected on happiness over 2,300 years ago!  Aristotle described four levels of happiness: instant gratification, gratification through achievement, gratification through the contribution to others, and transcendent gratification.  It is in this highest level of happiness that we live more consistently from a place of purpose and truth, using our signature strengths to serve others, and working in various creative ways for the good of the world.

So the first point is that happiness is a lot more than doing something we enjoy for the moment or for selfish reasons.  In doing things for others – and for the good of our community or society – we can find deep satisfaction and joy.  This is not only fulfilling, but contributes to our health.

Let’s look briefly at various things that can make us happy.  Many fundamental factors are out of our control.  We may be happy to grow up in a loving family, a peaceful country, a nice neighbourhood, and in a comfortable home.  We are happy for our good health, sufficient food and the opportunity to attend school and university, and get a good job.  While working hard at school and achieving success certainly takes some effort – a lot of the factors just mentioned are really a matter of good fortune or “luck.”

Other lucky wins such as a lottery, not getting a parking ticket when your meter has expired, or getting an invitation to a social event are also outside of our control and do little for the betterment of humankind.  However, they can make us happy – at least temporarily.

There are other attributes of happy people that that can be learned and practiced and are a more consistent way of achieving happiness than purchasing lottery tickets and hoping for a big win.  Doing things that benefit others, genuinely caring about people and causes, and always doing our best fills us with sense of purpose and gives life meaning.  Another attitude that can be practiced is that of gratitude.  Like athletes who train hard and then leave it all on the track or the field, if we cultivate a spirit of optimism and sufficiency and truly see the glass as half full, it allows us to live a life of happiness and contentment – leaving little room for regret.

While financial security is important in our society, many people from poorer nations who live simple lives are happier – singing and dancing and being content with what they have.

Dr. Dan Baker wrote What Happy People Know.  In it he discusses 12 Points to Happiness:

  1. Love
  2. Optimism
  3. Courage
  4. Sense of Freedom
  5. Proactive
  6. Security
  7. Health
  8. Spirituality
  9. Altruism
  10. Perspective
  11. Humor
  12. Purpose

Research has shown that the root of unhappiness –fear -lies in the oldest, reptilian part of our brains, and negative reactions are often dictated by primal instincts. We're literally "hardwired for hard times." In What Happy People Know, Dr. Baker uses evidence from the new science of happiness to show us how we can overcome this genetic predisposition toward negative reactions and lead a truly rich, happy, and healthy life.

Dr. Baker reveals the erroneous ways we try to make ourselves happy, as well as his happiness tools, the simple skills that, when practiced consistently, will inevitably lead to greater optimism, courage, good humor, and fulfillment -in short, to happiness.

Joy is a form of happiness as well – but deeper and more meaningful.  The words are sometimes used interchangeably but most would agree that funerals are not usually “happy”.  However, one can be filled with a great sense of joy celebrating a life well lived, especially when one believes that the deceased may be moving on to a place far more beautiful and peaceful and happy than the one they are leaving behind.

The human soul fundamentally yearns to be happy – moreover, it is apparent that attributes of health and happiness are very similar.  Both imply wholeness and balance and are bigger than ourselves.

So are there specific health benefits of happiness?  Absolutely!  We know that people who are content in their work and in their relationships - especially marriage – that is, they are happy – also live longer, have lower blood pressure, sleep better, have more energy, take fewer medications and have less stress related and chronic illnesses than those who are not.

It is empowering to learn that we can be the architects of our own happiness and health – or our misery.  While bad things do happen to good people, it is tremendously important to nurture ourselves, foster meaningful relationships, seek the good in others and in situations, live lives of purpose and meaning, share our blessings, and remain hopeful and optimistic.  This attitude of gratitude will not only improve our own lives, but that of people around us.  Happiness is socially contagious!   A smile begets a smile, a kind deed is paid forward – and slowly, the world becomes a better place for all of us.

(References:  “One Minute Medicine – Your Effortless Guide to Vibrant Health”, Werner Spangehl, MD, “What Happy People Know: How the New Science of Happiness Can Change Your Life for the Better”, Dan Baker, PhD, and the work of Dr. Martin Seligman, including: “Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment” and “Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life”)