Happiness is a strong factor in determining health and longevity. Be happy and optimistic say recent studies and you will be healthier and possibly live longer. It sounds straight forward enough, but how can a person be happy and optimistic if he is ill or has serious problems? Can I choose to change my mood despite my life circumstances? Can I simply control my moods and turn them around?
A few years ago at his weekly shiur, HaGaon Rav Asher Weiss Shlita mentioned a very intriguing idea derived from two different places in Shulchan Aruch. He pointed out that twice in Orach Chaim, an entire chapter begins by mentioning simcha. First, when the month of Adar begins, our happiness increases and second, when the month of Av begins, our happiness diminishes. The Rav pointed out that even though our level of happiness fluctuates throughout the year, happiness is a given and a constant in our lives. And now the latest research is telling us that being happy is an integral part of good health and better quality of life.
What is happiness? The dictionary would tell us it is a feeling of well-being or contentment, or a pleasurable or satisfying experience. But positive psychologists are often reluctant to use the word happiness. They claim it is overused and vague. Whereas people generally instinctively know what the term means, most scientists prefer the term subjective well-being. This is a term that can be measured more easily. Dr. Martin Seligman, the father of modern-day positive psychology uses the PERMA model: Positive emotions, Engagement, positive Relationships, Meaning and Accomplishment. By measuring these five areas, happiness becomes more that just a feeling. Dr. Ed Diener defines happiness not as a goal but as a process that requires positive attitudes about life. He says, “A life full of meaning and values, supportive social relationships and rewarding work is the framework for a happy life.” If you think about Chazal telling us that Olam Chesed Yibane—that the world is built on acts of kindness—and you have indeed participated in acts of chesed, you understand the internal good feelings you have from helping others.
The old joke is that some people cause happiness wherever they go; others whenever they go. Where do you see yourself? Researchers Ed Diener and Micala Chan conducted a review of 160 studies called “Happy People Live Longer: Subjective Well-Being Contributes to Health and Longevity.” Their conclusion was that in light of the evidence they found, it is time to add interventions to improve subjective well-being to the list of public health measures, and alert policy makers to the relevance of subjective well-being for health and longevity.” Dr. Diener, a psychology professor at the University of Illinois says that he hopes there will be a time when doctors will question patients about how happy, optimistic and satisfied they are. He points out that although we are trying to use exercise, diet, stress reduction and prayer to eliminate negatives, we need to add to this list positive well-being as this plays a big role in good health and longevity. One of the great things to come out of the positive psychology movement is that it is as important for us to love and support others as it is to receive.
Sustained stress, fear, anger or depression can contribute to heart disease, stroke and diabetes, and atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries). In 2012 in the Harvard Public Health Review, researcher Laura Kubansky notes that happiness appears to have a positive health benefit that goes beyond the absence of negative mental health factors. This study followed 6,000 men and women for 20 years. It concluded that emotional vitality, including a sense of enthusiasm, hopefulness, engagement in life and the ability to face life’s stresses with emotional balance appears to reduce the risk of coronary heart disease.
Perhaps more pronounced, was a 2009 meta-analysis of 83 studies done by Rasmussn, Sher and Greenhouse that showed that optimism is a significant predictor of positive physical health outcomes related to mortality, survival, cardiovascular disease, immune function, cancer outcomes and health in general. According to a study following 5,000 university students for 40 years, the most pessimistic died younger than their more optimistic peers.
We now know with certainty about the great inter-connections between mood and emotion on the one hand, and biological measures (like blood pressure and amounts of cortisol and inflammation, as well as disease indicators like artery wall thickening) on the other. Moreover, well-being is significantly related to stronger immune function. (Positive thinking people get less colds and viruses). And really, the bottom line is that according to an analysis of 70 studies done showed that amongst well people, those with high well-being are 18% less likely to die of any cause than those with low well-being. Among sick people the difference drops but is still a significant 2% more.
So, how difficult is it to attain well-being? According to happiness researcher Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky of the University of California, Riverside, 40% of our happiness is within our power to change through our actions and thoughts. Another 50% can be attributed to genes. Surprisingly, only 10% of our happiness is associated with life circumstances, such as money, health, marriage, appearance, etc. Dr. Lyubomirsky also states that exercise may well be the most effective booster of instant happiness. If you make fitness a life-long endeavor, it can help you make happiness life-long as well. Aside from this, Dr. Seligman notes that doing an act of kindness (a Chesed) produces the single most reliable momentary increase in well-being of interventions he has tested. Here are some strategies for enhancing your happiness:
- Gratitude—have HaKoras HaTov!
- Envision your future with an optimistic viewpoint. What is your best possible future?
- Avoid social comparisons and overthinking.
- DO CHESED-not just for people you know. Find people you don’t know and help them. It can be planned or spontaneous.
- Develop and nurture relationships with others. Knei L’cha Chaver!
- Spend quality time with your family. Play with children and grandchildren.
- Develop strategies for coping with stresses and trauma
- Learn to forgive and forget. Holding grudges and resentments only hurts yourself.
- Work on developing Simchas Hashem
- Take care of your body by exercising, being active, getting some sunshine and SMILE!
Dr. Robert Holden of The Happiness Project in England says just having the intention to be happy is what changes everything. He says that when you make the decision to be happy, you are calling into your natural self and your internal resources to be yourself—your happy self. Of course we know this from Mitzvah Gedola L’hiyot B’Simcah Tamid. Simcha should be our way of life. We have the ability to be happy at all times.
The combination of fitness and happiness contribute greatly to our health, well-being and quality of life. Being fit, being happy and being healthy will “add hours to your day, days to your year, and years to your life.”
Alan Freishtat is an A.C.E. CERTIFIED PERSONAL TRAINER and a LIFESTYLE FITNESS COACH with over 16 years of professional experience. He is the co-director of the Jerusalem-based weight loss and stress reduction center Lose It! along with Linda Holtz M.Sc. and is available for private consultations, assessments and personalized workout programs. Alan also lectures and gives seminars and workshops. He can be reached at 02-651-8502 or 050-555-7175, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org Check out the Lose It! web site - www.loseit.co.il US Line: 516-568-5027