The Physical Case for Happiness, by Joel F. Wade, PH.D.
By John Graham
May 29th, 2014
Joel F. Wade, PH.D., is a clinical psychologist who communicates well. In this essay on The Physical Case for Happiness, Dr. Wade identifies five healing practices — optimism, conscientiousness, positive emotions, gratitude, and forgiveness. I wonder how many of us realize these practices can impact our health? Read and learn:
Dr. Wade writes: “We are all familiar with the basic guidelines for good health: exercise, eat right – more fruits and veggies, less red meat, more fish, fewer calories, more fiber, less sugar- don’t smoke, don’t abuse alcohol or drugs. If people would follow these guidelines and maintain an optimal weight, many health problems would be greatly diminished.
But there is another dimension to our health. How we think and feel, how we interact with others, and the kind of activities we spend our time engaged in can have a huge impact on our physical health.
There is a clear difference, for example, between people who are more optimistic or more pessimistic. Optimists have greater longevity – living an average of about eight years longer than pessimists. They have healthier hearts, more resilient immune systems, and even have fewer bad events happen to them – because they take active steps to anticipate and avoid them.
Optimists tend to practice healthier behaviors – for example, they tend to give up smoking, while pessimists don’t. The skills of optimism are also a powerful inoculation against depression.
Optimists tend to be more effective in general, because they tend to look for solutions to problems, while pessimists tend to look for problems in the solutions.
Optimists tend to have better social support, because people tend to stay in contact with optimists longer. As the late Chris Peterson (of The University of Michigan) used to say, “Misery loves company, but company does not love misery.”
From the ongoing Harvard Longitudinal Study that has followed men over 6 decades, there was no difference in health up to age 40, but from ages 40-50, optimistic men stayed healthy, while pessimistic men began to get sick and die – usually from heart problems. If they had a 2nd heart attack, it was correlated with pessimism, not the traditional health indicators such as cholesterol or high blood pressure.
Optimism is only one element of a happy life, but it is one of the easiest to improve. While some people are naturally more optimistic than others, it is possible, by practicing some fairly simple skills over time, to become more optimistic.
Conscientiousness – the propensity to follow socially prescribed norms for impulse control, to be task and goal directed, to make plans, to delay gratification – leads to greater longevity and better health. This is true also for the spouse of a more conscientious person, whose health and longevity improve by virtue of their mate’s virtue, regardless of their personal practice (!).
Another quality that can affect your health is the quantity of positive emotions you enjoy in your daily life. Positive feelings tend to act as an antidote to negative feelings and experiences. A ratio of about 3/1 positive to negative feelings is the tipping point where positive emotions come more easily, and the benefits really start to take hold.
Positive emotions relate to longevity and cardio-vascular health, as well as stronger immune functioning, lower neuroendocrine and inflammatory activity, fewer symptoms of illness, and less pain. Positive emotions also lower the likelihood of hypertension and diabetes mellitus, risk of stroke, and even susceptibility to the common cold.
Positive emotions have also been shown to counteract depression following a crisis – and minimizing depression can have a very positive effect on your health. Depressed people are much more likely to have heart problems, and depression itself can make it difficult to do the things that can improve your overall health and well being.
There are skills that can counteract depression, and gratitude is one of these. The simplest intervention that has been shown to both increase happiness and decrease depression is to simply think of three good things that happened at the end of each day, and why they happened.
Practicing forgiveness, avoiding holding grudges, and decreasing hostility also have a positive effect on the health of your heart.
The bottom line is this:
Practicing optimism, conscientiousness, positive emotions, gratitude, and forgiveness can significantly improve the quality of your physical health beyond the better known steps of exercise, diet, not smoking, and not abusing alcohol or drugs. That’s a nice combination, and it makes a strong psychological and medical case for striving toward a happier life.
All my best,