We have all heard the saying ‘laughter is the best medicine” but how much truth is there to this statement? Apparently a lot! Research has found that happiness itself may cause good health, and may be as important a factor as certain unhealthy habits such as smoking. A study in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences examined the link between happiness and a number of health factors in 200 Caucasian adults, age 45-59 years, all of whom worked for the government in London, England. The study assessed each participant on a work day and weekend day, measuring them at work and play for a number of criteria including blood pressure, heart rate and stress hormone (cortisol) levels. Participants were measured under normal conditions and after a mental stress test. Under each condition participants ranked their happiness on a scale of 1 (lowest) to 5 (highest). There were no differences in happiness between people who were married or single, male or female or of varying socioeconomic status; however the happiest participants had the best results across the board for the health markers. I.e. happier people had lower heart rates, and an average of 32% lower levels of cortisol which can have a direct effect on other elements such as blood sugar.
Another study exposed subjects to the cold virus and found that happy people were less likely to get sick, and if they did contract the virus, displayed fewer symptoms. (Source: Carnegie Mellon University). Happy people are less likely to have surges of cortisol, which decreases immunity and makes you more likely to get sick.
Positive, happy people are also more likely to take good care of themselves, have a stronger support system, and live longer. One of the most convincing studies was done on a group of nuns who had almost identical histories, eliminating variables such as diet and socioeconomic background. The study involved this group of nuns each writing an auto biological sketch of her life upon acceptance into the convent, and then examining these sketches six decades later. The study found that the content of these sketches was surprisingly indicative of whether these nuns were still alive, and how healthy they were. 90% of the nuns that had written positive and cheerful sketches were still alive at age 85, while only 34% of the least cheerful nuns were alive. The happiest nuns actually lived a full 10 years longer!
Do you want to be happier, healthier, and live longer? Who doesn’t! But the million dollar question is “How?” Here are 7 strategies to increase your current level of happiness:
1. Make your negative thoughts positive: Aynsley Smith, director of the sports-medicine research center at the Mayo Clinic has a simple method of training her students to focus on positive thoughts. She has her students carry a clicker pen around with them and whenever they notice they are dwelling on negative issues, they are asked to click the pen. This acts as a trigger to change one’s ‘thought channel’.
2. Keep a gratitude journal: Studies show that people who practice grateful thinking on a regular basis can increase their natural level of happiness significantly. Grateful thinking encourages us to be aware and spend time thinking about the positive experiences, things and people in our lives. Keeping a gratitude journal is a simple process – grab a blank notebook or journal and each night before you go to sleep, think of five things you are grateful for and write them down. Review your day and write down anything that made you feel good or that you are appreciative of – big or small. You can review your entries daily and develop a pattern of seeing things in a positive, grateful way.
3. Exercise: Many tactics to increase our happiness are short lived and actually end up making us feel worse. I.e. an extra glass or two of wine, indulging in too much chocolate ice cream, etc. Exercise not only helps in the short term, but has lasting effects that are more conducive to long term happiness. Exercise helps to reduce anxiety and increase feelings of happiness due to the release of endorphins (feel-good hormones). Regular exercise is also thought to improve sleep patterns, bringing us to another important element in increasing your happiness.
4. Sleep: Sleep deprivation has a profound effect on your happiness. Studies show that a bad night sleep is one of the top reasons for being in a sour mood at work, whereas one extra hour of sleep at night can do as much if not more for your daily happiness than a $60,000 raise. We mentioned that exercise is related to a regular sleep cycle, but the two are actually interrelated. Being well rested means you are more likely to commit to a regular exercise regime, particularly if you exercise each morning, before your work day takes over.
5. Emphasize and utilize your strengths: rather than spending your thoughts and energy on correcting the things you do ‘wrong’ or that need improved upon, emphasize and utilize your strengths – find tasks that relate to your strengths and put them to work! Strength-use leads to feelings or pride and accomplishment, resulting in greater happiness.
6. Show kindness and compassion daily: Volunteer your time to a cause that means something to you. Be a listening ear for a friend in need. Perform random acts of kindness on a regular basis. Helping others has a dramatic effect on our own happiness. Sonya Lyubomirsky, Psychology professor at Stanford University indicates that this is most effective when all five acts are performed on the same day. Professor Lyubomirsky’s instructs,
“In our daily lives, we all perform acts of kindness for others. These acts may be large or small and the person for whom the act is performed may or may not be aware of the act. Examples include feeding a stranger’s parking meter, donating blood, helping a friend with homework, visiting an elderly relative, or writing a thank you letter. One day each week, you are to perform five acts of kindness. The acts do not need to be for the same person, the person may or may not be aware of the act, and the act may or may not be similar to the acts listed above.”
7. Set SMART goals: That is goals that are specific, measureable, attractive, realistic and time-framed. The likelihood of achieving SMART goals is much greater, and achieving your goals leads to greater confidence and happiness. Each time you achieve a goal that you have set for yourself, you are one step closer to creating your ‘ideal life’.
The first step to achieving greater happiness is having an understanding of the implication being happy has on the rest of your life. We all deserve to live long, happy, healthy lives; take matters into your own hands, start with the above strategies and get happy today!
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