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 straightforward 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 (Torah class), HaGaon Rav Asher Weiss shlita mentioned a very intriguing idea derived from two different places in the Shulchan Aruch (the codification of Jewish law). He pointed out that twice in Orach Chaim (one of the sections of the Shulchan Aruch), an entire chapter begins by mentioning simcha, happiness. 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 says it is a feeling of well-being or contentment, or a pleasurable or satisfying experience. Scientists prefer to use 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, a psychology professor at the University of Illinois, 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 what chazal, our sages, tell us: olam chessed yibane—that the world is built on acts of kindness—and you have indeed participated in acts of kindness, you understand the emotional rewards you reap 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 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 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 activities that promote positive states.
Sustained stress, fear, anger or depression can contribute to heart disease, stroke and diabetes, and atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries). But 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 Rasmussen, 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.
Now we see how important it is to attain happiness. But how do we get there? Stay tuned for next week’s column, where we will address how much you can control your level of happiness and offer science-based tips on how to amp up your happiness factor.
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! He can be reached at 02-651-8502 or 050-555-7175, or by email at email@example.com.