Friday, August 15, 2008

Health Care and Happiness

Almost everyone likes to be happy. Yahoo News reported that new research shows being happy can add several years to life. A Dutch researcher has indicated from studies done over 60 years that effects of happiness on longevity were "comparable to that of smoking or not". That special flair for feeling good could lengthen life by between 7.5 and 10 years. The finding brings a vital new piece to a puzzle currently being assembled by researchers worldwide on just what makes us happy -- and on the related question of why people blessed with material wealth in developed nations no longer seem satisfied with their lives.

Once the province of poets or philosophers, according to the Yahoo News release, the notions of happiness and satisfaction have been taken on and dissected, quantified and analyzed in the last few years by a growing number of highly serious and respected economists -- some of whom dub the new field "hedonics", or the study of what makes life pleasant, or otherwise. Growth in material wealth adds little to happiness. But happiness can be bolstered by friendship and human community, as well as larger social factors such as freedom, democracy, effective government institutions and rule of law. Economists are working to put "happiness" indicators (a new kind of quality-of-life index) into the measurement of growth. Happiness itself, according to the specialists, is generally accepted as "the overall appreciation of one's life as a whole", in other words a state of mind best defined by the person questioned. in general "happiness does not appear to prolong the deathbed." Among healthy populations, on the contrary, happiness appeared to protect against falling ill, thus prolonging life.

According to the research provided by the article released on Yahoo News, happy people were more inclined to watch their weight, were more perceptive of symptoms of illness, tended to be more moderate with smoking and drinking and generally lived healthier lives. They were also more active, more open to the world, more self-confident, made better choices and built more social networks. Chronic unhappiness activates the fight-flight response, which is known to involve harmful effects in the long run such as higher blood pressure and a lower immune response. Studies on job-satisfaction failed to address the question of life-satisfaction at work. educate people in the art of "living well", helping to develop the ability to enjoy life, to make the best choices, to keep developing and to see a meaning in life.

Medical New Today reported a study by Carnegie Mellon in 2005 that indicated the strongest links between positive emotions and health were found in studies that examined "trait" emotions, which reflect a person's typical emotional experience, rather than "state" emotions, which reflect momentary responses to events. People who typically report more positive emotions experience lower rates of chronic illness, symptoms and pain. Moreover, among the elderly who live on their own or with family rather than in retirement homes, positive emotional dispositions are linked to living longer. In contrast, positive emotions are not associated with increased longevity in studies of other populations, and though possibly beneficial for recovery from less serious diseases, extremely positive emotions are in some cases associated with poorer outcomes among those with serious illness.

The Carnegie Mellon study further indicated that one problem in interpreting the literature is that in many cases, it is difficult to distinguish between the effects of positive and negative emotions. For example, do elderly living on their own or with family live longer because they are happy or because they are not sad? Interestingly, people's experiences of positive and negative emotions are partly independent in some circumstances. For instance, in looking back over the last month or year, one can reasonably report having been both happy and sad. A definitive answer to whether positive or negative emotions are contributing to a health outcome can only come from studies that measure both types of emotions and examine their independent effects. Consequently, it is difficult to conclude from the existing literature whether happiness leads to a healthier and longer life or unhappiness results in a less healthy, shorter one. The authors also were concerned with the possibility that some measures of positive emotions may themselves be direct indicators of physical health. For example, adjectives such as "energetic," "full-of-pep," and "vigorous" may reflect a positive mood, but may also reflect how healthy one feels. Self-rated health has been found to predict illness and longevity above and beyond objective health measures such as physician ratings. Consequently, it is important for future research to include standard measures of self-rated health to help exclude the possibility that researchers are merely predicting good objective health from good perceived health masquerading as positive emotions. And, emotions can have a direct impact on health; for example, they may influence lifestyle choices, or the function of the immune and autonomic nervous systems. Alternatively, they suggest that positive emotions may also influence health by mitigating the harmful effects of stress.

A follow up study done by the same Carnegie researcher in 2006, reported in Psychosomatic Magazine, showed the people who report positive emotions are less likely to catch colds and also less likely to report symptoms when they do get sick. This held true regardless of their levels of optimism, extraversion, purpose and self-esteem, and of their age, race, gender, education, body mass or prestudy immunity to the virus. Also, when they do come down with a cold, happy people report fewer symptoms than would be expected from objective measures of their illness. In contrast, reporting more negative emotions such as depression, anxiety and anger was not associated with catching colds. That earlier study, however, left open the possibility that the greater resistance to infectious illness among happier people may not have been due to happiness, but rather to other characteristics that are often associated with reporting positive emotions such as optimism, extraversion, feelings of purpose in life and self-esteem. The new study finds that happiness and other positive emotions play an even more important role in health than previously reported. Researchers found that when happy people contract a virus, or “catch a cold”, they report fewer symptoms and in fact, are less likely to contract the virus at all.

CNN has reported about the happiness quotient. The Declaration of Independence affirms that we have an inalienable right to pursue happiness, and it is something people do with a vengeance. Americans will spend $750 million on self-help books and more than $1 billion on motivational speakers. More than 100 colleges now offer classes in positive psychology -- the science of happiness. With all those resources focused on achieving happiness, the nation should be brimming with joy. Our culture implores us to buy bigger, newer, better things, but research shows "stuff" does not buy happiness. By and large, money buys happiness only for those who lack the basic needs. Our genes hardwire us to reproduce, but children can have a small negative effect on happiness, research shows. When you follow people throughout their days, as they're going about their normal activities, people are about as happy interacting with their children, on average, as when they're doing housework. They're much less happy than when they're exercising, sleeping, grocery shopping, or hanging out with friends. In fact, neither unhappiness nor joy last as long as we expect. As you've probably guessed, winning the lottery will not guarantee a life of bliss. By the same token, becoming disabled does not relegate one to a life of unhappiness. The disabled spend their days about as happy as the general population. In general for most people, the older you get the happier you get -- until you reach very old age.

According to a Pew Research Center survey, the happiest age group is men 65 and older; the least happy: men 18 to 29. The survey also found:
--Married people are happier than singles.
--College grads are happier than those without a college degree.
--People who were religious are happier than those who aren't.
--Sunbelt residents are happier than other U.S. residents.
--Republicans are happier than Democrats -- but both are happier than independents.

Research shows, according to the Harvard study, most people have an innate level of happiness, and we can also try to boost our happiness a little bit above this natural "set point." You should pass on buying lottery tickets and find small things you can do every day that bring you joy, whether it's going for a walk or cooking a meal or reading a book. There is good evidence that people express at least some fundamental emotions like disgust, anger and happiness in a very similar way all around the world. Happiness from the most traditional cultures to the most modern depend heavily on close family and other human relationships. Additionally, in a report released to Reuters by researchers in January, 2008, those who indicated upbeat moods had lower levels of cortisol — a “stress” hormone that, when chronically elevated, may contribute to high blood pressure, abdominal obesity and dampened immune function, among other problems. In the study, published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, women who reported more positive emotions had lower blood levels of two proteins that indicate widespread inflammation in the body. Chronic inflammation is believed to contribute to a range of ills over time, including heart disease and cancer. Researchers have long noted that happier people tend to be in better health than those who are persistently stressed, hostile or pessimistic.

Health and happiness are very closely tied together in the human body and spirit. Your happiness, or lack of it, can have a direct effect on your health. Depression and mental instability as a result of being unhappy leads to physical maladies that must be treated with counseling, medication, and ongoing therapy until the patient recovers. There are physical, mental, and spiritual levels when dealing with happiness and your health. No one person ever has a life free of unhappiness. However, everyone has the option to choose happiness even in tough times. Remember, your character is not formed by what happens to you but rather by how you deal with it.

Until next time. Let me know what you think.

No comments: