It turns out that feeling happy can actually improve our overall physical health – but there’s a catch. According to an article in Harvard Medical School’s HealthBeat last month, positive emotions may need to be longterm in order to produce good health. In other words:
“Thinking positive thoughts for a month when you already have heart disease won’t cure the disease. But lowering your stress levels over a period of years with a positive outlook and relaxation techniques could reduce your risk of heart problems.”
In discussing an early phase of research on what’s known as positive psychology, the Harvard article quotes University of Pennsylvania psychologist Dr. Martin Seligman and Dr. Christopher Peterson* at the University of Michigan, who identified these three pathways in figuring out what makes us happy:
1. Feeling good: Seeking pleasurable emotions and sensations, from the hedonistic model of happiness put forth by Epicurus, which focused on reaching happiness by maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain. (Could this be why our pets make us feel so happy?) See also: The importance of planning for everyday joy
2. Engaging fully: Pursuing activities that engage you fully – the state of intense absorption that researcher Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi dubbed “flow.” As filmmaker George Lucas once described talent, it’s “a combination of something you love a great deal and something you can lose yourself in – something that you can start at 9 a.m., look up from your work and it’s 10 o’clock at night …”
3. Doing good: Searching for meaning outside yourself, tracing back to Aristotle’s notion of eudemonia, which emphasized knowing your true self and acting in accordance with your virtues.
But they also identified three things that WON’T make us happy:
According to Drs. Seligman and Peterson, here are some widely held myths about what will bring us happiness:
1. Money and material things: Over 30 years ago, economist Richard Easterlin showed that people are happier when their basic necessities are covered. But any money beyond that doesn’t make much difference in happiness levels.
2. Youth: Being young and physically attractive has little or no bearing on happiness. Easterlin’s more recent research published in the Journal of Economic Psychology found that not only did being young fail to contribute to happiness, but adults grew steadily happier as they moved into and through middle age. After that, happiness levels began to decline slowly as health issues and other life problems emerged.
3. Children: Children can be a tremendous source of joy and fulfillment, but their day-to-day care is demanding and can increase stress, financial pressures, and marital strife. When ranking their happiness during daily activities, mothers report being more happy eating, exercising, shopping, napping, or watching TV than when spending time with their children. In several studies, marital satisfaction declines after the first child is born and only recovers after the last child leaves home. Personal relationships of all types are important, however. Research suggests that being married, having more friends, and having sexual intercourse more often are all moderately or strongly associated with happiness.
Read more about Dr. Seligman’s theories that link positive outlooks with improved heart health:
* Sadly, Dr. Christopher Peterson (whose favourite saying was “Other people matter”!) died of sudden heart failure on October 9, 2012 at the age of 62. Read his obituary published in the journal Applied Psychology.
NOTE FROM CAROLYN: I wrote much more about adjusting to becoming a patient in my book, “A Woman’s Guide to Living with Heart Disease” . You can ask for it at your local library or favourite bookshop, or order it online (paperback, hardcover or e-book) at Amazon, or order it directly from Johns Hopkins University Press (and use the code HTWN to save 30% off the list price).
Q: Do you agree with Drs. Seligman and Peterson on what makes us happy – or not?