When we are trying to improve our health, it’s important not to forget to take care of our soul and mind. Happiness is a positive emotion that not only helps us stay motivated to work toward our goals, but reflects itself in our bodies and well-being. We are all used to hearing proverbs like “Laughter is the best medicine” or “Don’t worry, be happy” and accepting these as common sense. But these phrases have more truth than you may think.
Most studies about happiness and health are strongly biased, because the researchers involved want to prove that happiness and laughter improve health. However, there are actually some scientific physiological responses that occur in the human body because of happiness.
Many chronic diseases have been proven to be stress-related. This means that the state of being tense, stressed, fearful, or angry causes stagnations and dysfunctions in our body. That is because our negative emotions cause neurotransmitters to be released in our brain that can signal our body to enter fight-or-flight mode. This stunts normal body functions in order to provide an adrenaline rush to aid in what our body perceives as a need to preserve our immediate survival.
The heart’s electrical stability is compromised by chronic anger and anxiety. High cortisol levels are associated with increased inflammation.
Happiness does the opposite. It is the absence of stress, negative moods and self-destructive behaviors. Happiness can improve our immune function, improve the quality of sleep and energy levels, improve digestion, slow down aging, increase lifespan and reduce our long-term risk for serious stress-related illness such as hypertension and diabetes. When our body is not being bombarded with stress hormones, it performs its normal functions that keep us healthy naturally.
Laughter has been shown to improve circulation, burn excess calories, and decrease high blood sugar levels. Laughter is social and is associated with a feeling of belonging, which reduces anxiety.
In a 2007 study of 6,000 people for 20 years, Harvard professor Laura Kubzansky found that emotional vitality—a sense of enthusiasm, of hopefulness, of engagement in life, and the ability to face life’s stresses with emotional balance—appears to reduce the risk of coronary heart disease. The effect was significant, even when factors like smoking and exercise were noted.
Kobzansky’s research suggests that certain aspects of one’s life, whether internal or circumstantial, can help a person manage heart attacks, strokes, diabetes and depression. These factors include emotional vitality, optimism, supportive networks of family and/or friends, and being good at self-regulation and avoiding risky behaviors like binge drinking, unsafe sex or regular over-eating.
She found that emotional stability during childhood was a strong predictor of adult health. Kobzansky stresses that a person should not be blamed for his or her unhappiness and health problems. She notes that some people don’t live in an environment where they can just abandon their worries. She wants to learn how to help people take steps to improve their moods and happiness.
Happiness is not something fluffy and unscientific. It may have strong and direct health effects. Caregivers should be careful to pay attention to the emotional wellbeing of their patients, especially older folks.
Ralitza Treneva is a recent DePaul graduate living in Chicago. She is trained in plant-based nutrition and has worked as a nutritional consultant. She is from Bulgaria.
Follow Ralitza on Twitter: @rtreneva