“Don’t Worry, Be Happy”
The Science of Happiness
Happiness is the illusive desire of every human being on earth. We seek happiness through the doors of religion, philosophy, psychology, medicine and even government. In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson wrote
“We hold these truths to be self evident: that all men are created equal: that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
What does the pursuit of happiness mean? Are we guaranteed happiness in our lives? Of course not. Isn’t it interesting that 229 years ago, happiness was considered a “right” by our founding fathers. We have a “right” to be happy.
Most Americans in a recent Time Magazine poll said they are happy 78% of the time. We were an optimistic country seeking happiness when the Declaration of Independence was written in 1776 and we seek happiness now more than ever .
Happiness has moved from a guaranteed right of our government to the forefront of scientific research.
Does happiness have an effect upon our health?
One of the new focuses of psychology has been in the field of positive psychology. We have spent many years focusing on research in the areas of depression and anxiety but recently there has been an interest in the “science of happiness.” How much of our propensity for optimism or pessimism is inherited? Do our genes actually dictate how happy or optimistic we are?
The researchers studying the science of happiness would undoubtedly prescribe the song by Bobby Mcferrin that was popular many years ago, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.”
Many of us we smile as we remember the rhythm of this very popular song still dancing in our hearts.
“In every life we have some trouble
When you worry you make it double
Don’t worry, be happy.”
We are wired for happiness from the beginning. Researchers believe that about 50-70% of our happiness and optimism comes from our genes. Genes impact our happy, content personality, our propensity for anxiety and depression and our ability to handle stress. Maybe you can look at your parents and family members to see why you are laughing. This is a major factor, but there is still around 50% of happiness that is determined by our attitude, behaviors and values.
We have a great opportunity to understand what science is teaching us about the positive health affects of happiness. We can also learn techniques to learn how to be happy.
Abraham Lincoln knew that we could make choices that directly influences our happiness when he said, “A man is likely to be just about as happy as he makes his mind up to be.” Our new research supports what Abraham Lincoln said over 150 years ago.
Happiness is a physical state of the brain. When we are happy our brain produces neurochemicals that result in us wanting to eat, have sex or maybe sing. Most researchers study the effects of these neurochemicals by using different measurement techniques; an FMRI (Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging), which records blood flow that activates parts of the brain; EEG (Electroencephalogram) which monitors the electrical activity of neuronal circuits; or blood tests that measure the amount of hormones in the blood such as dopamine or serotonin.
Here are some results from our recent research on happiness.
- People who score high on psychological tests assessing happiness, produce about 50% more antibodies that the average person in response to flu vaccines.
- Individuals that test high on scales for happiness, optimism and contentment have a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, hypertension and infections.
- Researchers found that subjects energy levels were raised, physical health improved and they experienced less fatigue and pain when they practiced acts of happiness and gratitude regularly.
- A recent study reveals that optimistic individuals reduced their risk of death by 50% over the nine years of the study.
Laughter and humor create health and well being because they:
- Reduce stress
- Boost our immune systems
- Lower our blood pressure
- Improve our brain functioning
A Study at the University of Maryland Medical Center tells us the ability to laugh in stressful situations helps us to not produce harmful neurochemicals. Laughter increases our capacity to fight various diseases by increasing our antibody production. As our bodies relax when we laugh, we reduce the risk of heart disease, hypertension, strokes, arthritis and other inflammatory diseases. Laughter reduces the levels of stress hormones like cortisol.
Laughter is also a great exercise for the body. When we laugh we work our facial, abdominal, chest, leg and back muscles. Laughing fills our lungs with oxygen which nourishes our vital organs: the brain, heart, lungs and liver.
A recent study tracked two groups of cardiac patients. One group of patients received medical care alone and the other group received medical care plus they watched 30 minutes of comedy a day. After one year, the laughing group reported fewer repeat heart attacks, fewer episodes of arrhythmia, lower blood pressures and lower levels of stress hormones.
Here are some tips on how to live a happier life:
- Attitude of Gratitude. It is physiologically impossible to be grateful and experience stress at the same time. Research shows grateful individuals report having more energy and less physical complaints than their non-grateful counterparts. Studies tell us daily gratitude exercises resulted in higher levels of alertness, enthusiasm, determination, optimism and happiness.
- Choice. Every moment of our lives is a choice and every choice we make has a huge ripple effect. If we choose to commit to practicing happiness and optimism, we can transform our lives.
- Proactive. We shouldn’t be the victim of our lives by constantly responding to other people’s lives. If we create a plan with our passion and live in a proactive manner, we will become the hero of our lives, not the victim.
- Smile: Begin the practice of intentionally smiling. A scientist studying facial expressions tells us that when a person has a smile on their face, they release more serotonin and endorphins, happiness hormones, that nonsmilers. Thich Nhat Hanh and his Holiness the Dalai Lama are adamant that a smile is the first step to a life of mental, physical and spiritual health. Begin a practice of smiling to shift any situation into an optimistic opportunity.
- Laugh as often as possible to release the healing hormones endorphins, the body’s natural pain killers. Instead of buying pills for our stress, we can go rent a funny movie, or go online to a humorous site daily and share it with our co-workers. Laughter lowers blood pressure, reduces stress hormones and boosts our immune function.
- Play. Re-establish “childlike” qualities. Science tells us when we play it increases our immune cells that combat disease. Playfulness also increases creativity and optimism at home and at work.
- Health. It is essential that we focus on the health of our bodies. When we care for our physical bodies we create greater possibilities for happiness. Our bodies are our greatest asset, so please care for them tenderly.
- Spirituality. The vast number of happy people have developed spiritual practices that nourish their heart and soul. Discover what brings your soul passion, love and fulfillment. Our spirituality is what roots us in our lives.
- Altruism and Philanthropy – A generous soul lives a rich, abundant life. Altruism neutralizes negative emotions that affect immune, endocrine and cardiovascular function. Altruism creates a physiological responses or “helpers high” that makes people feel stronger and more energetic and counters harmful effects of stress.
- Forgiveness. Happy people know forgiveness sets the soul free. A famous person said, “Living with resentment is like taking poison and expecting the other person to get sick.” Open your heart to the gift of happiness by letting go of pain, judgment, anger and resentment.