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The happiness-health connection

Surprising news about the benefits of happiness

A smile a day can keep the doctor away. But that should come as no surprise to Christians. The Bible tells us, "A heart at peace gives life to the body" (Proverbs 14:30, NIV). Medical science is just beginning to prove it.

Evidence has been mounting for some time that happiness can improve your health. We now know that a positive outlook on life can raise your immunities, add years to your life and protect you against heart disease and diabetes.

Happy people are often more optimistic, purposeful and have a higher self-esteem than their less cheerful counterparts. They also tend to be more resistant to illness. According to one study, happy people were less likely to come down with the flu, and even when they did get sick, they experienced less pain and fewer symptoms.1

The study found that happy people:

  • Have a lower rate of stroke among non-institutionalized elderly.

  • Experience lower rates of rehospitalization for coronary problems.

  • Incur fewer injuries for all age groups.

  • Enjoy better self-reported health and fewer symptoms in the elderly.

  • Experience less pain in patients with rheumatoid arthritis or fibromyalgia.

Barring any chronic disease, happy people also live longer. In 1973, Dr. Grossarth-Maticek asked thousands of elderly residents of Heidelberg, Germany, to report their habitual feelings of pleasure and well-being. Then 21 years later, he returned to Heidelberg to compare those happiness ratings with the health status of the participants. The 300 people with the highest happiness rating were 30 times more likely to be alive and well than the 200 people with the lowest rating.

Additional studies say that happiness can influence longevity as much as the decision not to smoke.2 That may be because happiness is associated with dramatically lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which has been connected with abdominal obesity, Type 2 diabetes, hypertension and autoimmune conditions.3 In other words, happiness can lower your risk for chronic diseases, such as heart disease and diabetes.

The happiness-health connection

Studies on the positive health benefits of happiness have been so conclusive that the World Health Organization now states that happiness is essential for good health. Of course, their directive begs a question: Is happiness something we can create?

According to researchers, the answer is a resounding yes. Martin Seligman, University of Pennsylvania psychologist and a leader in the positive psychology movement, believes there are three components to happiness: pleasure, engagement and purpose. So social engagement and finding a purpose in life — activities prioritized by Christians — are keys to increasing happiness.

Not surprisingly, a study of 1,514 Australians found that people with a spiritual orientation tended to be happier.4 Believers are often more optimistic, have a greater sense of purpose in life and are more likely to engage in service activities than nonbelievers. This study links Seligman’s components of happiness with faith, suggesting that Christians who are engaged in their faith hold the keys to happiness.

Three activities that can raise happiness

While it is impossible to radically change a person's disposition, it is possible to create a more positive outlook on life. Researchers have identified three activities that can significantly boost your personal happiness rating.

  1. Start a gratitude journal. Each night before bed, write down at least three things that went well that day. As you think about the blessings, try to think of them in terms of a "gift." Taking time to focus on the good things in life can help develop the habit of gratitude, which can increase happiness and lower depression.

    Psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky suggests a weekly routine of conscientiously counting your blessings. She found that when people record the things that make them thankful, their overall satisfaction with life is boosted in as short as six weeks.

  2. Write a gratitude letter. Think of someone who has blessed you in some way, but whom you've never fully thanked. Write a letter to that person describing the blessing and how it made you feel. Then, if possible, visit that person and read the letter aloud to him or her. Be sure to schedule enough time for the visit to share thoughts and feelings.

    Studies show that one gratitude visit can improve happiness levels for a full month. In fact, this exercise is considered the most effective mood boosting exercise of all.

  3. Perform acts of altruism or kindness. Developing a habit of service can give a measurable boost to happiness. So visiting a nursing home, helping a child with homework, mowing a neighbor's lawn or writing a letter to a homebound church member can all make you happier. Lyubomirsky suggests five acts of kindness per week.

Interestingly, the acts that give the greatest boost to happiness involve interaction with others rather than personal pleasures such as reading or working a puzzle. According to Seligman, "the cerebral virtues — curiosity, love of learning — are less strongly tied to happiness than interpersonal virtues like kindness, gratitude and capacity for love."5

So as it turns out, your faith really can improve your health. Plugging in to your church's ministry and outreach programs can allow you to engage with others while giving you the opportunity to develop a life purpose. This will make you happier and more content with life, which will lower your stress and improve your immunities.

So smile. It will very likely improve your health. And you’ll never find a more pleasant way to do it.

1 Psychosomatic Medicine 68:809-815 (2006)

2 Journal of Happiness Studies 2008; 9 (3): 449

3 PNAS May 3, 2005: 102 (18): 6508-6512

4 The Spirituality and Wellbeing in Australia research report

5 Wallis, Claudia. "The New Science of Happiness." Time. Sunday, Jan. 09, 2005.