Our Bodies, Our… What?

“Happiness Isn’t Good Enough For Me! I Demand Euphoria!” -Calvin, to Hobbes

As I wander through our technologically invasive world, I find that it is almost impossible not to be bombarded by other people’s unpleasantness. Images, and audio, and video, and countless column inches jump out at me nearly everywhere I go, depicting the latest miserable moments in other people’s lives.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I invite the invasion into my life. I watch television, listen to the radio, stay current with the news, and go online. I know what I’ll find there; it’s not as if it ever changes. This week Mel Gibson may be the key player in a misery of the week, but he’s just a face. Last week it was Floyd Landis. The week before that it was Barry Bonds. And I haven’t even checked on the latest Brittany report, speculated about the curious manifestation that could account for the state of Tom Cruise’s brain patterns, or (steel yourself) opened the newspaper yet.

Last night, as I sat in the living room of my home, watching baseball with my husband, I looked up to catch an eyeful of a familiar sight. Filling nearly every inch of the screen was the beaming face of Red Sox designated hitter, David Ortiz. Hearty Big Papi was doing what he seems to spend all his time doing. He was laughing. I looked. I smiled. It felt good.

The joy of Big Papi is contagious. If you watch the players around him, you’ll see that they’re laughing, too (a curious phenomenon for those of us who have lived through years of egoistic Red Sox antics and embarrassing prima donna demands). And he doesn’t quit when he’s working. Sit for a minute and wait for him to hit a home run (you won’t have to sit long). The man lumbers around the bases with that enormous, effervescent grin on his face.

When I see people who are robustly happy, I find that I also tend to perceive them as robustly healthy. It’s a satisfying perception. I wanted back up. I decided to dig deeper.

There have been studies on subjects like laughter therapy for the treatment of chronic illnesses, cancer, and problems of the immune system. That’s all good. I enjoy reading about the positive medical effects of having a good time. Guided imagery is another fun one. Patients imagine positive the forces in their bodies beating down the sick or negative ones.

But laughter and positive thinking are things that can be introduced. How about the health benefits of just being happy?

Well, thank you, Scotland, England, and the U.S. for playing along! BBC News reported on some studies that made me happy indeed, and may, therefore, have prolonged my life. Check them out; you can live longer, too.

At the Dumfries and Galloway NHS, in Scotland, Dr. Derek Cox has led a study that examines the relationship between happiness and general health. The results look good for Big Papi.

“If you are happy you are likely in the future to have less in the way of physical illness than those who are unhappy,” said Cox. “It’s not just that if you’re physically well you’re likely to be happy but actually the opposite way round.”

Cox’s study found a significantly higher correlation between good health and happiness than he did between good health and smoking cessation, diet, or physical activity.

At University College London, British Heart Foundation Professor of Psychology Andrew Steptoe has found that happier people also have greater protection against things like heart disease and stroke.

“We know that stress, which has bad effects on biology, leads to those bad changes as far as health is concerned,” said Steptoe. “What we think is happening is that happiness has the opposite effect and has a protective effect on these same biological pathways.”

My favorite, though, is a study done in Milwaukee on the diaries of the sisters of Notre Dame. The writings of some of the nuns displayed them to be full of happy thoughts, while the writings of others displayed a dour, more pessimistic outlook on life. Upon comparing the writings in the diaries with the life spans of the writers, the fun nuns won, hands down. Smile sister, on average, the happy nuns outlived the unhappy nuns by approximately nine years.

So, are you happy? If you’re not sure, there’s a test designed by psychology professor Ed Diener of the University of Illinois that can tell you. If, after taking the test, you’re still not sure, go hang out with some happy people. Do you enjoy their company, or do you feel irritated by their perk? If you’re still unclear after that, check your pulse.

Looking at the research into the health benefits of happiness, I find myself thinking that maybe Bobby McFarrin’s giddy little song from the 1980s isn’t so silly, after all. Don’t worry. Be happy. Who knows? It just may prolong your life.

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