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The Science of Being Happy

Apr 16, 2015 07:15AM ● By Amy
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At its core, health begins with the individual: the amount of stress they allow into their world and how they respond to adversity. As the age-old adage teaches us, what you think, you will become. If you tell yourself you are old and sick, eventually your body will respond to what it’s being told. According to a compilation of over 30 studies, being happy and having a good attitude can add 7.5-10 years to your life. Positive thinking could be the difference between seeing that grandchild or great-grandchild, or missing out. 

Everyone will face adversity in life, whether it’s the death of a loved one, divorce, disappointment, or health issues that are beyond control. Waiting until a time of crisis to learn coping skills is like going out to buy a fire extinguisher while the house is burning down. The body will not have backup defenses to deal with its physiological changes amidst a disaster unless it’s trained to do so. Teach yourself to be content regardless of your circumstances and you will be ready to tackle challenges as they arise. You can actually train your body to self-regulate in stressful situations, but this will take time.

So why are some people just grumpy or mean? Are they born that way? Well, yes and no. After 20 years of research, Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky, Professor at the University of California, Riverside, found that your attitude is attributed 50% to your genes, 40% to intentional activities, and 10% to life circumstances such as socioeconomic class, marital status, or health. Some people are born with a smile on their face and others with a chip on their shoulder. The latter needs to work extra hard to control their intentional activities and circumstances, or they will destine themselves to a life of disappointment and misery. Along with such negative emotions comes poor health, because research has told us time and time again that at the core of a long and healthy life is a perpetual smile.

The best way to control your attitude is to first control your thoughts and your tongue. Sarcasm and gossip need to be banished from your life because nothing good evolves from either one. Every person and every circumstance has a positive aspect, but sometimes you just have to look deeper to find it. If you focus on the good, you will learn to recognize it more easily and gain a better sense of gratitude in your life. It’s an exercise that will strengthen your ability to be positive and will benefit your health and the health of your family. When negative experiences come your way, and they will from time to time, learn how to control your reaction. How you react to negativity will determine how long those feelings linger and the overall impact they have. You may not be able to change your circumstances, but you can keep your circumstances from changing you in any negative way. Even negative circumstances have the potential for positive growth.

Self-regulation plays a large role in managing our emotional vitality. If we can learn how to control the very impulses that tend to lead us into the situations that cause stress, we will be able to avoid the majority of stressful situations. For example, risky behaviors such as unsafe sex, overeating, or a sedentary lifestyle will lead to poor health and unnecessary anxiety, while a healthy diet and exercise will have a positive effect on the body and one’s overall happiness. These are the things that make up the 40% intentional activities that we talked about earlier. 

Below is a breakdown of what happens to the body physiologically during times of stress and also during times of happiness. Once you understand the basic health principles behind happiness, then finding the road to enduring happiness will hopefully become your first quest. 

Physiological Changes during Times of Enduring Stress: 
• Increased heart rate (anxiety)
• Increased blood pressure (increased risk for stroke)
• Surges of cortisol and adrenaline (weight gain)
• Decreased digestion (heartburn)
• Decreased cognitive function (stupidity) 
• Changes in brain chemicals, especially the release of norepinephrine (depression)
• Weakened immune system due to an inflammatory response (sickness)
• Neuroendocrine and immune dysfunction (increased risk of cancer)
• Muscle cramps and spasm (pain)

Physiological Changes during Times of Happiness:
• Lower and more stable blood pressure readings
• Release of serotonin, the “feel good” hormone
• Increased ability to maintain a healthy weight 
• Increased sense of smell and taste 
• Improved immunity due to increased white T-cells
• Decreased risk of cancer
• Decreased risk of heart disease
• Increased risk of recovery from illness
• Increased tolerance to pain

Basically, you have a choice to make. You can settle for being prone to anxiety, weight gain, or illness, or you can learn to be grateful no matter what your circumstances are. Gratitude leads to contentment with one’s circumstances and ultimately happiness, which in turn has an abundance of health benefits. The goal is not only to live longer, but to live a long and satisfying life.

When we are stressed and unhappy, the messages taken in by the senses can’t properly make it to the brain, leaving us with that numb feeling. If you find yourself reading this and thinking you don’t have the first clue on how to “get happy,” then start by taking baby steps in the right direction. First, turn off the television and go for a walk outside or visit a museum, this will help turn your senses back on live in the moment. Second, take time to contemplate and appreciate the things in your life. It’s easy to be so busy that one day runs into the next until soon a whole month, if not year, has passed by. If we don’t take time to appreciate the details of each day, our whole lives will seem but a fleeting moment reminiscent of deadlines and anxiety. Last, spend time with friends and family each week. Don’t wait for holidays or those times that you gather together out of obligation. Isn’t it ironic that funerals are often the most attended family gatherings? Instead of mourning those missed opportunities, find meaningful ways to share moments together through volunteer projects or planned outings. 

Happiness should be a goal for every individual. Smiling is as important to life as eating and breathing. Take time each and every day to laugh and enjoy life. Don’t just pursue happiness – create it!


The above contains excerpts from our book Age to Perfection: How to Thrive to 100, Happy, Healthy, and Wise. Authors Drs. Walter and Mark Anderson, along with health and wellness expert Judy Gaman are also cohosts of the nationally syndicated Staying Young Radio Show. Past segments of the 
Staying Young Show can be found on iTunes as a free download. You can also learn more about Executive Medicine of Texas by going to