Health and the Happiness Factor

Many adjectives have been used to describe the work those of us in the naturally-oriented health care fields do and how it differs from mainstream medicine. A few decades ago it was referred to as “alternative,” then to be more inclusive, the term “complimentary” emerged. At some point “holistic” was popular and now the terminology is “integrative.” Regardless of the name given, at its core is the understanding that whole foods, herbs, exercise, and reducing stress and toxins all play major roles in optimizing health.

Life is short. Lighten up. Laugh More. Appreciate more.

However, one essential factor that most were not emphasizing enough – whether via an integrative or traditional approach – was the “happiness factor.” A new science has emerged highlighting how our attitudes, such as: enthusiasm, optimism, hopefulness, and engagement in life all have a positive influence on health. In 2007, a 20 year study that followed 6000 men and women aged 25-70 found that individuals with these traits and tendencies had a reduced risk of coronary heart disease. Additionally, a review of hundreds of studies found evidence that happier people have better overall health and live longer. Anxiety, depression

, pessimism, and a lack of enjoyment of daily activities have all been found to be associated with higher rates of disease, including heart attacks, strokes, diabetes, depression, and shorter lifespans.

Researchers also found that individuals with an optimistic mindset were more likely to avoid risky behaviors such as excessive alcohol consumption or overeating. People with a positive outlook on life tend to engage in healthier behaviors such as exercise, eating healthy foods, and getting enough sleep. Taking care of your physical wellness may be the most effective happiness booster of all.

You’re not a naturally happy person, you say? Not to worry. Science has confirmed that happiness can be learned via a set of skills and intentional habit changes, and that with certain practices we actually change the neural pathways in our brains. In fact, researchers tell us that only 10% of happiness is based on our circumstances; the rest is determined by attitudes that we can control!

Here are a few strategies to help enhance the “happiness factor” which in turn will improve your health.

1. Start a Gratitude journal. We all know life is full of hardships and challenges (especially in recent times), but instead of rehashing the negative facts or keeping a journal of how people have mistreated you, write down five things you are grateful for on a daily basis. Read it over a few times and feel your mood lift. Gratitude not only increases positive emotions, but also sustains them.

2. Neuroplasticity (“re-wiring” our brain), cognitive behavioral therapy, meditation and mindfulness are techniques and strategies for helping individuals control and or redirect their thoughts toward more positive outcomes.

3. Express your gratitude to another. Letting someone know you appreciate them with a kind gesture, a gift or just your words is another method for elevating your own mood.

4. Tell a Different Story. When recounting your childhood, a trauma, a negative life event, try telling it in a way that emphasizes what you learned and how you grew from that experience.

5. Learn Strategies for Happiness from the Blue Zones. When researchers study the Blue Zones around the planet (where people live healthy, happy lives sometimes beyond 100 years of age) they’ve found some common features. From the mountainous community of Sardinia, Italy, to Okinawa to the Seventh Day Adventists in Loma Linda, California the inhabitants of these Blue Zone areas all tend to not only eat a plant-based diet, move naturally throughout their day, and have a positive outlook on life, but they also live in supportive communities and have a network of friends. Feeling connected, supported and respected as we age, all contribute to our happiness and overall health.

6. Tune into how you feel! You’ll know if these strategies are working by the way you feel. If you feel good, your thoughts are most likely positive and contributing to an improved state of happiness and health.

Although not as scientific (but no less influential on this subject), Louise Hay (who many refer to as the founder of the Self-Help Movement) popularized another important feature to our health and happiness. In the 1980s and 90s while working with AIDS victims and healing herself of cancer, Louise began writing and speaking extensively about self-love and understanding the importance of how our thoughts shape our life experience.

In her book Heal Your Body: The Mental Causes for Physical Illness and the Way to Overcome Them, Louise writes:
“What a joy it was when I first discovered the term “metaphysical causations.” This describes the power in the words and thoughts that create experiences. This new awareness brought me understanding of the connection between thoughts and the different parts of the body and physical problems… Now I could stop blaming life and other people for what was wrong in my life and my body. I could now take full responsibility for my own health. Without either reproaching myself or feeling guilty, I began to see how to avoid creating thought patterns of disease in the future.”
One of Louise Hay’s favorite strategies for releasing negative thought patterns that were a contributing factor to dis-ease was practicing forgiveness and gratitude. Louise passed away peacefully in her sleep this past August at the age of 90. I will always be grateful for her pioneering work in helping us understand the importance of loving ourselves unconditionally and that minding our mind by controlling negative thought patterns and replacing them with positive, loving thoughts is a great path to improving our health and happiness!

So while checking our Vitamin D levels, monitoring our blood pressure, eating organic food or drinking green juice are all important to our health, we now know they are incomplete strategies if we don’t also include the happiness factor: practicing positive thinking, and having an attitude of gratitude!

A favorite spiritual teacher of mine sums it up here: “If you could make a decision to not allow negative emotion to linger within you – and at the same time acknowledge that it is your work alone to refocus your attention in order to feel better, rather than asking someone else to do something different or for some circumstance to change to make you feel better – you will not only be a very healthy person, but you will be a joyful person. Joy, appreciation, love, and health are all synonymous.”

Whether you’re a research buff studying Harvard’s latest data, or more drawn to spiritual teachings – the message is basically the same: Life is short, lighten up, laugh more, appreciate more and include the happiness factor in your overall plan to live a long, healthy and joy filled life!

Maureen McDonnell has been a holistic, nutritionally-oriented RN for 40 years. She is the health editor of WNC Woman Magazine, the former national coordinator of the Defeat Autism Now! Conferences and the co-founder of Saving Our Kids, Healing Our Planet ( Maureen lectures widely on the role the environment, nutrition and happiness play in our health. She owns a specialized vitamin company –, is a consultant with Arbonne International, lives in Weaverville (an unofficial Blue Zone) with her singer songwriter/CPA husband and is awaiting the birth of her 11th grandchild. Maureen is available for group presentations and private health consultations. Call 609-240-1315.

Happiness Factor Resources:
Resilience and Positive Emotions: F Phillipe et al. Pub 10 Dec 2008

Maureen McDonnell, RN
Written by Maureen McDonnell, RN