There’s a reason Pharrell’s hit song Happy is the first ever to top six different Billboard charts, with 4.5 million downloads. Happiness is contagiously healthy and research is now confirming and explaining why that’s true.
A recent CNN story, “Why happiness is healthy,” mentions a 2012 review of more than 200 studies that found a connection between positive attributes (happiness, optimism, life satisfaction) and healthy outcomes (lowered risk of cardiovascular problems, lower blood pressure, normal body weight, lower levels of inflammation, a better sense of well-being). Laura Kubzansky of the Harvard School of Public Health found that optimism halves the risk of coronary heart disease.
Wisdom and common sense have always told us that happiness isn’t just a function of genetics or environment. Money can’t buy you happiness, and difficult circumstances can’t keep you from it. Studies proving the correlation between happiness and good health go way beyond a “Don’t worry; be happy” approach.
Here are five strategies, which are supported by current research, for finding happiness where you are:
Place spiritual happiness above material happiness: Because happiness has a spiritual rather than material source, it’s much easier to find in qualities and ideas than in places and things. Looking for and finding the good in ourselves and others is truly satisfying — and healthy. It’s hard sometimes, but absolutely worth the effort, always. Truly happy people are almost always finding the good in others and are found in both the wealthiest and the most humble circumstances. Challenge yourself to find some good in everybody, every day.
Focus on the positive: Optimism is a choice, and you can make it moment by moment. Looking for and finding good can create happiness where it may seem scarce. Almost 2,000 years ago, Paul had this advice for the fledgling Christian church at Philippi:
“Summing it all up friends, I’d say you’ll do best by filling your minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious — the best not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse.” (Philippians 4:8)
Live in the moment: Find an activity that restores your soul and allows you to put down your burdens. For many of us that might be interacting with our pets. For others it’s a sport that refocuses thought from larger worries to the immediate physical challenge. For others it might be art and the joy of creativity. Then there’s the restorative power of natural beauty. Go watch a sunset, and stay until the show’s over.
Embrace friends and family: Longevity research shows that people who purposefully develop and maintain positive relationships with friends and family lower their risk of cognitive decline and live longer. Health magazine says, “One of the best-kept secrets to good health and a long life is having a robust social network that includes relatives, friends and other relationships.” Sometimes this means forgiving friends or family who have hurt you. The daily interplay of unconditional love between friends and family restores soul and body.
Develop self-knowledge: From the temple of Apollo at Delphi to Plato, Socrates and Shakespeare, the precious ability to “know thyself” has been recognized as key to happiness and health. It’s a critical competency that underlies mindful, intentional and thoughtful behavior, which in turn promotes health. But how does it work?
If knowing yourself simply meant looking in the mirror and observing a physical entity, it would have little relevance to real and lasting health. But what if to “know thyself” is more about finding spiritual selfhood, the good qualities and ideas we all possess and can express without limit? Doing whatever it takes to recognize and promote these and abandon their opposite takes humility, persistence and often help from loved ones. But doing so has always been fundamental to understanding the origin of genuine happiness and health.
People who study happiness and health are sometimes asked, “Are we happy because we’re healthy or healthy because we’re happy?” Research continues to prove that happiness and health go hand in hand. The intentional and thoughtful pursuit of happiness, separate from material circumstances, and focused on finding and glorifying good in ourselves and others, has always been a healthy strategy.
This article originally appeared in The Tampa Bay Times.