Friday, March 4, 2011

Don’t worry, be happy!

There was a guy who used to exercise for years at Gold’s gym that I called “Mr. Sunshine.” I never, however, used this moniker to his face, since the guy was so upbeat and optimistic that he left no room for sarcasm. He seemed to see the bright side of everything in life. If a machine broke down in the gym, his response was something like,”Now they will get an even better machine!” Mr. Sunshine seemed to be incapable of being blue or moody in any way. I have to admit that he would sometimes grate on me with his unyielding optimism. Now it turns out that Mr. Sunshine may have been on to something.

A recent analysis of 30 previous studies related to health and happiness was recently published in the–and I’m not making this up–Journal of Happiness Studies, finding that while being happy doesn’t help you heal, it may ward off illness and even help maximize lifespan. The magnitude of the happiness effect on longevity was about the same as not smoking. For years, high strung, angry people, sometimes called “Type-A” individuals, have been known to be more prone to various stress-related illnesses, including heart disease and cancer. The mechanism is the release of higher level of various stress hormones, including cortisol. Cortisol depresses immune response, which explains the cancer connection, since some immune cells, such as killer T-cells, are known to destroy incipient tumors in the body before they can take hold. This is one reason why cancer is more prevalent in older people–the immune response is blunted with age. From a cardiovascular point of view, stress kills because some stress hormones place inordinate stress on the heart, such as through promoting higher blood pressure at rest.

The study found that being happy doesn’t help those who are already ill, but may offer protection to those who are still healthy. Then again, it’s hard to be happy when you are seriously ill. Those who are happy also veer toward adapting healthier lifestyles, such as following a good diet and exercising regularly. They also tend to avoid negative health behavior, such as smoking and excessive alcohol intake. Some studies suggest that having a pet can induce happiness, and I can attest to that. When life gets me down, all it takes is a walk with my best buddies, Bruno and Lily, to provide an immediate mood-boosting effect.

Attempting to cultivate the happiness habit isn’t as easy as it sounds in an era where gas costs over $4 a gallon and food prices are also rising exponentially, not to mention the cost of real estate and everything else. Then again, you could handle such realities by assuming a “Mr. Sunshine” attitude. He would respond by noting that gas costs $12 a gallon in Norway. Millions of people in the world don’t know where their next meal is coming from. And, heck, just not being homeless means that you’re doing better than a lot of other unfortunate people.

As for Mr. Sunshine himself, he died recently, and I bet he died with a huge smile on his face.
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