As I write this, I am in the Philippines, visiting old friends, teachers and healers. We are in the midst of a super typhoon named Usagi. The downpour is heavy, the roads are packed and parts of Manila are flooded. Even when the weather is clear, Manila is hot and humid, crowded and polluted, impoverished. There is great wealth here among the few in politics and show business. And there is extreme poverty, with children begging in the streets, many homeless and hungry. Yet smiles prevail. Happiness is all around. In spite of what we would call a poor standard of living, the people around me are polite and smiling, and they seem content. There is much camaraderie and family life.
Actually, I am shocked at the conditions in parts of the Philippines: the rats, the trash, the auto-exhaust fumes, the poor sanitary conditions, lack of refrigeration and clean water (in many areas). Yet people seem to me to be robust.
I wondered if happiness and healthiness were related. I found an article by Cole Petrochko on MedPage Today that summarizes the findings of a study reported in the online journal Circulation Cardiovascular Quality Outcomes. The research found that “high positive affect was associated with a significantly reduced risk of all-cause mortality and a significant change of exercising among 607 Danish ischemic heart disease patients.”
Basically, the study found that when a person is happy, he is more likely to exercise and less likely to die soon. In this research, men who were currently employed were among the happiest people. Those circumstances make it easier for people to be happy, I suppose, because they probably grasp their health condition (in this study, as a heart disease patients) more fully and may have an expanded worldview in which to position themselves and what they can do about their health. When people are happy, they are more likely to be motivated to exercise, eat right, follow healthcare programs and engage with others. All of these help maintain health and a positive attitude over time and, thus, a better quality of life.
The study also showed that “interventions aimed at increasing both positive affect and exercise may have better results with patients’ prognosis and psychological well-being.” I believe this to be the case, even without the study to confirm it. This is true for me and my own health struggles. And I see it among the Filipinos. One of my dear friends of 20 years has been struggling with kidney disease and is undergoing dialysis three times per week. This costs about $1,500 per month in a country where the average yearly salary is $250. He is struggling financially and physically. Yet while we have been visiting, he has been happier and his skin tone and tone of voice have improved dramatically. His outlook and disposition are much improved. On the first day of my visit, he could barely walk with a cane. Now, on day 11, he is walking in the mall unassisted. Why? It’s because of happy affect, a positive mental attitude, a better outlook and an improved feeling of well-being overall.
Happy And Healthy
So if happiness leads to healthiness, the question becomes: How do we get happy? When we are struggling to pay our medical bills and make our appointments while dealing with pain or illness each day, how can we make ourselves happy? The answer I have found is by thinking of the “why” of things instead of the “how.” In other words, it is easier to think of why you want to feel better and healthier than it is to struggle with how to make it happen.
You see, when you think of “how” to pay the insurance bills and how to overcome your illness or pain, then you see nothing but walls in front of you: doom and gloom and debt and suffering. These take their toll on your health in terms of stress, anxiety, lost sleep, lower quality of life and a discouraging focus on pain and illness. From that perspective, motivation vanishes; and it is difficult to get out of bed let alone exercise. Yet the study showed that those who are happy tend to exercise more and are, thus, healthier.
In contrast, you can improve your outlook when you think of “why” you need to be happy: So you can enjoy your day, play with your kids, work without pain, live longer and do things that have eluded you. Focusing on thoughts like these can make you feel better and happier about life even for a short while. And if, as the study indicates, a happy disposition correlates with lower mortality and increased wellness, then that is a good thing.
As I interact with these great Filipino people, this lesson about happiness and health has been confirmed. I asked several people how they can be so happy with so few comforts and so much hardship. They reply, “Because I enjoy my life and have my family and love my hobbies.”
Happiness begets more happiness and can even lead to a healthier life, despite the odds. When paired with exercise, a happy affect significantly reduces the risk of all-cause mortality. Don’t believe me? Well, a study proved it.