As it Turns Out, Happiness Can Buy Health and Longevity
Social scientists are finding new ways to measure our inner life and show its long-term effect on health.
Published on LatinoLA: December 13, 2012
A FEW YEARS AGO I was sitting in a quiet square in the Barcelona district of Gracia. It was an autumn afternoon and I was trying to make sense of the not too recent changes that had occurred in my professional life. I was weighing the pros and cons of the decision I had made to return to Spain, leaving behind a career that I loved in digital journalism.
Suddenly, a woman with bright brown eyes and short gray hair who was about 80 years old sat down beside me. "Come on! There are plenty of empty benches," I thought, a little bothered. I had nothing against this lady, who was wearing such lovely perfume. I just wanted to be alone for a while, to think about the challenges I was facing.
I'm pretty sure she told me her name was Emma, before asking me for my name with a big smile. Without my having to ask, I also found out that she had lived in the area "a lifetime" and that we were sitting in the only place she could come to alone and chat with other people. "That is the condition that my son has managed to negotiate with me, for safety reasons," she said in amusement.
Aside from her daily walk to the Plaça de la Revolució, Emma assured me she had another reason to be happy every day. "Ricard comes to see me at night, on his way home, where my little grandchildren and my daughter-in-law wait for him," she told me. "His first question is always, 'How have you been today, Mom?' I usually answer: 'I've been fine, dear. But with you here, I'm even better!"
"I married a Catalan 65 years ago and made this neighborhood my home," she said. "I was very young when my husband and I met at a festival in my town, and coming here with him was a big change, although I adapted beautifully right from the start. I learned the language in spite of the terrible repression we suffered during Franco's dictatorship. And although we did not write it, Catalan was spoken in my home from 1939 until long after my husband died in the '90s."
But those eyes that mournfully gazed at her classic ebony cane at the thought of her husband's absence soon found another reason to be joyful.
"Why are you smiling?" I asked. "Well, I usually don't think much about it, but next month I'll be 91 years old," she told me.
I paused to consider how Emma had belonged to the select group of people who had been able to survive physical and psychological threats that had affected other people who were no longer with us. This ordinary woman not only carried on her shoulders the weight of countless obstacles overcome, but she was also able to maintain her enthusiasm, look after herself, and deal with family and strangers, all this at a very advanced age. Finally, I asked the eternal question.
"Emma, what is the secret of your happiness?"
"You see, dear, what's worked for me, first and foremost, is expressing gratitude, in my case to God, for those around me, and making sure that they are aware of this," she replied. "Second, being satisfied with what I have, and taking full advantage of it!"
I'm no expert but the question that came to me from my only encounter with Emma was, Can a daily dose of gratitude protect our physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing?
By its very nature, satisfaction is deeply personal and subjective. For this reason the scientific community ignored the issue for decades. But social scientists are catching up and, at a prodigious pace, are finding new ways to measure our inner life and show its long-term effect on health.
The results of over 30 studies relating to happiness and longevity published in the Journal of Happiness Studies, a scientific publication founded in 2000, indicate that happiness protects our health against disease and extends life.
Also, a significant amount of research supports a positive relationship between cardiovascular health and spirituality.
Spirituality--defined in one study as "the sense of the sacred; the relationship with God, a higher being or power; the relationship with oneself and the relationship with other people and the environment"--has been recognized as an integral part of health, wellbeing, and quality of life.
In the words of John Cacioppo, Director of the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago:
" Religious principles rest on faith--belief even in the absence of evidence, whereas scientific principles rest on skepticism--disbelief even in the presence of evidence. Beliefs can have significant effects on health whether or not the beliefs are true (e.g., placebo effects). Science, therefore, is especially well-suited for testing the effects of people holding religious beliefs or engaging in religious behaviors on health outcomes."
If, as research implies, people with a sense of spirituality, which may or may not be religious, are likely to experience greater happiness and wellbeing, and this in turn is a viable means to promote health, how can we cultivate spirituality in our daily life?
The American author and Christian reformer Mary Baker Eddy had something to say on the subject. Eddy suggested that one way in which we can all start is with active reflection--as a means to enrich our inner lives and reach a peaceful state of mind and a peaceful heart.
Having a life rich in gratitude, generosity, and many other mental and spiritual qualities brings us closer to others and helps us in our efforts to truly understand them, bringing to everyday life something that will last and have a lasting impact on people's lives.
It may take time for us to understand mankind's full potential for happiness. We can, however, this very day, continue to seek new ways of enjoying our daily activities a little more. Sometimes, just by allowing ourselves to be interrupted for a few minutes so we can connect with the person sitting right beside us, we can unexpectedly increase our sense of wonder and discover a new meaning to life.
Grace Fuller is a practitioner of Christian Science and writes regularly on health and spirituality for The Huffington Post Latino Voices. She currently manages Spanish & Portuguese language media for the Christian Science Church.
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