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50 Years of Research Reveals How You Can Live Longer and Be Happier

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April 7, 2021
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Be happier and live longer by taking these three steps.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Happiness Is on Holiday

Just glimpsing the major headlines on a given day is enough to tell us that peace and happiness are becoming alien concepts in our world. The news is forever saturated with unrest, uncertainty, and violence. Increased incidence of depression and suicide indicate that people are hiding their pain behind cheerful emojis and carefully crafted social media posts.

Many are fighting natural disasters and/or battling chronic diseases. In fact, over 95% of the world’s population has health problems, and over a third of those have more than five ailments.

It is normal for happiness to elude a world where non-communicable chronic diseases and their associated financial burdens are rising. Although we now live in a technologically advanced society with access to a wide range of treatment methods, cost continues to rise at an alarming rate. For instance, cancer is the second most expensive disease in the US (after cardiovascular disease), with an estimated healthcare cost of $183 billion in 2015, which is projected to grow to $246 billion by 2030, an increase of 34%.

The rates of obesity have doubled since 1980, with youth obesity tripling in the last 30 years. Obesity in children and adolescents has risen dramatically from just 4% in 1975 to over 18% in 2016, thanks largely to the increased adoption of assistive technologies that promote a sedentary lifestyle.

Information from the CDC shows that more than 868,000 Americans die of heart disease or stroke every year. That is one third of all deaths in the US. Another report states that over 1.7 million Americans are diagnosed with cancer, which is responsible for over 600,000 deaths.  

Unfortunately, health and happiness are linked. Information from the 2020 World Happiness Report reveals that negative feelings are rising worldwide. Happiness has been steadily decreasing since 2011, and the percentage of people who claim they are happy has dropped 14 points.

A 2019 survey determined that “happy” people have higher trust in others and institutions, are more engaged in leisure activities and community life. They are also healthier overall.

A study published in 2011 reported that, even more than income level, frequent anxiety and depression attacks significantly impact happiness.

The Research That Shows Us How to Be Happier

Researchers in 2017 compiled 50 years of research as they looked for ways to encourage subjects to lead to healthier and longer lives. Focused on improving physical health, mental wellbeing, and coping abilities, they embraced a biopsychosocial model and examined ideas ranging from interventions to lower stress environments.

Here’s what they found:

  1. Happiness is a biopsychosocial phenomenon:

Health psychology has always embraced a biopsychosocial model to understand the relationship between biological factors and psychological and social elements. This means that happiness and healthy living are affected by psychological, biological, social factors that may include thought patterns, lifestyle, exposure to germs and diseases, environments, cultural influences, and family relationships.

2. Stress is a killer:

Stress has a strong connection with health and happiness. It can interact with and exacerbate disease and is connected with nearly all of our body parts. Stress can affect the normal physiology of our bodies by leaving a biological mark “under our skin” through its various pathways that contribute to long-term health. Researchers like Schwartz et al. (2017) confirm this. See the image below.

Researchers also reported that stress exhibits a complex relationship with chronic diseases. It has a significant effect on the immune system that ultimately manifests an illness. For instance, chronic stress can lead to the release of histamines that triggers severe broncho-constriction in asthmatics. It also can alter insulin needs and thus increase the risk of diabetes mellitus, adjust the acid concentration in the stomach to promote peptic ulcer or ulcerative colitis, and may lead to plaque buildup in the arteries, especially when combined with a sedentary lifestyle.

3. Maintaining a positive social network:

Stressors can range from relationships, family obligations, environmental challenges, and more. Your social environment plays a key role in your development and the perception of happiness. Research has shown that people from a family environment marked by socioeconomic disadvantages, lack of support, hostility, and conflict are more likely to be at a higher risk of developing obesity, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, substance abuse, and depression.

Thus, maintaining the right social networks creates a sense of purpose, which is a major determinant of happiness, longevity, and success.

The Study’s Recommendations

Adopt and maintain healthy behaviors.

It’s obvious and already stated above: health plays a critical role in your happiness. Eat a healthy diet, get proper exercise, taking your medication as prescribed, and practice good sleeping hygiene and mindfulness. Those habits remain the gold standard for maintaining happiness.

Sonja Lyubomirsky takes this even further in her book “The How of Happiness.” She offers that expressing gratitude, cultivating optimism, performing acts of kindness, nurturing social relationships, learning to forgive, savoring life’s joys, committing to goals, practicing religion or spirituality, and taking care of your body are the most effective strategies for increasing happiness. Each one of those are healthy acts.

Hang out with positive people.

We are products of who we associate with. Do you have a friend who you love dearly but avoid as much as you can? Their negativity brings you down, so you ignore their calls and put off talking to them for as long as possible.

Negative people rub off on us.

So, surround yourself with positive friends and family – you’ll feel better and be happier.

Give yourself a purpose.

Those with a sense of purpose tend to be happier, healthier, and wealthier. Our purpose keeps us engaged, reminds us that what we’re doing matters, and encourages us to set and achieve goals.

A Side Note About Happiness on a Global Scale

Income inequality plays an enormous role in happiness. Sure, money can’t buy everything, but access to proper education and certain resources makes life a heck of a lot easier and more fulfilling. Thus, developing countries tend to have more widespread dissatisfaction when compared to their developed counterparts.

Addressing income inequality would alleviate health disparities and make the world a happier place.

2 Takeaways

  1. The 2020 World Happiness Report shows that happiness is declining.

2. If you want to become happier yourself, get healthy, surround yourself with positive people, and find purpose.

Want to read more about happiness? One old as f*ck (her words) patient taught me some unforgettable lessons about the meaning of life. Also, don’t forget to subscribe to our newsletter!!

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SOHAIL MERCHANT
Youngstown, Ohio

Medical Doctor (M.D.); Research Fellow at Lumen Foundation Artificial Intelligence Division

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