Does Happiness Improve Health?

new research on old wisdom

Does Happiness Improve Health?

“Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence” –Aristotle

How many of you would say you’re happy? And how many of you think you could be a wee bit happier?

The study of happiness is fascinating for many of us—it certainly is for me. There's an amazing amount of research on the subject. One of the most intriguing lines of study is the interconnection between happiness and health. And I've got great news: there's a growing body of evidence to show that happy people are actually healthier. And they live longer.

One of the landmark studies connecting happiness and longevity was a study of catholic nuns. Now, studying nuns is a pretty clever idea, because nuns live much the same lifestyle, so it works well to compare them to one another.

Researchers pored over a collection of autobiographical essays written decades ago by young, novice nuns as they entered the convent. The essays included the nuns’ descriptions about themselves, and their hopes for the future. The researchers scored each nun’s happiness level using clues like the number of positive words she used.

And then they correlated that with how long each nun lived. Here’s what they found: nuns who exhibited more positive characteristics, early in life, tended to live longer. In fact, 90% of the happiest quarter of nuns were alive at the age of 85. In contrast, only 34% of the least happy quarter lived to 85.

Truth be told, there are more than 160 studies on the connection between happiness and health.

Research shows that:

  • happy people have lower rates of heart disease
  • when they do get heart disease, they have better survival rates.
  • they recover more quickly from coronary bypass surgery.
  • they have better survival rates from lung cancer, and breast cancer.
  • they have fewer health symptoms and fewer chronic conditions.
  • their wounds heal better.
  • they have improved pain tolerance—and this is acute pain and chronic pain.

So why might all this be? What’s the connection?

Well, research is beginning to look into this too. There are, of course, behavioural factors at play. Meaning, happy people tend to engage in protective behaviours, such as regular exercise, not smoking, healthier diet, wearing sunblock, less drug use.

But researchers are also starting to narrow in on some interesting bona-fide physiologic effects of happiness. Happy people have:

  • lower blood pressure.
  • slower heart rates.
  • less physiologic inflammation (which is at the root of many chronic & serious illnesses).
  • lower levels of cortisol (a key stress hormone).
  • better functioning immune systems and more robust responses to vaccines.

The answer may also lie in telomeres, which is a fascinating new field of research. Telomeres are the caps on the ends of our chromosomes—they protect our chromosomes from degradation. Over time, the caps get shorter. When they get too short, it’s time for that cell to die. So, the length of your telomeres influence a lot of aging and disease process in diverse body systems. We know that unhappy, stressed people have shorter telomeres. And this accelerates aging and increases susceptibility to many illnesses.

So...just how much of a benefit, in terms of life expectancy, does happiness confer?

In 2011, researchers analyzed all 160 studies. And they were able to put a number to it: they estimated that happiness has the potential to extend your life by 4-10 years.

That’s a lot of years! And, let’s bear in mind, these are happy years.

Current health recommendations for a healthy lifestyle are well known: maintain a healthy weight, eat right, don’t smoke, and exercise. Maybe we need to add another: “be happy.” It’s certainly a prescription I’d like to write.

Now all this is great if you happen to consider yourself a happy person. But...what if, like most of us, you've got a little work to do in this department? I've got good news: there's a lot you can do to become happier.

Next step is how, exactly, to improve your own personal level of happiness. In coming weeks, I’m going to be writing more about happiness (to be honest, it's become a bit of an obsession of mine, ever since my own personal health crisis), so watch this the meantime, here are some places to start.


Why The Spa Is Good For You

Indulge your body and soul

Why The Spa Is Good For You

I love going to the spa. It’s relaxing and rejuvenating...and I get to indulge my inner princess. Are you with me on this? For most of us, the spa is a little slice of heaven. And a major guilty pleasure.

So, what if I told you that you don’t need to qualify the “pleasure” part of that phrase with the “guilt” part? What if I told you going to the spa was more than just an indulgence? That it’s actually good for you?

I know—pinch me, right? But it’s true: researchers are starting to discover that spa treatments have bona fide health benefits.

Massage therapy has the most research behind it; multiple studies are uncovering a slew of benefits. Research has shown massage therapy to:

  • improve sleep
  • help you recover from a hard workout
  • improve stress & anxiety
  • reduce depression
  • improve cognitive function
  • boost immunity
  • ease headaches
  • reduce blood pressure

Sounds good, right? Now...what of other spa treatments? A recent analysis of the therapeutic use of mineral baths has shown benefit for: chronic low back pain, rheumatoid arthritis, ankylosing spondylitis, fibromyalgia, and osteoarthritis.

More? Reflexology has been shown to decrease PMS symptoms.

Even more? Aromatherapy was shown to improve insomnia and depression among female college students.

But are we surprised at all this? I, for one, am not. That’s because this is not new for humanity: the earliest civilizations recognized the health boon of spas. Ancient Egyptian, Greek, and Roman cultures regularly engaged in ritual purification and bathing in hot or cold springs.  Health spas and resorts became a fashionable trend in the 17th and 18th centuries (think Bath, England, as an example). At various points in history, physicians have routinely prescribed spa attendance and mineral bathing practices. 

But somewhere along the way we lost that health connection. North American spas today seem to focus primarily on aesthetics & pampering. But not exactly on preventive health or medical treatment, per se. In contrast, European spas have retained the health aspect. In fact, spa treatments are often covered by the national health insurance plan in France. (Sigh. Yet another reason to come back to this life re-born as a French woman, no?)

But you don’t need to hop a plane to Europe to enjoy the benefits. My prescription: book that spa visit, for your own good health. (And leave the guilt at home.)



Is Vitamin D Important?

Hype or good sense?

Is Vitamin D Important?

Are you getting enough vitamin D? Probably not.

Would you feel any symptoms if you had low levels? Nope.

Does it matter? Big. Fat. Yes.

Why is vitamin D important?

We used to think vitamin D was only crucial for healthy bones. But there’s a growing body of research suggesting vitamin D plays a significant role in many diverse disease processes. Seems this is one little vitamin with big dreams. And it’s turning up in all sorts of unexpected places, making itself useful at the party (mingling, mixing martinis for people, doing the dishes after the guests leave…)

Studies have shown that people with Vitamin D deficiency have a higher risk of cancer—particularly colon cancer, but there’s growing evidence for breast cancer risk and others.

Also, it seems adults with low levels of vitamin D have increased risks of heart disease—specifically heart attacks and hypertension.

But wait, there’s more. Vitamin D also appears to play a role in preventing depression. Early research has also linked vitamin D with reduced risk of autoimmune disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and multiple sclerosis. And, wait for it...obesity.

How do you know if you’re getting enough vitamin D?

Truth is, most of us don’t get enough vitamin D. Vitamin D is called the “sunshine vitamin” because it’s manufactured in our skin with sunlight exposure. And here in Canada, sunlight is not something we receive in excess. Especially in winter months. Or in summer months, to be honest, particularly if you’re like me, slathering on sunblock like it's my job.

The good news is that a simple blood test can check your level of vitamin D. I’ve been doing this a lot for patients lately and am stunned at how many people—ahem, me included!—are walking around deficient without realizing it.

So...what can you do to increase your vitamin D?

You could increase your sunlight exposure cancer, anyone? Wrinkles? No thank you. A better approach: oral vitamin D, through diet or supplements.

Food sources of vitamin D include fortified dairy and breakfast cereals, eggs (specifically, the yolk) and fatty fish like salmon, herring and sardines.

However, it’s rather challenging to get sufficient amounts in food. Particularly if you’re deficient, you’re probably not going to meet your needs through food alone. This is where supplementation comes in.

You may remember the public health nurse advising vitamin D drops for your newborn babe. 400 IU is the recommended daily amount for infants and kids.

But for adults? Well, this is where things get a little trickier, as recommendations keep changing as we do more research. Official recommendations from the Institute of Medicine look a little like this: 600 IU for people up to age 70, 800 IU for people over 70. But many health care providers (me included) advise more than that, at least 1000 IU daily.

Like this easy way to take your health up a notch? Read this next. And then this.