Question: Which comes first: the chicken or the egg?
Answer: If you choose your restaurant carefully, you can have both delivered at the same time.
This deep, thought-provoking question (along the lines of “did the first human being have a belly button?”) sets the stage for one of the fundamental concepts of research: causality. It’s the idea that one thing causes another, like warm weather increasing swimwear sales, or insanity being hereditary (you catch it from your kids), or the televised Olympics causing many more girls to sign up for gymnastics, or snow causing boys on sleds. Causality tells us that the weather causes the swimsuit sales (not the other way around), so no matter how many teeny bikinis you buy in January, the weather is still going to be sub-optimal, since the arrow only points one way (weather –> purchases). The only situation in which the arrow points both ways is yawning, since one person yawning causes others to do so, which causes the first person to yawn again, etc. You may be yawning right now just from thinking about it. Or from sheer boredom.
Now that we understand that, let’s make it weird by considering this: do you smile because you are happy, or are you happy because you smile? The first one seems obvious, and it is true that happiness leads to smiles for most people, except actress Kristen Stewart, who is so well known for not smiling that she has given interviews explaining that she actually smiles a lot (all while not smiling). But science is weird, and scientists (also weird) tell us that the second is true as well: the physical act of smiling can make you look and feel happier. When you see a friend smiling, you assume she must be happy. Scientists tell us we do the same thing for ourselves: if we feel ourselves smiling, we assume we must be happy…and then, to a slight degree, we are. While you can’t smile yourself out of major depression, you can bump your mood up a few notches by face-faking what you want to feel (it works for frowns too, so be careful). Data also shows that people who smile are perceived as smarter, so there’s that, plus smiling for no obvious reason makes people wonder what you are up to, making it a good way to mess with them. You may be smiling right now; stop messing with me.
So…health and happiness. While being sick can clearly make you unhappy, we now believe the arrow can point the other way as well: happiness can make you healthier, so if happiness itself isn’t a goal of yours, maybe you should pursue it as part of a journey to good health. Here are some of the healthy outcomes that science says go along with happiness, in no particular order:
- stronger antiviral and antibody responses
- reduced risk of cardiovascular disease
- lower heart rate and blood pressure
- lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol
- reduced chance of catching a cold (this alone makes it worth it!)
In one decade-long study, happier people were significantly less likely to develop coronary artery disease; for each one-point increase in positive emotions, their risk fell by 22 percent. In another study happier people’s health improved more over five weeks than their less happy peers, and in another, positive emotions appeared to reduce the severity of chronic pain (when we say we are ‘hurting’ emotionally, that term is also physically accurate).
The links shared by body, mind, heart, and soul are just becoming clear to science, though scholars and theologians have known about them for centuries, and the general theme seems to be that if one part of you is unwell, the results will likely spread to other parts. So as part of your plan to eat right and exercise more, try adding a little happiness to your life. You might live longer because of it, and you will definitely enjoy the journey more. NOTE: I don’t know if it will help ward off dementia, but it’s definitely worth a try.
You can read more about why happiness is healthy at these 6.2 million websites, though I suggest you stick with the top ten or twenty and lean toward the ones from sources like CNN and Harvard and major medical clinics, and away from ones like TheBestWeightLossSolution.com (I’m not making that up).
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