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Studies Reveal Link Between Happiness & Good Health



By Blair Lewis, PA

Happiness is our only pursuit, and every human being is perfectly equipped to start and complete this journey.  All logic and reason tells us that happiness is within our reach, that we will not be satisfied unless we attain the state of everlasting happiness.  Our intuition tells us this.  Our instinct tells us this.  It is a happiness that is self-evident and needs no outside confirmation.  We see it in our young children, and we experience it in momentary glimpses.  This precious commodity brings us comfort and joy, warmth and security.  It is this search for happiness that takes a person to a church or a mosque, a priest or a guru, to the stock market, the casino, the battlefield, or a lonely place on a mountaintop.  For all of us, nothing is more precious than happiness. 

A burning desire to be happy means blooming right where you are planted.  Relinquishing all requirements for the world around you to change, your efforts of self-transformation allow you to blossom immediately.  You will be freed from all the subtle influences of the past and from all of the anxieties of the future.  Living in the here and now is the permanent address of happiness.  It takes time to gather enough experience to realize the importance of letting go of yesterday in order to find happiness today.

When antibiotics started failing a few years back, every medical researcher sought a new way to boost the immune system.  They looked under microscopes, they went to the rainforest, they conducted experiments, and scoured planet Earth, but what they discovered led to a profound shift in medical thinking.  Never did they imagine that the answer was the heart itself.

For years researchers scoured their options looking at DNA, biochemistry, and pharmacology for new ways to combat disease.  It is only in recent years that science has discovered that the mind and emotions play a critical component in the fight against disease.  Previously, they thought that the mind and the body were separate; they thought that there were diseases of the mind and diseases of the body, and that they were completely separate phenomena.  Today researchers are learning not only that our mental states play an important role in disease, but also that our mental states play an important role in health and healing.  They are finally proving the words that Ayurveda, the science of longevity, proclaimed thousands of years ago: that disease literally means a lack of ease, and that this inner unrest is the true source of illness.

Today, there are countless other studies that demonstrate how our feelings and emotions have a profound impact on our health.  Over and over again, studies show that those who deal with stress more effectively are healthier.  In recent years the Institute of HeartMath (IHM) and other organizations have begun to look at how positive emotions of love, appreciation, and happiness can actually bring about positive changes in physiology. 

In a study performed at the Institute of HeartMath ( ), researchers discovered that positive feelings and emotions can have a profound impact on physiology.  The IHM study found that feelings of love and appreciation had a measurable and significant impact on the beating patterns of the heart, making the heartbeats more coherent and less erratic.  Heartbeat patterns are normally irregular.  But this study found that feelings of love and appreciation actually had a balancing effect on the heartbeat, making it more coherent and regular.  Furthermore, the study found that these positive feelings brought balance and harmony to the nervous system and even had a calming effect on brain waves.

Now, let’s look at a study that illustrates what happens when happiness is lacking to see the effect on physiology.  A long-term Johns Hopkins School of Medicine study of 1,200 males found that those who experienced depression were twice as likely to develop coronary heart disease or have a heart attack 15 years later.  

The consistent theme of modern research is that happiness, contentment, joy, love, appreciation, and positive moods have a positive effect on our mental and physical health.  Conversely, negative moods, depression, anxiety, and stress consistently have a detrimental effect on our health.  Finally the link between happiness and health has been signed, sealed, and delivered.

New research today seeks to broaden our understanding of this link between unhappiness and disease.  While this type of research is just in its infancy, there have been some interesting findings already.  One such study looked at the link between charitable acts and death rates.
A ten-year study of the physical, health, and social activities of 2,700 men in Tecumseh, Michigan, found that those who did regular volunteer work had death rates two and one-half times lower than those who didn't. 

While this study alone does not begin to explain how this charity-health link works, it is worth noting.  Imagine a course of therapy that included a prescription for work at community service organizations such as The Salvation Army, Meals on Wheels, or Habitat for Humanity.

It is important to understand how modern research is broadening its horizons in terms of holistic medicine and the expansion of our treatment options.  Thirty years ago antibiotics and vaccines composed the breadth of our medical understanding.  Today our medical therapies and research topics have expanded to include herbs, yoga, meditation, diet, exercise, vitamins, and massage. 

Exercise is one area where endless research has been conducted in recent years.  The lack of exercise in our sedentary culture has led to many problems in both the mind and the body.  Modern research has clearly established the link between exercise and a healthy body and mind.

A Harvard School of Public Health study of more than 70,000 women found that exercise—even brisk walking—can reduce the risk of developing adult-onset diabetes. The study of women participating in the Nurses Health Study found that moderate to vigorous exercise was associated with a 46% lower risk of heart attack.

A study in the July 2004 issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that even occasional physical activity can increase the life expectancy of people aged 65 and over.  It tracked over 3,000 people, aged 65 and over, for 12 years and found that those who exercised just once a week reduced their risk of early mortality by up to 40 percent.  Physical activity reduced the likelihood of death by lowering the risk of heart disease and other ailments.  The researchers note that efforts to provide older people with more opportunities for physical activity are important in enhancing their health and well-being.  This study was performed by Kristina Sundquist, MD, PhD, and colleagues at Karolinska Institute, Stockholm, Sweden.
A 2000 Duke University study on depression and exercise found that exercise was more effective in treating depression than sertraline (Zoloft).  Further, the study found that exercise alone was more effective than a combination of exercise and sertraline.  Subjects in the exercise group had significantly lower relapse rates (p = .01) than subjects in the medication group.  Exercising on one’s own during the follow-up period was associated with a reduced probability of depression diagnosis at the end of that period.

This last study showed that for some cases, exercise can be even more effective than pharmaceutical drugs for the treatments of depression.  This clearly indicates a fundamental shift in medicine towards a comprehensive understanding of disease.  Exercise is an important factor in maintaining good health in both mind and body, but this new research is showing that exercise can actually be a therapy for cures.

Diet and nutrition have also become very popular fields for study.  Eating gets more attention than almost any other habit.  Most people eat three times a day and snack a little, too.  Most of us spend four hours a day or more cooking, eating, and cleaning up the kitchen.  The food we prepare and consume can drastically alter our personality and mood.  Food can have a dramatic impact on our mental-emotional state and on our physical health.

In a study of hundreds of children, Harvard University researcher J. Michael Murphy documented that children who ate breakfast had 40% higher math grades and better school attendance.  Further, kids who skipped breakfast were twice as likely to be depressed, four times more prone to anxiety, and 30% more likely to be hyperactive. When such youngsters who "rarely" ate breakfast switched to "often" eating breakfast, their math grades soared—up on average from a C to a B—and they became less hyperactive, depressed, and anxious.

A project was undertaken in 1997 by Natural Ovens in Manitowoc, Wisconsin to change the nutrition in our schools.  Natural Ovens offered a complete overhaul of the nutrition and food service program at Appleton Central Alternative High School, a school that opened in 1996 designed to help disruptive, truant, and other at-risk students.  The program was to last five years and would include implementation of fresh juices, flax-based energy drinks, whole grain breads, bagels and muffins, fresh fruit and peanut butter, a daily salad bar, and fresh cooked preservative-free hot dishes.  Beef, preservatives, soda-pop, candy, and other junk foods were completely eliminated from school grounds.  The transformation was dramatic.  The students who were described in the year prior to the overhaul as “rude, obnoxious, and ill-mannered," by Greg Bretthauer, the present dean of students, had no dropouts, no expulsions, no drug or weapons incidence, and no suicides in the three years after the program started.  The program was so successful that the partnership between Appleton Central Alternative School and Natural Ovens has been maintained even after the 5-year commitment.  A DVD of this study is available from Natural Ovens at their web-site (

This fascinating example of how good nutrition and healthy foods can have a profound impact on behavior and learning is bringing about a shift in understanding the role of foods in mental-emotional function.   Specific research is beginning to validate what we knew all along—that the foods we eat have a great impact on our moods, emotions, and physical energy.

Research at MIT by Dr. Richard Wurtman on the nutrition of the brain is discovering that the nutrients in foods are precursors to the neurotransmitters of the brain.  These precursors result in a certain amount of a neurotransmitter being released based upon the foods you eat.  However, this process is extraordinarily complex when you take into account the vast number of nutrients present in any one food.  Then when you mix foods together, the equation becomes exponentially more complex.

Preliminary research has indicated some basic relationships that will spawn more future research.  For instance, specific proteins have been linked to increased alertness, carbohydrates to relaxation and anti-stress, and selenium to bad moods.  

While this research is in its infancy, the vegetarian diet has grown in popularity worldwide.  Even the fast-food giants are beginning to see a market in vegetarian options like the veggie-burger.  Thirty years ago the vegetarian diet was considered unhealthy, dangerous, and not tasty.  Today, due significantly to modern research and science, the vegetarian diet is taking hold in America. 

A 2000 study published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition of 90 vegetarian women and 90 non-vegetarian women in Hong Kong found that percentages of subjects with ischemic heart disease defined by symptoms and ECG or by ECG alone were significantly lower in vegetarian women.  The vegetarian women also had lower serum cholesterol levels.  

A 1990 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that women who ate meat more than once a month were almost two times more likely to get colon cancer.  And women who specifically ate beef, pork, or lamb were at a risk 2.5 times more likely to get colon cancer than women who ate meat less than once a month.   

The past two decades have heralded countless studies on vegetarianism.  Virtually all of them agree that a vegetarian diet can both be healthy and also lead to significant health benefits ranging from all forms of cancer, obesity, depression, anxiety, anger, diabetes, arthritis, stress-management, and other chronic diseases.

The future of medicine and the future of research lies not so much in the realm of biochemistry and DND.  Instead it lies in understanding the relationship between the mind and the body.  Our medical professionals have becomes so specialized that there is a great need for holistic therapies and therapists that can see the broad picture, incorporate all valid forms of therapy (holistic and allopathic), and teach true preventive medicine. 

Preventive medicine today means getting your mammogram, your cholesterol test, or your biopsy.  However, this is not prevention, it is only early detection.  The doctor tells you, “No, you don’t have breast cancer now, come back next year, and we’ll check you again.”  The future of medicine is going to be different.  This new breed of therapists will still offer mammograms however their reply will be different—“No, you don’t have breast cancer, and here are some techniques you can use to make sure you never get it.”  Despite all that we know about a vegetarian diet, charity, exercise, stress management, yoga, herbs, and a host of other therapies, very few “medical professionals” offer such an array of options.  The future therapists need to have a grasp of a much broader range of therapies.  We still need our surgeons, pharmacists, OBGYN’s, but there is a small but growing number of therapists willing to accept and employ the entire knowledge of health and healing. 

Both herbalists and pharmacists alike fall prey to the old adage, “If the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.”  Therefore we have herbalists who refuse to instruct their patients to seek prescription therapies, and pharmacists who do not refer their patients for herbal care.  However, there are some conditions that a screwdriver treats much more elegantly and effectively than a hammer.  This is why it is important to always keep an open mind and understand the role of each methodology.  Until our therapists can become this all-encompassing, it is the role of the patient to incorporate the breadth of therapies needed for maintaining health and well being.


Excerpted from Happiness: The Real Medicine and How It Works by Blair Lewis, PA. Copyright © 2005 by Blair Lewis. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission of Blair Lewis. $14.95. Available in local bookstores or call 888-414-9500 or click here.

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