Well-Being: The Path to Happiness

Happier people are healthier people. Here's how to get there.

By Su Byron October 1, 2012

Happier people are healthier people. Here's how to get there.

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The pursuit of happiness is more than a philosophical quest—it's good medicine. Studies show that happy people are healthier people; having a positive attitude has positive results. Optimism, hopefulness, enthusiasm, engagement and other upbeat traits are associated with a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer and Alzheimer's disease. Happy people sleep better, produce fewer stress-related hormones and have stronger immune systems.

So why aren't we all jumping for joy?

It turns out, there's no such thing as a happy pill—or an easy-to-follow "Happiness for Dummies" instruction guide, either. There isn't even a simple definition. Most philosophers and therapists usually start with what happiness isn't.

According to Sarasota-based therapist Jeff Anglin, MSW, there's a world of difference between short bursts of pleasure and the deep contentment created by living a meaningful life. So how is that achieved?

"It comes from harnessing one's strengths to something greater," says Anglin. "That could be family or friendships, a cause or religion." In other words, instead of medicating your blues away with bling and momentary pleasures, Anglin recommends getting in touch with your values and living with purpose. We asked him for some happiness tips. He happily gave them—and they're not for dummies.

To put it bluntly, what's the secret of happiness?

The secret is honest self-awareness and self-appraisal—the act of looking within and seeing yourself for who you really are. Happiness consists of first knowing what your signature strengths are and then shaping your life to put those strengths to work in the service of your career, romance, friendships, leisure and parenting.

Is there a happiness gene?

I don't know if there's a specific happy gene, though I doubt it.

But we all know people who seem to be either intrinsically positive or negative.

That's not necessarily genetic. An attitude is a kind of mental habit. Over time, our brains become accustomed to certain emotional responses. Our attitudes create neural pathways in the brain, which become deeply engrained—like ruts in a dirt road.

So you get used to seeing the bright side of life—or the dark side. The attitude becomes automatic: your mental default state.

Yes, exactly. The good news is that, with practice, we can form new neural connections that are more attuned to positivity and happiness.

Is therapy a shortcut to happiness?

There are no shortcuts! Although people often seek counseling to be happier, I think we'd be better served by divorcing happiness from the medical model of mental health, which views unhappiness as a pathological state.

In other words, unhappiness isn't necessarily a sign of mental illness?

No it isn't. The lack of happiness is not always pathological. Clinical depression certainly is—but some forms of depression are a sign of life and health. You could call that spiritual depression.

How would you define that?

It's dissatisfaction with circumstances, or denying some part of the self. It's a deep, abiding sense that there must be something better; there must be more than this.

And that can be healthy.

Yes, it can. That inner discontent can be a potent tool for change. Medicating away that ennui is the worst thing in the world. My biggest fear is that some new version of the DSM-V [the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders] will create a new diagnosis of "Happiness Deficiency." Then we're all lost.

What can therapy do?

While living the meaningful life is the simplest, purest form of existence, sometimes it takes some help to get there. Almost all of us enter adulthood damaged in some way, and often we need a teacher, a healer, a cheerleader, a mentor or a combination of these to get past our woundedness and create meaning.

Final words?

Be in the moment. If you're unhappy, I guarantee you're locked in the past or the future. Come back to the present—but not in a self-involved way. Look outside yourself. Surround yourself with people you want to be like. Harness your strength and talents to expand the amount of goodness in the world. Make music that will melt the stars.


Secrets to Being Happy

Source: The World Book Of Happiness by Leo Bormans

> Accept what you have

> Enjoy what you do

> Don't dwell on the past

> Choose happiness

> Surround yourself with supportive people

> Stay busy

> Don't compare

> Be yourself

> Stop worrying

> Get organized

> Think positive


Seven Steps to Happiness and Good Health

By Mehmet C. Oz, M.D., and Michael F. Roizen, M.D.

Use positive self-talk. Trade self-put-downs (e.g., What an idiot I am!) for encouraging words (e.g., Nice going! I'll do better next time! I'm great at learning from my mistakes!).

Connect with friends. Really talk with people you care about. Get physical, too. Hugs stimulate oxytocin, the "cuddle hormone," spreading a feel-good boost among friends.

Keep a daily gratitude journal. Writing down what you're thankful for makes you healthier and more optimistic.

Exercise your way to a better mood. Being active at least 30 minutes a day increases happiness and makes your body's "real" age 2.8 years younger.

Meditate to stay happy. Meditation eases stress, strengthens immunity, and increases happiness—big time.

Understand unhappiness. When it happens (it will), learn from it. It's a chance for you to make positive changes.

Pay it forward. The real secret to being happy is to realize that true peace comes when you recognize the gifts you have—gifts you can pass along to others.

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