Happiness in the New Year: How Positivity Improves Your Health

Are you looking forward to a happy New Year? What do you think would make you happier? Take a moment to think about it – whether our dreams are about professional success, spiritual fulfillment, a sense of connection to others, having a greater purpose in life – we all want to be happy, even if we don’t openly admit it.

For decades, we’ve been saying to ourselves, our children and our friends that it’s important to maintain a positive outlook. Why? For many of us, it’s what we heard all through our lives. Those born in the post World War II era, collectively known as the Baby Boomers, inherited this positive association between happiness and quality of life. But until recently, there has been little empirical support for the ideas that positive emotions may provide not only an important psychological boost, but may also replenish vital resources that have been depleted by stress. In fact, strategies that enhance positive emotions, particularly among the most vulnerable (the elderly and ill), are likely to play an important role in preventing serious physical illness. And, interventions that bring happiness and positivity into play are also being proven to improve overall functioning in adults of all ages.

A recent article by Anthony D. Ong (from the Department of Human Development at Cornell University) outlined “four pathways by which positive emotion may influence adult mortality and morbidity: Health behaviors, psychological systems, stressor exposure, and stress undoing.” What does this really mean?  Positive emotions are also associated with greater, health-enhancing behaviors, like good/better diet and nutrition, improved sleep and regular exercise. And, even more good news: positive emotion can alter the severity and duration of stress responses that increase our susceptibility to disease. So, it appears that positive emotional responses increase your resistance to illness.

Stress can greatly affect our health. How does happiness and positivity play into our stress response? Consider this: when we are under stress, our heart rate goes up, as does our blood pressure. These are physiological responses, things that happen because that’s what our body is programmed to do. There’s now evidence that your body will return to more normal respiratory and blood pressure levels following a period of elevated positive emotion. Daily positive emotion was found to mitigate the effects of negative frailty. These findings have tremendous implications for future studies. “Targeted prevention and intervention strategies that enhance positive emotions are likely to play an important role in preventing serious physical illness, minimizing the burden of stress and improving overall functioning in older adults.“ (Ong, Anthony D. Pathways Linking Positive Emotion and Health in Later Life, Current Directions in Psychological Science 2010 19: 358.)

As a Professional Wellness Coach, it’s my practice to help clients uncover their own pathways to optimal health – as they define it. At the core of coaching is positive psychology, so the emphasis in my practice is on looking forward towards bettering, or continuing, what is already working.  With this in mind, I suggest we look at some ways to find sustainable happiness.

Quite recently, I had the privilege to speak to a relatively group of accomplished, white collar professionals. This well-educated group listened intently to my brief introduction, and they were politely attentive while I spoke for a few minutes about coaching. What was most interesting to me was that they didn’t begin to really engage in the conversation until I started talking about happiness and positivity, instead of merely about health. Yes, while it’s relatively easy to become happier for the short duration – say a day or two, the challenge clearly lies in maintaining or sustaining a new level of happiness. According to Sonja Lyubomirsky (The How of Happiness. 2007, Penguin Books), there are Five “Hows” behind sustainable happiness. These are grounded in scientific literature, and based on her premise that 40% of your happiness is within your power to change through how you act and how you think.

The first method is through Positive Emotion!  Ongoing, positive experiences that are deliberately pursued through choice of effort and expenditure of energy can help you remain particularly happy over a long period of time. As Benjamin Franklin says, “Happiness consists more in small conveniences or pleasure that occur every day, than in great pieces of good fortune that happen but seldom”. Therefore, no happiness-improving effort will successfully sustain your state of mind if it only makes you feel happy once and only briefly. Which of the happiness generating activities that you pursue have long-lasting benefits? Depression has been described as a syndrome distinguished by a deficit of positive emotions: a lack of joy, curiosity, contentment, enthusiasm, that is, an empty cup. One of the main problems, it has been discovered, is that depressed people tend to believe that good things will not happen. However, we have learned through research that positive feelings can also foil the effects of negative feelings. If you become the source of positive emotion yourself, it is evergreen, it is renewable and it can help you live longer.

Next, you need to optimize Timing and Variety. Through carefully adapting the activities that you do in order to be happy, you can sustain happiness in the long term. And those activities can be dynamic, that is, they don’t need or tend to stay the same. George Santayana once said, “To be interested in the changing of seasons is a happier state of mind than to be hopelessly in love with spring”. What I take from this is that each person can discover for himself or herself what the best rate and type of happiness-generating activity is. So, for everyone, it will be an individual and unique blend.

Don’t minimize the importance of Social Support. Many of us have already discovered that making positive behavior changes is easier when we have social support. And it’s not necessarily the need for a whole gang of people behind you – one true friend will do. There is an abundance of documentation to support this notion, not only for self-improvement activities, but also for happiness activities. Are you enthusiastic about your happiness activities? Your expressions of gratitude, your cultivation of optimism, your practice of performing random acts of kindness, the nurturing of your social relationships – indeed, any of your joyful pursuits? Committed efforts, and recommitting to those pursuits regularly, makes for determined effort, which in turn makes for success.

This leads us to the final method of making happiness sustainable – habit. Make health-giving habits a regular part of your life – the more often you repeat the behaviors, the stronger the associations between the behavior and the outcomes you’re hoping to achieve. And while habits take time to form and endure – it begins with today.