International researchers, policymakers and public health practitioners, I am guessing, were happy for the opportunity to gather at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Health last month for a forum. They met to identify policies and practices for enhancing something the pursuit of which is constitutionally guaranteed in our country – happiness. This exchange of ideas was built upon a shared belief: that enhancing people’s collective happiness should be a goal of government.
This pursuit of enhancing happiness is worldwide. Clinicians at Harvard’s Lee Kum Sheung Center for Health and Happiness documented varying ways that different countries and communities promote policies and practices related to happiness. While there exists no single policy or set of policies that applies everywhere, there are areas of agreement. Moving forward, the center plans to continue such multinational conversations in developing a best practices approach to the problem.
Harvard seems a perfect venue for such discussions; it is the site of what’s considered one of the world’s longest studies of adult life and behavior. Begun in 1938, this ongoing study was formed to shed light on how psychosocial variables and biological processes from earlier in one’s life predict one’s health and well-being later on. The study has shown how powerful an influence relationships have on health. The study has also shown the toxicity of loneliness and how detrimental living in the midst of conflict is to our health and happiness.
Given the results of the recently released Gallup 2019 Global Emotions Report, these “happiness” discussions among experts seems especially important. Polled for this annual report were approximately 1,000 adults in countries around the world. They were questioned about the emotions they had experienced the day before the survey was administered. According to the report findings – and maybe not surprisingly – Americans came out as some of the most stressed-out people in the world.
We are not alone. According to the report, the leading stressors for Americans were negative emotions and experiences such as stress, anger, worry, sadness and physical pain. These stress points are common around the world.
In the U.S., 55 percent of respondents told Gallup they had felt a lot of stress the day before the survey. The global average was 35 percent. Americans felt plenty of other negative emotions as well. Forty-five percent said they had felt worried during the day before the survey (the global average being 39 percent). Twenty-two percent said they had felt angry (the global average also being 22 percent).
More and more research, such as the work at Harvard’s Center for Health and Happiness, supports what many people long ago instinctively accepted – that happiness and health are connected.
New clinical approaches are now applied to enhancing happiness, such as the practice of “positive psychology,” described as the discipline of focusing on factors that contribute to emotional resilience, happiness and health, based on the concept that experiences that induce positive emotion cause negative emotion to dissipate.
Another area of positive emotions being explored is a set of traits known as “mature defenses.” First identified in Harvard’s longstanding studies of adult life and behavior, these traits are not displayed by everyone and can vary over a lifespan. They include altruism, future-mindedness, humor and the ability to delay gratification. The study found that mature defenses are closely linked with joy, high income and living to a vigorous old age.
The Harvard study has also demonstrated how good relationships with others protect your brain. In addition to positively affecting physical and emotional health, good relationships have the power to sharpen your memory. People who are in relationships where they feel they can count on their partner in times of need have demonstrated a sharper, longer-lasting ability to remember things. All the same, those who were in a relationship where they felt they could not count on their partner experienced memory decline.
There are also things we can do that do not require clinical intervention to improve health and stimulate positive emotion that can then cause negative emotion to dissipate. Walk – don’t run – to the great outdoors. I have talked about this subject in the past, but there is an important perspective I need to share. It starts with the idea of taking a hike. As Dr. Daniel Ferris, a professor of engineering and biomechanics at the University of Florida, explained to Time magazine’s Markham Heid, walking and hiking may sound like the same thing, but they’re not. Your joints, heart and muscles perform in distinct ways when you’re hiking compared to what they do when you’re walking on a flat trail.
Where walking on flat terrain allows you to keep moving with little effort, according to Professor Ferris, when you walk on uneven terrain, your heart rate and metabolic rate go up, and you burn more calories.
“You’re turning on and strengthening a lot of muscles in your hips and knees and ankles that you don’t normally use,” Ferris says. This improves your balance and stability, which helps protect you from falls.
Hiking variable terrain is not without its risks, Ferris points out. It is important to take it slow and give those little-used leg muscles time to build up strength. He also points out that while the terrain is working your body into shape, the sights, sounds and smells of nature are performing a similar kind of transformative benefit in your brain.
“The idea that nature helps our mental state goes back hundreds if not thousands of years,” he adds. For both your mind and body, a walk in the woods may be tough to beat.
Write to Chuck Norris with your questions about health and fitness. Follow Chuck Norris through his official social media sites, on Twitter @chucknorris and Facebook’s “Official Chuck Norris Page.” He blogs at ChuckNorrisNews.blogspot.com.