Cultivating Happiness: What Science Says

All of us struggle with self love and the pursuit of happiness. In a society that profits off our insecurities and pain, it is quite revolutionary to be happy no matter what life is throwing your way. But many of us incorrectly think that if we just nabbed that one dream guy, flattened our stomachs or made six figures than the elusive happy gene would find us. When I worked for the hospital I made nearly $400,000/year. I drove my dream BMW, lived on the same street as the mayor, and had the biggest pool on the block. I can safely say that this was one of the most unhappy times in my life. I was so miserable that my husband left me after only 6 months of marriage. I felt publicly disgraced. How could I not be happy when I had achieved all my societal dreams? How could my job in healthcare feel so opposite of healing? How could some of my friends not be there for me? How could I still be creating drama in my relationship when I found “the one?” Why wasn’t I fully happy? All of these questions haunted me. Happiness was like a card trick that was barely out of my perception. I was so close but the slight of hand got me every time. It turns out I was very wrong about the proper way to cultivate happiness.

Consumerism has been forced on all of us. But multiple studies have shown that happiness doesn’t stem from owning more “things.”

So if it doesn’t come from external sources, where does it come from?

I firmly believe happiness comes from inside. One of my biggest obstacles has been how to cultivate love in my own life if I don’t have a signifiant partner.  All of those vile Disney movies from my childhood were coming back to haunt me! Lets be honest here though, I do believe a lot of those movies shaped my thought pattern about relationships. And I can’t be alone here.

Over 148 studies have found that people with stronger social relationships have a 50% lower risk of mortality. Two studies performed at Michigan State University revealed interesting results. The first study analyzed over 270,000 responses from all ages and people from over 100 countries. It showed that as we age, friendships matter more than family. This could be due to the fact that we choose our friends as opposed to the family we get stuck with. The second study from MSU reviewed over 7400 adults’ responses and found that if the friendships were a source of stress/strain, then the adults were sicker and had more chronic conditions. However, if the friends were considered supportive, the adults were happier and healthier!

“In 2002, two pioneers of Positive Psychology, Ed Diener and Martin Seligman, conducted a study at the University of Illinois on the 10% of students with the highest scores recorded on a survey of personal happiness. They found that the most salient characteristics shared by students who were very happy and showed the fewest signs of depression were “their strong ties to friends and family and commitment to spending time with them.” (“The New Science of Happiness,” Claudia Wallis, Time Magazine, Jan. 09, 2005).”

Just think about it. If our day is difficult because of work or if we are having any sort of emotional struggle, it is always nice to come home to a beloved friend or family member to vent to. At 38, and unmarried, I have had to rely on great friends and family for a sense of community since I don’t have a significant other. Happiness is a choice.

A number of studies have corroborated that happier people are more cooperative. It seems that cooperativeness, or the ability to willingly constructively engage in activities with others, is absolutely tied to overall happiness. This study, by Lu and Argyle in 1991, did not conclusively show what came first-cooperativeness or happiness. Other studies have shown that we can have many friendships, but are only really connected and satisfied when there is a certain level of trust and “self-disclosure,” or the willingness to reveal and discuss one’s personal issues and shortcomings. And this makes sense-we all know that one person that refuses to look imperfect or show their faults for fear that they will be rejected. But the truth is that our happiness and ability to connect is directly linked to vulnerability. When we reveal the truth about ourselves-our wounds, our pains, our insecurities, our shadow side-we indirectly give permission for others to do the same. And this is where the magic happens. Another study performed by Wheeler showed that students that had many friends who only spoke about impersonal topics such as sports and music, instead of their personal lives, were lonelier.

And it seems that being in service may actually provide the greatest happiness. One study examined how providing social support lowered mortality and increased overall health. It seems we all lose a sense of meaning in our lives if we do not have a purpose, or reason for living

that we deem important. Happiness comes from within each of us. If we search for happiness external to us, we will always be disappointed because we can only control ourselves. A passion driven life that we create is the one of the keys to satisfaction in life.

So lets recap!

  1. The happiest people, according to Diener and Seligman, who conduct research for the happiness project, showed the happiest people were highly social and had the strongest relationship ties. In fact, good social relations were a necessity for people to feel happy!
  2. Happiness is contagious among friends, just another reason to have significant relationships. A Harvard Medical School study of 5,000 people over 20 years found that one person’s happiness spreads through their social group even up to three degrees of separation, and that the effect lasts as long as a year. Wow!
  3. With friends and a community, is easier to be optimistic. When I had to move back to Kentucky because my former business partner left, I was making every mole hill into a mountain. I felt defeated and definitely considered this a failure. My tribe in Kentucky literally saved me. They encouraged me to keep going, talk to myself like I would one of my best friends, and reminded me that I am still worthwhile regardless of how the situation turns out. My feelings can be confirmed by a study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology showing that when we feel that we have social support, our visual perception of challenges actually changes-we feel as though we can take on and conquer life’s challenges easier.
  4. Friendships lower chronic diseases and improve longevity/aging. Multiple research studies have shown that social support increases the likelihood that we will continue an exercise regimen for more than a year. So all those workout buddies that keep us accountable actually do work! Those who are socially connected also have lower rates of depression and suicide. They also experience less memory decline than those who do not have adequate connections. People who isolate themselves have also been shown to have higher blood pressure and a higher risk for heart disease. College students who had strong friendship ties were half as likely to come down with the common cold when exposed to the virus as their counterparts with fewer friendships. Friends actually help us live longer!
  5. Friends lower stress too. We all know stress is a killer and can directly take years off of our lives by interrupting our sleep patterns and lowering our immunity. People actually produce less cortisol, the stress hormone responsible for increasing heart rate and blood pressure, when their friends are present during a negatively perceived event.  A Swedish study found that when men get enough social support during stressful times, they tend to live longer than those who didn’t have someone to lean on. There’s ample evidence that friendships don’t just make our lives better, they make them longer.

Call your best friend today and tell her how much he or she means to you. Make a promise to keep in contact with those who matter to you. This is an age where we are glued to our phones, but more disconnected than ever. Then we wonder why we are unhappy or can’t shake that mental disorder. Lets all reconnect and find a passion that drives us. Happiness not only one ingredient, but IS the main ingredient in determining emotional health. And remember, you can’t be truly healthy without physical, emotional and spiritual health.

You are becoming your own best doctor!

Much Love

Dr Jess
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