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Medical Myth Buster: Happy Heals

Can the pursuit of happiness improve one’s health?

illustration by Thomas Fuchs

Can the pursuit of happiness improve one’s health?

Myth: Mental state has little to do with disease and response to treatments.

Reality: An increasing body of both anecdotal and academic evidence suggests that happiness and optimism should be part of the therapeutic armamentarium.

Recently, researchers from the University of Illinois studied the association between mental status and cardiovascular wellness. The results were quite astounding to some, but based on my more than 20 years as a cardiologist, I was not surprised. The data demonstrated that patients with the highest levels of optimism had twice the chance of being in ideal cardiovascular health as compared to their most pessimistic counterparts. This included better cholesterol profiles and blood sugar levels, and healthier body mass indexes.

Happiness is a presumed entitlement, the pursuit of which is enshrined as an inalienable right in a founding document of the United States. Yet there is neither a clear definition for it nor a general agreement of precisely how to achieve it. Some perceive that the secret lies in the amassing of great wealth and material goods. Others believe that happiness resides in a perpetual state of romance or lust. Many consider youthfulness—and appearing or behaving younger than one’s age—to be the key. Paradoxically and not infrequently, the more wealth people attain, the more lustful relationships they trade for, or the more cosmetic surgery they undergo, the greater their frustration. Is happiness an ephemeral and unsustainable myth, or are we merely looking in all the wrong places?

It seems that the happiest people do not claim per­petual bliss or relentlessly seek adrenaline-rushing highs. They do not rotate spouses or partners with high frequency. Happy people may be subject to periods of sadness and are not immune to the vicissitudes of modern life, but they are resilient. Happy people feel good about what they do day to day and view themselves as making meaningful contributions. Fulfilled people are rarely jealous or envious. They may be ambitious, but they do not suffer pain from the success of others. Happy people enjoy the company of others and can establish meaningful relationships. They are able to roll with the inevitable punches while retaining a positive and hopeful outlook.

Some simple measures can help boost happiness and optimism, which can then lead to greater overall well-being, as evidenced by the University of Illinois study. Assure that you get regular exercise. Consider walking with your partner or a friend. Do not scrimp on sleep. Disconnect at least an hour before bedtime and read for pleasure. Engage in social or civic activities to stay connected and fulfilled. Do not let negative thoughts take over. Remember that words have meaning, so speak positively and make the best of even challenging situations.

A knockdown is not a knockout. From what I have observed, good health may be as simple as believing just that.

-Frank Litvak, MD was formerly a co-director of the Cardiovascular Intervention Center at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles and Professor of Medicine at UCLA. He is a medical technology entrepreneur and a general partner in Pura Vida Funds, a healthcare hedge fund.