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The pursuit of happiness, health, and humanity

By Katherine Yaremko, Columnist

The connection between psychological fulfillment and physical health is one which is continuously being explored within the relatively recent field of positive psychology. Scientists have, for at least a decade, been discovering that a life lived with deep fulfillment, strong personal relationships, meaningful goals, and regular positive emotions can carry enormous health benefits. Happiness isn't just a wonderful thing to feel; it can actually improve your physical health.

Needless to say, there is still concern over the implications of claiming that feeling positive is an absolute gateway to overall health. Richard P. Sloan, in his New York Times Op-Ed piece "A Fighting Spirit Won't Save Your Life" rightly points out that possessing positivity and enviable personality traits, such as compassion or faith, have little effect on whether someone survives a disease. Studies performed by positive psychologists Ed Diener and Robert Biswas-Diener have revealed that the expression of frequent positive emotions do not improve a person's chances of recovery from a life-threatening condition. However, there is substantial evidence to suggest that being genuinely happy increases one's lifespan and makes one less susceptible to contracting health problems.

I think the issue that most troubles Dr. Sloan, as well as many others, in light of the recent popular market for happiness, are the implications of believing that happiness and positivity unconditionally lead to a healthy life. Dr. Sloan writes, "It is difficult enough to be injured or gravely ill. To add to this the burden of guilt over a supposed failure to have the right attitude toward one's illness is unconscionable." It may be more advantageous to be positive in life, although to claim it is more virtuous, especially when one is suffering with cancer, seems callous.

It would be erroneous however, to say that there is no correlation between positivity and physical health. Experiencing emotions and thoughts produces a physiological reaction; if I feel anxious, my heart rate quickens, my breathing becomes shallower, and my nervous system releases adrenaline. Sometimes a single anxious thought may be enough to begin the cycle. If I experience these symptoms too regularly, over time, my body is going to begin to show the effects of the accumulated stress on it. People who are depressed have a much higher likelihood of suffering a heart attack. On the contrary, those who are happier more of the time have been found to have stronger immune systems and are more resilient to illnesses.

There are, of course, multiple factors potentially influencing whether someone contracts a disease. Simply being happy does not serve as immunity against any serious illness. What it does do however, is tilt the odds in your favor that you will generally live longer and may be physically healthier.

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