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Be Well

The Science of Happiness

by John Swartzberg, M.D.  

As a practicing physician, I wanted my patients to be happy—and not just with me. I had a hunch that happy people were, in the long run, healthier. And, there’s research to back up this idea. You may be surprised to learn that happiness has long been a subject of systematic study by economists and policy makers in the health field, as well as sociologists and psychologists.

There is a strong relationship between health and happiness, according to an article published in Health Affairs in 2008 by Carol Graham, Ph.D., of the University of Maryland. Happiness is actually linked to health more strongly than it is to wealth. Does money make people happier? To some extent. The wealthy as a group are happier than the poor, and wealthy countries are happier than poor ones. But only a little happier. While it’s true, as Dr. Graham writes, that “deprivation and poverty are very bad for happiness,” once the per capita income has reached a certain level, getting richer does not increase the happiness quotient of a country. And perhaps not of the individual.

Defining happiness is a tough business. It comprises not only contentment, but also feelings of self-worth and dignity. Measuring it is also difficult. Some countries have been trying, with limited success, to devise “National Well-Being Accounts” to supplement economic measures such as the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). One existing resource is the World Database of Happiness, which is based on numerous surveys and polls. Asked to rate their happiness on a scale of 1 to 10, Americans and Canadians average 7.4 (not bad). But with a quotient of 8.5, the people of Costa Rica are the happiest in the world, according to the World Database. Though it is not a wealthy nation, Costa Rica has a good climate, long life expectancy, a stable democratic government and comparatively little violence.

Of course, there are nuances and complications. People in poor nations may feel as happy as those in wealthy ones simply because they expect less. And those who are well-off, eager to be more so, may not be satisfied. Context matters in other ways, too. For instance, obesity is often accompanied by deep unhappiness—but not universally. In Russia, for example, where obesity rates are highest among wealthy men, obesity is linked to happiness. Obesity may make most Americans unhappy, but much less so if they live in communities where obesity is the norm.

Research tells us that having friends, love, respect, social support and a sense of being in control—as well as optimism and a positive attitude—tend in the long run to make people happier and healthier. That’s certainly the ultimate wellness goal.