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The Health of Happiness

Author: James DeVore, M.D.
November, 2014 Issue

The pursuit of happiness can manifest in many forms, and the result is improved health.

 
Last spring, I went with my family to hear the Dalai Lama speak. One of the most impactful memories was when he commented that, “Humans seek happiness.” He challenged all of us to think about our own personal “why” (in other words, what our mission for happiness was). As individuals, we have an opportunity to understand our own happiness and how it impacts our own health.
 
In addition to being role models for our families and employees, the leadership message for us here is promoting happiness as health, for ourselves and for others—a prescription, if you will, for “happiness.”
 
There are ample books, websites, literature, evidence and science behind the “pursuit of happiness,” but first, here’s an anecdotal experience from my more than 20 years as a physician.
 
During my career taking care of injured workers in our Occupational Medicine Department, I knew some of the most important questions I could engage around weren’t about the injury, but about happiness. I didn’t need to ask the questions directly, as patients amply shared their thoughts with me. Questions included: Do you like your job? Do you like your supervisor/boss? Are you happy with your life?
 
Negative answers to these questions predicted a prolonged rehabilitation from whatever injury they had, from the simplest to the most medically complex. The social aspect trumped the medicine.
 
Here’s some evidence for you to digest to help quantify this connection between health and happiness: People who are optimistic live longer.
 
I’m basing this on a 2001 study, titled, “Positive Emotions in Early Life and Longevity: Findings from the Nun Study” where elderly nuns ages 75 to 95 were asked to share the diaries they’d written when they were young, about 22 years old. What did researchers learn? That positive emotional content in early life autobiographies was strongly associated with longevity six decades later. The themes were correlated with longevity. Those whose writings were optimistic lived longer.
 
Another study, published in 2013, is titled: “Is Volunteering a Public Health Intervention?” In it, numerous articles were reviewed and analyzed, with more than 1,000 people participating in studies that found a connection between volunteering and happiness: People who volunteer live longer. The results included evidence that volunteers had a 20 percent lower risk of death than nonvolunteers. You can find more information about it at www.biomedcentral.com/1471-2458/13/773.
 
So, given the evidence, what are our roles as individuals and leaders? Let’s discuss a few points.
 
First: Some people love the data to help themselves engage. “What is the science of happiness?” is a TED talk (www.ted.com/talks/dan_gilbert_asks_why_are_we_happy?language=en). Try watching it and see if it changes that next email, conversation, performance evaluation or even conversation with a family member. Why is it that people rate their happiness the same six months after winning the lottery or suffering a catastrophic injury ? What helps to frame this perspective?
 
Second: Do we role model some of the keys to happiness? One of the ways you can do so is to demonstrate gratitude. When was the last time you sent a thank-you card—not an email, tweet, snapchat message or text? (By the way, if you don’t know what snapchat is, ask your teenager.) Were you specific about what you were thanking the person for as well as how his or her gift affected you?
 
Another way to show gratitude is to build relationships. You can do so by mentoring someone else. Studies show that when we invest in others, we get back health for ourselves in the currency of happiness.
 
And, as stated before, you could volunteer to help others (and thus yourself). Could your business or department volunteer for a nonprofit, such as adopting a school for the United Way Schools of Hope? Or volunteer one night per month at the Redwood Empire Food Bank to organize food for those in need?
 
Third: One of the many joys of being human is the ability to choose some behaviors and make active choices.
 
This first link (http://greatergood.berkeley.edu) is one to a great group in Berkeley where you can explore the site and even subscribe to the newsletter personally. I love the core themes of gratitude, altruism, compassion, empathy, forgiveness, happiness and mindfulness.
 
The second link (http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=u4ZoJKF_VuA) is something I’d encourage each of you to view and then consider sharing with your teams, families or staff. Then ask everyone to share his or her “Why” of what you all are doing together. I did this with our leaders at Kaiser, and the wealth of positive thoughts and happiness was overwhelming for me
 
At the end of the day, what you do as a leader can potentially help others, your family, your teams and your employees, and, as the nuns in the first study showed, you yourself may live longer and thrive.
 
 
 
Kirk Pappas, M.D., is a board certified physical medicine and rehabilitation doctor. He’s the physician-in-chief of the Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Santa Rosa.

 

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