Recently I attended a conference on how happiness affects the health of people in general. Part of the conference presentation was from the findings of a longitudinal study called the “Nun Study.”
This research is actually still in progress. The research was conducted on 678 Nuns. The Nuns were all similar in background ad behavior in that they did not drink alcohol, use drugs or tobacco. They all had a similar reproductive history as well. Upon becoming a Nun they were required to write a personal narrative about their lives up to becoming a Nun. The narrative included why they wanted to become a Nun, what they hoped to accomplish, what their likes and dislikes were and a history of their lives. The research examined the narratives and the narratives were then determined to have a positive outlook or a negative outlook. Based on the emotional tenor of the narratives, researchers were able to reliably predict longevity and wellness among the Nuns that were studied. In addition a number of the Nuns ranging in age from seventy five years of age to one hundred and two years of age agreed to donate their brains to the research once they had passed away.
While the research into the lives of the Nuns continues, one of the most salient outcomes so far is that Alzheimer’s may manifest itself differently in different individuals. As the Nuns aged their cognitive abilities were measured at certain age milestones. In a number of instances Nuns who retained great intellectual abilities into old age and until their deaths were thought to be free of the disease known as Alzheimer’s. However, a number of higher functioning Nuns whose brains were examined upon their deaths were found to have disease in their brains including advanced Alzheimer’s. While conclusions are still being framed by researchers it is now being recognized that certain individuals may do quite well functionally in spite of having a brain that is diseased.
Some researchers believe that having a positive outlook and living a life rich with meaning may not only help people to live longer in better health but it may also help people to function better even when their brains are suffering from a disease such as Alzheimer’s Disease. It does not take a scientist to understand that happiness can provide each one of us an advantage.
There are quite a few easily accessed studies that suggest that happiness can make our lives more meaningful and can lead to a longer healthier life and I won’t explain them here. What I will share is what the conference presenter suggested about how happiness is found. Not surprisingly, a good deal of happiness is found in doing good things for others. Some research findings that were presented were somewhat surprising. Some research suggests that there may be a genetic linkage in our level of happiness.
Where you live has some impact but not what I expected. The happiest state is Hawaii no surprise there, the weather is beautiful. But the states that follow are all cold weather states such as Colorado at number two and Vermont at number five and New Hampshire as the sixth happiest state. Surprisingly, most of the states in the top twenty are cold weather states that have one thing in common, the existence of mountains.
Factors like occupation, gender, age and ethnicity also have an influence on happiness. Money has an influence up until about $75,000 in household income and has no positive influence after that. A study of lottery winners and paraplegics found that their happiness was quite similar. Politics provided a surprise in that Conservatives are slightly happier that those that label themselves as liberals.
Having a positive outlook influences are morbidity and mortality. Optimists have a more rapid surgery recovery; have a decreased likelihood of post-partum depression. Positively focused people are at a lower risk of catching a cold. Cardiac patients adhere better to post surgery regimens. They also experience less of the effects of inflammation a key component of heart disease. Positive well-being is associated with a 19 percent reduction in all disease causes and a 29 percent reduction in cardiac mortality in healthy adults.
While happiness is derived from many different experiences, there is an impressive body of research that suggests that doing for others offers an opportunity to feel genuine happiness. Doing for others needn’t be life changing heroics but rather small acts of kindness that accumulate over time. According to the presenter we need only to look around us and many different opportunities will be evident. Every day we have a chance to do a variety of small kindnesses and on occasion bigger expressions of kindness.
Remember all kids count.
Reach the writer at Hurlburt@wildblue.net