Three weeks ago we started down this 5 week journey into aging well by way of the health/happiness connection. In week one we talked about how exercise can work to reinvigorate our muscles and fat cells to improve their efficiency with supplying plenty of energy as we work to accrue the financial and health assets needed to retire well. In week two we talked about the natural ebbs and flows of happiness as they relate to age, a phenomenon that has been seen around the world. In week three we touched on the three different types of happiness and the fact that pursuing overall happiness may require rebalancing our "portfolio" of enjoyment (affective/bliss), contentment (evaluative/quality of life) and purpose (eudaimonic/meaning-making). This week, the 4th of 5 on the subject, we're going to dig deeper into the mindset of those who are successful at using positive well-being to live longer and ward off everything from arthritis to the flu in the process. Dive in to get the rest of the story.
You know them when you see them. The pleasant doers. They are the "walk it like they talk it" types who seem to both have a certain confidence about them as they go through life, and seem to get "it" (whatever "it" is at the moment) done, smiling along the way. There is a person like this at one of the sites I visit now and again. I've spent more than a few trips out into "the field" with him. He's one of the more experienced members of the team and always has amazing insights he is willing to share. His story definitely doesn't end there. He's also an avid gardener, although that term seems a bit underpowered considering he tends to multiple acres and shares the output generously all summer. He's a laugher, always telling a funny story or cracking a joke and keeping the environment relaxed; and he's definitely a success story - someone who is not immune to the effects of aging or the risks of illness, but has achieved a level of contentment that I'd wish on anyone.
What is it about this gentleman or others like him? What exactly powers them, and how do more of us get more of it? These are the questions in front of us as we step into the fourth part of our 5 part series on subjective wellbeing (aka happiness)....and the answer seems simple, which of course is NOT the same as easy.
It starts with mindset.
According to Dr. Alia Crum, one of the foremost experts on how mindsets/beliefs/expectations can influence our health and physiology, mindsets are "core assumptions we make about the things and processes in the world that orient us to a particular set of expectations, explanations, and goals". In plain English, what we believe and expect in any given situation, or as some call it "the stories we tell ourselves", heavily influence how our bodies operate. This is something Dr. Crum has demonstrated in both exercise and nutritional studies, as well as in her extensive work on the placebo effect. Core assumptions drive our actions, which influence whether our experience of the world is generally positive or negative - which then has a significant impact on our health and happiness. Take infections for example.
Imagine being interviewed and asked how well, on a scale of 0 (not at all) to 4 (extremely accurate) the following adjectives describe how you felt in the last 24 hours: Vigor (lively, full of pep), well-being (happy, cheerful), and calm (at ease, calm) on the positive side, as well as depressed (sad, unhappy), anxious (on edge, tense) and hostile (hostile, angry) on the negative side. Now imagine repeating this 14 days in a row.
Could these scores predict how we approach our daily life? Could they tell us about our baseline happiness? Could they even predict our ability to fight infection?
As it turns out, the answer to all three questions is "yes". These six adjectives and how often we feel them have been shown to relate closely to whether a person sees the world in a generally positive (upbeat, happy) or negative (down, etc) light. Then, in the stuff that sounds like weird science perhaps, the researchers exposed the individuals to the influenza virus via a nasal spray. One group's immune system was more likely to fight off the virus and therefore NOT become ill - the more positive/upbeat group, by almost 3 times even after ruling out the effect of: age, race, sex, years of education, baseline antibody level, BMI, season, and virus type (among others).
What's even more wild is that this impact is not just on viruses or infectious diseases. In another study, those who had higher well-being scores had a significantly lower likelihood of developing arthritis - as many as 9 years later. In a final study, subjective well-being scores taken over time in an aging population predicted how long these folks would actually live.
This of course is not to say that health or even happiness are "all in our mind", but rather, to show that whatever IS regularly in our mind, DEFINITELY impacts the safety and health of the "mobile frame" we are walking around in everyday. If we are willing to learn from those who are already succeeding, the ones who often see the silver lining, the opportunity to learn, the fun that can be found in almost any moment, and the value in living each day with purpose, the stresses of life can be challenges that make us better and maybe even more fulfilled.
The world happiness report drops later today. With any luck, by next week we'll have some new insights that we can all leverage. Until then, we hope you'll describe this week as "full of pep", "cheerful" and "at ease"...or if not, find one of the pleasant doers you know and explore something they do that you can too.
Have a great weekend,