I recently recalled a cringe-worthy incident from when I was younger that dramatically showed how attitude and happiness go hand-in-hand. As I was heading up to my 10th floor office, I got in the elevator along with a finance executive. Since it was a little awkward just standing in silence, I made the comment that it looked like a really great day out there. His response, expressed with a certain amount of irritation, was, “What’s good about it?” The abruptness of his response startled me. Before I could regain my composure, the elevator door opened and I quickly stepped off without making eye contact or giving a trite “Have a good day.” As I walked down the hall to my office, I found myself replaying this encounter.
The incident got me thinking about people and their attitudes. Why do some people seem so unhappy while others seem generally happy and able to take negative experiences in stride? And what effect do these two different attitudes toward life have on one’s health? Kate Bratskeir addressed one aspect of these questions when she commented in the article “The Habits of Supremely Happy People” that 60% of happiness is determined by genetics and environment and the other 40% is up to us.
Martin Seligman, in a 2004 Ted Talk, touched on this “40%” that is up to us when he described three different kinds of happy lives: a pleasant life, a life of engagement, and a meaningful life. What’s interesting is that he said that the pleasant life (a life filled with as many pleasures as one can have) had little effect on creating lasting happiness. On the other hand, a life of engagement (where one finds a life in work, parenting, love, and leisure) and a meaningful life (where one knows what one’s greatest strengths are) were both lives in the service of something larger than the people living them. People whose happiness comes from engagement and meaning in their lives are 10 times more likely to be in good health than those who aren’t meaningfully motivated.
Another quality to express besides joy is optimism, which is often found to promote health, especially an increase in longevity among those with heart disease. When you choose to see the silver lining, you’re also choosing a greater opportunity for health and happiness.
Studies indicate this opportunity for greater health and happiness is increased further by the inclusion of spirituality, because people who consider themselves spiritual appear to be better able to cope with stress and heal faster. Although happiness habits and the effect they have on health are new to many, think of Shakespeare’s wisdom that “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” Or this affirmation by 19th century Christian religious thought leader Mary Baker Eddy: “Hold thought steadfastly to the enduring the good and the true, and you will bring these into your experience proportionably to the occupancy of your thoughts.”
Cultivating happiness and health by celebrating the little victories in life can be just as important as spirituality. Taking time to notice the things that go right means we’re getting a lot of little rewards throughout the day, which can directly affect mood by giving a greater sense of accomplishment.
On the other hand, avoiding negative qualities and attitudes can be crucial to promoting health. Dr. Andrew Weil shows how important this is when he quotes the Greek philosopher Epictetus in his book Spontaneous Happiness: “Remember that foul words or blows in themselves are no outrage, but your judgment that they are so. So when anyone makes you angry, know that it is your own thought that has angered you.” Even though my well-intended greeting to my grumpy and negative colleague in the elevator was not favorably received, I did not let this small negative encounter affect how I experienced that day. Over the years, I’ve cultivated an attitude of expressing joy time and again. And in that way I am able to take control of my health and possibly increase my longevity.
Photo © GLOW IMAGES. Model used for illustrative purpose.