Powerful Medicine and Diabetes Manager: Happiness

Though the “pursuit of happiness” is in the Declaration of Independence, many Americans find the feeling of happiness elusive; but then, feelings are by nature elusive.

Jefferson might have done us a big favor if he had instead penned “the cultivation of happiness,” since cultivation implies the investment of time and energy to make something grow. This might have saved many of us from pursuing happiness through pleasure seeking which generates only temporary delight.

Meaning and Well-Being

A more consistent happiness is reported by people who feel their activities are generally purposeful or meaningful. This brand of happiness is similar to a sense of well-being. It’s just feeling good about your life, despite its imperfections.

What makes a life purposeful or meaningful is different for each of us, but the physical benefits of happiness are generally universal. Contentment means less cortisol (stress hormone) in our bloodstream, lower blood pressure, reduced inflammation, less heart disease, and a healthier immune system. For people with diabetes cheerfulness can mean better glucose control, and more effective overall diabetes management.

So, while no one is happy about having diabetes, the buoyant and hopeful state of happiness may be one of our best tools for preventing or slowing diabetes complications. Though some of us are better at wielding this tool than others, its use is accessible to all.

Forty Percent Variable

In her book The How of Happiness, psychologist and researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ph.D., reveals that 50 percent of individual differences in happiness are owed to genetic makeup, and 10 percent to circumstances. The remaining 40 percent is dependent on how we think, and what we do.

“The secret of course lies in that 40 percent,” writes Lyubomirsky. “If we observe genuinely happy people, we shall find that they....make things happen. They pursue new understandings, seek new achievements, and control their thoughts and feelings.”

Lyubomirsky’s findings are supported by other research that shows people manage diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, and depression better when they:

  • Have a sense of hopefulness and enthusiasm, and are engaged with the world.
  • Feel that good things will occur, and that one’s own actions are responsible for their occurrence.
  • Maintain a supportive network of family and friends.
  • Are good at self-regulation: instead of acting and reacting to things impulsively, rashly, or out of habit, they choose healthy behaviors and activities.

The positive effects of these happiness cultivating actions are borne out not just by behavioral scientists, but neurologists as well.

Happiness Cocktail

“Cheerfulness keeps up a kind of daylight in the mind and fills it with a steady and perpetual serenity,” wrote essayist, and playwright Joseph Addison. Daylight of the mind occurs because a happy brain simmers with a cocktail of feel-good substances: endorphins, serotonin, oxytocin, and dopamine.

Endorphins, our brain’s natural pain killer, helps stave off negative thoughts and worry about the future. Serotonin calms anxiety, and oxytocin is known for providing a warm-fuzzy feeling of belonging. Dopamine is associated with our brain’s reward and pleasure center, and helps motivate us to develop our potential.

These chemicals help explain what insightful individuals have long known, that a cheerful heart is good medicine. It might even be said that happiness is our basic default setting for good mind-body health. So, although we will not always feel happiness, we can wisely choose to cultivate a life that welcomes and supports it.

Sources: Harvard School of Public Health; Mind Body Green; How of Happiness; Go Happiness
Photo credit: Adam Wight

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