When John Grace was diagnosed with cancer in the spring of 2006, he found strength in happiness. The tumor on his tongue made life very difficult and he had trouble with daily behaviors like swallowing and talking. Despite this challenge, he and his wife, Joan Raducha, found solace in small comforts of happiness.
Studies have shown that one’s emotional state plays a large role on both mental and physical health. According to a study done by Jack P. Shonkoff, professor of Child Health and Development at Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH), and Julius B. Richmond, professor of Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, negative emotions, such as anger, anxiety, and fear can lead to the disruption of cardiac function and stability, which can lead to a faster heart rate, higher blood pressure, and the release of stress hormones.
Conversely, positive emotions, including optimism and enthusiasm, lead to many prominent benefits. A study done by Laura Kubzansky, the HSPH associate professor of Society, Human Development, and Health, suggests that a positive mental health correlates with a lower blood pressure and a normal body weight.
We all know that happiness generally leads to a healthier lifestyle. But, the real question still remains: how do we become happy, and more importantly, how do we stay happy?
Biology tells us that about 50 percent of happiness is due to genetics. However, this means the rest of it comes from our environment. This nature versus nurture situation seems to be out of our hands, but cultivating positive thinking can be done with the help of others and our surroundings. According to a study by the Mayo Clinic, while ten percent of happiness is based on our circumstances, the majority of our happiness can be fostered through our outlook, personality, and behaviors, all of which we control. Experiences have a stronger weight than possessions. Ryan Howell, an assistant professor of Psychology at San Francisco State University, proposes that all emotions come back to a balance. Buying a new, fancy car makes us happy for a couple days, but the joy fades over time. However, experiences leave memories, and these memories can keep us happy for a longer time. On average, people who are wealthy and famous are not significantly happier than those who are not.
Another important factor of happiness is exercise. Not only does exercising help with physical health, it also plays a large positive role in emotional health. Exercise has both short-term and long-term benefits with relation to emotions. Endorphins released by exercising produce mood-enhancing effects. In addition, regular exercise has been shown to reduce depression and anger. This simple habit can have numerous positive effects.
“I exercise on a regular basis,” said Professor Tim Bono, professor and researcher of Positive Psychology at Washington University in St. Louis. “I also exercise gratitude. I think about the positive things in my life.” Gratitude comes from a lot of things – being thankful for what you have and who you have.
Therefore, relationships are also an important indicator of happiness. Many gain their energy from others – absorbing it from the enthusiasm of those surrounding them. Happiness is similar. “People are designed to be together … we’re relational creatures,” said Pria Mahadevan, co-director of Uncle Joe’s Peer Counseling and Resource Center. “A lot of the issues we see students deal with come from problems with relationships.” Being surrounded by positive and healthy relationships creates a sense of protection and love, thus creating the feeling of happiness.
Especially in college, these positive elements are not as easy to come by. Students frequently complain about not having enough time to exercise in their busy days filled with classes, homework, jobs, and clubs. Similarly, this same stress and these time constraints deter strong and happy relationships. Here at Wash U, resources, such as Uncle Joe’s and Student Health Services (SHS), are present to help bring students to a better mental state. “What we often talk to students about is … self-care, helping them generate ideas on their own about what they can do,” said Kelsey Stiles, co-director of Uncle Joe’s. Similarly, SHS also offers confidential advisors and counselors, in addition to mental health and wellness workshops, about topics such as mindfulness, managing difficult feelings, and increasing self-esteem. The resources present on campus are designed to help students lead better lives, but they must choose to use them.
When Grace was diagnosed with cancer, instead of counting down the days he had left, he and his wife decided to look at it with a positive outlook. “We learned to see the glass half full rather than half empty,” said Grace. “In other words, we chose happiness.” They learned to see the world in a different light, dancing and singing with their kids, finding beauty in the weather, and appreciating new treatments. They did not choose to have cancer in their life, but they chose their outlook, and that made all the difference.