After my recent column examining stress and burnout, it got me thinking of how we know so much about the connection between our state of mind and our health yet still seem to know so little.
It reminded me of a column I wrote several years ago about a National Geographic and National Institute on Aging study in which explorer and author Dan Buettner traveled the globe to observe five distinct areas where people who on the surface have little in common live long and healthy lives, well into their 100s. Buettner found that the most powerful thing you can do to preserve good health and live a long life is to surround yourself with a tribe of healthy-minded, supportive people.
In the beginning of his best-selling book "Outliers," Malcolm Gladwell makes a similar observation in telling the story of Roseto, Pennsylvania, a town settled by Italian immigrants in the 1950s. These immigrants were found to have extremely low rates of heart disease. For men older than 65, the death rate from heart disease was roughly half that of neighboring towns, as well as the national average at that time. The death rate from all other leading causes was found to be a third lower than what could be expected. After ruling out genetics, diet and exercise as non-factors, medical researchers came to the conclusion that the source of this unusual good health was the community's rich social ties and sense of equality and connection.
What Gladwell did not report, says Ichiro Kawachi, chairman of Harvard University's department of social and behavioral sciences, was that in the 1960s, Roseto had completely lost its health advantage as economic growth and the kind of isolation it can bring led to a weakening of traditions and social bonds.
"The resulting breakdown of community solidarity was followed by a sharp increase in deaths from coronary heart disease," Ichiro notes. "Roseto 'caught up' with neighboring towns."
What are some of the other ways in which state of mind can influence health, you ask? Can a sunny outlook on life, for example, lead to better health?
Apparently so, say researchers for the Harvard School of Public Health. Their findings suggest that certain personal attributes (whether inborn or shaped by positive life circumstances) help people avoid or healthfully manage heart attacks, strokes, diabetes and depression. It seems that the sense of optimism and emotional vitality can be powerful medicine. Choosing healthy behaviors, such as physical activity and eating well, is also a strong factor.
Laura Kubzansky, a Harvard associate professor of society, human development and health, says: "It looks like there is a benefit of positive mental health that goes beyond the fact that you're not depressed. What that is is still a mystery. But when we understand the set of processes involved, we will have much more insight into how health works."
In a January article for Live Science, Bahar Gholipour reported on a sampling of 3,000 people age 60 or older living in England who took part in an eight-year study. The results showed that happier people maintained better physical function as they aged. The unhappiest people in the study were nearly 80 percent likelier to develop impairments in daily function compared with the happy lot. While the mystery of the mind's influence on health lingers on, what is being increasingly revealed is that there are certain things we can do to increase our sense of happiness and thereby improve our chances of longer life and greater health. Among them:
—Pet owners tend toward greater happiness. People who have dogs say their pets increase their self-esteem, as well as their feelings of belonging and meaning. Research has found that pets have a similar ability as human friends to stave off feelings of rejection.
—Giving back to others can pay happiness dividends. People who give money away rather than spend it on themselves tend to get a happiness boost, says a recent study.
—Research indicates that people who volunteer for selfless reasons live longer and have stronger relationships.
These results are consistent with a recent study published by the National Academy of Sciences that discovered that the happiness found in doing good or fulfilling your life purpose appears to be better for us than the happiness that comes from self-gratification or pleasure seeking. What this study revealed was that happiness derived from leading a life full of purpose and meaning seems to protect health at a fundamental cellular level, whereas happiness derived from pleasure or self-gratification does not. This does not mean that we should give up on seeking personal pleasure, as both types of happiness have emerged for a reason and are needed.
As to the quest to find happiness in a sense of purpose, know that it doesn't need to be grand or overly elaborate. The act of making an effort to connect with others with empathy and compassion by itself could have positive health benefits.
It also relates to how one goes about it. It has been suggested that wanting to be happy can make some people less happy. Researchers have found that a hyper-focused obsession on happiness can prove to have a self-defeating quality for some. Pursuing activities that truly make you happy and feel meaningful rather than happiness in the abstract as a concept, we're told, may prove to be a better course — and a healthy course available to us all, one worthy of following.
Write to Chuck Norris ([email protected]) with your questions about health and fitness. Follow Chuck Norris through his official social media sites, on Twitter @chucknorris and Facebook's "Official Chuck Norris Page." He blogs at http://chucknorrisnews.blogspot.com. To find out more about Chuck Norris and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.