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FNCE 2012 Recap, Part 2: Do Happy People Live Longer? Food, Physical Activity and Happiness

October 22, 2012
Is She Adding Years to Her Life?

Is She Adding Years to Her Life?
Image: stockimages, Freedigitalphotos.net

Session Speakers:
Dr. Ed Diener, leading “happiness” researcher & psychology professor, University of Illinois

Elizabeth Somer, Registered Dietitian and author of books focusing on food and mood

My Challenge To You: Do one of the following actions listed at the end of the post to naturally boost your happiness levels.  Then comment and tell me about how it went/how you felt.

As I have worked with more and more clients both as a strength and conditioning specialist and Registered Dietitian, I believe that my reason for being in this field is to enable people to live their best lives possible, through their physical activity and eating habits.  And in many ways, living your best life possible, whether it be moving pain free, having energy all day (even after a long day of work), feeling confident about yourself or enjoying time with others, all results in one key emotion: happiness.  For those who have not watched the movie “Happy”, I recommend it; it provides some great insights into the emotion of happiness, its impact on our body and what really makes us happy.

Interestingly, happiness research is relatively new in the psychology field.  Much of the historical research in the early and mid-part of the 20th century focused on understanding and managing unhappiness: dementia, depression and psychological disorders.  Analyzing what happens when things go wrong.  And as a result many therapies and medications have been developed to manage the problems of unhappiness.  Yet getting people “not unhappy” does not necessarily mean they will be happy.

In the 1970’s and 1980’s, researchers like Dr. Diener decided to take an alternate approach: what makes people happy?  And what are the effects of living a “happy” life?  Now practitioners like Elizabeth Somer and I have begun applying the results of this research to help people like you and me live happier, and healthier lives.

What makes people happy?

The results of Dr. Diener’s 20+ years of research, from observing, discussing and measuring happiness across different people and cultures across the world, has slowly distilled the pursuit of happiness into four primary traits/characteristics:

1. Close social, supportive relationships filled with respect & trust.

2. A realistic, yet positive outlook; seeing the glass as half-full.

3. Feeling able to fulfill personal needs (Maslow’s hierarchy).  Research contends that we’re trying to realize all of the different aspects of our personal needs simultaneously, not in a particular order (from food, clothing, shelter to fulfilling work and personal growth; Maslow 2.0).

4. Ability to have daily pleasures and uplifts; via daily interests, activities and pleasures.

Some additional interesting findings from his research:

The limits of money on happiness: Money can buy happiness…to a point, mainly based on how much it costs to meet basic needs of shelter/food/clothing/entertainment in your country.  For example, there’s a big difference in happiness for those making $7,000 and $70,000 in the U.S.  But there’s a much smaller difference in happiness between those who make $70,000 and larger sums like $500,000 and more.

Despite easily having the highest income of the 36 countries surveyed, the United States ranked 12th in life satisfaction according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (http://www.oecdbetterlifeindex.org/topics/life-satisfaction/), beat out by countries such as New Zealand, Canada, Austria and Denmark.

Extreme feelings fade: When something amazingly great or devastating happens to us, we can’t imagine how we can ever be sad (if it’s good) or happy (if it’s bad) ever again…in that moment.  But as the saying goes, time heals all wounds, and fades all feelings.  Not all Super Bowl/World Series/Stanley Cup winners are happy the rest of their lives.  And we learn to move on and smile after losing a close friend or loved one.  In fact, many people share positive and happy stories at a funeral.  We have an emotional baseline that we tend to move back toward no matter what happens.

It’s not about avoiding lows, but instead seeking lots of little highs: Some people tend to focus on avoiding negative situations.  While that may help you steer clear of major disasters, being constantly focused on avoidance and risk management does not put you in a frame of mind to promote greater happiness.  In other words, you’re focused on treading water to avoid drowning rather than looking to learn how to swim and progress.  Rather than avoiding the negative, flip the situation on it’s head and start looking for positivity in daily actions and life.  Our brain and how it regulates mood is like a muscle; the more you flex it (think positively), the better it becomes at finding the positive in everything.  You’ll start to, “Always look on the bright side of life.”

The Results of Happiness

The long-term effects of happiness have been studied and measured.  Here’s a recap of some of the most notable results of being happy:

1.    Promotes social success.  People like hanging around happy, positive people.  Who wants to be around Debbie Downer? (intended as a fictitious name, if someone is actually named Debbie Downer, I am not referring to that person).

2.    Promotes workplace success.  Those who take the “I can” approach tend to get things done, work better in teams and create an atmosphere of positivity and success around their colleagues.

3.    Improves citizenship.  Most of us like to help others when we can.  When you’re happy, you tend to feel more empowered to help others, whether it be volunteering your time at a non-profit or even just holding the door for someone and smiling.  This makes them happy because you’re thinking of their well-being, and you get a boost from being helpful.  makes you happier for being helpful.  It’s a win-win.

4.    Improves health and longevity.  Dr. Diener’s research has shown that high subjective (as reported by the participant) amounts of happiness and well-being can promote health independent of our physical activity and eating habits.  In other words, the happier you are, the more likely you are to live longer.  In addition, feelings of happiness and well-being were associated with better eating habits, increased physical activity (a positive cycle), a better immune system, better cardiovascular health and possibly lower risk of some cancers.

Let’s all take a tip from Bobby McFerrin: “Don’t worry, be happy.”  Simple saying, not always easy to do.

Use Food & Fitness to Make Your Life Happier…and Vice Versa

Many people go through life anywhere from mildly to severely unhappy and accept it.  Why?  Maybe we have unrealistic expectations?  Maybe we don’t think we can do better?  Maybe we don’t really know what we want?  Regardless of the cause, being constantly unhappy is useless.

One of the best quotes of FNCE came from Elizabeth Somer in regards to feeling crappy/louse: “What are you willing to tolerate?”  And in response I ask, “What are you going to do about it?”  Nothing changes without action, so I challenge you to do one of the following to boost your serotonin/dopamine levels and get happier:

Focus on little wins – Start a journal and spend three minutes at the end of every day thinking about two health (eating, exercise, movement, etc.) related activities that you did well that day.  Write down at least two accomplishments or successes, no matter how small they may seem. Turn down a free cookie? Great!  Walk up a fight of stairs instead of taking the elevator? Awesome! Little wins add up over time.

Exercise one more time than usual this week – Do any type of activity you prefer; studies show that exercise can promote better feelings of wellness and lower risk of depression (happiness and exercise works both ways).

Eat whole-grain carbs – Our brain runs best on carbs, particularly types that breakdown slowly over time like whole grains (i.e. barley, rye, quinoa, brown rice, oatmeal) and starchy veggies (i.e. sweet potato, baked potato, fresh corn).  These starchier foods can be a significant part of breakfast (i.e. bowl of oatmeal with almonds and berries) and should be 25% of your plate at lunch and dinner.

Get fluid from water and foods – Staying hydrated keeps us alert, focused, less stressed and lowers our chances of headaches.  Which makes a positive outlook easier. While drinking water is always a great idea, remember certain foods are naturally very high in water: fruits and veggies!  Most fruits and veggies are actually over 90% water!  Eating fruits and veggies regularly throughout the day goes a long way in keeping you hydrated.

Sit, pay attention to, savor and appreciate your next dessert or indulgent meal – If you can’t sit and truly enjoy it, reconsider whether it’s worth buying.  We all need some sugar and fat in our diet; the key is having some, but not too much.  Elizabeth Somer likens it to currency: you get a daily sugar/fat allowance, how do you want to spend it?  Spend wisely 

Learn/practice a new food or movement-based skill – The better we become at something, the more confident we feel.  And the more confident we feel about ourselves, the easier it is to be happy.  Cook a new recipe.  Take another dance lesson.  Learn a new exercise at the gym.  Try a new fruit or veggie.

A second batch of non-food/physical activity ways to make yourself happier are on the way, stay tuned!

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