Can Happiness Heal? How a positive attitude might save your life

Originally posted by Julia Perla Huisman on

Health and happiness. Are the two linked? We can assume that those with good health are generally happy to be well. But what about the other way around? If someone is sick, can happiness make them feel better physically?

The answer is a resounding yes, according to recent research. Multiple studies have shown that a positive outlook on life reaps many tangible benefits: “‘Happy’ people cope better with stress and trauma, are more resilient, have stronger immune systems, and live longer,” says Barbara Santay, therapist for Franciscan Alliance’s Employee Assistance Program.

The statistics are staggering: according to Santay, two-thirds of female breast cancer survivors who attend support groups report that their lives were altered for the better after developing the disease. Women who have strong social connections live an average of 18 months longer than those who have little to no connections. Bereavement has been associated with stress hormones, and friendly social contact has been proven to decrease those hormones.

“One of the big ways we see [the correlation] clinically is with chronic pain,” says Michael Mirochna, M.D., a family medicine physician with Lake Porter Primary Care and Porter Physician Group of Porter Regional Hospital. “When a patient’s mood is good, they’ll be in less pain. If they start to feel worse and you dig into their psychosocial history, you find that something happened (their dog died, relationship problems, etc.). There’s a close correlation with mood and pain in that regard.”

It’s clear to see that happiness fosters good—or at least improved—physical health. But what, exactly, is happiness?

“I think we need to differentiate between happiness and joy,” says Tanaz Bamboat, certified laughter yoga instructor from Munster. “Happiness depends on things. Joy is unconditional.”

Santay adds, “People think they would be happy if only they were to get married, have a baby, get plastic surgery, win the lottery… These things do provide a temporary boost in happiness but after a certain time has passed, people return to their happiness set point.”

Experts agree that what leads to a continual state of happiness has nothing to do with circumstances or material possessions, which can be fleeting. Rather, it comes from one’s outlook on life.

Fortunately, such an outlook can be cultivated and exercised, so that even the biggest curmudgeon on the block can take control of his or her mental and emotional—and therefore physical—health.

We’ve outlined five ways to develop a positive perspective:

Be physically active. There is bountiful research backing the premise that exercise improves mood. “We strongly encourage physical activity with our patients diagnosed with depression,” says Mirochna. “If their depression is so bad that they don’t feel like doing anything at all, we encourage them to at least do some physical activity, and it immediately makes them feel better.” In fact, according to Santay, aerobic exercise is shown to be just as effective as depression medications.

Dawn Wood, certified therapeutic recreation specialist and instructor of the Benefits of Exercise class at Methodist Hospitals, says, “One of the emotional benefits of exercise is that you are doing good for your body and yourself. When you feel good about yourself, it gives you confidence to meet daily challenges, meet goals, and communicate with others.”

Meditate/Focus. Santay lists meditation, avoiding overthinking, and increasing “flow experiences” (activities that engage you, cause you to lose track of time) as ways to get the mind right. She also encourages two minutes of writing every day. “The immune system works better when we write,” she says. According to a study by the University of Missouri and Columbia, the psychological and physical benefits of two minutes of journaling are greater than those that come from writing in longer time segments.

Wood suggests “true relaxation… allow yourself to take a mental and physical break from your responsibilities from time to time, so when you return, you have a better frame of mind.”

Laugh. The phrase “laughter is the best medicine” isn’t just a euphemism. Laughter is proven to prevent heart disease, lower stress hormones, strengthen the immune system, and reduce food cravings. It also has anti-aging benefits.

While a comedy show or YouTube video provides a temporary laugh, the greater health benefit comes from intentional, continuous laughter that can be learned in a class like laughter yoga. In this practice, participants are taught to laugh from the belly, and for no reason, so they learn to laugh despite their circumstances. They’re also instructed to breathe properly, which improves blood flow.

Bamboat, who teaches laughter yoga classes throughout Northwest Indiana, works often with cancer patients. “Laughter brings movement up into the lymph nodes,” which play a big role in cancer care.

“Laughter brings you back to a childlike state,” Bamboat says. “We were born with a spirit of laughter but have forgotten it because of stress. If you condition your body to laugh unconditionally, you will relieve your social, medical and physical stress.”

Be social. When we’re not feeling well, we tend to isolate ourselves. In reality, that’s the worse thing we can do. Having social connections and a strong support system can greatly improve one’s health.

“We tell our patients it’s important to have a sense of community,” says Mirochna. “What kind of social support structure do they have in place? If they are elderly, we ask if they have kids or a family.” Mirochna points out that Porter Hospital has a group for senior citizens in which they can participate in lectures and trips and develop friendships with other people in their stage of life.

Santay also urges her clients to nurture social relationships, learn to forgive, and practice acts of random kindness. Wood adds that helping others has been “the biggest factor I have noticed with patients’ happiness. It helps them feel worthwhile, capable.”

Be spiritual. Getting in touch with your spiritual side can do wonders to your physical health. Those active in religion live longer, use drugs less often, have longer marriages, and are healthier in general, according to Santay.

Father Tony Janik of Franciscan St. Anthony Health-Crown Point explains spirituality’s medicinal qualities: “Those with a spiritual outlook can face the difficult parts of life by having a greater sense of value. They have a source of perspective and hope… They find strength in that hope and have better coping mechanisms.”

This is especially valuable for those going through the end of life. “Not everyone gets cured, but they can be healed, from a spiritual perspective,” Janik adds. “We believe that everyone is made in the image of God and that they can have a life beyond here. That gives our patients hope.”

Employees' top 10 desired perks for the workplace


Since 32% of employers reported that top performers left their organizations in 2012 and 39% are concerned that they'll lose top talent in 2013, many are asking current employees for feedback on how to increase job satisfaction. According to a new CareerBuilder survey, 26% of workers said that providing special perks is an effective way to improve employee retention. Here are the 10 that scored highest when workers were asked to identify one perk that would make their workplace more satisfying.

1. Half-day Fridays

The top choice for 40% of employees surveyed was early dismissal on Fridays. According to Mercer research, work-life balance could recharge employee engagement and help retain employees.

2. On-site fitness center

Twenty percent of workers said providing easy access to gyms would increase their job satisfaction. A HealthFitness expert offers 10 tips in this slide show for building and sustaining a culture of health in the workplace.

3. Ability to wear jeans

Having a casual dress code was the most preferred perk by 18% of employees and doesn't cost employers a dime to implement.

4. Daily catered lunches

On the other hand, 17% of employees wished their employer would provide daily lunches, which could improve productivity in addition to satisfaction if workers don’t need to leave the office to buy food.

5. Massages

Employees who wanted massages to relax in the workplace (16%) may be on to something as experts claim massage therapy can boost morale, increase productivity and even help with attraction and retention.

6. Nap room

The Huffington Post and Google have created napping rooms or pods in their offices, a perk that 12% of employees wanted most, according to CareerBuilder. Arianna Huffington said “I love seeing our hard-working reporters disappear into the nap room,” and joked: “We haven’t seen any disappear in pairs yet, but we’re watching for it!”

7. Rides to and from work

Not only could office-provided transportation or organized carpooling save employees stressful commutes, sharing a ride could help them save money on transportation or fuel costs. No wonder 12% desire this perk most from their employers.

8. Snack cart that comes around the office

Having a snack cart patrol the office would permit employees to munch happily while never leaving their desks. Eight percent of employees said this perk would most improve their job satisfaction.

9. Private restroom

Having their own restroom would make 7% of workers very appreciative, though employers may have trouble giving this perk to every employee.

10. On-site daycare

Home Depot agrees with 6% of workers that on-site daycare is a perk worth having. The company’s onsite child care facility has space for 278 children and is available to all employees in the Atlanta area, not just those who work at the head office.



Want to Win the Wellness Game? Start with Good Communications and Fun

For many employers, wellness has become a no-brainer. The challenge, many employers discover, is getting employees on board and keeping them on the right track.

The solution, experts say, is to keep employees informed and keep it fun.

"The goal of wellness workplace programs is to improve health and slow health care costs," said Amy Gallagher, wellness expert with Cornerstone Group in Warwick, R.I. "And to get there, a clear communication strategy is a must."

Gallagher noted in a recent blog post on GoLocalProv that employers need to be aggressive and proactive when promoting their programs.

"Don't be shy when rolling out a wellness program; make it an event," Gallagher wrote. "In a kick-off meeting, position the program as an employee benefit the employer fully supports and be sure to involve leadership."

Gallagher also suggested discussing the importance of wellness with employees and clearly defining the activities and expectations.

Once the program is rolling, employers should consistently remind employees of the initiative and provide online portals and tools to boost participation.

Like any activity, it's more fun when it's a game. And wellness is no exception, according Limeade Inc.'s Henry Albrect in a recent Society for Human Resource Management report.

In the article, Albrect noted that while employers may want to be aggressive with their programs, securing buy-in from employees and making participation voluntary will generate better results.

"Traditional wellness programs often fail to achieve lasting change using a heavy-handed reliance on high incentives to drive goals passed down by the company," Albrect wrote. Programs that rely on games that appear to serve the participants' interests -- not the company's -- tend to fare better, he noted. Also, social games -- contests that involve people with whom workers already interact and know -- can be particularly effective, he said.

Like any game, the players -- not just the employer -- will want to know the score, wrote Gallagher of Cornerstone, a Member Firm of United Benefit Advisors.

"After a cycle of activities is completed, be sure to report back to employees on progress and results. Share where the population health risks are, how future activities and participation will help reduce them and any new program goals or offerings. Don't forget to survey employees to gauge their satisfaction with the program -- perhaps the most important result of all."

Wellness Perks and Relocations

Discounts for fitness centers tops employees' favorite wellness perks, according to the Principal Financial Well-Being Index. One quarter of respondents picked gym discounts as the most valuable perk, followed by on-site preventive screenings (22 percent), access to nutritionists (21 percent) and on-site fitness facilities (19 percent). However, gym discounts figure as the third most popular wellness perk offered by employers, preceded by online wellness information (19 percent) and educational tools (18 percent), and tied with printed wellness information (17 percent).

Many employers are willing to shell out cash to help new hires relocate, according to a new report by CareerBuilder. Among companies polled, 32 percent of employers said they'd be willing to pay to relocate new employees, while 44 percent of workers said they'd be willing to relocate for a job opportunity. Companies in the engineering and technology fields were the most likely to say they'd cover moving expenses for new hires, the report said.

The Obama administration has proposed a compromise to quell the backlash about a new women's health services requirement from a number of religiously affiliated organizations. President Barack Obama announced that religiously affiliated universities and hospitals would not be forced to cover contraceptives for their workers. However, insurance carriers would be required to provide complete coverage for birth control at no charge for any woman at those institutions.  This rule, which still excludes women employed by churches, will take effect for employers on Aug. 1. Religiously affiliated groups will have an additional year before the rule affects them.

Prepaid credit cards and gift cards are among the most popular incentives doled out by companies, according to a new survey. Young America Corp.'s survey of 355 executives found that 46 percent use prepaid cards for their rewards programs, compared with 33 percent who use cash and 47 percent that cut company checks.

A new law that expands the California Insurance Equality Act may have an impact outside the state. The previous law barred insurance carriers from issuing policies that treat spouses and "registered domestic partners" differently, according to a press release by Corporate Synergies. However, the new law clarifies that an insurance policy cannot discriminate against domestic partners (including same-sex partners) of California-based companies, even if the employees don't work in the state. The law also applies to employees who work in the state for companies headquartered elsewhere. Experts suggest employers review their policies but seek professional advice before making any moves regarding their plans.

The IRS recently issued guidance clarifying whether patients who use Indian Health Services (IHS) facilities can also contribute to a health savings account (HSA). The IRS states that individuals who are eligible for IHS services can make tax-free contributions to an HSA as long as they have not used IHS services in the previous three months.

About 22 percent of U.S. employers offered supplemental health coverage for retirees in 2011, down slightly from nearly 23 percent in 2006, according to a report by Compdata. On average, employees had to work for 12 years under their employer to be eligible and had to pay about 65 percent of the premium.

The average starting salary for new college graduates with bachelor's degrees was $41,701, up 2.3 percent compared with the class of 2010, according to a report by the National Association of Colleges and Employers. Graduates in the engineering and computer science fields fared the best in overall starting salaries, with computer science graduates enjoying the largest overall increase, the report said.

The IRS has changed the vehicle value calculation for employers that own fleet vehicles. The maximum vehicle values for 2012 include:

  • Cars (for which cents-per-mile valuation rule is applied): $15,900 -- up from $15,300 in 2011.
  • Trucks or vans (for which cents-per-mile valuation rule is applied): $16,700 -- up from $16,200 in 2011.
  • Cars (for which fleet valuation rule is applied): $21,100 -- up from $20,300 in 2011.
  • Trucks or vans (for which fleet valuation rule is applied): $21,900 - up from $21,200 in 2011.