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Choose joy

Choose joy

“I’m choosing to be happy.”

I was immediately struck by the cashier’s choice of words when I asked how she was doing. What a great response, I thought.

As I shared with you at the beginning of this year, research has shown that joy can be learned. We can choose thoughts and behaviors that bring us happiness. We can practice by declaring our intentions out loud, like when someone asks us how we’re doing.

And not only is being happy a reward in and of itself, but a decade or so of research shows that in addition to improving the quality of our lives, joy may be linked to quantity of life.

A 2019 study, for example, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that optimistic people had a greater chance of living past age 85. The researchers analyzed data from two large population studies and found that people with high levels of optimism experienced a longer life span -- even after the researchers controlled for health conditions and behaviors such as smoking and alcohol use.

Many other studies have reached similar conclusions.

And while no one knows why happier people tend to live longer, the speculation is that experiencing less stress could play a role.  Stress causes the release of hormones that increase the wear and tear on the body via multiple mechanisms – including higher blood pressures and deteriorations in blood sugar control.  It goes to reason, therefore, that eliminating a negative health driver could improve health outcomes. 

Stress is generated by our perception of what is going on around us.  So changing perception (or our circumstances) can have a significant health impact.  Before my kidney stone “oops” I allowed small things to upset me, allowed people who were negative to influence my thinking, and allowed myself to obsess over minutiae.  Nothing like surviving a near-fatal illness to put things in perspective!  Small things are now small.  Negative people have no sway over me.  And I try to only focus on things that are truly meaningful (OK – I’m not always perfect at this last part – but I’m getting better).

And I’m 100% happier. 

Making these perception changes was a conscious effort.  And my new approach is not automatic.  There are many times I have to take a deep breath and remind myself that the “problem” in front of me is actually not much of a problem in the grand scheme of things.  In effect, I’m choosing to be happy.

And I would challenge you to do the same. After all, even a little water in the glass means it’s not completely empty.  

Finally, if you’ve been working on the first three pillars of longevity this month (congratulations by the way!) -- making smarter choices about nutrition, increasing physical activity, and enjoying friends and family -- you’re probably living a more joyful life already. When you’re feeling good about how you’re eating, moving your body and socializing, happiness naturally follows.

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