Abstracted from A Scientist’s View of Almost Everything
By Mark M. Green
Harvard University Medical School’s psychology professor Nancy Etcoff discovered that for patients undergoing the same medical procedure, gall bladder surgery, those with a room with a pretty view of a park used less pain medication, had shorter hospital stays, and complained less to the nurses than those patients with windows facing a brick wall. I could see that looking at a park could make you happier than looking at a brick wall, but why should this lead to a faster recovery from surgery and with less pain? Whatever the answer to that question is, health appears to be connected to happiness. Many polling results show that married people are happier than unmarried people and other data show that married people are healthier and live longer. Interestingly, among heterosexual couples the health and longevity effects of happiness appear to work more strongly on the married men.
Consider this experiment carried out at Stanford University, reported in a book by Stefan Klein, The Science of Happiness. Patients suffering from terminal cancer who participated in group sessions with other patients suffered less pain, appeared relatively happier, and actually lived considerably longer than those patients given identical treatment but without that kind of group experience. Parallel experiments report similar results for heart attack and leukemia patients.
Where does this apparent connection between health and happiness come from? As discussed in Klein’s book, experiments demonstrate a husband’s and wife’s blood showed a reduction in protective antibodies and disease- protecting white blood cells when they quarreled. And the more the husband and wife quarreled the greater the effect. The links between unhappiness and ill health are beyond question, including studies reported by the National Institutes of Health that demonstrate, for one example, the biological mechanisms connecting stress and cholesterol buildup and, therefore, higher probability of heart attack and stroke.
So, you would like to live a long and healthy life. Okay, be happy. But how? Here is one surprising (to me) result plucked from Klein’s scholarly book that suggests we might have less control then we would like to have. Technology that can be used to bypass us (so to speak) and interrogate our brains has given rise to neuropsychological research. Research in this field has revealed that different people can be dominated by the left or right side of their prefrontal cortexes. Right side dominated people tend toward unhappiness and even depression, seeing the worst side of their experiences, while left side dominance tends toward a sunnier disposition. (Could there be a connection between these results and polling conducted by the famously reliable Pew Research Center which show that Republicans, presumably left side dominated, are happier than Democrats, presumably right side dominated?) And these findings are consistent even after controlling for income, for which political party is in power, and in many countries.
Nevertheless, there’s hope for controlling your happiness quotient. Expressing anger, following the advice to get it out, does not relieve your anger. In fact, it makes you even angrier and, therefore, unhappier—a result confirmed by the observation of increased numbers of neurons turning their attention to anger when we are expressing anger. As Klein puts it, “We are not steam kettles.” So, stop losing your temper if you can.
Here’s more about what you might do to be happier, according to research from Germany as reported in Klein’s book. Having someone feel sorry for you when you are in pain will make you feel more pain than if you are left alone. Brain scans show that larger areas of the brain report pain when your complaints cause others to console you. If pain has to do with being unhappy, these experiments show that having others pat you on the back when you’re unhappy about something will increase your unhappiness. Apparently, moping about with your back pain and asking for sympathy will make you worse.
Speaking of moping about, here’s an experiment, noted in Klein’s book, demonstrating psychologist Martin Seligman’s theory of “learned helplessness.” Dogs were put into two cages. In both cages mild but unpleasant electric shocks disturbed the dogs. In one cage a dog pushing its nose against a lever, an action that was quickly learned, could stop the shocks. But this lever was not available in the other cage. After a while the dogs from both cages were put in an area they could easily escape from. Mild shocks were initiated. Only the dogs from the cage that had the lever got out. The others stayed behind and suffered the shocks. They had learned helplessness; they had learned to accept unhappiness. Experiments and experience show that people suffer from learned helplessness. Did you ever hear a depressed person say that it was no use—you can’t do anything. From the world of psychology arises the idea of positive psychology, actually an old idea best addressed by two famous American song writers, Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen, and sung by Bing Crosby in Here Comes the Waves, the 1944 film smash. We all know the tune. “Eliminate the negative, And latch on to the affirmative, Don’t mess with Mister In-Between.”
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