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Marry, eat well, exercise — be happy

We must improve our health-care system before it bankrupts us. Sunday's Deseret News front page article was welcome reading. But to really impact health, we have to focus on our own behavior instead of on health-care providers. Our own actions have much more to do with how often we have to see a doctor and how much we will actually spend on medicine. Let's look first at what we all can do.

Cultivate happiness: Happy people outlive unhappy people. Erik Giltay, M.D. found that very optimistic men have half the heart attacks as pessimistic men. Hopeful people are more likely to watch their weight, stick to good eating plans and exercise. Recent research suggests that raising happiness may be even more healthy than quitting smoking.

How can we reliably increase happiness?

Get married, stay married and enjoy being married. While some research suggests that only a quarter of marriages are genuinely happy, it is within anyone's reach to have a happier marriage. In spite of the dire reports, married people are almost twice as happy as single people, according to a 2005 Pew report. Married people outlive their single peers with better health. Researcher John Gottman has shown that happy marriage increases your resistance to infection and reduces your risk of heart attacks and cancer. Brian Baker has shown that in happy marriages, being with the spouse reduces blood pressure.

Is enjoying being married a challenge? Just as we can enjoy food more by focusing on what is good about it, so we can also enjoy our marriages more by mindfully being aware of what works and what is right. The key to good marriages is to accept and enjoy your spouse just as she or he is right now. A change of heart will do wonders for your marriage.

Smile! People who are socially connected and friendly have much better health and longevity. Act as if you are happy and your body's health will improve. A large study has shown that happiness is contagious. You get it from friends and pass it on to friends. Make a point of smiling.

Connect with others. Reach out. The current fad of connecting with people through social networking is damaging to our abilities to genuinely touch other people. Mother Nature won't be fooled. A comment on a Facebook page will not replace time spent with a living and breathing friend.

Count your blessings. Depressed people who were asked to keep a daily diary of blessings found their depression rapidly resolving. People who cultivate the attitude of gratitude find life is a better place. In one study, people who wrote a letter of appreciation to someone and personally delivered it found their spirits greatly improved for a month afterward.

Write down what you eat. Weight loss is one of the most frustrating and difficult challenges for improving our health. There is one thing that genuinely works, and it is almost free. Those hoping to lose weight will have twice the success simply by keeping a food log. As we write down what is actually in our meals, we are more mindful and aware and choose wisely.

Improve your sleep habits. We are in an epidemic of insomnia, caused by too much stimulation, too many demands, too much worry and too much television. The best sleep habits are — for adults — around seven to eight hours a day. Poor sleep habits cause artery damage, weight gain, high blood pressure and a host of other medical problems. Slow down, do less, and treat yourself to better sleep.

Achieving robust health and reducing costs of medical care starts at home. The things I mention are all within your personal reach. The positive future of health care lies not in gleaming (and expensive) medical edifices but in simple changes in our own behavior.

Lynn Johnson, Ph.D, is a psychologist with offices in Murray