The Happiness Factors

Posted by on July 3, 2013 at 4:45 pm :: No Comments

For many people, happiness remains perpetually illusive. If I had a dime for every time someone complained on Facebook about how their life is the pits, I’m pretty sure I’d be able to buy me a gumball or two. I, on the other hand, am very content with my existence. Sure, like everyone else I’ve got my problems but, in general, I feel fortunate to be living the life I do. Recently, with all the research that I peruse at work, I came across a study that I found fascinating. It might explain why I delight in my days and how the downers of the world could find more joy in theirs. Hence, with the happiness of the entire universe at stake, I thought I better share this mind-blowing data.

In 1937 Harvard initiated the Grant Study, the world’s longest investigation of physical and mental health. More than 200 Harvard students have been followed over the last 75 years for this study. Their experiences have been used to ascertain the best means of adding life to your years instead of just years to your life. The lead researcher, George Valliant, has written multiple books on his intriguing findings. Although I can’t cover all the riveting topics of those volumes here, I do want to relay a few snippets that I thought were particularly interesting.

Based off the lives of these students and how successfully they aged, Valliant came up with nine protective factors that, when adhered to, increase health and happiness up to age 70, 80 and beyond. Here they are in no particular order:

1. Don’t Smoke: This is a no-brainer for most of us. With the taboo that cigarettes have become, few of us would touch tobacco but it’s never too late to quit if you’re the touchy/feely type.

2. Avoid Excessive Alcohol Consumption: Again, for me, this is a no-brainer. Alcohol abuse destroys both health and happiness and I actually like being in control of my faculties. (Yes, the term “control freak” does apply.) I have no need for liquor; I can make an idiot of myself all on my own, thank you very much. What’s excessive one might ask? There’s a big difference between having a beer or glass of wine with your dinner and getting totally sloshed every weekend. Do you drink like you’re still a college kid at a frat party even though you left the dorms behind a decade or more ago? I would say that’s excessive.

3. Maintain a Healthy Weight: I know lots of us struggle with this but, I assure you, habits and expectations can be changed. Too many people buy into the notion that they should look like a Barbie and then, when they realize this isn’t attainable, they surrender in frustration and end up looking like Jabba the Hutt instead. Where body composition is concerned, we should have ideal health not ideal “beauty” as our goal. I’m no toothpick but I’m very healthy and I’m perfectly happy with that. You don’t need to look like a supermodel to be in good shape. After all, supermodels only look the way they do because of some hardcore anorexia, boob jobs and extensive photoshopping. Don’t be fooled into thinking that a body like that’s advantageous or even real and don’t let the impossibility of that ideal make you give up on the attainability of real health.

4. Exercise: This one is a cinch for me because I go absolutely batty if physical activity’s not regularly draining my excess energy reserves. Getting into an exercise routine can be difficult but it’s well worth it. Along with a healthier heart and a toned physique, you’ll get a deserved sense of euphoria and accomplishment.

Exercise has been part of my routine since I was a teenager. Thanks to our running club, the R.A.C., it's become customary for many of our friends as well.

Exercise has been part of my routine since I was a teenager. Thanks to our running club, the R.A.C., it’s become customary for many of our friends as well.

5. Engage in Selfless Behavior: It’s little wonder that doing something good for someone else makes us feel happier. Not only are we changing another life for the better but we are also taking the focus off of our own troubles. Double win baby! Valliant put it very eloquently this way, “Don’t think less of yourself but try to think of yourself less.” I’m certainly no saint but I do hope, when all is said and done, that I can leave this world a little better off than it would have been without me.

6. A Strong Partnership: Having a spouse or partner you can count on adds greatly to happiness. This shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone, except maybe Mr. Bobbitt. Jason and I have a fantastic relationship; I can’t tell you how much of a difference it has made in my life. Finding or keeping Mr. or Mrs. Right may seem out of our hands but we definitely do have a say in it. Only we can open ourselves up to a new love or improve our relationship with the love that we’ve got.

7. A Good Long Education: The more educated we are the happier we tend to be.

8. Stay Creative and Continually Learn New Things: Creativity and curiosity keep us young and engaged. I am an extremely curious person and, although I’ve been out of college for years, I still love to gain knowledge whether it’s in the form of a technical food science book or a dance class. The mysteries of the universe and the steps to the foxtrot uniformly fascinate me.

9. Good Coping Skills: Stress, strain, and conflict are unavoidable. We are all going to experience those through the course of our lives, some of us probably more than our fair share, but if we can laugh about our problems and maturely resolve our differences with others, we will discover a lot more joy in our existence. Valliant has said that good coping skills are related to emotional intelligence and that this type of intelligence, which helps us build better relationships, predicts happiness much more than IQ. I’ll admit that, out of all of these factors, this is the one that I need to work on the most. I tend to worry about some things more than I should and a few things much more than I should. But hey, I can still change; I’m not dead yet.

This study found that those that met fewer than four of these controllable factors were all sick/sad or dead by the time they were 80 while most of those that complied with at least a few more were still happy and well at that age.

You may have perceived from Valliant’s list that as we age maintenance becomes much more important than genes. (Sorry dude that had a grandpa that lived to 102, if you don’t exercise that heart attack is still coming for you.) You may also have noticed that some seemingly obvious contenders for creating happiness are missing from that list. Money and social prestige, commonly believed to be the building blocks of life enjoyment, didn’t make the cut.

For me, the take-home message in all of this is simple: we have much more say in the realization of our happiness than some of us would like to admit. We are more frequently the victims of our own hands than of circumstances beyond our control. Perhaps we should be a little less cutthroat and a little more caring. Perhaps we should foster new hobbies and habits. Maybe we should get off the couch and get on the trail. And perhaps we should remember that our relationship with our spouse is worth some effort and consideration.

Like I said, I am extremely content. I don’t wish to be any younger or richer or more successful than I am now. I have nothing to prove to anyone. I’m happy with where I am right at this very moment and I plan on continuing to be happy in every moment that I’m lucky enough to be alive.

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