Be Well, Marsha: 3/29/16

The healing power of happy

By Marsha Bonhart

I thought writing about green spaces during the first week of spring would certainly boost happiness levels. After all, research tells us the sun and green growth make people happy—and those who are exposed more to those surroundings are cheerier than most.

The New York Times Well section gives us the pretty picture of college students who walk for an hour near their university greenery. Their anxiety was lowered and they performed better on memory tests. In fact, those students were from Stanford University, which conducted an experiment that looked at the impact of nature on cognition. The study reveals students who participated in the nature walk experienced reduced negativity. They were compared to another group of students sent to walk through an urban environment near Palo Alto, California. Those students didn’t have the same positive emotion regulation.

Sandra McKee Smith of Yellow Springs is grateful for her leafy, lush surroundings.

“We’re out here in the country with more trees than concrete,” she says. “I get the feeling of fresh and new with the wind blowing through my hair, it’s just upbeat.”

McKee Smith’s personal theory was proven in the highlights of a landscape and urban planning paper written by James. J. Gross, Gretchen C. Daly and Gregory Bratman. The study showed the Green County resident’s feelings support the idea that exposure to natural green space does improve how you see the world.

“The greenery makes me happy; that’s the feeling I have in the spring,” McKee Smith says.

The Landscape and Urban Planning research study also showed workers’ well-being is associated with use and window views of green space.

In an article printed in The New York Times, Dr. Danielle Ofri says mood could drive health. “Happy people are more likely to make salutary choices in their lives by eating veggies, exercising and getting regular medical care—therefore becoming more healthy,” says the New York City area family practice physician. If you are healthy, you feel better. That energy allows you to look for what you enjoy, which can make you happy. Also in the article she mentions, on the other hand, she finds depression and loneliness make it difficult to exercise and the pint of cookie dough ice cream looks a lot more appealing than the kale casserole.

As Fran Robinson seeks inner peace for herself she tries to include flora and fauna in all decisions. The Vandalia resident says her environment is critical to adding that special label to complete the package.

“I think I find a sense of calm in the outside in general,” she says. “The sunshine, blue sky, the warm weather. You react and respond differently to the cold weather, I think.”

Another New York Times article written at the end of last year differs on the correlation between happiness and good health. It tells us unhappiness is not a mark of bad health. The writing quoted happiness and other measures of well-being do not appear to have a direct effect on mortality. This, despite the widely held theory that stress and unhappiness cause disease.  The five-year study involved one million British women ages 60 to 69 who were followed electronically, and were asked about their health, happiness, feelings of control and when and whether they relax.  Only 17 percent of the women reported being totally unhappy. After the scientists monitored their self-rating and their diseases—diabetes, high blood pressure, asthma, arthritis, cancer, depression and anxiety—unhappiness was not associated with mortality. One way to interpret these findings, Oxford University professor Richard Peto says is, “good news for the grumpy.”  The New York Times article also quoted Peto as saying, “believing things that aren’t true isn’t a good idea. There are enough scare stories about health.”

That research isn’t convincing to Yellow Springs’ Sandra McKee Smith. “As a I child I remember when the sun would shine and the wind would whip through my hair was like a breath of fresh air, almost like a high. It lifts my spirits, makes me happy.”

Professor Peto’s study would not agree with Smith. He says of the one million women studied in the British research, 50 percent reported in their self-surveys that they were in good health with no history of heart disease, cancer, stroke or emphysema. He says in the article, “a substantial minority” of the women said they were stressed or unhappy, but over the next 10 years they were no more likely to die than women who were generally happy. Peto acknowledges that because this kind of self-assessment study may not be considered as reliable as a rigorous treatment, its huge number of one million gives it powerful credence. He did warn however, that unhappiness itself may not have a direct effect on health, but it can manifest by pushing people to develop life-shortening habits such as drugs and alcohol. He also says he doubts his finding will change many minds from the more popular theory that happiness is directly related to good health. Other researchers say they want to see more information; that the Peto study found a lot of data without a clear signal.

Perhaps the best summary comes from Fran Robinson.

“I do appreciate nature, but peace and happiness come from within,” Robinson says. “It comes from the study of the spirit and my soul and an appreciation of the life I have been given with my family and friends and my God.”

Be well,

Marsha

Marsha Bonhart is a freelance writer and public relations/marketing consultant in the Dayton area. She can be reached at MarshaBonhart@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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