Happiness - It Is Our Choice
Abraham Lincoln once said, "Most people are about as happy as they choose to be." Lincoln should know. He went through much anguish in his life - the death of a fiancée, lost elections, the Civil War, and other major disappointments. At one point in his life, he was so depressed he considered suicide. But Lincoln chose to overcome his depression. He chose to be happy and obtained inner joy and peace in those last years before he was assassinated.
I believe, like Lincoln, that happiness is a choice. Our constitution guarantees us life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. We pursue happiness all through our lives. The average person thinks about happiness at least once a day. (Note that the constitution does not guarantee us happiness. It is up to each one of us to pursue happiness.)
If we ask someone what he or she thinks is the secret of happiness, we might hear answers like money, job, love, children, sex, success, marriage, residence, education, age, health, and so on. But, in spite of living in one of the wealthiest countries in the world, a majority of Americans will suffer from clinical depression at some point during their lives. At present, one person in 20 is diagnosed as having clinical depression. For those above age 65, one person in 10 is suffering from depression. It is estimated that about 20 million people in America are suffering from depression right now. Depression is more common among rich and affluent. (Money cannot buy happiness!) It is more common in later stages of life.
We are so busy in the pursuit of happiness that it is killing us. Our fast-paced modern lifestyle puts a tremendous load on us. This also puts strain on our interpersonal relationships - our relationship with our spouse, our family, our friends and others. Research done at University of Washington School of medicine in 1960's has found that stress correlated well with events in our lives. Any event that required a change in our lifestyle resulted in stress. Upsetting events such as death of a spouse, divorce etc. resulted in stress; what was surprising was that events that is supposed to be happy ones also contributed to stress - such as marriage, pregnancy, personal achievement. So, stress can result in any situation that requires change - pleasant or unpleasant.
Doctors call the body's reaction to stress as General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS). In the first stage of GAS, the body releases adrenaline and a variety of other psychological mechanisms to combat the stress and to stay in control. The muscles tense, the heart beats faster, the rate of respiration increases, the stomach may clench. We all know the feeling.
If the cause for the stress is not removed, the GAS goes through a number of progressive stages. In the third stage, the individual dies. The death does not come from stress itself. What happens is that the body loses all its resistance in its effort to ward off the stress. The person dies of immune deficiency problems such as infection, cancer etc. In less severe cases, stress can manifest itself into a number of diseases - depression, headaches, insomnia, ulcers, asthma, and more.
So, it is very important that we identify the cause of stresses and remove them in a timely manner to maintain a healthy lifestyle.
Relationships can work both ways: for and against our health and happiness. A full and rewarding social life can nourish the mind, the emotions, and the spirit. A good physical health requires as much of these as a well functioning body. Married people are found to live longer. Those who have pets are more happy and tend to live longer. There is positive correlation between stress and heart disease. In fact, stress can result in the release of cholesterol with subsequent choking of arteries.
A 1974 study in California with 7000 people found that those who had extensive social ties had death rates two to three times lower than those who were isolated. A study with 2750 patients in Michigan confirmed this study results.
It is ironic that immigrants who come to this country in pursuit of happiness are found to be the victims of stress related illnesses - the main one being heart diseases. What is interesting is that the effect depends on how much change they have made in their life when they came to this country. A study done with 12,000 Japanese immigrants showed that those who became westernized had five times as great coronary heart diseases as compared to those who kept their community ties - like living in a "small Japan". Again change breeds stress and the resultant illness and cause of unhappiness.
Omar Khayyam needed only very few things to transform a jungle into a paradise: love, wine and beauty.
Buddhists have learned how to appreciate life. A Buddhist monk is required to earn his food in the morning, find the fuel to cook it, cook the food and eat the food. Thus, when they eat the food, they contemplate on it; the hard work required to earn the food makes them appreciative of it. They do not sit and worry about where the food is coming from tomorrow. They know tomorrow will bring another opportunity for earning their livelihood. For them life is simple; they have no stress. They do not worry about the tumbling of the stock market, or the dot com bombs, etc.
There is a very good reason to choose happiness. It is good for you. Studies have shown that people who have maintained an optimistic view of life lived longer. They are less likely to catch Alzheimer's disease or get depressed. The enjoy life to the fullest.
Let me conclude with a poem written by a terminal cancer patient who could appreciate every additional day she got to live in this world.
Fay knew how precious life is and how to be thankful for each day. Each of us can do the same. And to help you get started, here are some clues of being happy from a former cancer patient.
20 Ways To Being Happy
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