There are sound scientific reasons why a cheerful attitude and positive outlook are most essential even in the face of challenges, traumatic stress and uncertainties.
Joyfulness is more than 50 percent of wellness and should ideally be everyone’s default nature. There is no other alternative if the objective is robust health and wellness in all three dimensions: body, mind and spirit.
Without cheer, there can be no holistic wellbeing or happiness, even if someone is a billionaire, even if he or she is the most cerebral person, or even if someone is the “best” in any field of human endeavor. Humans may have progressed to the Ultima Thule—the final limits of thought—and yet health science lays down that further progress is driven by happiness and cheerfulness that create the right in-house ecosystem for the central nervous system (CNS) and the exocrine and endocrine glands.
A meta-study of 160 research papers shows that happiness ensures good health and prolongs life. Tension and stress do the opposite and cause healing times to drag on longer and shorten longevity. One of these studies followed 5,000 students for over 40 years and concluded that the most pessimistic students died younger. Another study of 180 Catholic nuns showed that those who wrote positive autobiographies in their 20s outlived those who wrote negative accounts of their life.1
The biochemical factory
Excretions like saliva in the mouth and sweat on the skin are made through ducts. The secretion of hormones (or biochemicals) by the pineal, pituitary, thyroid, parathyroid, adrenal, pancreas, testes, and ovary glands are made directly into the bloodstream. The human body can be seen as a biochemical factory whose effectiveness is governed, without exaggeration, by cheerfulness—or at least a perception of it.
To illustrate, if someone is depressed by a long rainy and foggy day, or the air is full of gloomy news such as gun violence or bombing or other losses, the hypothalamus, which is the size of a grape and located just above the brain stem, tips off the master endocrine gland—the pituitary about the harsh conditions or circumstances. The pituitary in turn instructs the endocrine factory to slow its pace—if not slam on the brakes. Hormone generation gets sluggish. The body will start biding its time. Homeostasis then starts to get sloppy and less optimal.
Now assume that pancreatic cells start functioning as told by the pituitary. If they become sluggish, they’ll generate less than adequate amounts of insulin. Blood sugar spikes up and the person in depression faces a greater risk of type 2 diabetes. A well-trained or well-informed mind retaining good spirits can defy the darkness and pessimism, override the hypothalamus’s tips and pituitary hints, and direct the pancreas to continue to generate the required measure of insulin. And lo, diabetes is averted.
Sursum Corda for carrying on ADLs
Not just in the clinic, but everywhere else, too, you see worried and unhappy people. Many conceal inner anguish, unease or discomfort. People visit churches, synagogues, temples and mosques to unload heavy grief and fear. They are unable to carry out their basic ADLs (activities of daily life) such as grooming, personal hygiene, dressing, toileting, ambulating and eating.
There are also IADLs (or instrumental activities of daily life) that are more complicated, involving professional activities and those concerned with independent living.2 Sorrow and depression are notorious for robbing people of their joy de vivre.
Most individuals need an inspiring message like the Sursum Corda (Latin for “Lift up your hearts”) to muster enough perception and mindfulness to command the chattering mind to hush and not give in to a litany of negative and depressing thoughts and signals. Minds can marshal rationality and wit, and focus on things that matter for hearty living, a precondition for happiness.
Distress impairs homeostasis
For most of us neck-deep in ADLs and IADLs, remaining cheerful and upbeat is easier said than done. So if the patient hears that they should “snap out of it,” regarding their negative thoughts or depression, it sounds more like a mere cliché rather than something doable.
The bold way women have recently jettisoned their painful baggage of abuse and mistreatment under the #MeToo association is commendable. That was the most logical thing to do under the circumstances. The other option would have been suffering bitter emotions without end, jeopardizing their normal hormone secretions, impairing homeostasis and winding up in the disease rut.
There is a health rationale regarding why one needs to maintain equanimity of the mind, regardless of the provocation, regardless of the magnitude of the failure, loss, sorrow or tragedy. In fact, scientifically and physiologically speaking, it may be better to err on the side of tempered celebration, exhilaration and happiness rather than err on the side of grief, sadness—or worse, hopelessness (which is one of the underlying causes of the current opioid epidemic).
The meaning of sukha and dukkha
There is much wisdom in the Sanskrit words sukha and dukkha. Sukha means comfort or even happiness. Su in Sanskrit means good and kha means freedom or space. Together, the full meaning is good space, physical and mental, both within and without. It is like wanting legroom and elbowroom while driving a vehicle.
This “comfort zone” comes with a psychological aspect: the freedom to think and act according to one’s raison d’être. Sukha connotes breathing space, wellness, openness, integrity and freedom.
All people want space, and not be crammed together, packed like sardines. There is no sukha when rushing out of the stadium at the end of a football game. Freedom is lost in terms of time and space. We get bogged down in dukkha, the lack of physical space or mental freedom.
Comfort or placating space is preserved in the human body, in particular in the rib cage housing the cardiovascular system. Inside the rib cage the heart is lodged between the right and left lungs. There is just enough space for the lungs to inflate like a balloon when we take a deep breath. When there is despair or sadness, the skeletal-muscular structure constricts and even slouches. Breathing may tend to be not proficient. Sorrow curbs sukha.
The National Institute of Mental Health has listed the following issues as signs and symptoms of depression:3
- Persistent sad, anxious or “empty” mood
- Feelings of hopelessness or pessimism
- Feelings of guilt, worthlessness or helplessness
- Loss of interest or pleasure in hobbies and activities
- Decreased energy or fatigue
- Moving or talking more slowly
- Feeling restless
- Difficulty concentrating, remembering or making decisions
- Difficulty sleeping, early-morning awakening or oversleeping
- Appetite or weight changes
- Thoughts of death, suicide or suicide attempts u Aches or pains, headaches, cramps or digestive problems without a clear physical cause and do not ease even with treatment
Those who experience these symptoms will not breathe well, and that affects the trillions of cells in the body that depend on oxygen. Their atrophy rate may rise.
Those in unhappiness are thus having a double whammy: The emotional distress caused by a sad event in the first place, and secondly, a body-mind slump causing sickness. There is a troublesome chain reaction triggered by the hypothalamus.
If equanimity cannot be maintained, the respiratory system loses its vitality or zing. That in turn adversely affects the digestive system, the (blood) circulatory system, the nervous system, the reproductive system, and of course the mind and its usual preoccupations. The result is that both body and mind are in jeopardy.
Joy, on the other hand, can trigger a virtuous chain reaction just as sadness can set off a vicious one. The biochemical factory starts functioning at peak efficiency and all systems are in the pink of health. And so it is a good strategy to stay cheerful and wear a smile, even if artificial.
Sudhanva Char, DC, has been teaching statistics, biostatistics, economics, and related disciplines at Life University for more than 20 years. He has written and published over 100 peer-reviewed research papers and also a book on agricultural income tax. He has also been a certified yoga teacher for more than 30 years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1 Diener E, Chan MY. Happy People Live Longer: Subjective Well-Being Contributes to Health and Longevity. Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being. 2011;3(1):1-43.
2 ME Mlinac, MC Feng. Assessment of Activities of Daily Living, Self-Care, and Independence. Archives of Clinical Neuropsychology. 2016;31(6):506-516.
3 National Institute of Mental Health. “Depression, An Overview.” https://www.nimh. nih.gov/health/topics/depression/index.shtml. Updated February 2018. Accessed July 2018.