For many people, happiness is not a simple goal to achieve. For all of us, we must choose to cultivate happiness in our lives. Achieving happiness and living happily is not just about experiencing personal enjoyment but is about survival.
A new long-term study of seniors has shown that those who enjoy life are better able to handle the physical activities required to live a healthy life, whereas the unhappiest people were 80 percent more likely to experience physical difficulty with basic routines.
Scientific and medical researchers have long explored the connection between mood and health. Harvard School of Public Health Professor Laura Kubzansky’s research has demonstrated, in long-term studies, that individuals who maintained an optimistic attitude and had the ability to focus on a single task had far fewer health problems over a 30-year period than those who did not demonstrate these qualities. In addition, optimistic people had a 50 percent risk reduction for heart disease. Professor Kubzansky believes that while close to half of attitudinal demeanor and outlook seems to be hereditary, treatments for depression initiated at any stage of life will help the physical health of patients.
Conversely, Harvard Professor Jack P. Shonkoff has found that adverse experiences in childhood—such as long-term neglect, living with violence, or living with a guardian who has mental illness—can trigger “toxic stress.” Toxic stress is defined as the body’s response to stress that leads to a spike in stress hormones, faster heart rate, and high blood pressure. This bodily reaction can lead to hypertension, cardiovascular disease, and, ultimately, premature death.
In addition, depression itself has been shown to shorten the lifespan. It had previously been proven that those being treated for depression developed cardiovascular disease at a younger age, but since depressed people tend to adopt unhealthy lifestyles and behaviors, such as smoking and lack of exercise, than those not being treated, it was not possible to confirm that depression alone was the cause. However, a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) study published in 2012 demonstrated significant differences in longevity between VA patients with diagnosed depression versus patients without a diagnosis. In this large study (700,000 patients with diagnosed depression in a population of nearly 5 million, with 167,000 deaths recorded during the year-long study period) the researchers found that patients with depression died at an average age of 71.0, versus 75.9 years for patients who had not been diagnosed with depression. Thus, patients with depression died, on average, five years earlier than those who were not depressed. This difference was noted in all thirteen separate causes of death studied (including heart disease and cancer; it was all noted in accidents, suicide, and homicide). Thus, depression has been confirmed as a literal killer.
In Jewish thought, happiness is not the goal of life, but is a tool toward actualizing our potentials. We labor not to be happy but rather, we are happy in order to labor. Even though there is a mitzvah to be happy on holidays (simchat yom), the purpose of this mitzvah is for one to elevate that joy in a closer relationship with God, Torah, family, and community, not to singularly enjoy oneself. We should all be blessed with happiness and should do our best to help those around us, and beyond, experience the joys of life as well. Achieving true internal happiness requires cultivating a rich spiritual, emotional, and relational life filled with giving and love. We must guard ourselves and those we love to be sure that we are achieving authentic happiness that helps us to actualize our life purposes and to live long healthy lives.
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Executive Director of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder &President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of “Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century.” Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America.”