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Happy Life?

-by Dr. Alan Laird, Chief Medical Officer

In my last column, I wrote about the habits that could help us live a healthier life. But that begs a question. Why do you want to live a healthy life? I realize with this question I am treading out of medicine and into philosophy, theology, and psychology. But if we are going to be motivated to live healthier, I think we have to ask why? If the answer is to have a life we want to live, then we have to ask, what makes a happy life? A deep and thoughtful answer to that question is going to vary from person to person. But if you could ask a group of people over time about their life, what common aspect(s) would be found in those who believe their life to be happy? Perhaps rather than using the word “happy,” it could be “meaningful” or “satisfied” or “joyful.” Whatever the correct term, a Harvard study tried to answer that question. The study was conducted on the lives of 724 men over 78 years. It is a remarkable study because of its longevity and comprehensive scope. Participants were surveyed every two years about their physical and mental health. They answered questions about their friendships, marriages, and professional lives. They had personal interviews as well as blood tests and brain scans. It required multiple research teams over the duration of the project to accomplish this. It is ongoing and has broadened to include children, spouses, and women. The original group was not very diverse (it was all white men), but it did attempt to include men from different socioeconomic backgrounds (poor and wealthy, socially well-connected and those disadvantaged). So while this study may not reveal “wisdom of the ages,” what was the common thread among those reporting a satisfying life? It was relationships. It wasn’t wealth, it wasn’t social status, it wasn’t power, it wasn’t possessions, it wasn’t accomplishments, and it wasn’t professions. It was being as connected as we want to be. Some of us have the desire to be connected to a lot of people; others may only desire a connection to a few people. But if you have those core relationships that you need, you seem to be better insulated from the tuff knocks of life … and more likely to be “happy.” I believe this is a warning for our society. As we continue to emphasize the “I” and “me” rather than the “us” and “we,” we run the risk of further isolation. As we spend more time on our screens (Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, TV, Netflix, Hulu etc.), we get a false sense of connection. We may be “following” hundreds of people or have hundreds of “followers.” But as the saying goes, that can be “a mile wide and an inch deep.” Studies indicate that electronic “relationships” do not make up for flesh and blood relationships. As we elect to remove ourselves from meeting together, in person, and choose screen time over fellowship, we often reinforce the very feelings we are trying to escape. No, being connected or having relationships does not guarantee happiness (or satisfaction or meaningfulness). But we really do make a difference in each other’s lives. So if we’re going to be healthy, let’s try also to be happy. And at least one key to that happiness appears to be social connection. Perhaps we need to give something up to have time for that social interaction. Perhaps we need to remind those around us, screen-to-screen is not face-to-face. We need to invest in others, and in turn we are likely to find ourselves invested in. And since we need to exercise (and probably lose weight), maybe we can invest in each other and connect at the gym, while we walk — or over a healthy meal. Okay, time to turn off my computer.