C’mon, Get Happy!

The pursuit of happiness is an inalienable right — so what are we waiting for?

Janice Kleinschmidt. Health & Wellness


People constantly tell us to “Have a good day.” Even if it may be a rote greeting, there’s no good reason not to follow their suggestion. “Sure,” you say, “that’s easier said than done.” Well, maybe not. Maybe we’re overlooking opportunities to improve our dispositions. Certainly unforeseen circumstances — a flat tire, a hammer on the thumbnail, spilling red wine on a white silk shirt — have the potential to dampen our otherwise rosy outlooks, but we have more control over our happiness than we think — or exercise.


Speaking of exercise, physical activity is one of the easiest ways to boost your spirits. It not only releases pain-suppressing, “feel good” neurotransmitters in the brain (i.e., serotonin, norepinephrine, and beta-endorphins), but also builds new neurons —a process logically called neurogenesis.

“Exercise will generate chemicals in the body that result in increased neural activity in the area of the brain called the limbic system,” explains Dr. Richard Shames, chief of endocrinology services at the Preventive Medicine Center of Marin and author of Feeling Fat, Fuzzy or Frazzled? (Hudson Street/Penguin 2006), www.feelingfff.com.

While prescription drugs such as Prozac and Zoloft increase serotonin levels; tri-cyclic antidepressants (i.e., Elavil, Pamelor, and Norpramin) target norepinephrine levels; and drugs such as Effexor work on both serotonin and norepinephrine, exercise is an even better antidepressant, according to Dr. Shames. “It is working on many more neurotransmitters at the same time,” he says. “There’s a great synergistic effect.” Plus, you don’t experience the side effects that accompany drugs.

Physical activity also burns off excess adrenaline — the fight-or-flight hormone that causes “untold problems,” Dr. Shames says, such as muscle tightness and insomnia.

The benefits of exercise extend beyond physiological transformations that lift you from a funk. Psychologists theorize that activity triggers a sense of self-control and achievement; distracts us from everyday stressful situations; and, in the case of team sports, promotes the socialization that leads to happiness.


How social activity leads to happiness is more of a gray area — that is, do happy people socialize more or does socializing make people happy?

In a National Opinion Research Center study, sociologists John P. Robinson and Steven Martin acknowledged that chicken-or-egg-first puzzler in their report on a 30-year survey of social attitudes. However, they concluded in their 2008 report, “That socializing and happiness are related is confirmed.”

People who described themselves as very happy reported socializing with relatives 11 times a year more than people who described themselves as unhappy, seven times a year more with neighbors, and five times a year more with friends.

Just as with exercise, socializing stimulates brain activity. For example, positive feedback from friends stimulates nucleus accumbens in the ventral striatum, according to Naomi Eisenberger, an assistant professor of psychology at UCLA.

“What we call pretty complex social processes — giving to charity, cooperating with other people — actually rely on very primitive reward circuitry,” Eisenberger says. “This is the circuitry that activates when we eat good food or have sex — lower-level reward processes. … Clearly we know the difference between giving to charity and eating chocolate. I think the interesting thing is there are commonalities too.”

While neural imaging studies do not pinpoint precise brain chemicals, Eisenberger says, “Clearly there’s something rewarding about having social connections.”

Enhance Your Environment

Yes, it’s true that you lack absolute control over your environment. After all, some days it will rain, you will be surrounded by other people with their own motives and moods, and your occupation may dictate where you live (not every career path leads to a cushy job on the St. Tropez beach). However, you can create an atmosphere as pleasing as possible. It could be as simple as putting your child’s framed photograph next to your computer; if you don’t have a child, perhaps one of those desktop Zen gardens will help you maintain a positive frame of reference.

At home, use colors in your décor that influence a positive emotional response. For example, blue conveys a feeling of calm, while yellow communicates a sunny outlook. These mental associations result from physical responses to light energy. While color preferences are subjective, the sensory perception of color is objective. Based on that concept, Swiss psychotherapist Max Lüscher developed the Lüscher Color Diagnostic, a test that has been used clinically since 1947 to gauge a person’s state of mind.

In addition to color, surround yourself with things that make you happy: artwork and music, a bobblehead collection perhaps, or fresh flowers, the latter of which brings to mind…

Find a Soothing Aroma

We’re long past the days when opening the window to let in some fresh air did the trick. If we’re to believe advertisers, what we really need to counteract the lingering scents of last night’s fish dinner, our cat’s litter box, and our visiting uncle’s cigar smoke comes in a spray, plug-in, stickup, gel, candle, diffuser, or potpourri burner. These products do more than neutralize odors. They lend your home the air of freshly baked gingerbread cookies, Victoria’s Butchart Gardens, or a tropical island with swaying coconut palms — scents that evoke a sense of well-being in an otherwise stinky world.

Although civilizations have used essential oils for thousands of years, it was not until the 20th century that aromatherapy became a method of treating psychiatric problems. Soon, alternative medicine practitioners and home-remedy enthusiasts embraced the use of essential oils — alone and in conjunction with other ingredients (often complementary oils) — to heal body and mind.

When you inhale an essential oil, the olfactory membrane sends electrical im-pulses to the part of the brain that controls emotion. Studies of brain-wave patterns have shown that scents either increase alpha waves (associated with relaxation) or beta waves (associated with stimulation). Clary sage, rose, ylang-ylang, sandalwood, lavender patchouli, chamomile, bergamot, rose, and geranium are among essential oils that have been used to treat anxiety and depression.

Try Acupuncture

Perhaps it’s time to retire the phrase “on pins and needles” to suggest anxious anticipation. Another alternative therapy, acupuncture, has proven to have a calming effect — to leave people relaxed and happy. In fact, National Institute of Health-funded clinical trials have examined the use of acupuncture to treat depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

At the University of Louisville in Kentucky, researchers analyzed depression, anxiety, and impairment in 73 people diagnosed with PTSD. According to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, the researchers “found that acupuncture provided treatment effects similar to group cognitive-behavioral therapy.”

As the Chinese explain this ancient practice in their medical arsenal, acupuncture restores the flow of qi, or energy, that has been blocked by a physical or mental condition. As Western medical practitioners explain it, acupuncture stimulates the central nervous system to release neuro-transmitters in the brain.

In 1998, the National Institute of Health funded a Stanford University study to determine the efficacy of acupuncture to treat depression in pregnant women, with promising results. More studies into the use of acupuncture to affect a person’s emotional state are being undertaken. In the meantime, anecdotal evidence from individuals proves that some people have found acupuncture beneficial in helping them feel better.

Taste the Good Life

The woman eating ice cream out of a container after being dumped by her boyfriend has become a cliché on television and in movies. We may laugh at what seems like nothing more than an ill-conceived, (read “calorie-ridden”) attempt at comfort, but the fact is that scientific evidence lends credence to the practice (though maybe not consumption of an entire quart of Rocky Road). Adam Drewnowski, a researcher at the University of Michigan who has studied the effects of chocolate and ice cream on mood, concluded that an ice cream-induced sense of well-being was the result of the neurotransmitter anandamide attaching to brain receptors to make us feel mellow.

If Häagen-Dazs is too rich for your blood, Mackie’s of Scotland enhanced its low-fat ice cream with orchid essence, which it claimed would turn comfort into joy. Notably, orchid essence has been used for years in aromatherapy applications.

Second to ice cream — in Hollywood’s mind anyway — for the boy-dumps-girl scenario is chocolate (an entire box, of course, to drive home the point). Chocolate raises spirits through the essential amino acid phenylethylamine. In fact, in a study reported in New Scientist in 2004, researchers found that the babies of women who regularly consumed chocolate during preg-nancy smiled and laughed more than their chocolate-deprived counterparts.

Fortunately for our waistlines, there are plenty of “serious” foods with mood-enhancing qualities, such as those rich in omega-3 essential fatty acids. For more on blissful foods (as well as recipes to get you started on the road to happiness), read “Joy of Cooking,” page 27MG.

Go Natural

If you’re a food-label reader, you’ve run across a lot of hard-to-pronounce ingredients, but not S-Adenosylmethionine — because it isn’t found in food. Instead, SAMe, as it is referred to, occurs naturally in the body as a combination of two similarly technical-sounding components. More than 40 biochemical reactions rely on SAMe, which increases levels of neurotransmitters, serotonin, dopamine, and phosphatidylserine — all important to how we feel.

The body’s ability to produce SAMe, however, may be impaired by a number of factors, including smoking, birth control pills, excessive consumption of processed foods, high-protein and high-fat diets, and aging. If a person is deficient in any one of the nutrients important to SAMe production (i.e., magnesium, folic acid, and B12), they may want to turn to the shelves of a natural health food store. SAMe supplements have been proven useful in the treatment of osteoarthritis, fibromyalgia, and depression, as well as liver disorders. Other mood-enhancing supplements include 5-HTP, dopamine, L-tryptophan, and tyrosine.

Dr. Daniel Cosgrove, medical director of WellMax Center for Preventive Medicine in La Quinta, favors 5-HTP together with fish oil, which provides omega-3 fatty acids. The American Heart Association recommends a daily omega-3 intake of 900 mg; Cosgrove recommends 2 to 3 grams of fish oil a day.

“I think the average American diet includes less than 100 milligrams of omega-3 fatty acids a day, and a significant percentage of our brain is made out of it,” Cosgrove says. “We are not getting enough of the building block of our brain.”

Seek Therapy/Medication

If extraterrestrials landed on Earth and began due diligence by watching television, they might conclude that our main concerns involve osteoporosis, high cholesterol, incontinence, and depression. Certainly these issues have come to the forefront in the last few years with a proliferation of drug ads, leading many to believe that good health (including mental health) can be found in the medicine cabinet. But prescribing drugs, including antidepressants, willy-nilly doesn’t always address an underlying problem.

“A lot of depressed people are recurrently depressed,” Cosgrove says. “Someone may say, ‘I don’t have any depression history, but lately have been feeling bad.’” Such an instance, he says, demands a check of the hormone-producing thyroid. Over- and underactive thyroids cause nervousness, restlessness, anxiety, irritability, fatigue, and depression. According to Cosgrove, recent studies have caused the medical field to decrease the upper level for an acceptable thyroid reading from 5.5 to 4 or 4.5. “Ninety-five percent of people have a thyroid-stimulating hormone level of less than 2.5,” he says. “If you have more than 4, all you need to take are thyroid pills. It makes an enormous difference.”

At the same time, Cosgrove acknowledges the seriousness of treating true depression. “In groups of depressed people,” he notes, “the rate of death even from heart disease is higher than in people who are not depressed.”

Some people report an inability to eat or sleep, but claim they couldn’t be depressed because they have nothing to be depressed about. “The nature of clinical depression is that it’s physiological, and the fact that the person doesn’t have a specific reason doesn’t mean that they’re not depressed,” Cosgrove says. “If someone doesn’t get out of the house, doesn’t go to work, mopes around, and cries, I would want to get them professional help with a
psychiatrist and start them on medication.”

But for every person like that, he adds, there are 20 or more who are just not having as much fun as usual. “They’re working and eating (sometimes overeating), but often they have sleep problems and they just have a mildly depressed mood,” Cosgrove says. “And those people I do think can profit from stuff at the health-food store [such as HTP-5 and fish oil].”

Let It Shine

When people talk about someone having a “sunny disposition,” we don’t need to ask what they mean. Most of us feel better on literally brighter days. Fortunately for people living in the Coachella Valley, the sun shines some 360 days a year. People living in less-radiant climes who get blue when the sky is gray (seasonal affective disorder, appropriately acronymed SAD) may have to turn to artificial sunlight in the form of a light box. According to the Mayo Clinic, light therapy won’t cure SAD or depression, but it may help them feel better and more energized.

The Journal of Finance reported on a study in which two college professors analyzed weather patterns and stock trades in 26 cities over a 15-year period. They found that stocks traded on sunny days yielded nearly
25 percent greater returns than those traded on cloudy days. The researchers theorized that people were more optimistic when the sun shone and, therefore, were more likely to buy stocks. The study was conducted in 2001, well before the markets’ recent crash and burn, but the message is clear: Let’s all do our patriotic duty and get out to let the sun shine on our (SPF 40-covered) faces. 

Click Here To Feel Good

Like everything else, you can find happiness on the Web — and we’re not talking about harmony.com.

Happier.com debuted last November and now has 21,000 registered users. University of Pennsylvania alumni Andrew Rosenthal, who minored in psychology, and Doug Hensch, who has advanced degrees in education and organizational management — started the site, inspired by mounting research that showed people could make themselves feel better using “replicable, scientific tools.”

“We wanted to unlock all this great research,” Rosenthal says. “Much of it languished in books, lectures, or school training programs. We saw an opportunity to translate what had been proven into tools that people can use”: tools that help people measure, track, and improve their level of happiness. The underlying theory relies on mindfulness.

“The way humans are wired, when things go well, we tend to forget them. When things go badly, we remember them,” explains Dr. Martin Seligman, one of happier.com’s experts. “The more you pay attention to things going well … the more positive emotions you’ll experience.”

Among the awareness-raising tools is Three Good Things, which guides a person to think about what goes well in a given day and why it went well, leading to an appreciation of often-overlooked pleasures. In March, happier.com launched an iPhone app that allows users to record their experiences “on the go.”

Another tool is the Gratitude Letter, in which users thank people who have made a positive difference in their lives. In February, happier.com launched a feature allowing users to record a video and send it to someone.

Happier.com’s Facebook page brings even more people passionate about happiness into a group, providing a line of communication that serves as a resource for ideas.

While the ability to measure happiness on happier.com’s Web site is free, users may pay a low monthly fee ($4.99) to access various tools or pay a one-time fee for interaction with authors/experts and even personalized coaching.

A Month of Happy Days
31 simple things you can do today!

1. Go for a walk and smell the flowers.
2. Call a friend or family member you haven’t seen for a while.
3. Take a bubble bath — with a rubber ducky.
4. Eat a slice of pizza for breakfast and pancakes for dinner.
5. Find 10 things in your closet you don’t really need and donate them to a thrift store.
6. Go to the dog park — even if you don’t have a dog.
7. Rent the movie Airplane and pop some popcorn.
8. Pull out an old photo album or school yearbook and laugh at your clothes, hairstyle, or whatever else you thought was cool at the time.
9. Play your favorite record or CD — and play air guitar or dance to it.
10. Curl up with a good book.
11. Go to the zoo and head straight for the monkey cage.
12. Take a nap in the middle of the day.
13. Make a batch of cookies. Eat one (or two) warm from the oven and take the rest to your neighbor.
14. Talk someone into giving you a foot massage.
15. Play with an Etch-a-Sketch, Slinky, or Silly Putty.
16. Women: Paint your toenails bright red. Men: Get a shoeshine.
17. Say hello to five total strangers. Remember to smile.
18. Visit www.willitblend.com and watch Tom Dickson pulverize iPods, cell phones, and other frustrating devices in a blender. Then click the link to “Suggest Stuff to Blend.”
19. Ask a child to tell you a story.
20. Pet a cat until it purrs.
21. Break out the food coloring and get creative.
22. Find someone with a karaoke machine and pretend you’re Elvis.
23. Hug a teddy bear.
24. Get up early and watch the sunrise.
25. Let an Eight Ball make a decision you have put off.
26. Write a letter to someone — longhand! — and mail it.
27. Challenge someone to a bubble-blowing contest.
28. Put Reddi-wip on your sandwich.
29. Compliment or congratulate five people (their pleasure will make you happy).
30. Get together with friends.
31. Five words: Party string in a can.