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Good Lifestyle Choices and Staying Healthy

The old saying that good health is just good genes could not be more inaccurate. Whilst luck is naturally a factor in being and staying healthy, researchers have established that happiness and healthy lifestyle choices are far more influential in establishing and maintaining good health.

Back Problems

The epidemic of back pain best demonstrates that lifestyle choices are the key determinant of good health. People who spend a large part of the day sitting down—working in the office, driving home from work, watching TV on the couch—will one day invariably suffer from back pain. That is, unless they do not make the change to a more balanced lifestyle. Such changes are as simple as including sport, regular work breaks and tension-relieving exercises into the daily routine. Doctors and health insurance companies have always recognised the need for a balanced lifestyle. They promote back exercise programs and invest in other measures to prevent back problems. These measures seek to mitigate the potentially crippling effects of back pain for patients and to reduce the burden of back problems on the health system. One particular issue is raised time and time again: a healthy back is also influenced by a healthy mind. Indeed, the causes of back pain are not always physical. Given that one quarter of the German population will suffer from back pain throughout their lives, the psychological causes of back pain warrant consideration.

Chronic back pain, in particular, often has psychosomatic roots. This does not suggest the pain is merely a product of the patient’s imagination. On the contrary, the patient’s pain is entirely real, but it is often caused by bullying, stress or trauma rather than the wrong office chair, insufficient exercise or skeletal diseases. As experts have long suspected, the psyche has a profound effect on our physical health. Researchers have established that mental health does not only impact on back pain but on the overall health of an individual. In short, a healthy lifestyle is influenced by both body and soul.

The results of modern studies can be summarised as follows: mental health is a leading factor in the susceptibility of an individual to back pain, circulation problems and viruses. More specifically, depression and stress put strain on the heart, whereas a pessimistic attitude raises blood pressure. Study participants who were largely optimistic and have a positive attitude exhibit a lower incidence of high blood pressure and recover faster from infections. Even viruses have a harder time tackling a smiling mind. However, a study of women provides the most interesting example of the effects of basic disposition on health. This study showed that people who go through life with cynicism and a negative attitude have a shorter life expectancy than people who are fundamentally happy. Another study demonstrated the pronounced impact of stress on the heart. Researchers found that, in four out of five cases, heart attacks were at least partially influenced by psychological causes.

Luck and Genetics

These findings give rise to a plethora of questions. The most obvious is whether fortuitous genetics are really significant in determining health outcomes. The Oxford English Dictionary, the leading authority in English grammar, spelling and usage, defines luck as ‘success or failure apparently brought by chance rather than through one’s own actions’. When we say that people are lucky to be healthy, we often suggest that their genes, by sheer chance, hail from some higher echelon of the human gene pool. We suggest that these people are not as prone to the ailments of their lesser cousins.

However, the above experiments show that it is happiness rather than luck that promotes good health. The first definition of happiness is an intense feeling of euphoria. According to expert opinion, this euphoria is not particularly helpful in building better long-term health. The second definition of happiness is a lasting feeling of contentment that derives from living by one’s values, a positive attitude and a constructive approach to problems and the hurdles that life throws in one’s path. By contrast to the first type of happiness, the second kind is a reliable bulwark against illness and disease. Experts are now talking about a ‘mental immune system’ that starts to take form as soon as early childhood.

Individuals who experience love and care throughout childhood and who do not suffer violence are well equipped for dealing with stress. They are better able to cope with pressure, have a greater degree of psychological resilience and recover faster from the physical effects of mental strain than people who were neglected, bereft of a safe environment or suffered physical violence during childhood. Between the ages of five and ten, an individual develops a base level of happiness that largely remains constant for the rest of their life. This level is higher for some individuals and lower for others. Apart from fluctuations above or below the norm, our base level of happiness always returns to the standard set in our early formative years. However, that is not to say that an individual cannot shift this benchmark. With determination and effort, targeted exercises can help you to change your happiness benchmark.

The Path to Happiness

It is easy to reward yourself with ice cream, the occasional visit to the cinemas or a short holiday. These experiences elicit feelings of euphoria: a spike in short-term happiness. Chocolate also triggers the release of happiness hormones, endorphins, which prompt a feeling of euphoria. Endorphins are also released by sex and regular exercise. Even spicy chilli, ginseng and vanilla are associated with greater endorphin production. As such, do not hesitate to indulge in a little piece of happiness from time to time. However, note that an individual whose demeanour is fundamentally unhappy and cynical will plummet back down to their previous level of happiness.

This begs the question of how we can recalibrate our long-term happiness to give ourselves a better chance at a happy and healthy life. Since all things are just a matter of perspective, even your own life, it is helpful to reframe or re-contextualise everyday mishaps. When faced with bad luck, a lot of people have the tendency to lament, ‘Why does this only ever happen to me?’ Of course, the notion that the winds of fate target only one particular individual is blatantly wrong. Misfortune strikes everywhere; it also strikes everyone. Moreover, there is the saying that ‘It could always be worse’. As is the case with all platitudes, this one holds a grain of truth, too.

It might be frustrating to walk into the garage in the morning only to find that your bicycle tyre is flat. However, this sort of situation could happen to any cyclist anywhere and at any time. Further, the tyre tube could have burst on the way to work, and this could have cost you a fall and even serious injury. So what is the big deal if you have to walk to work, take the overcrowded tube or even arrive a few minutes late? Dedicated optimists often try not only to take something positive out of a mishap, but also to add another positive aspect to the experience. If the bike won’t get you to work today but the sun is shining, why not take the scenic route to work, stroll through the dappled shade of a park on the way or even stop for a quick espresso at that café on the corner? If you are going to be late for work anyway, who said that you shouldn’t arrive in a good mood?

Making a big deal out of little dilemmas does not help you to survive the daily grind. And whilst making changes to your happiness benchmark can require a lot of time and effort, it is definitely worthwhile. Simple exercises allow you to detach yourself from events and experiences that would otherwise have caused you stress. If you strive to see both sides of every situation—both the positive and the negative—you will develop a more neutral worldview and be astounded by the solutions that present themselves to problems that once seemed insurmountable. Also take into account your environment. Make sure that you are surrounded by people who love and enrich you and who are good for your confidence and wellbeing.

Your partner, friends, social circle and of course your family have the potential to become a powder keg that grows until it eventually explodes. It is important to set limits in friendships and romantic relationships. If you set these out clearly, with the right tone of voice and well supported arguments, this qualification of your relationships is beneficial to the respect and mutuality both partners receive. Relationships without sufficient boundaries are proven to be dysfunctional or one-sided, and such relationships are detrimental to your health. A blooming social life is thus a significant component of your intrinsic happiness.

Conscious Living and Building Your Awareness

Health food shops, slow food and relaxation programs such as yoga are all a testament to a need brought about by our fast-paced lifestyle: the need to slow down. In an age where our days start with a once-over of a smartphone screen that lists a queue of business meetings, and breakfast surrenders to a cup of instant coffee on the way to work, it is a wonder that the counter culture did not develop sooner. This counter culture emphasises living your experiences consciously, as opposed to going through life in a state that is best described as ‘autopilot’. Whilst consciously focusing on one task is much more efficient than error-fraught multitasking, the real benefit of being mindful is that moments of conscious appreciation lead to a significant increase in quality of life. Cupping a warm cappuccino in your hands at the corner café, relishing the rich aroma of the coffee and savouring a cookie yields more pleasure than a quick shot of caffeine from the vending machine at work. The same applies to enjoying a warm bubble bath rather than pragmatically taking shower, or dining at a restaurant rather than eating a quick takeaway meal out of a plastic container.

Of course, these little bubbles of happiness take up a little bit more time in your daily schedule. But what are a few minutes of saved time compared to greater health and happiness?

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