In Pursuit of Happiness

Does being happy help you to be healthier? According to Proverbs 17:22, “A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.” The question is not whether we can to be happy, but how to best achieve and maintain it. Happiness, like your health, is composed of many forces acting upon you, and some of it comes from your genetic makeup while some is from your own motivations, efforts, relationships, work environment, and situation in life.

How much can your genetic makeup (genome) contribute to your level of happiness versus unhappiness? First of all, it is important to understand what contribution your genetic makeup can do to or for you. When the human egg is fertilized, 23 chromosomes from the male combine with 23 chromosomes from the female, creating a protein-based molecular mass containing approximately 20,687 coding genes, which form the basis of development of the embryo to infant to adult. Every hair, pigment color, skin cell, brain cell, heart muscle fiber, and every other part of the human body derives its characteristics from these “coding” genes. Unfortunately, our bodies contain both good and bad combinations of genes, some of which are the basis for diseases such as diabetes, cancer, heart problems, arthritis, and most others. Although some genes seem dominant in a family group, the actual influence of these on the person depends on “penetrance” of genetic effect. Interestingly, this penetrance depends on external forces such as bad fats on heart disease and eating too many carbs on diabetes.

Did you ever think that happiness and unhappiness or depression can be related to genetic inheritance? The answer is that genes do play a role in development and control of that part of your brain which controls your level of happiness. Although absolute predictability of a high or low level of this is not possible, certain inferences can be made by studying your ancestors (both maternal and paternal). Like diseases such as diabetes, your “happy” level can be influenced by your genome, your parents, relatives, friends, social situations, financial situations, and personal ability and motivation. In other words, all these can influence you, but your own will power and awareness along with some personal discipline can give you a more happy outlook and fruitful approach to life.

Awareness of these factors helps to control your happiness level. For example, studies show that spending time in the sun, being exposed to light in the winter, and vitamin D can elevate your mood. Antidepressants can alter your mood, and use of these in our society and others is widespread. Anxiety has a negative influence, and therefore some people are on anti-anxiety medication along with a mood-elevating one.

Along the same line, real laughter not only changes your body chemistry in small ways to affect your mood, but it can have an effect on others as well. (Comedy Club anyone?) Even the act of using your smile muscles can alter your mood. Here’s a question to think about. Are we happy if we smile all the time, or do we smile all the time because we are happy? You may never know the answer to this until you dig a little deeper into an individual’s psychological makeup, but we do know that the smile muscles influence our mood in a more positive way than working the frown muscles. True laughter relaxes body tension, boosts the immune system, triggers release of endorphins, protects the heart, and improves the mood.

All feeling and emotion in their most basic forms are produced by chemical changes in the brain. These chemical processes are passed on, generation to generation, through the 20,687 “coding genes,” which may limit the ability in some humans to control their own level of happiness, no matter what amount of effort they exert. A neurotransmitter is a brain chemical which lets billions of brain cells communicate with each other. Happiness or sadness can be chemically altered, but not clearly predicted, and may be influenced by the forces in life that we encounter. Serotonin is an important body chemical transmitter, and your serotonin level can be influenced by factors such as drugs (Ecstasy, marijuana, opium, alcohol, etc.), exercise, social contact, food intake, sexual activity, light exposure, and many others. Antidepressants generally increase serotonin levels by making it “stay around” longer to be more available to the brain, causing your mood to improve.

What can you do to influence your mood level favorably? Probably very high on the list is to resolve conflicts and improve relationships, which will decrease anxiety, a source of “down” moods. Find things to laugh about (reading, theatre, TV, social conversation, etc.), and then let yourself laugh out loud. Exercise your smile muscles (just like your biceps) in the mirror each day to strengthen them. Send a note or flowers to someone or nurture your mate or your friends because a sense of personal giving raises your mood. Talk about happy things, and don’t watch the news on TV too much. Exercise daily in all possible ways (weights, walking, sex, swimming) to improve your endorphin level.

Because these methods do not always work as well as we would like, a down mood or depression may linger, so you might consider turning for help to someone who knows how to guide you to a better emotional pathway, either through therapy or even suggesting medication on a short- or long-term basis. What we do know for certain is that it takes effort to treat diseases, medical conditions, and disabilities, and your personal input is very important in the process. If you search out the causes of any unhappiness that you have and put forth an effort to understand them, you will go a long way towards improving your mental well being and mood.


Dr. Carraway is the director of the Plastic & Cosmetic Surgery Center of EVMS. Call 757-557-0300 for more information.

James H. Carraway, M.D.

Dr. James Carraway is a full-time academic and practicing clinical plastic surgeon.  He is Director of the Cosmetic & Plastic Surgery Center of EVMS, is board certified in surgery and plastic surgery, and is a fellow of the American College of Surgeons.  Dr. Carraway has been teaching and practicing for 30+ years and has been director and chairman of residency training programs and fellowship programs in plastic surgery.
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