Surgeon General: Happy Makes Healthy

By Maureen McKane, LCSW

What if we learned a habit of being happy? Would it make a difference? Can it be learned?

The Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek Murthy, said in a recent radio interview, “People say you have to be healthy to get happy. I believe it is the other way around. You have to be happy to get healthy.”

In my office I’ve been trying to teach depressed people to exercise, eat right, get off the sofa and be with people. They generally tell me a list of reasons that can’t happen. Should I just tell them to look at life through a comedy lens?

Marsha Linehan, PhD, a psychologist researcher tells us that when we are emotionally dysregulated there is a convergence of emotion, physical reaction and thoughts. If you can change any one of the three you can disrupt the automatic and disastrous emotional response.

Perhaps these experts are telling us that everything is a matter of changing habits. When someone looks askance at me and I feel rejected, then what? Don’t tell me not to feel that way. It’s automatic. When my friend hates her rotund thighs I won’t tell her to go to the gym. She knows what would help.

Can we develop a habit of happy instead? Comedians tell us that their twisted way of looking at the world is simply to take the ordinary tragedies in life and find their inherent absurdity. Not a bad idea for all.

My handyman came by yesterday to tell me personally the bad news that he would be charging me twice the quoted price for having cleaned out my gutters. I’m a DIY person with a certain conceit that I can do whatever needs to be done. For the past 10 years, whatever gutter clean-out happened, I did it.

Until I hired Juan. He is a meticulous man and he was dead serious as he showed me the problem he’d solved. There is one roof line higher than all the others, higher than my longest ladder and higher than my courage. He had gone up there and pulled away the downspout that drops to a lower gutter. Still serious, Juan mimed how he used a device to dig out the mold and dirt. Great mounds piled on the driveway. “Like routing the sewer!” I said and laughed. To think I had forgotten I owned a gutter up there was too funny. Juan was worth the extra price.

Perhaps we could develop a new habit. We could look through the lens of Saturday Night Live when we remember our mistakes. A mistake is not a tragedy. To laugh at yourself is an act of love, not cruelty. It is an act of love to see our warts and forgive. Even more than forgiving, to find humor in our foibles is to give them their proper importance. I will remember that gutter in future and I’ll be grateful to those who help me along the way.

If you don’t make it to the gym, if you still treat calories like they are your personal wealth, can you at least try on a new habit and laugh at yourself? Watch some funny movies for practice. Then hunt out the absurdity in yourself. The Surgeon General says it will make you healthier.

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