If the answer is yes (and I’ll assume that it is) then…….smile! Yes, I’m perfectly serious; a recent study has found that there is a direct link between how long we live and how happy we are which is great news for the optimists among us. However, another study, by the Office of National Statistics, suggests that ‘ratings of life satisfaction and happiness were at their lowest, on average, for those aged 45 to 59’ so, the question is, how do we deal with the problems that face us in middle age so we can stay happy and live to a ripe old age?
The first thing is to think about the concept of a ‘problem’ and to remember the words of Reinhold Niebuhr:
Some things that we view as ‘problems’ and which therefore give us stress, we cannot change. For example, many middle aged people worry about their grown up children leaving home; it’s a major life change and is known as ‘empty nest syndrome’ but, realistically, what can you do about it? Do you want to keep your children at home with you forever and deprive them of the opportunity to find their own way in life? No, of course not! So, you have a choice, you can accept that it will happen regardless of how much worrying you can do or you can keep worrying and then accept, after the inevitable has happened, that it changed nothing. Unfortunately, by that point, you will have put your body through untold stress and it won’t thank you for it.
We know that the body will often respond to what the mind believes; this has been demonstrated in many ways over the years: people dying of voodoo hexes for no other reason than that they believed they were cursed, people being cured of illness by taking a placebo or spontaneous remission in cancer because people trust that God will cure them. The effect of stress has been studied in depth by Dr Sheldon Cohen, professor of psychology, and he discovered that “”When under stress, cells of the immune system are unable to respond to hormonal control, and consequently, produce levels of inflammation that promote disease. Because inflammation plays a role in many diseases such as cardiovascular, asthma and autoimmune disorders, this model suggests why stress impacts them as well.”
Lissa Rankin M.D. has studied what is known as the Nocebo effect, the placebo effect in reverse. We all know that placebos are often used in scientific experiments as a control; some people are given medicines and some are given sugar pills and no-one in the study group knows who has taken what which means that the results cannot be effected by ‘perceived’ benefits. The Nocebo effect is the negative outcome stemming from a negative perception e.g. when a doctor tells you that you have a low chance of surviving a particular illness, the idea can be lodged in your mind and your body will respond accordingly; a self-fulfilling prophecy if you will.
There are many, many studies which deal with our mind’s ability to influence our body so why don’t we use it to our advantage? Stress and worry are effectively our minds playing the same scenario, or worsening scenarios, over and over again so we need to find ways to disrupt this pattern and the easiest way is to do something that requires complete focus. People often find that they relax while playing their chosen sport; they concentrate so hard on what they are doing that there isn’t room in their minds for anything else so whatever was causing them worry or stress is, temporarily, forgotten. Many people have turned to yoga and meditation to relieve stress and anxiety; indeed it has grown so popular that scientists are beginning to study the positive effects of yoga and meditation on certain mental illnesses. The other benefit of yoga is that you don’t need equipment, or to go to a gym and you can start at any age.
We can also consciously interrupt the patterns in our mind that cause us stress. Our imagination creates images and scenarios that are not true, have not happened but our bodies respond as if they are quite real so we need to view those images as if we were watching a film; interested but with a certain detachment. We also have the power to change the images so that they become more positive and therefore less stressful. If you have recurring mental image that’s disturbing you run it through your mind with a funny tune, introduce a quacking duck, an explosion of fireworks or anything that will distort and therefore dis-empower the image; think about how Harry Potter and Co beat the boggart!
There is more and more evidence to suggest that stress and death and happiness and longevity are connected; you can be miserable, suffer physically and mentally and risk dying prematurely OR you can learn to accept peacefully what you cannot change, smile at this wonderful life we’ve been given and enjoy it for as long as possible.