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Essay: Acting Happy

An Essay by Dale Anderson, M.D.

Ask most doctors and they will likely tell you: happy people are healthier people. Happiness is an infectious state that can definitely have an impact on your health. That's because your brain comes equipped with an inner pharmacy that can help you be joyful and embrace life, lending a hand to make you feel years younger.

Enjoying good health isn't just about scoring good numbers on a cholesterol test or passing a mammogram with flying colors. While those are both good things, it's also important to have a healthy state of mind, to be "wellderly." Start working on being a "wellderly" person early in life so that you are in good practice when it really counts. That means never acting your age, and taking a childlike approach to life.

People get stuck in ruts, whether they are good or bad ones. Those who are feeling down train their muscles and attitudes to stay that way. Their sour moods can be reflected in their posture, clothing, hairstyle, and attitude. In other words, they get stuck in their performances.

The reverse is also true, that happy people look upbeat and peppy, and their good moods are infectious to those around them. They also benefit from neuropeptides like endorphins and other chemicals that bolster the immune system and promote well being.

Humor and laughter are two of the most important weapons in the arsenal for leading a happy life. Find someone who shares your sense of humor and use it to make each other laugh. Give yourself a prescription for laughter - just putting a smile on your face will make you feel better. Two times a day, stand before a mirror and laugh for 15 seconds. What might feel unnatural at first eventually will become routine. As actors say, "Fake it 'til you make it."

Another way to open your inner pharmacy of happiness is to socialize, to connect, whether it's with people, pets, or places. Studies have shown that people who are 65 and older, live alone, and have a dog see the doctor 16 percent less than similar people who don't have a dog. Having someone or some living thing to care for besides yourself often will open you up to the world around you.

Getting connected to spirituality also helps. People who go to church, synagogue, a mosque, or find a way to connect with their spiritual being are happier. If that's not your thing, try following a sports team or a musical group. Music is a wonderful connector — it bridges links between different areas of the brain, tapping into that inner chemistry. Other key contributors to being "wellderly" are exercising and getting enough sleep.

Finally, be a role model for the young people around you. Teach your children and grandchildren through the example of your own happy life. Show them that it's not so bad to be old — it's fun and stimulating. You can still be creative, have causes, start new things, and get educated. You'll be happy and you'll make them happy, knowing that you are content. After all, happiness is infectious.

Dale Anderson, M.D., has been a family physician and board-certified surgeon and emergency physician for more than 45 years. An author of Never Act Your Age: Play the Happy Childlike Role Well at Every Age, he also is a frequent lecturer on how humor and positive attitudes affect health and well being. December 2006.

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