How to have a Happy New Year

My sister keeps a little notebook with her at all times. She calls it her "Annoying List." Anytime someone or something annoys her, she records it in her book. Things like: "People who talk to you while they brush their teeth." "Stickers on individual pieces of fruit." "Long answering machine messages." My sister believes this helps protect her from feeling stressed out.

What do you do when you feel stressed or angry, sad or disappointed? Do you hold onto those thoughts and feelings, replaying difficult situations with your friends, your work or your partner? Do these issues keep you up at night? Do they keep you from participating in social events, increasing your time spent alone with a book, a TV or a bottle?

How well do you recognize the sources of stress and dissatisfaction in your life? Are they within your power to change?

Finally, how often do you acknowledge and appreciate positive people and behavior? And how easily do you address and then forgive those who have purposely or unintentionally offended you?

Your answers to these questions may prove to be among the strongest predictor of your current and future happiness and health.

Can happiness be bought? Not according to the evidence. Beyond the basic comforts of shelter, food, clothing and health care, wealth adds little to a person's sense of well-being or satisfaction. In fact, young adults who focus on money, image and fame tend to be more depressed, have less enthusiasm for life and suffer more headaches and other physical symptoms.

What can each of us do to increase our personal happiness and health? Sure, folks who exercise regularly, practice meditation, eat right and otherwise control their stress levels tend to live longer and have fewer heart attacks and strokes. Actually, there are easier, cheaper, more reliable and much more satisfying sources of happiness and, consequently, health. They are called friends. Get together with them, or if you can't, just think about them and you will boost your immune system. Studies from around the world confirm that friends matter.

For example, nurses who developed breast cancer were four times as likely to die from their disease if they had fewer than 10 friends, close relatives or living children. And, yes, even men benefit from friendship. A Swedish study of middle-aged guys found that having friends and being a nonsmoker provided equal protection against developing or dying from heart disease. Emotionally, having a close friend who is happy makes you 15 percent more likely to be happy yourself.

Positive people — those who tend to be lively, cheerful and calm — resist colds more successfully than do people who are often tense, sad, depressed, angry or hostile. Was that a genuinely cheerful smile you wore in your high school yearbook photo? If so, you were more likely to marry, stay married and experience more personal well-being over the next 30 years. Optimists, in general, live 19 percent longer than self-declared pessimists. What's more, happy individuals not only feel good, they tend to be more creative and open-minded thinkers.

One sure way to help grow happier and healthier is to practice feeling grateful. Indeed, developing a grateful attitude may be the single most effective way to increase your happiness and health. Students and adults who kept a "gratitude journal" for three weeks, logging three to five examples a week of people or experiences they appreciated, measured 25 percent higher on life satisfaction compared to when they started and to groups of people who were either told to keep lists of their aggravations or to simply list their activities. Folks who kept notes of their thankfulness also exercised more, drank less alcohol, and family and friends noticed they were nicer to be around. The students even improved their performance on tests.

This holiday season, I gave my sister a hug, a smile and a new journal for her to take notes whenever she catches herself feeling grateful. By this time next year, I bet she'll have had fewer sick days, started exercising and need fewer medications.

I wish you the blessings of the holidays along with one suggestion for the New Year: If you need to climb a hill (real or imagined) and want to make it feel less steep, bring a friend.

Peter A. Gorski is a pediatrician, a child development expert at the Children's Board of Hills­borough County and a professor of public health at the University of South Florida.

How to have a Happy New Year 12/31/10 [Last modified: Friday, December 31, 2010 3:30am]

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