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Don't Worry, Be Happy!

12. May 2012

I received my cancer diagnosis January 2 of this year.  “Slow-growing tumors in both breasts,” said my doctor. It was like living a nightmare as double mastectomies and lymph node dissections were performed less than a month later.  The good news?  The cancer had not spread and my prognosis was good.  Treatment would not include chemotherapy but a five-year course of anti-estrogen therapy would give me a nearly 86% chance of being alive in 10 years.

The bad news?  For the next few months I felt like I’d been hit by a truck – physically and emotionally.  The sense of loss, sadness…even impending doom hung over me like a dark cloud.  For weeks, even though my physical recovery was going well…I could find no joy. 

It didn’t help that I’m one of those “cup half-empty” people.  Given the chance, I will assume the worst.  Psychologists might refer to me as “melancholic.”   My parents tell me I was an irritable baby and a moody child.   Happiness does not often come naturally for me.  Not a great psychological combination with which to tackle major surgery and a life-threatening illness.

Fortunately, my family, friends and faith in God’s sovereignty carried me through those first weeks.  As I emerged from the fog, good books, “Frasier” re-runs and laughter-filled lunches with my gal pals slowly began to lighten my spirit.  But some days, it was tough to get out of bed.

One day, as I flipped through a copy of Palomar Health’s The HealthSource magazine, an ad for an upcoming class caught my eye.   It was called, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” and as I continued to read, I became even more intrigued.

“Research shows, said the magazine ad,” that being optimistic can add years to your life!” It was then suggested the reader join Dr. Alan Larson as he discusses the science behind happiness and how a positive attitude promotes good health.”

I knew a better attitude is what I needed to get back on the road to health so off I went to the Pomerado Outpatient Pavilion to get an attitude adjustment. I hung onto every word as Dr. Larson, Medical Director for Integrative Medicine at Palomar Health spoke about how optimists live longer than pessimists and how real happiness isn’t based on circumstances.

“In our national culture,” says Dr. Larson, “we place a high value on accomplishments and external measurements of ‘success.’”  He continued, “It’s no wonder we often associate “happiness” with external factors such as educational achievements, income levels, personal health, age, race, etc.”

With an entertaining and informative PowerPoint presentation, Dr. Larson went on to explain how scientific research fails to validate these goals as genuine keys to happiness.  Every one of us in that packed classroom was reminded that emotional well being comes with self acceptance and simply being content with what we have.

It hit me like a ton of bricks as I realized it was time to move beyond my circumstances and find joy in what I have.  I came away from Dr. Larson’s presentation with a treasure trove of evidence-based “tools” for personal happiness including:

  • Regular Exercise
  • Keeping a Gratitude Journal
  • Service to Others
  • Quiet Meditation or Prayer
  • Expanding Your Social Network
  • Choose a Positive Perspective on All Life's Events

I love how Dr. Larson put it, “These are habits of a human “being,” not a human “doing.”   During the class, we tried our hand at laughter yoga, relaxation techniques and a brief lesson on stress reduction.  We all received a much-needed reminder that reducing stress can help lead to long-term happiness. 

Bottom line, happiness is clearly associated with good health and well being.  Studies continue to confirm that happiness can actually ward off heart disease and other disease conditions. 

So, what the heck…feeling sorry for myself sure won’t get me anywhere and it won’t help you either.  So take a deep breath, count your blessings, help someone, say a prayer and let’s join together – don’t worry…be happy!

Check out the latest issue of The HealthSource magazine or visit www.PalomarHealth.org/classes for more incredible classes and learning opportunities through Palomar Health.

 

Contact Carol by emailing her at Carol@palomarhealth.org.