Paul and I recently had a conversation and he asked me, “Do you think we’re happier today than we were back in the day?” After further clarification, I understood he was just asking, in general whether I felt people were happier today than they were maybe 50 years ago. For those of you who don’t know me, I’m 30- so clearly I can’t speak with much authority on the topic of the 1960’s. But the conversation made me start to think nonetheless. Over the last 30 years, with all the advancements in technology, knowledge, social media, and information sharing, are we happier as citizens of this great country? In my experience, the answer is an adamant NO. Which prompted me to wonder aloud to Paul, “I wonder what makes us happy?”. There is much research on the topic- research that I have not taken the time to delve into. But, I have made some personal observations from my experience as a personal trainer and physical therapist, where I’ve been able to interact with people from all walks of life one-on-one. In our conversation, I referred to an interesting video (below)
that followed a group of people from Ikaria, Greece. These people maintain a longer life expectancy than citizens of the US, despite our modern medicine. This had me wondering about the”why”, and I came to my own conclusions. I jokingly said to Paul, “You know, I honestly think I could be happy with just a few things. If you sent me to an isolated village somewhere in the world, I think I could be happier than I am here in many ways.” With that being said, I’d like to share some thoughts on what I think primarily makes people happy, and it can be boiled down to my Big 3.
Simple. Movement. Many of us take it for granted, but our ability to proficiently and wonderfully move our body through space is truly a gift. Unfortunately, like many things, the power of movement is not fully realized until it’s taken away. I see people on a daily basis who have varying diagnoses, but the common complaint is that their diagnosis has effectively impaired their movement. Why do you care if you have back pain? Because it doesn’t let you move. Typically it’s easy to make it stop hurting, or at least feel better in severe cases, by lying down. But this is not a solution and is in fact detrimental to your health just as much as performing painful motions is. Movement is necessary to build and maintain the strength and integrity of the nervous, muscular, skeletal, and cardiac systems of the body- to name a few. Our bodies are very mechanical in nature much like a machine, but unlike a machine, we NEED movement not only to survive, but to thrive. Movement has many profound impacts on people as a whole that transcend physical benefits. Similarly, when you take someone’s ability to move away, the psychological and physical impacts are severe. Most of us know someone with a physical disability, but if you don’t, I’m confident that your interaction with them will make you appreciate the gift you have been given. I often think about this privilege when considering the optimal dose of movement for myself. I have a better understanding than most of what the optimal dose of movement is, yet I still push the upper limits (at times) for the fun of it. Is it a smart decision? Probably not. I’ve had my share of injuries, although perhaps not as many as others. So why do I do it? Because I can. And I know there are people out there that would kill to be able to do what I can do. People who were born with a physical disability and don’t know what it’s like to run. People who could run when they were younger but can’t anymore. The latter group would give anything to be able to run one more time- knowing the consequences. Tying this back to my comment regarding the remote village, I find value in performing physical labor on a daily basis (as is typically required in rural areas). It makes you feel confident and powerful, and maintains a level of fitness that in unattainable by sitting at a desk. With the advent of the computer and advancing technologies, Americans are increasingly resigned to sit behind a desk for 8-12 hours/day, most days of the week. Why? Not because it makes them happier, although it’s clearly less physically demanding. Because it makes them money. Money, which is necessary to take care of one’s family and thrive in our society. But is it any wonder why you’re back hurts at the end of the day? It’s my belief that we are not designed to sit still, and I have many reasons for this based on my understanding of human anatomy and physiology. The saying, “Work smarter, not harder” served us well for a time, but I think we’ve passed the point of diminishing returns. We’re now at the point where we have to go to a gym to get exercise, because we don’t get it in our daily life. And as such, we view it as something that’s extra, something that isn’t important. This couldn’t be further from the truth when it comes to your happiness.
The most important piece of the happiness puzzle. The computer has done to an active lifestyle what the cell phone has done to human interaction (barring the new Pokemon app, which is getting people moving!). Now don’t get me wrong, I have a cell phone and appreciate it just as much as the next person. I’ll often text message friends instead of calling, when calling would likely be faster. Why? Maybe because it allows me to communicate with more people simultaneously, and I don’t have to devote as much attention to a conversation because I don’t have to reply immediately. Sad, but true. I’m sure there are a bunch of reasons. At the end of the day though, I think face-to-face human interaction cannot be replaced by the cell phone (or FaceTime/Skype for that matter). There is something special about being around your friends and family that cannot be experienced through the phone. Seeing a person’s facial expressions, their body language, their positional changes as they communicate with you- all of these things are important and send a message; however, this is lost with many present forms of communication. The Ikarians in the video shared above have a sense of community unlike I’ve seen in major cities here in the US. US churches are a great place to build community and positive relationships, yet I feel even these pale in comparison to the positivity that comes from a unified and supportive community like that of the Greeks. Just as much as friends and family are the key to building this aspect of your happiness, having destructive family members and friends can likewise be detrimental to your happiness. This happens much more subtly (typically), until one day you realize if you had to ask your friends for a favor, it’s more difficult than you imagined to scroll through your friends and find one that will actually help you. Because to me, you should demand that level of commitment from all of your friends, and they in turn should demand the same from you. I can’t think of a better way to spend my time than helping a friend who asks for it. And you know what? Every time I do, I feel like I did the right thing afterward. I’ve never had a regret. Conversely, when I fail to keep my word or assist someone when I know I can, I feel ashamed and/or embarrassed the next time I see them because I know that I didn’t help for selfish reasons (I was tired, wasn’t in the mood, etc.). I now strive to do everything in my power to build those around me, and go out of my way to help my friends when they’re least expecting it. Random acts of kindness for strangers is great, but have you ever considered doing them for your friends? Try it. Surrounding yourself around the right people will make you a better person and bring you a happiness that you forgot you had lost.
Cannot be underestimated in the role it plays in your physical and mental health. I could write for hours on the role nutrition plays in shaping people mentally and physically, but that’s been done a thousand times before. Suffice to say, eating well is good for your body. The tricky part, which I’m anticipating is your next question, is what does “eating well” mean? Well in truth it means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. In my world, it means eating very little processed foods and added sugars, while eating a lot of nutrient dense foods. It’s my opinion that there is too much focus on calories in an effort to lose weight. For example, I’ve had people tell me, “I’m eating well. I had a chicken sandwich from Chik-Fil-A and I skipped the fries.” The argument is that they avoided a lot of calories and had some protein which is good for maintaining muscle mass. I would argue we can do better by focusing on micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) instead of just calories. Almost as if it was planned, vegetables are very low in calories and extremely nutrient dense- a great recipe for weight loss. All calories are not created equal! As you begin to eat better foods, you’ll likely notice changes. I can’t tell you what kind of changes because they are infinite in breadth and depth, but I can all but guarantee you’ll feel better than you did before. And the proof is in the pudding. Get blood work from your PCP before and after cleaning up your diet, and see what it shows. Interestingly, it’s been demonstrated that exercise is essentially not important for weight loss. Surprised? You shouldn’t be. If you’re 50 lbs overweight and you were stuck on a desert island with little to no food, do you think you would lose weight? I think you would, even given any ailments you have that contribute to weight gain (hyperthyroidism, Type II Diabetes, etc.). Some congenital issues like Type I Diabetes or certain genes can predispose people to weight gain. BUT, that doesn’t mean you will gain weight- there are things you can do, and I would urge you to do so for your physical health. The truth of the matter is we are what we eat, and you have a decision in what you want your body to be made of. Your happiness depends on it.
Well this kind of went off topic and for that I apologize, but let’s see if I can bring this back and make it somewhat relevant. My initial point was that there are 3 things that will make you happy, and all the “stuff” we have accumulated over the years that we think will make us happy really doesn’t. Hang out with good people, stay moving, and eat well, and you’ll have the foundation for happiness. Certain things like religion and education can and typically do enhance quality of life and therefore happiness, but I can imagine a person living perfectly content without either. That’s not to say they aren’t important, I just believe they aren’t entirely necessary to be happy. Interestingly, and I didn’t realize this until I verbalized it in my conversation with Paul, WOHO offers a beautiful blend of the Big 3. Volunteers spend 2 hours working hard and performing exercises to improve physical health. Volunteers socialize and build camaraderie with each other over the course of an event. And volunteers enjoy a delicious, healthy snack at the end of each event to nourish their bodies. And to top it off, volunteers do this together as a team regardless, of color, religion, sex, political ideology- you name it. Because it doesn’t matter. All that matters it that we show respect for one another and take care of each other. This is why I’m passionate about what WOHO does. Offering these opportunities to our volunteers in a fun and rewarding way is a recipe for happiness, and the type of environment our country needs right now more than ever.
Dr. William Richardson is a board member and program director for Work Out Help Out. As a certified personal trainer and licensed physical therapist, William has extensive knowledge about the human movement system and is passionate about joining exercise and volunteer service to change the health of the nation.