Simple Ways to Improve Health & Happiness

Can Indians Fine Tune Our Attitudes for Greater Health and Happiness?

Image by truthseeker08 from Pixabay 

Pravin J P Arapurakal, September 26, 2019

Incredible India is sadly becoming Unhappy and Unhealthy India: According to the World happiness ranking, published in March 2019, India ranks 140th out of 156 nations surveyed by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network. The rankings could be questioned by some because Pakistan is ranked way up at 67th, while idyllic Bhutan at 95. Nepal (100), Bangladesh (25) and Sri Lanka (130) were way ahead of India in the happiness rankings. We may quibble about the way these rankings were arrived at, but the ranking for India has steadily gotten worse since 2015 when we were at 117.

All but one of the determinants of Happiness were related to Psychosocial issues: A closer look at the methodology tells us that the key variables were GDP per capita (small, richer countries tended to be happier). Other variables for happiness were social support, healthy life expectancy, freedom to make life choices, trust and generosity. While some of these criteria can be subjective, healthy life expectancy is well measurable and also vital to quality of life so this article is going to focus on happiness, its connection to health and vice-versa.

Ancient Indian wisdom has traditionally not emphasized wealth as a major determinant of happiness so while essential needs must be met, let’s focus on the other determinants: social support, healthy life expectancy, freedom to make life choices, trust and generosity.
As one of these variables (healthy life expectancy) is impacted by all the others, let’s explore this line of thinking and see if we can gain some useful insights.

Our brains produce “Happy Chemicals” that we can learn to deploy:                          Loretta G. Breuning, writing in Psychology*1 today talks about the four “Happy Chemicals: that nature has provided us with. She says, “You can enjoy a balanced happy chemical diet if you know the distinct kind of happiness each brain chemical (has) evolved for. Each (happy) chemical, Dopamine, Oxytocin, Serotonin and Endorphins (DOSE for short) has evolved to do a job. They work by helping us feel good, thereby keeping us healthy, motivating us to go after whatever triggered them. We have been blessed with a brain that produces its own health chemicals.

Dopamine is deployed “when we get a new reward, such as seeing the finish line in a race. It’s nature’s reserve tank of energy” which keep us going while hunting prey or solving a problem. Even little things such as a “like” on Facebook give us a little Dopamine hit.

Oxytocin is secreted “when we trust people” around us. It promotes bonding between people such as a mother and child or even sexual partners. It is stimulated when we are in a group of “like-minded people” or even when you get a massage (which is a trusting act between two people.”

Serotonin happens when you are recognized or feel important. “Animals secrete Serotonin when they dominate a resource. The brain perpetually analyzes information to balance the risk of pain with the joy of winning.

Endorphins, “the body’s natural morphine” help us with physical pain. With endorphins, the body can overcome pain for short periods by briefly feeling euphoric, even when running while injured etc.

The Placebo or "Expectation Effect": Pulitzer Prize Grantee Eric Vance has written the book “Suggestible You” about the human brain’s ability to transform, heal and yes, occasionally deceive. In an interview on the NPR program “On Being.” he talks about the role of the “Placebo Effect.” He explains how Placebo’s act and that in medical trials there is still a vital role for a placebo because any given medicine during a trial would have to outperform a patient group that was given a medical placebo under exactly the same conditions. Vance claims that placebos are often effective because “placebos tap into the drugs we already have inside our heads.” 

The brain can mimic pain medications:  Vance says, “Endorphins are little opium dens tucked away insider our brains.” He goes on to explain what the brain does. He says “the brain is a prediction machine, turning observations into predictions” of healing, especially when there is a little drama that builds credibility around the action.

Faith Healing: “Some therapies for Parkinsons (even) involve “Sham Surgeries” to increase the credibility of the placebo effect. Placebos are known to work well with certain conditions like, “Lower back pain.” In many alternative therapies, the practitioner spends a lot of time understanding the patient”, which in turn builds credibility and increases the likelihood that the patient will believe he or she is cured. Says Vance, “chronic pain happens when the drug level in our brains is not at the right level,”

The Growing Role of Alternative Health Therapies in Facilitating Health and Happiness: Julia Belluz reviewed around 80 alternative health studies and their impact on back pain in the US*2. She find that while 29 percent of Americans (with their soft box spring mattress beds) suffer from lower (usually non-specific) back pain, the medical fraternity has been singularly ineffective in addressing it.

Hugs not Drugs? Many get hooked on Opioid medications that in 2016 may have killed  14,500 people. Stress has been identified as a big accelerator of main. Hence the emergence of alternative therapies like meditation, Yoga and Tai Chi finding increased acceptance. The Public Health Administrators at Oregon State have been setting the pace in improving results and reducing costs through the use of Alternative Therapies which reduce stress and keep patients away from painkillers which only mask symptoms without solving the problem.

What can India learn from this Western trend toward Alternative Therapies?
The amount India spends on public health per capita every year is Rs 1,112. That comes to Rs 93 per month or Rs 3 per day. At 1.02 per cent of its gross domestic product (GDP)–        a figure which remained almost unchanged in nine years from 2009-2018–India’s public health expenditure is amongst the lowest in the world, lower than most low-income countries which according to Health Minister J. P. Nadda, now spend 1.4 per cent of their GDP on health.

There is no doubt that India must increase its health spending by building less statues of dead politicians and focusing particularly on maternal and child health. But many steps that do not cost much should be prioritized. With limited resources we must tap into traditional wisdom, focus on preventative healthcare and take advantage of our cultural heritage instead of feeding this blind rush towards ever more expensive care of the sick. 

Wouldn’t it be smarter to focus on reducing sickness with traditional therapies like Yoga and Meditation in the first place? A recent study for example even found that cooking with iron kadhais (woks) helped reduce anemia among women and children by introducing microscopic amounts of iron into their diets.

Let’s also rebuild our sense of community and caring wherever we can: Raghuram Rajan (India’s former Governor of the Reserve Bank) recently wrote a book called “The Third Pillar.” In it, Rajan explains that Society has three pillars, the State, Markets and the Community. He goes on to make a case for rebuilding a sense of community in our towns and villages. It is that sense of Community that provides the other vital determinants of happiness as in, social support, trust and generosity. The practical and direct benefits of an engaged community apart, being more community connected helps us access the body's own reserves of "happy chemicals."

Stress the Silent Killer: Among the urban well to do (in India and worldwide), the role of stress needs to be understood. Rich and poor alike need to be educated on the manner in which stress hormones suppress the immune system and chronically drive blood to the extremities to prepare for a “fight or flight response.” This in turn leads people increasingly to diseases as their immune system fails to respond as needed. Let us increasingly learn to tap into the body’s own beneficial chemicals and limit the role of "alarm hormones" like adrenalin that are connected to stress. 

So some of the best ways to improve health and happiness have little to do with hospitals and medicines. We need to live grounded socially connected lives and ease the stress out of our lives. After all, Stress leads to Distress...


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