Rick Foster and Greg Hicks, authors of Happiness & Health: 9 Choices That Unlock The Powerful Connection Between the Two Things We Want Most, discuss the nine attitudes that lead to better health and can actually change one's biochemistry in the process. They explained, "The bottom line is that moving in the direction of happiness is a lot less work than living with misery and a cornucopia of health issues. Changing our behavior isn’t always easy – but it’s frequently a lot of fun and extremely satisfying. From what we’ve seen, happiness is the best choice for living healthfully and well."
Commitment: In your book, you write that our 'thoughts, emotions, and behaviors fuel' our health either upward or downward. What led you to this conclusion?
Rick Foster and Greg Hicks: We have always had a passionate interest in people who thrive. Our initial research led to our first book about happiness, How We Choose to Be Happy. When it was published we did a presentation for a group from the American Hospital Association and were flooded by comments from doctors, who pointed out that all of the happy people we had been studying were making personal behavioral choices that actually recalibrated their own biochemistry – happiness, of course, being a biochemical state. They believed, and we now believe, that the biochemistry of happiness is the opposite of chronic stress, anxiety and depression – states that are well-documented as hurting us physically.
We segued into the study of health about 10 years ago and realized that there was relatively new medical research that supported the healthfulness of each of the “choices” made by extremely happy people. And, we did some of our own research in medical environments that showed us that the choices of happy people are highly related to feelings of well being and emotional capability – both correlates of good health and strong health outcomes. This medical research brought together our interests in happy people and physical health, and has now led to the most recent book, Happiness & Health.
Commitment: What are 10 positive attitudes, thoughts and behaviors have been medically proven to fight disease and make us healthier? and what can we do today to create alterations in our body's biochemical environment?
Rick and Greg: It’s amazing, but we now know that we all have a great deal of control over our own biochemistry. The 9 “choices” we talk about in Happiness & Health are all behaviors and attitudes that we can establish today to recalibrate our biochemistry in the direction of healthfulness.
• intentionality – conscious choice about how we’re going to react and behave
• accountability – particularly the choice to not blame and to not frame ourselves up as victims of circumstance
• identification” and “centrality” – finding our passions and living them fully
• recasting – converting some of the most difficult parts of our life into meaning and opportunity
• options – living with a maximum of flexibility and change; appreciation of ourselves and others; giving to others; and,
• truth – living in a state of alignment with ourselves and our loved ones.
Doing any one of these things will help us dramatically alter our body’s biochemistry. If we do them all, we are living in a state of enduring happiness and well being – something we call Brilliant Health.
Commitment: What role does accountability have in our health? Why is it important that we feel a sense of power or ownership in our health care?
Rick and Greg: The opposite of victimhood is accountability. We are all at the receiving end of circumstance, and, honestly, we’re all victims of something: the economy, racism, gender discrimination, traffic, and illness. The problem with behaving as victims is that we’re living in our “Victim Brain,” the old, reptilian brain that helped us as cavemen to respond to immediate threat – the sudden attack by a hostile tribe or a pouncing saber tooth tiger. But that older brain only puts us into one of three states: flight, fright, or freeze. These highly stressed states are fine in the short term – we DO need to run away or fight a saber tooth, and in modern life there are certainly very rare circumstances that we need to escape from – but they’re erosive on our physical health when they become chronic. Our bodies are simply not designed to be stressed and anxious over long periods.
When we are accountable, we jump out of our reptilian brain by asking any number of questions that all really add up to: “What can I do about this?” The “jump” is from reaction to pro-action, from unconscious to conscious, from victim to powerful choice-maker.
And the biochemistry that accompanies the jump is a radical change in the healthy direction. Medical studies show us that people who see themselves as victims simply don’t do as well. The more we are actively involved in our health care – and feel a real sense of power in decision-making and healing – the less we feel like victims and the more our bodies have the healthy biochemistry of a powerful, effective, person.
Commitment: What are the three questions we can ask ourselves that will help us better deal with stress, and set us up to enjoy better health?
Rick and Greg: There are so many questions we can ask ourselves that lead in the direction of health. Here are three of our favorites:
1. How can I separate the real issues from the stress and anxiety I’m building up around the issues? I have to put too many hours into work – but do I also have to torture myself with how bad it really is? What do I get from making myself more miserable than I really need to be?
2. What are my intentions about this stressful situation? Is it to stay stressed, to take action, to go numb, to run? When we identify our deepest intentions we have the information to either change them or accept them consciously. Conscious intentions are also the precursors to action – and taking action to fix a situation is often the best route to reduced stress.
3. What are my intentions about my body? How do I intend to treat it – with diet, exercise, sleep? Without conscious intentions, we often hurt ourselves. Copious quantities of junk food fly into our mouths before we can even think about it. We veg out in front of the TV without a thought. We don’t set ourselves up for enough sleep. It takes 30 seconds to ask ourselves about our own intentions, and that 30 seconds could completely change our health.
Commitment: Tell us about Shawna, a person you wrote about in your book, and the creative choice she made that enabled her to leap from lower reactive brain activity to higher brain functions.
Rick and Greg: Shawna found herself in a classic situation on a flight to her family’s reunion. The plane was late, she was unlikely to make it to the reunion on time, and she had been subjected to all manner of bureaucracy in the airport before the fight. She was tense, angry, and blaming the airline for everything that was wrong in her entire life. In our terms, Shawna’s unconscious intentions, and certainly her “reptile brain,” were in full flower.
Mid-flight she realized that she was only hurting herself. She also knew that she had the control to change her intentions, and then, her reactions and behavior. She set the intention to be creative and pulled out note cards on which she expressed some touching sentiments to people who she knew would be at the reunion. She had no control over the plane anyway – and, predictably, arrived late – but with a smile on her face and some lovely messages to her family. She had successfully jumped from her reactive, unconscious brain, to the wonderful human higher brain of creativity, complex emotionality, and innovation. She was all the more healthy – and happy - for having made the jump.
Commitment: What if we experience a lot of negative emotions, like anger, fear, guilt, resentment, and we don't want to feel them, but we do, is there a way to change these emotions?
Rick and Greg: Negative emotions are uncomfortable, sometimes painful, and most of us would rather have a life without them. But we can’t. So, our options are limited: we can deny, suppress, and run from them – knowing full well that they’ll pop up somewhere, often after doing major damage to our psyche and our relationships with others – or we can deal with them. We found that extremely happy and healthy people have a unique way of dealing with the worst stuff in life. We call it “recasting.”
It is really based on the notion that, sometimes, the greatest difficulties provide us with the greatest learning, and are a way for us to grow, change, and become healthier people. It’s a whole lot better than being stuck with depression and sadness for a lifetime. But, it does mean that we’ll be feeling the emotions that so many of us would rather avoid. Anyone currently dealing with a traumatic or extremely sad situation would do well to take notes:
Recasting has three steps or phases – and, depending on the depth of the hurt, it can take 3 minutes or 10 years.
But, in either case, it helps us move through difficult times, and painful emotions, back to a place of happiness and well being.
The first step is: feel the emotions. They will be your guide to further growth and understanding.
The second step is to create meaning around the trauma. We can best experience this step in the form of questions: “What does it mean that this has happened to me?” and, “What is my story about this terrible thing?”
Step three is also best expressed as a question: “What opportunities does this situation provide me?” Recasting takes us from the worst feelings, elevates us into the world of meaning and interpretation, and releases us from the trauma by creating opportunity – which is actually synonymous with the creation of hope.
We saw people use recasting in some of life’s most dire situations: loss of a child, terrible illness, earth-shattering loss. It works.
Commitment: If a person came to you and said, "I never feel good. My health is lousy" what advice would you give them
Rick and Greg: We often meet people who “never feel good” and who describe their health as “lousy.” Our advice: Before you do anything else, get a full medical exam. It’s become too easy (and a little fashionable) to write off serious illness on emotional issues, and before we can do anything we need to know what’s happening to our bodies. That accomplished, our advice would be to look at any possible shifts in attitude or behavior that might really “pump” the biochemistry in a positive direction.
We’d ask questions: Are you appreciating the wonder of your life – the feeling of your body, the love you have for others, the beauty around you? Do you give to others and to your community just for the sake of giving? Are you honest with others? Have you dealt with deep-seated traumas or loss or grief, and, if not, isn’t it time to “recast” and move through them? Are you feeling like a victim? What intentions do you have about your own happiness and health when you wake up in the morning?
And, beyond these questions, if we see that a person’s feelings of ill health are attached to her attitude or behaviors we’d suggest that she get a copy of Happiness & Health from the library or bookstore. It’s full of practical advice.
The bottom line is that moving in the direction of happiness is a lot less work than living with misery and a cornucopia of health issues. Changing our behavior isn’t always easy – but it’s frequently a lot of fun and extremely satisfying. From what we’ve seen, happiness is the best choice for living healthfully and well.
To purchase Happiness & Health: 9 Choices that Unlock the Powerful Connection Between the Two Things We Want Most click here.
About the Authors: Rick Foster and Greg Hicks are internationally recognized pioneers in the field of happiness. They have transformed thousands of lives with their model of health in major corporations, universities and medical centers.