Karen Stewart retired in October 2021 after more than 40 years of practicing psychology. She cares deeply about this planet and all of the people on it, especially the Marginalized, socially excluded and disenfranchised. She believes we are all one and we sink or swim together. She still has something to say.
She can be contacted at email@example.com
By Karen Stewart, MA
We intuitively know that health and happiness are intimately related. When we feel good, we are happier than when we are ill. But thanks to ongoing research we are finally beginning to understand more about how happiness impacts our health. We are also beginning to understand how the effects of racism and poverty negatively impact health through a process termed ‘weathering.’
First, the Good News
In 1938, Harvard researchers began to follow a group of teens, collecting and storing information about their lives. Half of the teens came from very privileged backgrounds and half from poor, disadvantaged backgrounds. The researchers would contact them periodically to continue to collect information. The original subjects, their spouses and their baby boomer children were ultimately included, and the study continues.
Robert Waldinger, a psychiatrist, teacher in a Buddhist tradition, and the current director of the study recently published a book called The Good Life: Lessons from the World’s Longest Scientific Study of Happiness which describes the findings. Melvin McLeod interviewed Robert Waldinger for the May 23 issue of the on-line magazine, Lion’s Roar, “What Really Makes Us Happy,” and this column highlights some of the findings presented in that article.
When asked what the research showed that had made people’s lives happier and meaningful, Waldinger cited several factors. Probably the most obvious was self-care: taking care of our bodies, exercising, eating well, not abusing substances; these all contribute to our health and to our happiness. Also important, he explained, were relationships.
Sharing, caring relationships affect our happiness, and they also affect our physical well-being in a positive way. We may tend to think of this effect being associated with a romantic partner or spouse, but this is not necessarily true. Some marital relationships are not positive and can be detrimental to our health. A few warm, positive, non-romantic relationships will elicit the benefits of both health and happiness. These relationships may not magically appear, we may have to do some work to find good friends. Once we have made friends, we will also need to make sure we do things to nurture those relationships, making time in busy schedules to meet and connect as much as possible.
Good relationships are part of a kind of happiness that lies beyond fleeting moments of pleasure or pride based on current events, possessions, even accomplishments. Waldinger describes a different, deeper, and more enduring kind of happiness. The person has a “sense that life is basically meaningful and good. It means that even if upsetting things happen, there’s a basic sense that I am okay about my life in the world.”
This deeper sense of happiness or well-being “means that even when hard times come along, we’ve got both inner support and outer support.” Relationships provide the outer support, the inner support comes from “knowing our own hearts and minds, self-acceptance, gratitude and generosity.” This inner sense of well-being develops over time and is far more durable than transitory pleasures.
This feeling of well-being is also characterized by a sense of connection to things beyond our own individual well-being. The research found that people are much happier when they are connected and “committed to things in the world beyond themselves.” This sense of connection can be with something in the natural world, a cause to which you devote time and energy or a spiritual connection. What is important is that it helps us move beyond thoughts of our own well-being to thoughts about the well-being of a larger community or the world.
The Rest of the Story . . .
These aspects of health and happiness come easier to some than others. The concept of ‘weathering’ offers a helpful perspective. On April 12, 2023, in an article in the New York Times, Alisha Haridasani Gupta described the work of Dr Arline Geronimus. Dr Geronimus is a public health researcher at the University of Michigan, who has recently published a book Weathering: The Extraordinary Stress of Ordinary Life in an Unjust Society.
Thirty years ago, Dr Geronimus studied the vast disparities in infant mortality rates for babies: black babies dying at more than twice the rate of white babies in their first year of life. She described the negative effects of racism and poverty on the health of mothers and on their children. She labeled this “weathering,” comparing the effect of stress to the slow, steady erosion that water produces on a rock.
Her work was controversial, but over the years she has published more than 130 papers “expanding and bolstering the evidence for weathering well beyond Black mothers, she has studied Latina mothers, Mexican immigrants and white people in Appalachian Kentucky.” Her work has gained acceptance and has contributed to the growing recognition of the deeply harmful genetic effects of poverty and racism on physical health and well-being. “Simultaneously, researchers across disciplines have linked the relentless strain of discrimination to premature aging and dysfunction of the immune, cardiovascular, metabolic and endocrine systems.”
Although everyone experiences stress, people of color and those with lower socioeconomic status “often can’t escape their stressors because they face a higher likelihood of violence, job instability and discrimination while lacking social or material support.” Another study examined the physiological impact of racist behavior and found that “participants who reported being on the receiving end of racist behavior experienced elevated blood pressure for an extended period, even while they were asleep.”
I think of how upset I can become when someone treats me unfairly or unkindly, I cannot imagine what it would be like to have that experience be a frequent expectation most days of my life. Unfortunately, upward mobility and wealth don’t erase the effects of the stress. A survey “found that high-income Black women had worse health outcomes than low-income white women.”
In a more hopeful vein, “researchers from Ohio State University examined Black students who attended historically Black colleges and universities, …determined that those years of being ‘sheltered, at least somewhat, from racial discrimination’ as they put it, put participants at a lower risk of health problems later on, compared with their peers who had attended predominantly white institutions.” As difficult as the issues of poverty and racism are, there is hope that the conditions that make for health and happiness can be made available to everyone. As more of us work to break through the effects of racism and capitalism we will hopefully begin to develop situations where the harmful effects of racism have been muted if not overcome. Laws such as the expanded Child Tax Credits raised thousands of children out of poverty and reduced the hardship on their parents. That program was ended after 2021, but could be re-instated if there was a will to ease the hardships of racism and poverty. We may not be able to end racism and poverty, but we can certainly make things a whole lot better if only we have the will.