THE BLOG
08/26/2013 10:29 am ET Updated Oct 26, 2013

Is Happiness Preventive Medicine?

That probably depends on how you define it. If you think of happiness as fleeting and resulting from factors outside of yourself, like a new job or a Hawaiian vacation, well then it's probably not so beneficial. But if you see it as inherently within you -- something you give, rather than get -- then it's a different story.

This might sound like a tall order or even blue-eyed optimism. But what if behind this attitude was the grounded belief that good is natural and happiness is permanent, based on a more spiritual view of your life? Perhaps more in line with what 19th-century theologian, religious founder and author, Mary Baker Eddy, had to say. "Happiness is spiritual, born of Truth and Love. It is unselfish; therefore it cannot exist alone, but requires all mankind to share it."

Beginning from the standpoint that happiness is spiritual and that it naturally benefits and includes "all mankind" changes the equation from one of "getting" to "sharing." And that just might be a life-changing, health-altering approach. Why health altering? Well, it's hard to overlook the results.

For instance, Martin Seligman, Ph.D., describes a case study involving severely-depressed people in his book, Authentic Happiness. These people had just one task a day: to go to a website and record three good things that happened to them over the course of their day. After 15 days, they went from a label of "severely depressed" to "mildly or moderately depressed," and 94 percent of them reported feeling better. All they had to do was focus on the good in their lives and they were happier.

You could say focusing on the good is an active prayer that has transformative results.

Perhaps you've heard of the ambitious 75 year Harvard Grant study that set out to answer the question, "What predicts a happy life?" Considered the longest study of human development of its kind, it followed the lives of 268 male Harvard undergraduates --considered the best and brightest -- from the classes of 1938 to 1940, regularly collecting detailed personal data.

The many decades and 20 million dollars expended on the study ended up pointing to one simple conclusion: Giving and receiving love equals happiness.

Dr. George Vaillant, a Harvard Medical School professor of psychiatry, directed the project for more than three decades and recently published a summary of insights the study yielded called, Triumphs of Experience (November 2012). In Vaillant's own words, '"Happiness is love. Full stop.'" He goes on to say "Happiness isn't about me." In other words, our lives have meaning when we are in the business of giving to others. This echoes the point that "happiness is unselfish and cannot exist alone... "

In a video produced by The Atlantic, Vaillant comments on the impact of working with these men over a long period of time, "If you're going to study lives, you've got to study trees. Redwoods are a whole lot more interesting than saplings!" (I particularly related to that analogy, since my childhood home was built in a grove of the towering giants and I often pondered their long lives -- how these beautiful trees endured fire, wind, rain, earthquakes and yet still stood tall.)

Vaillant says his image of real happiness in the Harvard Grant Study is that of a man whose laundry room was filled with dirty clothes because his children and grandchildren and extended family all came to his home to help him garden or sail and that resulted in dirty laundry that needed to be cleaned. This man and his wife lived their lives as matriarchs and patriarchs -- connected to loving relationships -- and that amounted to happiness and meaning.

Vaillant says probably the greatest human skill you can have is the ability to take love in and "metabolize" it.

The study doesn't point to money and social class as a means to happiness. Vaillant himself told The Take Away's John Hockenberry, "I think if you asked my children they would all say that I've been more interested in having a brilliant career, and less interested in just hanging out with them. And if I had it to do over again, I would've spent more time with my children."

In a recent interview I had with Dr. Eva Selhub, author of The Love Response, she also pointed to love and connection to people who cared about her as the number one contributing factor to health and healing in her own life.

When was the last time your doctor prescribed a regimen of love and care, rather than a prescription drug for depression or even a lifestyle change with diet and exercise? In Dr. Lissa Rankin's new bestseller, Mind Over Medicine she writes, " ...the scientific data linking happiness and health is shocking enough that it just might convince you that treatments aimed at increasing happiness should take center stage when you're interested in preventing disease."

What if you approached each day with the perspective: Today I am going to live and give joy. I'm going to see it as an unlimited commodity that I possess. I'm going to guard it like a prized possession even if something unexpected happens that threatens my peace.

Happiness is a treatment we can all prescribe for ourselves and watch as it truly does take center stage in our life.

For more by Ingrid Peschke, click here.

For more on happiness, click here.