10/04/2009 10:58 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Your Grandmother and Mine, Happiness, and Health

It is highly likely that our grandmothers - yours and mine - shared one crucial, deeply-held belief. Even though it's equally likely they were quite different as individuals, they agreed on something that the best educated and most sophisticated medical researchers are only now beginning to prove: that happiness has a direct impact on physical health and health outcomes. With this belief, and certainly without knowing it, they put themselves squarely in the medical vanguard.

One of my Grandmothers, Alice Rosenfield Lapidus, was a charming, wickedly funny woman who never learned to read or write. The other, Emma Gloria Poder, was a fun-loving, Bohemian beach bum who created some of the weirdest health food concoctions I've encountered (or eaten) in my life. The consistent message I received from them throughout my childhood and well into my 30's was, "My darling, be happy. Make fun. Look at how beautiful life is. You'll be well." Their attitudes have informed everything I've done since.

Regardless of your Grandmother's country of origin, ethnicity, religion, or emotional style, she probably believed the same. In fact, it's what most members of the human species have believed through the millennia. My partner, Greg Hicks, and I have tested this often. As we've traveled around the world, we've asked audiences the following questions: "Do you think that negative emotions - chronic stress, depression, and anxiety - have a negative impact on health?" and "Do you think that positive emotions - feelings of wellbeing, calm, and contentment - are good for your health?"

It doesn't matter what continent we're on - and we've worked on all seven of them - the answers are exactly the same. They all agree with our grandmothers. From urban sophisticates to people living in tribal villages, human beings all over the world believe that happiness is good for our health. They also believe emphatically that chronic stress, depression, and anxiety hurt us.

On the happiness side of the continuum, scientific research is just beginning to catch up. By the time Greg and I finished researching our latest book, Happiness & Health, there were over 700,000 medically related studies on the harmful effects of stress and depression, but only a tiny 4,000 studies on the impact of positive emotion. Given simple economics, it figures. There is no money to be made from happiness - patients don't need to spend cash on medication or have medical interventions to cure happiness.

So, how do we get to happy? Greg and I spent years researching happy and healthy people all over the world and found that nine behavioral and attitudinal "choices" were universal themes. All of them show up as important elements in happiness, health, and healing. And, as a group of nine, they are all cognitive: we can consciously learn them and choose to live them.

As I look back at my Grandmothers, they led extraordinarily healthy lives that far exceeded their predicted life expectancies. I would have loved to interview them for our books. Here are just four of the nine "choices" that place Emma and Alice in the ranks of the happiest human beings worldwide, and I certainly hope your Grandmother was here too:

1. Grandma Alice was entirely accountable. She simply wouldn't go to blame. Her life - and her mistakes - were her own; her actions belonged to her, and she never framed herself up as a victim of circumstance, even when it was inarguable that she truly was a victim - of The Great Depression, the Holocaust, sexism, and anti-Semitism. When bad things happened to her that she could control, they were to be dealt with expeditiously, and then "we move on." When she couldn't control the world, she spoke her mind and did what she could to help out, but never allowed herself to suffer. She simply didn't see the upside of being miserable.

2. Grandma Emma "centralized" - she lived her passions. She packed up her things in 1946, left an abusive relationship, rode the train from New York City to Venice, California, and spent the rest of her life on the beach by day, and ballroom dancing by night.

3. Both Grandmas exuded a spirit of generosity - not that they had a lot to give materially, but that they were available at all times for talk, cooking, singing, and the kind of fun that multi-generational families used to have all the time. And, they were unsparing in their help of neighbors and friends. Their attitude that "what anyone truly needs should be provided," has profoundly shaped all of our family's lives. My parents, my sister and I, and our children have all been the beneficiaries of Emma and Alice's true gift: the incredible impulse to give amply and honestly from the heart.

4. The Grandmas were experts in flexibility. Grandma Alice was always ready for something new to happen - a change in plans, a new movie, the next Rockettes production at Radio City, the latest Chinese restaurant to open in New York City. 3,000 miles to the West, Grandma Emma never had a plan. Her days on the beach opened in front of her and she lived in a constant state of delight at what would arrive. (She also took physical flexibility seriously. In fact, she had her first mini-stroke at 88 doing a yoga headstand.) Because the Grandmas never entrenched in what was "supposed to happen," they lived in a world of surprise and delight rather than disappointment and rigidity.

The Grandmas didn't do all this by accident. It made them feel good to behave this way - happy, if you will - and they were right to advocate their lifestyles to their families. Medical and social research has now shown that these four happiness choices - accountability, flexibility, giving, and "centrality" (living passions) - are highly correlated to happiness and good health. When we add the other choices that showed up in our research of extremely happy people to the mix - deep intentionality, truth-telling, "recasting" trauma into meaning and opportunity, and appreciation, we've got a power-packed bundle of happiness and health-making behaviors. And, when you go farther and add all nine choices to a rich gumbo of exercise, diet, good genetics, healthy environment, and lack of threatening viral exposures, you get an amazing group of health factors. Plus you get the possibility of extraordinarily happy and healthy lives.

With a glance backward, I have a feeling that Grandmas Alice and Emma embraced all of the choices. Even in advanced old age, they would have been poster girls for happiness and health. They left quite a legacy. I can still hear them laugh.