The Science of Happiness and How It Can Alleviate Chronic Pain

Chronic pain is a condition which receives far less awareness than it should. This type of pain is known to affect more Americans than heart disease, cancer, and diabetes, combined. It is the leading cause of disability, taking up a large part of the national health care funds, and it is the largest found reason that people access health care. 76.2 million Americans, or ¼ of the American population, have experienced sustained pain for a period longer than 24 hours, according to the National Center for Health Statistics (2006). There is a wide diversity in the types of pain, which also requires a large variety in treatment and research options.

One such treatment option which may be seen as comparatively unorthodox is behavioral interventions. Behavioral interventions seem to be a promising way to alleviate pain, both in conjunction or in lieu with medical treatments. Individualized pain management programs, for example, have been known to help cancer patients handle pain. Part of the effectiveness of this treatment method may be contributed to the power of happiness. According to a research published in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine, holding a positive attitude helps patients with rheumatoid arthritis with pain, as they reportedly experienced less pain and fewer symptoms. On the other hand, patients with a negative attitude reported more pain. Researchers believe that this is because mood can affect people’s perception of pain and related symptoms.

The effects of happiness go beyond patients with rheumatoid arthritis. Many studies indicate that often, living with an optimistic outlook on life has many benefits, both in physical and mental health. According to a research done by Barbara Santay, the therapist for Franciscan Alliance’s Employee Assistance Program, ⅔ of women who are breast cancer survivors attending support groups self-reported that their lives were “altered for the better after developing the disease.” Further studies indicate that women who have strong, healthy social interactions live 18 months longer than those who do not interact with many people.

Michael Mirochna, M.D., a family medical physician with Lake Porter Primary Care and Porter Physician Group of Porter Regional Group, believes that mood is highly correlated with a patient’s experience with chronic pain. “When a patient’s mood is good, they’ll be in less pain. If they start to feel worse and you dig into their psychosocial history, you find that something happened…There’s a close correlation with mood and pain in that regard.” This seems to suggest that happiness does improve a patient’s physical health. Experts believe that being in a continual state of happiness comes from a person’s outlook in life, not from temporary events or material possessions. This type of outlook in life can be exercised, which would be very helpful for one’s emotional and physical health.

There are a few key points helpful in being happy and positive towards the future. The first is to be physically active. Physical exercise seems to be very effective at improving mood, and Santay even believes that aerobic exercise is as effective as depression medications in improving mood. Another key point is focusing -- avoiding overthinking, but rather, experiencing more “flow experiences,” which are engaging, relaxing activities that cause you to lose track of time. Laughing is another large aspect in maintaining mood. Laughter is known to prevent heart disease and strengthen the immune system, as well as many other benefits. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, having strong social interactions and support groups can be very effective in improving mood. As Santay’s research suggests, social interactions have a large role in elongating life and improving general well-being.

Pain is a condition that is very difficult to heal, due to its multifaceted nature. Pain can be related to many other conditions, from diseases to mental health problems, making it difficult to pinpoint the cause of the symptom and finding the optimum treatment option. However, there are some treatments that can be done that are very effective, regardless of the cause. It has been proven that being happy is beneficial to health, both physically and mentally. Therefore, it is important to try to maintain a positive outlook in life due to the many benefits happiness brings. Still, it is important to know that everyone is different, so while increasing happiness can work for some, it may not be as effective for others.


Mary Yoshikawa