Chasing Joy: Psychological Stresses no different than Obesity, Smoking

It’s been too busy to think about Sorting It Out this week, but I miss my lovely, lovely readers, who feed me with a mysterious and nourishing invisible manna.

So, because I happened across it today, and because it still seems timely to me, I’m going to republish part of a piece I wrote four years ago, when I was still writing the health column and in need of pursuing some happiness, which I fully believe to be a responsible and adult thing to do.

Women, according to [then] new Canadians stats, are still less happy than men, particularly those of us between 30 and 50. Surely not because our pursuit of gender equality has hit a roadblock? Or because we’ve been groomed—along with millions of women around the world and throughout most of time—to help, to take a back seat to others, to pick up the slack for those we love, to avoid saying no, to be nice, and pretty, and make the lives of others easier with little regard for our own?

The truth is that we still spend more time on child care, domestics [and all kinds of unpaid labour]; we make 70.5 cents on a man’s dollar (down from a decade ago); we account for two-thirds of those on minimum wage. We are in fact still working more and valued less.

But how do psychological stresses translate into the same very real health risks that the well-known ones of obesity, smoking, inactivity or inadequate nutrition bring? The answer is of course inflammation, inflammation that can become chronic and do far more damage than seize up a neck now and then.

How it works is in a loop. Stress yields stress hormones, which yield inflammatory chemicals, to which the brain responds to by calling for more stress hormones. Life’s punches left unchecked can quite literally make us sour—the stressed and depressed show higher levels of inflammatory chemicals in their blood.

While we sometimes have little control over curveballs coming our way, finding ways to counter them is vital. Exercise helps, if it’s enjoyable, especially if it’s as enjoyable as, say, dancing up a storm out on the lawn under a mid-night sun in June. Any kind of fun helps, and so does talking, and so do fish oils and other supplements that increase serotonin and decrease inflammation, and so do massage and acupuncture [and anything else that increases endorphins].

My point then, and now, is simply this: pursue your happiness. It’s a gift you give others too, not just yourself.