How does illness impact happiness?
Kids with life-altering diagnoses have bodies that do not function as we think or wish they would. And yet, it’s the only body they will ever have. Their body is what got them here and certainly what keeps them here with us each day, and we are very happy about that! But how can we be happy about their unique bodies which give so many daily challenges? Should we try to be happy about our child’s body? Does it matter if happiness surrounds their body?
96% of people with Down Syndrome interviewed by Children’s Hospital Boston stated they were happy about their lives, and that those with Down Syndrome clearly stated that they consider their lives valuable”. 90% of siblings of a child with Down Syndrome feel that they are happier because of their sibling.
Perhaps Down Syndrome is not severe enough (or has magical happy genes- have you seen those smiles??) for this discussion- let’s look at children with a more severe Trisomy diagnosis, Trisomy 13 and 18, which has a 6-12% survival rate past 1 year. 332 parents were surveyed, and they reported being told by their medical provider that: ‘ their child would be incompatible with life’ (87%), that ‘their child would live a life of suffering’ (57%), that ‘their child would be a vegetable’ (50%), and that ‘their child would ruin their marriage(23%)’ and ‘run their family’ (23%). Ready to move from the medical provider’s prognosis to the parent’s reality? 97% of these parents described their child as a happy child. Can I say that again? 97% of these children show happiness while living in a very challenged body.
An adult friend of mine who struggles with chronic illness and a body different than the one she would choose sighed heavily as she shared that someone asked her if she could ever ‘be grateful for her body.’ Is it OK to be grateful for our child’s body, with its life-long limitations, and to be grateful for it exactly the way it is? My answer goes hand in hand with the parents of these beautiful children with Trisomy 13, 18, and 21- YES! I am not diminishing the struggles, the losses, the pain, the everyday realities. However, I know that happiness within the reality of the present is essential. Perhaps even more essential for those whose bodies aren’t as we think we would choose.
Some journaling thoughts for you: How do you see happiness in your child? How do you express your happiness to your child? How do you resolve the internal conflict of being happy and grateful for your child and even their body while not at all appreciating the struggles connected there?
How does happiness relate to health?
How exactly does happiness relate to health? It’s a bit ‘chicken and egg’ for me- does more happiness create a healthier body, or does increasing our body’s health create more happiness? I like both chicken and eggs, so let’s look at both.
Does more happiness create a healthier body? Northwest Medicine says Yes! Happiness affects our bodies in many ways. When participants increased their happiness they experienced:
- lower blood pressure
- better sleep
- boosted immune systems
- less stress and pain
- increased life expectancy
Does increasing our body’s health create more happiness? Studies show the more we:
- eat nutrient-dense food
- sleep well
- meditate (give our bodies time to calm and replenish), the happier we feel.
So, whichever way we want to think about it – increasing happiness increases health AND increased health increases happiness, we get to the same place of increased health and increased happiness.
Another journaling prompt for you. What are some of your favorite things to do to increase your health and happiness while living with serious pediatric health challenges?
How can we create and build happiness when living with medical complexities in our families? Can we fake it until we make it? Is happiness emotional or physical? Let’s talk for a minute about emotion, physical sensation, systemic changes in our bodies, all the things that tie physical bodies to emotion and emotional responses. Butterflies in our stomach, blushing in our cheeks, a moment which causes a quick catch of your breath, dilation of our pupils, increase in salivation- each are examples of emotion and physical sensation connecting.
Let’s tie that into caring for children with medically complex conditions. Some examples might include how our heart rate increases as we drive by the hospital on the way to the store, even knowing we aren’t going to the hospital. The boost of energy we have when our child’s monitor alarms that help us get to them faster. The feeling of warmth that fills us when we see a genuine smile from our child.
Our bodies feel happiness via neurotransmitters, tiny chemical “messenger” cells that transmit signals between neurons and other bodily cells. When something joyous happens, the emotional and physical responses happen right away because all of these things are happening simultaneously in the body with the release of dopamine and serotonin, two neurotransmitters.
Is it automatic? If dopamine increases will I feel happy regardless of what triggered the dopamine? Your mom’s advice, “Fake it till you make it” seems to hold true here. Even a forced smile causes neurotransmitters to be released, allowing them to do their job to raise your mood.
So how do we induce happiness? Studies show that going for a walk in nature, petting a dog or cat, kissing a loved one, even just smiling releases more neurotransmitters and we feel happier. Expressing gratitude, being active, obtaining a good nights rest, spending time outside, meditating, and eating a nutrient-dense diet each increases our ability to feel happy. What are physical tasks that increase your medically-complex child’s happiness? Singing while performing routine tasks (like tidying their bed, putting supplies away, feeding, dressing, etc.), playing specific music that they enjoy, helping them enjoy sensory items that are pleasant for them are all ways that you actually increase your child’s neurotransmitters and help them to be happier.
Journaling thoughts: What are things that work for you to increase your happiness? What are some things that don’t work for you? What are physical tasks you could do that would increase your child’s neurotransmitters and their happiness? Could we fit this into the time we’re already giving by intentionally making it fun and dopamine-inducing for our child?