Saturday, November 18, 2006
The New Happiness Philosophers
Socrates was fascinated with the concept of happiness. For our reporting on the subject we talked with experts who are doing work a lot like his - the "new" happiness philosophers, if you will. Most, but not all, work in a field known as positive psychology.

At the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, positive psychologist Barbara Fredrickson teaches freshmen how to be happy. Her students learn to savor moments to "extend the goodness" of an experience - for example, not multi-tasking while they're talking on the telephone to people they care about. "Once people learn to appreciate that positive emotions are beneficial to them... it calls us to pay more attention to those moments and not just rush through them," she said.

Dacher Keltner, a positive psychologist with the University of California-Berkeley, says our disposition has an almost "snowball-like" effect on our future. Studies suggest hostile, violent kids often carry their negativity through life, he notes. The same connection applies to happy children.

Barry Kerzin is a doctor but also a monk. Using meditation he can generate positive feelings in his brain by manipulating his thoughts. His good feelings show up in brain scans. I watched him do this for more than three hours inside an MRI machine. He came out tired but blissful. "Meditation is always helpful to calm the mind," he said. He says he's happier now than before he was a monk.

If you're unhappy or depressed, feeling better is a real possibility.

Tune in this Sunday at 10 p.m. Eastern for Dr. Gupta's in-depth report on happiness and its surprising connections to your health.
Friday, November 17, 2006
The Downside of Happiness
I thought producing this week's House Call on happiness would be pretty simple, but as it turns out, happiness is a tricky business. Research shows that happy people live longer, laughing can lower your blood pressure and optimists beat out pessimists in a number of health measures.

Being a perfectionist, I thought perhaps we should strive to be happy all the time - after all it's good for your health! However, our guest, Harvard professor Daniel Gilbert, says not so fast. He says we're not programmed to be happy all the time, so people shouldn't strive for constant happiness. Anxiety, anger, and fear all play critical rolls in our survival. Gilbert's example: If you were happy all the time, you might happily let your child go out at 3 a.m. for bread in a bad part of town.

During Gilbert's interview with Dr. Gupta, he talked about where Americans go wrong in their pursuit of happiness. In fact, he said, we don't even know what makes us happy.

Tune in to House Call this weekend at 8:30 am Eastern and hear what this expert says is the key for finding your bliss.
Thursday, November 16, 2006
Cold Turkey Day
I've never been one to preach to my patients. For the most part, they already know if they should lose weight, exercise more or stop smoking. Still, I do think I wouldn't be doing my job if I didn't occasionally provide gentle reminders. As it turns out, for the last 30 years, I've had some help.

Yes, today marks the 30th anniversary of the Great American Smokeout, sponsored by the American Cancer Society. Literally millions of smokers will say "no thanks" to cigarettes for at least 24 hours. There will be public service announcements, parades, rallies, athletic events and ceremonies with celebrities encouraging people to quit. One year, a national sandwich shop even gave out "cold turkey" sandwiches to smokers who turned in at least a half a pack of cigarettes. The hope is that this one day will push smokers who want to quit in the right direction.

Whether from the Smokeout or increased awareness over the years, we are seeing some positive signs. Recently, we became a nation with a higher number of former smokers (46.5 million) compared with active smokers (45.1 million). Also, in 1964, when the first surgeon general's report came out, there were only 500 community smoking bans. Today, there are 2,300 communities and 18 states with such ordinances. Unfortunately, there are still negative signs as well. We are no longer seeing significant declines in smoking rates among high school students, who represent the next generation of smokers.

Different things work for different people and you will never hear me preach about quitting. You already know what is best. I'm eager to hear how some of you have overcome the habit or are working at it.
Wednesday, November 15, 2006
We're More than Just TV
Happiness and your health has been the subject of many of Dr. Gupta's appearances on CNN this week, leading up to his special report "Happiness and Your Health, The Surprising Connection" (Sunday, 10 p.m. Eastern).

But in addition to what's on TV, our weekly podcast Paging Dr. Gupta which I just posted on iTunes and CNN.com , has more information on what it takes to be happy. Did you know that a Pew Research Center survey found that being religious or Republican makes it more likely that you'll be happy? And if you're in your 20s as I am, chances are you're not as happy as people in other age groups! I happily disagree, but the studies actually show that men in their 60s are the happiest.

You'll also find great information and some really good pictures of happy people at CNN.com/Happiness, and you can even take a survey on what makes you happy.

Today is day three of the blog, and so far you've sent us some excellent comments, so keep them coming! Please note that although we'll post as many responses as possible, not every response will appear.
Smile, and the World Smiles With You, Right?
All this week, I have been reporting a series of stories about happiness. Now, admittedly, I wasn't sure what to expect when I started investigating this six months ago. And, in full disclosure, as a neurosurgeon, I like objective facts - and I wasn't sure I would find them in the world of happiness. My producers will tell you I was surprised. So, I decided to share a little bit about what I learned.

This morning, I filed a story about the meaning of smiles. Instinctively, most of us can tell when a smile is genuine or fake. We can also usually tell when a person is really happy, or not. But, what is it that we are really seeing?

Well, turns out it's hard to pretend that you're happy when you are not. In a true smile, there are some telltale muscle movements that are almost reflexive in nature. As the corners of the lips go up, there is an almost simultaneous contraction of the muscles under the eye, called the orbicularis oculi. What's even more fascinating is that with a true smile, researchers have found, the area of the brain most associated with happiness, the left frontal lobe, lights up.

Other little signs include a slight pouching under the eyes, which is impossible to reproduce, unless you are truly happy. I tried and couldn't do it. There is also a little crinkle in the cheek - again, hard to fake. Now, if you're like me, you'll probably dig out your own yearbook photo and start analyzing.

Still skeptical? Well, get this: According to our smile expert and his studies, those with genuine smiles in their college yearbook photos were significantly more likely to be happier a full 30 years later. So, if you do look at those old photos, let me know what you find.

Make sure to tune into CNN this Sunday night at 10pm Eastern for my full, in-depth report on happiness and the surprising connections to your health.
Tuesday, November 14, 2006
Better Heart Attack Care For All

A couple of points seemed especially interesting to me about treating heart attacks in time - a story I was researching for a piece on "Paula Zahn Now" for tonight...

The first one is the bad news: Currently, there's no reliable way for a patient to select a hospital that is trained to treat heart attacks and give emergency balloon angioplasties in under the recommended 90 minutes. Only a few hospitals in the country - 1/3 of them - treat at least half of their emergency angioplasty patients in under an hour and a half. Until U.S. hospitals uniformly adopt procedures to minimize the time spent on these patients and make these measures public, heart attack patients are taking a bit of a gamble when it comes to choosing a hospital . How do you know when the odds are going to be stacked against you?

The other part - the good news - is that hospitals that are learning and changing their procedures to treat heart attack patients quickly may not only help save an additional thousand lives in the ER every year, but they may actually be able to "erase" the heart attack altogether. Meaning in some cases, when hospitals manage to open up the arteries quickly (like, say, in under an hour), subsequent heart function tests may not show that there was any damage to the heart muscle, as if the patient had never had the heart attack in the first place! This translates to reduced risk of heart problems in the future, a quicker recovery time, as well as other long-term heart health benefits. And, most of the changes that need to be made are focused on how the cardiac treatment team communicates and organizes itself - so it's not going to cost a lot for hospitals to implement these systemic improvements.

With increased awareness on the part of the hospitals, and a few inexpensive changes in the ER, more Americans can live longer and healthier lives in the aftermath of a heart attack.

Red Meat and Breast Cancer
If you heard the news this morning about red meat and breast cancer, you may have immediately dismissed it. "I have heard it all before," you thought to yourself. Well, I want you to reconsider, especially if you are a woman in your 20's, 30's or 40's. In a nutshell, the study looked at 90,000 women and found those who ate more red meat almost doubled their risk of developing a specific type of breast cancer, called hormone receptor positive cancer, over the next 12 years.

To be fair, it is really hard to do a study like this. This study was based on questionnaires asking people to remember what they ate and how much. I can barely remember what I had last night, let alone last month. And, we are not really sure why red meat would be linked to breast cancer. It could have something to do with certain compounds in the meat that are released in the cooking process. It could also have to do with the fact that certain cattle are often given hormones in their feed, which could fuel the breast cancer to grow.

Now, Americans eat more red meat than the rest of the world. And, yes, most of us already know we should probably cut down for a variety of reasons. But, here's what I find interesting - there are so many things out there affecting our likelihood of cancer that we can't control, such as family history, but we are starting to accumulate lots of evidence about things we can control. Now, if you had a juicy cheeseburger last night, don't worry - you still have a very low likelihood of ever getting breast cancer. But, here is yet another good reason to cut down
Monday, November 13, 2006
Reliving The Trauma of War
I was engaged in a spirited conversation with a producer as I left CNN for Emory University to check out new technology designed to help our returning warriors through Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. We were discussing what we would do if the researchers put me through the virtual reality therapy and nothing happened. After all, I had been in the Iraq war zone for only a few weeks back in 2003, nothing like the extended tours of duty of our service men and women. This, paired with the usual journalist's approach of "prove it" when it comes to new therapies, led us both to question whether we would have any video to put on the air after this trip to see Dr. Gerardi at Emory.

I wasn't ready for what would happen to my mind and body. Through this technology, which is like a video game and experienced by the patient wearing a wired-up helmet, I truly relived some of the most terrifying moments of my life, those moments when I really thought I was going to die. I could feel my heart pound and my hands shake as the therapist continued to remind me that the purpose of the simulation is to let me experience those moments as realistically as possible, but in a safe place.

I was overwhelmed by my response to this experimental treatment. I felt so out of control with real feelings of helplessness and despair at first. I felt more in control after going through the simulation a couple more times. And that's the goal - to help the military men and women, whose lives are on the line, come home and be in control of their memories and fears.

My experience gave me a new respect for the mental enemies faced by our troops and a new appreciation for the work of those trying to help them.

Tune into Anderson Cooper 360 tonight at 11 PM Eastern to see more about the experience of soliders who return from the war, only to fight equally challenging battles at home.
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