Twice a year we award an exemplary student the iVein® Health and Wellness Scholarship. Students must write an essay that promotes a practical approach to a healthy lifestyle in college and how these habits can be sustained over a lifetime.

Here is the winning essay for the Fall 2022 scholarship:

Habits, Health, and the Happy Life

What makes us happy? Is it money? Is it a nicer house, a nicer car, or an exotic vacation? Or perhaps happiness is more circumstantial. Does my partner like me today? Are my kids well behaved? Do my parents support my decisions?

It seems instinctive for us to target external factors as determinants of our happiness. The nicer house or nicer car may give us a sense of success or a feeling of satisfaction with our quality of life, but what substance do these items hold if we don’t really feel successful or satisfied with ourselves? In other words, how much of our happiness is determined by our circumstances, and how much is determined by our behavior?

We may be surprised to learn that having the nicer house or nicer car does not necessarily correlate with improved quality of life. For example, a study conducted in 2010 demonstrates that having more “things” not only fails to increase happiness but may decrease one’s ability to “reap enjoyment from life’s small pleasures” (1). The wealthier test subjects in this experiment had a significantly lower capacity to hold on to positive emotional experiences than their counterparts who were not exposed to wealth. Why is this so? Perhaps our happiness has less to do with the things we possess and more to do with the life we are striving to create for ourselves.

A curious study on Italian natives takes this question a step further. The study examines the relationship between happiness and health and concludes that happiness is correlated with perceived good health, which is to say, the healthier we think we are, the happier we will be (2). During college and medical school, I have grown to appreciate three important aspects of health and well-being: dietary health, sleep hygiene, and gratitude.

So much of our physical health depends on our eating habits. While it is important to be aware of the consequences of our food choices, it is equally important to ensure that we are obtaining essential nutrients in our diet. For example, in medical school we learn the important role that dietary fiber plays in food absorption. We also learn that fiber binds to carcinogens and is associated with decreased risk of colon cancer (3). Unfortunately, however, it can be difficult to obtain adequate amounts of fiber, which explains why many Americans (~80%) are fiber deficient. To me, this was an alarming statistic, especially considering that colon cancer runs in my family. With this new information, my wife and I were quick to incorporate fiber-rich foods into our diet, and I take fiber supplements on days when our diet lacks in fiber.

In addition to dietary health, sleep hygiene is another vital – and often underappreciated – aspect of health and well-being. A 2018 study found that those who slept less than 7 hours each night had a higher likelihood of developing obesity compared to those who slept more than 7 hours (4). Another study revealed that reduced sleep duration and increased frequency of sleep disruptions were associated with poor mental health (5). I believe that many issues with sleep arise from staying up too late rather than getting up too early. In my experience, when I am intentional about getting up early, I am also more intentional about going to bed early; conversely, when I go to bed late, I tend to justify oversleeping because I feel that I have “earned the right” to sleep in. These tendencies do not promote a healthy bedtime routine.

My determination to wake up earlier has helped me overcome poor sleeping habits – but this hasn’t always been the case. One night, back in January, I was scrolling through my phone when I came across a post on Facebook titled “5 Morning Habits of Successful People.” 2 of the 5 habits were ones I did not follow. They were, first, wake up early, and second, get moving early. I determined that I would try this advice the following morning. I set my alarm for 5:30 AM, which was significantly earlier than usual, and placed my phone across the room so that I would be forced to get out of bed to turn off my alarm. Little did I know, my decision to do so would change my approach not only to academics, but to my lifestyle routine in general. I discovered a world of ultra-productive mornings, where my mind was clear, everything was quiet, and time seemed to stand still. My experience has made me a believer in the words of Benjamin Franklin, who said, “early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.”

Perhaps the most underestimated aspect of healthy living is the daily practice of gratitude. A randomized clinical trial conducted in 2019 investigated the relationship between gratitude and mental health (6). The subjects in the “intervention” group wrote daily gratitude lists for 14 days, after which they completed a series of questionnaires evaluating positive and negative psychological affect. The study found that gratitude intervention increased happiness and life satisfaction, while simultaneously decreasing negative affect and depression symptoms.

My experience with gratitude came in the form of a gratitude journal. I started my own gratitude journal during my sophomore year of college. Writing down what I was grateful for only took a few minutes, but it made a significant difference in my life: I became more optimistic, less irritable, and more friendly towards others.

Our health is a valuable gift, and if we lose it, we may never find it again. The difference between where we are now and the healthy life is intentionality: intentionality with what we eat, intentionality with how we approach sleep hygiene, and being intentionally grateful for what we have. My personal journey to healthy living has been a process that has required consistency and a willingness to abandon old habits for the sake of a healthier lifestyle. It has led me to increased productivity, self-confidence, and above all: happiness.

Sources Cited: 1. Money Giveth, Money Taketh Away … – Journals.sagepub.com. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0956797610371963?casa_token=jbNlYjbnCssAAAAA%3ANAN5GsOaZLvkTFkY4i6l8Vrezb8LkwFM6pqDgxQnzw6_hQmo_iEIaozuqUNbzx4yhc-C-NTKWqo6.

2. Sabatini, Fabio. “The Relationship between Happiness and Health: Evidence from Italy.” Social Science & Medicine, Pergamon, 24 May 2014, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0277953614003189?casa_token=0qyXlO_iVswAAAAA%3AkRO1zwC-UROf5DUyZy3DO0XAh1Iqg56VSdjIFjZPZ_xx1u5DG22bt6vKfYtQ3S82NUr4Xycu.

3. Negri, E, et al. “Fiber Intake and Risk of Colorectal Cancer.” American Association for Cancer Research, American Association for Cancer Research, 1 Aug. 1998, https://aacrjournals.org/cebp/article/7/8/667/108660/Fiber-intake-and-risk-of-colorectal-cancer.

4. Cooper, Christopher B, et al. “Sleep Deprivation and Obesity in Adults: A Brief Narrative Review.” BMJ Open Sport & Exercise Medicine, BMJ Specialist Journals, 1 Oct. 2018, https://bmjopensem.bmj.com/content/4/1/e000392.abstract.

5. Milojevich, Helen M., and Angela F. Lukowski. “Sleep and Mental Health in Undergraduate Students with Generally Healthy Sleep Habits.” PLOS ONE, Public Library of Science, https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0156372.

6. Cunha, Lúzie Fofonka, et al. “Positive Psychology and Gratitude Interventions: A Randomized Clinical Trial.” Frontiers, Frontiers, 1 Jan. 1AD, https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00584/full.