In UA happiness talks, mind-body links touted

Happiness sure is popular in Tucson. Esther Sternberg, M.D., and David Raichlen, Ph.D., two Jewish professors at the University of Arizona, addressed the subject as part of the recent Happiness Downtown Lecture Series, held at the Fox Tucson Theatre. The UA College of Social and Behavioral Sciences presented five free weekly lectures to packed houses from Oct. 16 to Nov. 13.

Esther Sternberg, M.D.
Esther Sternberg, M.D.
David Raichlen
David Raichlen

Sternberg discussed “How Our Surroundings Influence Happiness and Health” on Oct. 30. “Where is happiness?” asked Sternberg, a professor of medicine, research director of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine and founding director of the UA Institute on Place and Well-Being.

Known internationally for her research in brain-immune interactions and the effects of stress on health, Sternberg offered a personal experience of mind-body connection. After developing rheumatoid arthritis, she took a trip to Greece. “I began to heal. What is it about that place that helped me heal?” wondered Sternberg, author of “Healing Spaces: The Science of Place and Well-Being” and “The Balance Within: The Science Connecting Health and Emotions.” “Spaces and places can change our moods.”

At the Fox, Sternberg discussed the mind-body connection in promoting “healing spaces,” as well as exploring the intersection of architecture and medicine. People who can see trees outside their window are happier than if they see blacktop, she told the capacity crowd. “When I view the Santa Catalina Mountains, I feel calm, happy and a sense of peace.” Using a power point presentation, Sternberg showed how the brain produces endorphins, neurotransmitters that make us feel good.

“Perhaps there’s a default mode in our genes” that enhances peace and calm when we look at green forests, she said. Sternberg noted that “full-spectrum light can be as effective as anti-depressants” for some people. On the other hand, elements of place such as excessive noise, crowding, light, bad smells or mazes can trigger stress. She asked the audience if hospitals were similar to mazes.

“Our goal at the UA is that I’ll be able to ask that question and not get a laugh,” quipped Sternberg.

Chronic stress wreaks havoc on the immune system, releasing the stress hormone cortisol. “Stress impairs the immune system’s ability to heal,” she said.

Walter Reed Military Medical Center in Washington, D.C., is an example of a hospital that promotes mind-body healing. The hospital cost $12 million to build, said Sternberg, but was able to recoup $11 million in savings with patients improving faster. “Place and space can affect you even if you’re not aware of it,” she said. “We need to build more happy places.”

Raichlen’s talk on Nov. 6 dealt with “The Evolutionary Links Between Exercise and Happiness.” Although people know that “exercise is good for us,” said Raichlen, an associate professor in the School of Anthropology, a recent Gallup Poll reported that “only 30 percent of us engage in it” for a recommended half-hour per day, five days a week. “Just knowing exercise benefits us doesn’t get us out the door,” he said. But there are important changes in mood when we exercise, such as “‘runner’s high’ or in some rare cases even euphoria,” he said, adding that our brains create compounds called endocannabinoids, “our bodies’ form of marijuana.”

Raichlen, co-author of the article “Linking Brains and Brawn: Exercise and the Evolution of Neurobiology” with D.A. Polk, posits, “when our brains expanded we didn’t need our bodies anymore. We have big brains but we don’t look like athletes, [although] we evolved as endurance athletes.”

Linkage of our mind and body happened in early evolutionary history, said Raichlen, “seven or eight million years ago when our lineage diverged from chimpanzees.” Sometime between seven and two million years ago, bipedal fruit-eating apes became more like humans, he said. “The climate changed. It was too dry and it was hard to find fruit. We became hunters and gatherers,” which likely contributed to increased aerobic activity. Raichlen and his UA colleagues’ research attempts to “reconstruct activity levels during human evolution.”

Since there were no projectile weapons until around two million years ago, humans engaged in “persistence hunting and ran animals down till they keeled over from heat exhaustion,” because the animals were unable to pant, said Raichlen.

Every year, the city of Prescott holds a race between horses and humans. “On Oct. 20, a human came in second out of 20 horses and 23 humans,” he told the audience. Raichlen and colleagues at the UA have conducted a study comparing human runners to dogs and ferrets. Endocannabinoids “roughly tripled after exercise” in humans and dogs, he said, admitting that ferrets don’t exercise much.

Low intensity walking hardly causes an increase in endocannabinoids. But moderate intensity exercise — when you can still talk but you’re breathing too hard to sing — contributes to “a sweet spot,” which produces more endocannabinoids, said Raichlen. “It causes a change in our moods. The link between exercise and happiness is evolutionary.”