There is a strong connection between a person’s happiness and health. Overall wellbeing can be greatly impacted by how a person feels, as well as how they live and work. Considering 2020 was a tough year for everyone, it’s no surprise that only 14% of Americans say they are very happy, down from 31% in 2018.
In this episode of For Your Benefits, Amy Blansit, Ph.D., examines how social, economic, and environmental factors can impact an individual’s health and what effect that has in the workplace. We discuss:
The effect of happiness on health.
How where you live, work, and shop matters to overall health and wellbeing.
How stress and anxiety differ for low-income families.
What employers can do to improve happiness and health.
Amy Blansit, Ph.D. serves as Program Director for the Northwest Project, a poverty alleviation initiative in Springfield, Missouri. In addition, she is Chairwoman of the Drew Lewis Foundation and operates The Fairbanks, a renovated grade school that now serves as a center for community betterment programs in Springfield’s Grant Beach neighborhood.
Dr. Blansit founded the Drew Lewis Foundation in memory of her husband, who shared a vision of community betterment. Focused on asset-based urban development, the Foundation’s mission is to educate, empower, and support underserved families through personalized programs and coaching to increase quality of life and build resilient communities. In addition to her leadership role on the Northwest Project, Blansit is a senior instructor in the Kinesiology department at Missouri State University.
On today’s episode, we’re talking about the connection between happiness and health. And we are excited to have Amy Blansit sit with us to talk about the different factors in a person’s life, like how and where they live, how that can affect their overall health and wellbeing. Thanks for joining us today, Amy.
Absolutely. Thanks for having me.
About Amy Blansit
Absolutely. So, Amy, let’s start off today by learning more about you and your background, including the work you’re doing through RISE and the Drew Lewis Foundation.
I have a doctorate in health sciences. I focus on the social determinants of health and the role our social-ecological environment plays in our health. That’s a lot of big words. Simply, what I mean is where you live matters and it influences all the things about your success, but especially your health.
So I’m a professor at Missouri State in the Kinesiology Department. I’m also the CEO and the founder of the Drew Lewis Foundation. So both with MSU and Drew Lewis Foundation, I instruct students and families on methods to change or enhance their behaviors, really look at removing barriers of access, and potentially improving our environment around us.
It’s kind of great that I get to work with students, but I also get to work within our community directly with families. More specifically with the Drew Lewis Foundation. I lead a collective impact model that started with saving of an abandoned building and has led to much greater changes in the Grant Beach neighborhood.
We developed a program called Reaching Independence through Support and Education, and that’s tagged RISE. And really what that does is talk about a lot of those social determinants of health and the things that create stability in a family. And we help individuals work for self-sufficiency to develop many of those areas.
Happiness and Health
Amy, we have all heard the phrase laughter is the best medicine. But, you know, I think some of us maybe haven’t given a whole lot of thought to that. So I’d love for you to start off by talking about how a person’s happiness can impact their level of health.
So this is one of my favorite topics. It’s really difficult to study the idea of happiness, but Harvard has been doing it for some time, really looking at the link towards happiness and our health and how those help us feel good, or how do we define that?
Happiness goes into many things we think about physically. We think about joy and things, that even through achievement and my surrounding influence, happiness, but really Harvard was able to break it down into three areas.
One of them is feeling good, the physical part, the actual pleasure that we feel. The second area was related to engagement being absorbed in what you’re doing, really being able to be present because you’re not distracted by so many other stressors in life and finally doing good. So knowing yourself well enough and being able to go outside yourself into service for others, this aligns with most people’s values and purpose, and virtues.
So when we’re really talking about the idea of health and its potential to relating to happiness, there’s multiple factors that go into that. So, as I said, defining health can be, or defining happiness can be difficult and with so many different things and the meanings that it has to everyone.
What they really started looking at is when we narrow down the idea of happiness, how does it relate to health? And there were kind of three factors there. When an individual self reports that they are happier. then the decreased mortality rate. So the death rate actually decreases. We see decreased morbidity. So the severity of disease or the severity of health conditions decreases.
And we also see that individuals begin to increase their self-related health. So people felt physically better, even if their health truly wasn’t better than someone else who rated themselves as unhappy. So there literally is a connection between if I feel happier, even though I might be somewhat sick, I actually report my health as better than what it actually might be.
Power of Positive Thinking
Kind of the power of positive thinking, huh?
Exactly. And so, yeah, that idea of happiness makes us just feel better about our entire environment. And so if I’m feeling happy about where I live, if I’m feeling happy about my healthy relationships, if I’m feeling contentment out of my engagement with others, then the things that might sometimes be bad in life, we’re going to worry a little bit less, because our happiness is going to play into how we perceive how bad something might get.
And so we really talk about that and these perceptions of health, that severity or susceptibility, how severe might something be or how susceptible am I to getting it when I have a better outlook, when I’m feeling happier about those three main areas we discussed, I’m going to actually report those things as less traumatic or the barriers as being less than what they might actually be.
Effect of Environment on Happiness and Health
So, Amy, does it matter where you live, where you work, where you shop?
Yes. So I first mentioned in my degree, what I really like researching is the social determinants of health. And those are five main areas. It’s health care access and the quality of health care that you have access to. It’s education access and the quality of that education. It’s our economic stability, so just income and assets. But it’s also our neighborhood and what we call built environment. So my housing, my transportation, the safety I feel, the air quality. And then the last one is our social and community connections. So just how connected am I?
When we lack any one of those, we begin to see that our health decreases. Even social isolation or lack of those connections lead to decreased physical health and mental health. So it’s not only just where I live, but it’s the access that I have based on where I live.
Social Determinants of Health
So I think something that we’ve talked about is if you live in an area where maybe there’s only a McDonald’s to eat and you don’t have access to Whole Foods or maybe don’t have the ability to buy things at Whole Foods, you know. And so the only option you have is to eat food at McDonald’s or somewhere else. You know, your health potentially could be poorer compared to someone who’s got all the money in the world and can buy all the organic food and all the fruits and vegetables that they want.
Absolutely. And so when we talk about these social determinants of health, they’re really interrelated. So I may not live in the best neighborhood, which actually I’ve chosen to live in a low-income neighborhood. It’s the Grand Beach area where we’ve been doing a lot of this collective impact. Which means that the grocery store that I have access to doesn’t have the healthy options, that if I lived on the southeast side of town are available. But because I have economic stability, because I have transportation, because I have access to health and information, I’m able to make choices and drive somewhere else to access those resources.
So all of those things play into part and they all have that impact on our health. I get to choose to eat healthy because I can drive to it and I can afford it. My neighbors don’t have those resources. And they rely on things like the Springfield Community Gardens or the food distributions we do here at the Fairbank in order to have access to healthy, locally grown foods. That’s the only way that they’re going to get access to those, because they’re just not either affordable or they’re not in their environment where transportation allows them access.
How Employers Can Help Improve Happiness and Health
Amy, we’ve got a lot of people that listen to this podcast, they’re employers. What do you tell employers? What can they do to help their employees to address these disparities? What can employers do to kind of step up and help with that?
So for employers, the first thing is awareness, right? It’s going to take a little bit of time and some research to really dig into what are social determinants of health. How does my neighborhood and my built environments influence the results of, “Can I be a good employee?”
So for employers who are better informed, first, there’s a bit of compassion and a better idea of communicating about these barriers. If an employee hears their employer asking about the barriers that are preventing them from being a good employee, like transportation, or we can talk about in a minute, the idea of bandwidth.
Employers who are open. And employees afraid to tell an employer, “Hey, I’m at risk for not showing up to work,” because in their mind, the employer is just going to let them go. Right? It’s easier to just find the next employee than it is to keep one. But that’s not the case. Turnover is very expensive for employers. And so if an employer will take time to learn about these barriers, there are many solutions in most neighborhoods to where if an employer will connect with those nonprofits and those resources, they’re going to decrease the likeliness of absenteeism in their employees. They’re also going to decrease even worse, presenteeism an employee who’s there but not being productive.
Learn About Barriers and Bandwidth
So the first thing an employer can do is learn about the barriers. And the best way to learn about those barriers is to have open communication with staff about the most likely causes of them to not be able to show up or not to be able to be fully present when they are there.
What I hear you saying is, is communicating with employees about those obstacles and those things that may get in the way of the employer seeing the best possible employee that they could have, really helping them cross those hurdles.
Yes. And so I also mentioned the idea of bandwidth. So it’s one of those, I’m a CEO and I would love for my employees to be able to have complete separation of life and work. So you show up and you leave your baggage behind. And, you know, life is able to happen and your children are managed without you in the, you know, your whatever is happening at home, the house fire, someone else is taking care of it. And you simply going to be a fully present engaged employee. But that’s not real.
But as an employer, so many times we really want that. We want our employees to be so present and engaged. But, man, life is happening. It’s stressful. And so the other thing employers can do… There’s a lot of really great information that’s coming out about our brain and how even though an employee may really, truly want to be fully engaged, the stress that’s happening at home is eating up bandwidth. So we think about our Wi-Fi, as everyone’s learning to be on Zoom and how much bandwidth you have trying to have your home office, or all of us consuming more bandwidth, we’re beginning to understand how much. We have to turn off the video so that the audio works. The brain’s function is very similar to that.
We each only have a finite amount of what our brain can manage. And so the more that’s piled on in our personal life and in our professional life, on the job, that demand eats up our bandwidth. So if I have increased stressors both at work and in life, I’m going to have decreased capacity for the less important things at hand.
So don’t get me wrong, obviously, employment is what pays the rent and keeps the utilities on. But when you have crisis at home, your children, your family, your home are always going to be a greater priority than what’s happening at work.
And so, again, as employers, there’s a lot of information coming out about being trauma-informed. So the more trauma someone has experienced, especially earlier on in life, the more likely their response is to be fight or flight, right? They’re going to react, maybe overreact in what we expect from them. But as employers, the more we can understand about trauma, informed about bandwidth, and about what we can do in order to create an environment where employers feel that their mental health, that their wellness are as important to an employer as productivity, they’re going to be more open. They’re going to be more likely to use this idea of wellness and preventive methods and measures. They’re going to communicate with their employer when they know that a transportation issue might arise and ask for help with potential solutions to those barriers versus just not showing up.
So it’s really on the employers to change the environment to where we’ve not created this complete separation of what’s happening at home cannot interfere with what’s happening in the office and vice versa. We don’t want our employees taking their work home with them and meddling with their personal life to where now their personal life is coming to work.
So it’s really having some communication and not being afraid to open that up and find collective solutions to the barriers that are preventing employees from being engaged. That was one of those things. What happiness is – being able to be present. And I can be present when I can be solution-based and come up with some things that are going to help overcome those barriers that are preventing me from being a good employee.
Effect of Social Isolation on Happiness and Health
And I think as far as employees go, so many of us as a result of COVID are working from home. I’m talking to you right now from home. And I think that being engaged and feeling involved is more difficult than it’s ever been to. And so employers recognizing that as something that we’re all contending with and recognizing the struggles that we have with that is important as well.
And, you know, that’s even more true in low-income population. So employers who will do take a little bit of time and calculate livable wage in their community and figure out are their employees above or below that, for the individuals who are below livable wage, those individuals are going to have greater stress related to the social-economic income issues.
And we then also see increased social isolation for many reasons. Sometimes it can be expensive to be social, not to say that you have to go out to eat or drinks in order to be social. But individuals in the lower income bracket have decreased social engagements. Social engagements lead to happiness, and that social isolation really becomes a mental health concern. And we’re seeing a lot of that, as you mentioned, now a year into an outbreak.
Affect of Economic Insecurity on Health
And I think that COVID has caused a lot of hardship financially for a lot of folks. And so I think one of the things is economic insecurity. And so economic insecurity can affect both physical and mental health.
As you’re saying, our wealth is directly related to our health. Study after study has shown that. And so it determines our access to care. Right. So our health care is determined by where and how we work. Health insurance is a privilege in the United States, not a right. And so is access to things like you mentioned, that healthy food, safe park, safe place spaces, all the things that it takes to be a happy, healthy individual are directly related to wealth. And so, you know, the means to overcome the barriers are also a privilege.
And so that’s something to just being aware as an employee that being able to offer any forms of health and wellness benefit, even if it’s education or it’s intentional, breaks for individuals to take a walk or other methods that help with the idea that health and wellness isn’t just access to a doctor, it can be the culture of a workplace. And it’s amazing what can happen when you change a culture of a workplace into the idea of, you know, people are making healthy food choices, people are walking on their breaks together, an employer and the place of work can be a part of the equation of what it means to be a healthy, happy community.
Stress and Anxiety for Low-Income Families
I read an interesting statistic recently that said people with high financial stress are twice as likely to report poor overall health, and they’re four times more likely to complain of illness, which usually is chronic illness. I’d like to dive into that a little bit more. So tell me more about how stress and anxiety are different for low-income families.
What we see is when individuals are under stress, especially financial, the biggest things that they’re really worried about, right, are often rent, utilities. And so we think about Maslow’s hierarchy. So at the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy is our basic needs – our safety, our shelter, those sort of things. And when those aren’t met, we don’t have the capacity to begin moving all the way up to self-actualization that makes us really great learners and employees. And so when I’m worried about especially if I have a family and I’m worried about where my kids are going to lay their head, I am not capable of making personal, healthy decisions.
We also know there’s a relationship to serotonin and the sugar and fat that I eat. Right? There’s chemists that are hired in order to really narrow down the perfect amount of salt, sugar and fat in food so that I truly can’t eat just one. And so when I’m elevated in stress, especially when we’re looking at the financial stress part, I am more likely to drive to things that are quick fixes. And so there’s an interesting brain chemistry where they can view the areas of the brain that light up as a response to sugar. And when I’m under stress and I want that kind of serotonin, those dopamine dumps, some of the quickest things that I can do to help, like unhealthy foods.
And so not only is it just that relationship of stress and unhealthy behaviors in the sense of like physical or not showing up to work, but it’s even in the things that we’re drawn to that do drive those quick brain responses. And so, unfortunately, we even have a market that develops easy ways to manage stress, if you will, temporarily through poor behaviors.
Creating a Culture of Prevention
It’s safe to say that income does affect overall health and wellbeing. I mean, based on what we’ve been talking about today, that all of those things have an effect. As we wrap up, I’d love to hear from you, and I know you touched on this a little bit, but what can employers do to help overcome these issues?
First, there’s a lot of debate right now about livable wages, and it’s taking some time to look at what are you asking of your employees. Now, I’m not saying that every employer has the capacity to just simply increase wages, and simply increasing wages doesn’t necessarily have a direct relationship on happiness. Those other components are in place.
So what can employers do if the budget is really tight? So there are different benefits. As I said, if we can create a culture in the workplace so where individuals can engage in preventive behavior at work to where we can create mental health resources without it being the typical traditional kind of psychologist or counselor coming in, but there are a lot of things that can be simply done that are preventive and wellness programs that can increase the productivity of an employee, obviously then increasing the satisfaction and the loyalty of that employee.
So when we think about the culture in the workplace, some of the things can even be the messages that we have out. So a lot of employers end up doing like snack machines, those kind of things, whereas simple some things we’ve seen employers do are changing it to where there’s actually fruit, there’s bananas, there’s apples, there’s oranges, things that have a good lifespan in our own office.
Making Sure Employee Are Seen and Heard
We have learned you can have additional breaks if you’re going to actually go walk in the neighborhood. So we talked about this collective impact that we want our employees to be seen. We want them to be out and about. And we also want to, sure, you know, the behaviors that we want to create, the behaviors that we want mirrored. And so we’ve created walking breaks. We also will do some walking meetings. So that’s not going to work for every employer, especially for thinking more of, like factory style or where someone needs to be on a shift at a specific time.
But there are stil things like that where having communication, asking employees what are the greatest barriers, what do they like most about their work and how can we do more of that? And what about their work is creating the greatest stress?
So really, you know, we’ve created this culture of the CEO often isn’t approachable. Employees feel like they’re cogs in a machine. And instead, when we start to ask how can you be happier, healthier employee? Because that means better product like productivity and production.
On my end, how do we create that conversation? And I think that’s really important if you’re not comfortable having it in. We’ve actually hired someone to come in and have those conversations without me present.
Employee Happiness Survey
We’ve done a survey that was anonymous so everyone could answer and talk about what’s created the greatest stress. And it was free through survey monkey. We used a survey that someone else had created that’s on the market and it allowed the employees to express a lot of different things. That then was anonymous. And we talked about how can we change those and then create a better culture at the company.
So it really goes back to are you willing to do the work as an employer to talk about the culture, to really listen and see the value in your employees and to provide those basic wellness benefits that make them feel like you care? That’s that’s a big thing, too. And that really creates kind of that change in the culture that leads to I’m happy at work and if I’m happy at work, then I’m more likely to show up and be present and all the other components that go into the idea of health and happiness.
And ultimately, as employers, we want happy employees. And so for us to do that, we need to communicate and we need to understand who our employees are, what makes them tick, what’s important to them, what struggles they’re facing, all of those things for us to be able to kind of.
Personalize what we do for each of them, like you said, what works in a factory may not work in a small office with with office workers, an office that has everyone in the office. What they’re doing may not work for an office who has most of their employees remote. So I think looking and being able to kind of personalize your efforts for your employees is important.
And the other thing is we talk about how to be productive individuals in life. And there’s lots of, like self-help type of things that go into finding your value and your purpose and creating your virtues. And those are really tied into our happiness and then happiness into our health. And so one of the things that we did is we actually create. “How do you find value and how do you find purpose through your work?” And we shared that and we created a shared vision board of our staff. And yeah, it was and it was something where, again, as a CEO to sit back and let my staff create this without input. And to see that they are, they want to come to work, and they want to feel connection here, and they want to feel value in their work.
And the ways that they feel value or the ways that they want to be rewarded for the ways that they’re showing up were very different than what I might have predicted. Some of them I would have guessed, but to do that type of activity and just let your staff talk about how they find value in their work and how that relates to, you know, are you proud when you leave?
Value and Purpose
And that relates to then how do you show up at the rest of your life doing some of those type of activities of the value and purpose? Sometimes we forget that what we’re doing each day, even if it’s in manufacturing, and you’re simply inserting one part into an entire kit.
What is that doing? Who is that serving? We have a woman that we work with who drives a forklift for a factory and for her, she thinks about the product that she moves end up on someone’s table. Right? It’s a part of a meal. And so for her, when it was no more about the forklift and a pallet and some plastic wrapped around it, but it was really the product and where the product ends, when she really thought about what her work does and who it serves, it really became a different value and purpose for her at the office. And her employer helped her see that. And I was really excited and somewhat surprised to see that this company was reminding the staff that, yes, you might do this thing. But we’re providing something that has been a staple on American tables for years and years.
And it’s much more than just, “Did you show up for your eight hours and get this many pallets into a truck?” And so, yeah, when we really narrow down to our values and purpose and we can have a conversation about that in the office, again, it shows that we we value and we want to know what our employees want and that we care.
You know, again, it comes back to that employers who really care about their employees and where they’re finding value and happiness are going to have a much happier staff and they’re going to be a much more productive and loyal staff.
Absolutely. Absolutely. Well, to end that on a happy note, thank you for joining us today. This was a great conversation and I’ve learned a lot. I applaud all of your efforts for that. So really, thank you for joining us today, Amy.
Absolutely. Thank you for letting us share our story and what we’ve been able to do to kind of pull these elements together and really find value and happiness for everyone we work with.
Yes, indeed. Well, that wraps it up for today’s episode of For Your Benefits. I want to thank everybody else for joining us as well. If you like what you heard today and you want to hear more. Don’t forget to subscribe to our podcast. We’re going to keep sharing the latest news, tips, resources and insights into health, well-being and happiness. See you guys next time!
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