Proverbs asserts that one’s attitude has an effect on their physical well-being.
A joyful heart is good medicine, But a broken spirit dries up the bones. (Proverbs 17:22 NASB)A joyful heart is said to be good gehah. This term is used only here in the Old Testament. Most translations render the word “medicine” (ASV, ESV, HCSB, KJV, NASB, NIV, NKJV, NLT, NRSV, RSV). Michael V. Fox (b. 1940) translates the word “body” but admits, “The meaning of this noun (used only here) is uncertain. Other possibilities are “face” and “health.” (Fox, Proverbs 10-31: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (Anchor Bible), 635).”
Kathleen A. Farmer (b. 1943) identifies the connection between disposition and health as a major theme of the book of Proverbs, summarizing, “Others observe and comment upon the relationship between happiness and health: “A cheerful heart is a good medicine, but a downcast spirit dries up the bones” (Proverbs 17:22). (Farmer, Who Knows What is Good?: A Commentary on the Books of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes (International Theological Commentary), 99).”
Tremper Longman III (b. 1952) determines:
The purpose of these observations [Proverbs 17:22, 18:14] is both to help the sages understand themselves and other people as well as to encourage them toward attitudes and behaviors that would make them feel better. According to Proverbs 3:7-8, it is especially fear of Yahweh that will lead to good health. (Longman, Proverbs (Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms), 559)Bruce K. Waltke (b. 1930) sees a connection between this proverb and its predecessor (Proverbs 17:21), concluding:
The verse asserts the psychosomatic effects of Proverbs 17:21 (cf. Proverbs 14:30, 15:13, 30, 16:24, 18:14). Besides this notional connection, the proverbial pair is also lexically connected chiastically in its inner core by the catchword “rejoice”/“joyful” (śmh, Proverbs 17:21b, 22a) and its outer frame by the co-referential terms “grief” and “broken spirit” (Proverbs 17:21a, 22b). Grief and joy are matters of death and life. Whereas Proverbs 17:21 connected heart and tongue, this one connects heart and spirit (see Proverbs 15:13; cf. Proverbs 12:25, 13:12, 14:30). On its own the proverb admonishes the disciple to live in such a way that he experiences joy that revives and not depression that kills. (Waltke, Book of Proverbs: Chapters 15-31 (NICOT), 60)Kenneth T. Aitken (b. 1947) differentiates:
Israel’s sages might not have used the term ‘psychosomatic’, but the idea was familiar enough to them. The contrast drawn here is not between the joy and sorrow which we all feel at certain times, but between set dispositions towards life. The person with a “glad heart” is that remarkably cheerful individual who has a positive and optimistic outlook on life, who always seem to find something to be happy about, and whose smile is infectious. Such a disposition pays dividends in a healthy body and a healthy complexion (cf. Proverbs 3:8, 14:30). At the other extreme, the person with a “sorrowful heart” is that morose or anxiety-laden individual who is always down in the dumps, who always finds something to complain or fret about, and who dampens the atmosphere around him like the proverbial wet blanket. This disposition pays its dividend in bad health. It debilitates the body, clouds the eyes and leaves its etchings on the face. (Aitken, Proverbs (Daily Study Bible Series), 240-241)Modern psychologists would reject the term “psychosomatic” in favor of “psychophysiological” but the effect is the same: a positive outlook on life directly effects a person’s physical well-being.
While a cheerful disposition certainly cannot hurt one’s health, do you believe that one’s attitude effects their body? Have you ever felt that someone’s cheerful disposition helped them recover from an illness? Who do you know that fits the description “cheerful heart”? Do you have such a disposition?
Modern psychology has shown that health and emotions are linked. The proverb is seen as a precursor to the field of health psychology. In their introductory textbook on the subject, Howard S. Friedman (b. 1950) and Roxane Cohen Silver (b. 1966) acknowledge:
Health psychology, the most modern major domain of psychology, flows from ancient intellectual wellsprings. From the biblical proverb which taught that “A merry heart does good like medicine” (Proverbs 17:22) to the definitional “heart-ache” of Shakespeare’s Hamlet (act 3, scene 1), the psyche and the soma have long been sensed to be linked. (Friedman and Silver, Foundations of Health Psychology, 3)Rod A. Martin (b. 1951) adds:
Since the time of Aristotle, a number of physicians and philosophers have suggested that laughter has important health benefits, such as improving blood circulation, aiding digestion, restoring energy, counteracting depression, and enhancing the functioning of various organs of the body...This idea has become increasingly popular in recent years, as modern medical discoveries like endorphins, cytokines, natural killer cells, and immunoglobulins have been added to the list of bodily substances that are thought to beneficially affected by humor and laughter. (Martin, The Psychology of Humor: An Integrative Approach, 309)Interest in the connection between disposition and physical health was rekindled when Norman Cousins (1915-1990) chronicled his battle with a serious collagen illness in his 1980 autobiographical memoir, Human Options: An Autobiographical Notebook. Cousins intentionally combated his illness by taking massive doses of Vitamin C and by training himself to laugh. Since Cousins published his personal findings, research has validated the relationship between attitude and health.
This leaves the striking question of how one obtains a cheerful heart. Joyce Meyer (b. 1943) suggests:
One way we can keep a merry heart is by listening to music. When we listen to it, we tend to find ourselves humming or singing along, even when we are not aware of it. When we have a merry heart, we can have joy in our heart even while going about our work...We can also have more energy and vitality because the Bible tells us that the joy of the Lord is our strength...We have a choice. We can grumble our way through our troubles, or we can sing our way through our troubles. Either way, we have to go through troubles, so we may as well go through them happily...I believe that we can understand from Proverbs 17:22...that if we were happier, we would probably be healthier. (Meyer, A Leader in the Making: Essentials to Being a Leader After God’s Own Heart)How would you go about acquiring a cheerful disposition? What does joy produce in your body and your life?
“Mirth is God’s medicine. Everybody ought to bathe in it.” - Henry Ward Beecher (1883-1887), Royal Truths, p. 241