Are you happy?
Believe it or not, happiness may help improve your health and extend your life.
The correlation between happiness and health is significant in many ways. Studies have shown that it’s not just necessarily adopting the attitude of ‘don’t worry, be happy’ that helps promote better health. Rather, those who display certain “positive psychological attributes, such as happiness, optimism and life satisfaction,”1 may have an easier time maintaining healthy habits. Some examples include eating a well-balanced diet, exercising and getting adequate rest.
“Happiness is not something you postpone for the future; it is something you design for the present.”Jim Rohn
You may find yourself thinking, that sounds great, but some people are just naturally happy – what about the rest of us? If you find that you’re not as naturally inclined to happiness as others, you may not be entirely wrong. Dr. Laura Kubzansky, professor of social and behavioral sciences at Harvard University, suggests that certain psychological states such as anxiety or depression—or happiness and optimism—are forged by both nature and nurture. These traits are 40-50% heritable, which means that certain individuals may indeed be born with a genetic predisposition toward them. However, the amazing part about those numbers is that it leaves a lot of room to maneuver.2 In other words, there is still an opportunity to truly be happy even if you aren’t genetically predisposed to be.
While happiness varies from person to person, the following are some methods that may help increase an individual’s sense of happiness, contentment and overall sense of well-being:
- Live in the moment.
- Spread kindness.
- Engage in a physical activity.
- Accomplish something.
“Be happy for this moment. This moment is your life.”Omar Khayyam
Living in the moment is one of the most important things to remember if you want to choose a life of happiness. Being present and not allowing your mind to wander off and worry about future stresses may help ease anxiety and help you better appreciate the now. Another factor that can help promote happiness is spreading kindness. If you do something good for others, it may help you feel good inside. Smiling can also help promote a sense of cheer by activating muscles that can actually trick your brain into thinking you are happy. In addition to smiling, engaging in a multitude of physical activities, like swimming laps, going for a run, enjoying a hike, or playing a game of racquetball, could help make us feel happier, because different forms of exercise aid in the production of feel-good hormones, like serotonin and dopamine.
Lastly, accomplish something. This is vital. Accomplishing a task or goal of any sort, large or small—like going to the gym 3 days in a row, or crossing off everything on your to-do list—can make us feel good inside. According to Psychology Today, “progress on our goals makes us feel happier and more satisfied with life (our subjective well-being, SWB, increases).”3 This is because it gives us a sense of purpose and helps improve our self-esteem. Of course, other acts may help increase happiness too, and the payoff may vary from person-to-person. Certain shared traits exhibited by “happy people” include focusing on the positive and being optimistic, picking themselves back up when they fall, living in the moment, caring about other people’s happiness, displaying acts of selflessness, not comparing themselves to others, and displaying mature defenses (e.g. future-mindedness, humor and the ability to delay gratification).
How does happiness affect health?
Happiness can protect your heart.
- Various studies conducted have shown that happiness helped lower the heart rate and blood pressure in participants studied.4
Happiness may strengthen your immune system.
- Specifically, laughing can have positive effects on the body. According to an article published by WebMD, laughing helps “curb the levels of stress hormones in your body and boosts a type of white blood cell that fights infection.”5
Happiness could help combat stress.
- Stress causes the body to produce higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol. In a study conducted, “where participants rated their happiness more than 30 times in a day, researchers found [that] the happiest participants had 23 percent lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol than the least happy, and another indicator of stress—the level of a blood-clotting protein that increases after stress—was 12 times lower.”6 So, if you want to help combat stress, try engaging in activities that -make you happy.
Happy people sometimes have fewer aches and pains.
- Similar to the previous studies, in another study a group rated “their recent experience of positive emotions, then (five weeks later) how much they had experienced negative symptoms like muscle strain, dizziness, and heartburn since the study began. People who reported the highest levels of positive emotion at the beginning actually became healthier over the course of the study, and ended up healthier than their unhappy counterparts.”7 This study suggests that those exhibiting a more positive outlook may be subject to fewer aches and pains.
Happiness helps combat disease and disability.
- Various studies analyzing individuals of different backgrounds and age groups have shown that those who displayed positive emotions were less likely to be frail or develop health issues in later years.8
Happiness may help lengthen our lives.
- A fascinating study used nuns as a test group, where researchers studied their autobiographical essays they had written decades earlier. What the researchers noticed was that those who had expressed “feelings like amusement, contentment, gratitude, and love […] lived a whopping 7-10 years longer than [those] least happy.”9 Of course, you don’t have to be a nun to experience these benefits. Another study in 2011 followed 4,000 adults, ages 52-79, and monitored how happy, excited and content they were multiple times in a single day. At the conclusion of the study, “happier people were 35 percent less likely to die over the course of about five years than their unhappier counterparts.”10