Why Happiness Is Healthy
April 03, 2014
By Dr. Mercola
The feeling of happiness – whether you equate it with optimism, joy, well-being, personal achievement or all of the above – goes hand-in-hand with healthier habits. People who are in good spirits tend to eat better, exercise more frequently and get better sleep than those who are not. This could be, in part, because leading a healthy lifestyle helps you achieve your goals, leading to happiness.
It could also be that such habits lead to better health, which in turn lends itself to a better mood and happiness. Beyond these rather common-sense associations, however, is intriguing research that suggests there's something more about happiness that makes you healthy.
Beyond its tendency to occur alongside better eating, exercise, and other healthy habits, it appears a positive mental state may have a much more direct effect on your body.
Happiness May Influence Your Immune Function and More
Positive thoughts and attitudes are able to prompt changes in your body that strengthen your immune system, boost positive emotions, decrease pain and chronic disease, and provide stress relief. One study found, for instance, that happiness, optimism, life satisfaction, and other positive psychological attributes are associated with a lower risk of heart disease.1
It's even been scientifically shown that happiness can alter your genes! A team of researchers at UCLA showed that people with a deep sense of happiness and well-being had lower levels of inflammatory gene expression and stronger antiviral and antibody responses.2 This falls into the realm of epigenetics—changing the way your genes function by turning them off and on.
It could be, however, that the type of happiness matters. In one study, participants answered questions about the frequency of certain emotional states, covering two different categories or types of happiness known to psychologists as:
- Hedonic well-being (characterized by happiness gleaned from pleasurable experiences, such as sex)
- Eudaimonic well-being (originating with Aristotle, this form of happiness comes from activities that bring you a greater sense of purpose, life meaning, or self-actualization)
Interestingly, while both are positive emotional states associated with happiness, the gene expressions they produced were not identical. Those whose sense of happiness was rooted in the eudaimonic camp were found to have favorable gene-expression profiles, while hedonic well-being produced gene profiles similar to those seen in people experiencing stress due to adversity. As reported by Scientific American:3
"One interpretation is that eudaimonic well-being benefits immune function directly. But [researcher] Cole prefers to explain it in terms of response to stress. If someone is driven purely by hollow consumption, he argues, all of their happiness depends on their personal circumstances. If they run into adversity, they may become very stressed.
But if they care about things beyond themselves — community, politics, art — then everyday stresses will perhaps be of less concern. Eudaimonia, in other words, may help to buffer our sense of threat or uncertainty, potentially improving our health."
Perhaps people who are happy are less impacted by everyday stressors, and this ability to deflect stress is responsible for many of the gains to their health. Past research has also similarly found that positive emotions –including being happy, lively, and calm -- appear to play a role in immune function. One study found that when happy people are exposed to cold and flu viruses, they're less likely to get sick and, if they do, exhibit fewer symptoms.4
The association held true regardless of the participants' levels of self-esteem, purpose, extraversion, age, education, body mass, or pre-study immunity to the virus, leading the lead researcher to say:5 "We need to take more seriously the possibility that positive emotional style is a major player in disease risk."
What Drives Happiness? A Combination of Genetics, Experiences, and More
Defining happiness is virtually as difficult as defining how to achieve it, although there is some research to suggest that some people are naturally happier than others. In one study of nearly 1,000 pairs of adult twins, researchers at the University of Edinburgh suggested that genes account for about 50 percent of the variation in people's levels of happiness.
The underlying determinant was genetically caused personality traits, such as being sociable, active, stable, hardworking, or conscientious.6 Further, according to psychologist Nancy Segal, research has shown that the biggest predictor of happiness in identical twins is the happiness level of the other twin.7
In separate research, survey data from two million people in more than 70 countries showed that happiness typically follows a U-shaped curve. Happiness starts high, trends downward into middle-age, and then climbs back up among older people if they do not have severe health problems.8
Studies like these suggest happiness is set in stone, but there is far more to the picture than this. No one is pre-determined to be unhappy, and even those who tend to be naturally negative can decide to change their outlook and become happier. Further, there are many other indicators of happiness outside of your genes (or your age). CNN recently highlighted some of the most interesting research on what makes people happy:9
- Emotional well-being rises with income (but only up to $75,000, after which no additional rises are seen)10
- Research suggests experiences make us happier than possessions; the "newness" of possessions wears off, as does the joy they bring you, but experiences improve your sense of vitality and "being alive" both during the experience and when you reflect back on it
- Older adults tend to have a greater sense of happiness than younger adults, perhaps because they regulate emotions better, are exposed to less stress, and have less negative emotions (and perhaps a diminished negative response)
Self-Acceptance May Be the Key to Happiness (Plus 9 Other Happy Habits)
There's increasing knowledge that happiness is a goal that you can actively work toward each and every day, and one way to do that may be by learning self-acceptance. In a survey of 5,000 people by the charity Action for Happiness in collaboration with Do Something Different, people were asked to rate themselves between one and 10 on 10 habits that are scientifically linked to happiness. While all 10 habits were strongly linked to overall life satisfaction, acceptance was the strongest predictor.
Yet, when answering the acceptance question (how often are you kind to yourself and think you're fine as you are?), nearly half of the respondents rated themselves at 5 or less (only 5 percent rated themselves a 10). Dr. Mark Williamson, director of Action for Happiness, said:11
"Our society puts huge pressure on us to be successful and to constantly compare ourselves with others. This causes a great deal of unhappiness and anxiety. These findings remind us that if we can learn to be more accepting of ourselves as we really are, we're likely to be much happier. The results also confirm us that our day-to-day habits have a much bigger impact on our happiness than we might imagine."
Each of the happy habits included in the survey have been linked to a more positive emotional state. Trying to practice these in your own life is just one way to boost your own personal happiness (together they spell the acronym GREAT DREAM):
- Giving: do things for others
- Relating: connect with people
- Exercising: take care of your body
- Appreciating: notice the world around
- Trying out: keep learning new things
- Direction: have goals to look forward to
- Resilience: find ways to bounce back
- Emotion: take a positive approach
- Acceptance: be comfortable with who you are
- Meaning: be part of something bigger
Men's Happiness Leads to a Healthy Marriage
You've probably heard the saying "happy wife, happy life," but new research actually found women's positivity levels had no impact on the relationship. Instead, the health and attitude of the husband seemed to play a greater role, with women married to men with high levels of positivity less likely to report relationship conflicts.12
On the other hand, women whose husbands scored high on measures of neuroticism and extraversion were more likely to report conflict. Overall, married individuals tend to have better physical and emotional health than people who are not married, but the benefits likely only extend to overall happy marriages. The study suggests there are quite different markers of conflict in marriage among different genders, including even declining health. Whereas women whose husbands were in fair or poor physical health were more likely to report high levels of marital conflict, the same did not hold true for men whose wives were in poor health.
Happiness on Social Medial Is 'Viral'
Emotions are known to be contagious among people in direct contact (this is true for friends, acquaintances, and even strangers), and new research suggests they may also be contagious via social media. After analyzing over one billion status updates from Facebook users, the researchers from the University of California in San Diego found that each happy post encouraged an additional 1.75 happy updates among their Facebook friends.13 The researchers suggested social networks may be an important tool to improve mental, and thereby physical, health:14
"Our study suggests that people are not just choosing other people like themselves to associate with but actually causing their friends' emotional expressions to change… We have enough power in this data set to show that emotional expressions spread online and also that positive expressions spread more than negative.
…If an emotional change in one person spreads and causes a change in many, then we may be dramatically underestimating the effectiveness of efforts to improve mental and physical health. We should be doing everything we can to measure the effects of social networks and to learn how to magnify them so that we can create an epidemic of well-being."
Ready to Get Happy? Practice Mindfulness
Practicing "mindfulness" means that you're actively paying attention to the moment you're in right now, helping you to keep your internal focus. Rather than letting your mind wander, when you're mindful you're living in the moment and letting distracting thoughts pass through your mind without getting caught up in their emotional implications. Mindfulness can help to reduce stress-induced inflammation, and it's a strong example of how you can harness your own sense of power and control to achieve what you want in life, including a more positive, happier mental state. Simple techniques such as the following can help you to become more mindful:
- Pay focused attention to an aspect of sensory experience, such as the sound of your own breathing
- Distinguish between simple thoughts and those that are elaborated with emotion (such as "I have a test tomorrow" versus "What if I fail my test tomorrow and flunk my entire class?")
- Reframe emotional thoughts as simply "mental projections" so your mind can rest
Still, for many, happiness can be a poorly defined, elusive goal. One way to think about happiness is to define it as "whatever gets you excited." Once you've identified that activity, whatever it is, you can start focusing your mind around that so you can integrate more of it into your daily life. If you feel stuck and don't know where or how to start, I suggest reviewing these 22 positive habits of happy people.