By Dr. Mercola
Being "happy" is something that feels intrinsically good, but pinning down exactly what happiness is can be a challenge. Words to describe happiness include optimism, joy, success, and well-being, each which may play a varying role in your own idea of happiness.
What makes one person happy is often different from the next, but one common theme prevails, which is that being happy is associated with better health. Happy people tend to eat healthier, exercise more, and get better sleep than those who are stressed out or depressed – all habits associated with health.
But it's very much a case of "the chicken or the egg." It could be that happiness itself is the impetus for healthy lifestyle, which in turn leads to health. It could also be the case that following a healthy lifestyle, regardless of mental state, leads to better health, and that good health makes it easier to be happy.
Yet, there's even more to happiness and health than leading a healthy lifestyle. Happiness causes distinct changes in your body that strengthen your immune system, boost positive emotions, decrease pain and chronic disease, provide stress relief, and more…
Why Happiness Is Healthy
A review of more than 200 studies found that positive psychological well-being is linked with a lower risk of heart disease, as well as lower blood pressure, normal body weight, and healthier blood fat profiles.1
Further, among those 60 and over, feelings of happiness and enjoyment were associated with improved mobility and a lower risk of developing a disability over an eight-year period.2
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.3 This falls into the realm of epigenetics—changing the way your genes function by turning them off and on.
In addition, it appears 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 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."
Being Grateful Is Good for Your Heart
In a study of nearly 200 heart failure patients, those with higher levels of gratitude had better mood, better sleep, less fatigue, and less inflammation, which can worsen heart failure, than those with lower levels.6
This is important, as the patients in the study were in stage B heart failure, which occurs before symptoms such as shortness of breath and fatigue develop. If the disease progresses to stage C, there is a five times higher risk of death, so it's possible that a positive mindset could be life-saving in this case.
Keeping a gratitude journal, a simple task in which you write down several things for which you are most thankful each day, appeared especially beneficial. Study author Paul Mills, a professor of Family Medicine and Public Health at the University of California, San Diego, said:7
"We found that those patients who kept gratitude journals for those eight weeks showed reductions in circulating levels of several important inflammatory biomarkers, as well as an increase in heart rate variability while they wrote.
Improved heart rate variability is considered a measure of reduced cardiac risk… It seems that a more grateful heart is indeed a more healthy heart, and that gratitude journaling is an easy way to support cardiac health."
Is Being Happy in Your Genes?
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.8 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.9
But this does not at all suggest that you're born with a certain level of happiness and powerless to change it. Anyone can improve their level of happiness, and your environment and life circumstances also play a role, as 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:10
- Emotional well-being rises with income (but only up to $75,000, after which no additional rises are seen)11
- 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)
- 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 problems12
Tylenol Might Dull Your Happiness
Acetaminophen, better known as Tylenol, is known for dulling pain, but it might dull your emotional responses too, for better or for worse. Researchers showed emotional photos to college students who had either taken a 1,000-milligram dose of acetaminophen or a placebo.
Those who took the painkiller had more muted emotional responses to both negative and positive images.13 According to the researchers:
"Participants who took acetaminophen evaluated unpleasant stimuli less negatively and pleasant stimuli less positively, compared with participants who took a placebo. Participants in the acetaminophen condition also rated both negative and positive stimuli as less emotionally arousing than did participants in the placebo condition…
These findings suggest that acetaminophen has a general blunting effect on individuals' evaluative and emotional processing, irrespective of negative or positive valence."
As for why the drug might dull your emotions, the researchers suggested it might alter brain activity, such the activity of serotonin, reduce inflammatory signaling, or decrease activation in brain areas linked to emotional processing.14 And although they weren't tested, the researchers believe other pain relievers, including aspirin or ibuprofen, might have similar emotion-blunting effects.
Probiotics May Help Improve Your Mood
In addition to the brain in your head, embedded in the wall of your gut is your enteric nervous system (ENS), which works both independently of and in conjunction with the brain in your head.
This communication between your "two brains" runs both ways and is the pathway for how foods affect your mood. However, this gut-brain connection is about far more than just comfort food or butterflies in your stomach. According to Scientific American:15
"The gut-brain axis seems to be bidirectional—the brain acts on gastrointestinal and immune functions that help to shape the gut's microbial makeup, and gut microbes make neuroactive compounds, including neurotransmitters and metabolites that also act on the brain."
Certain probiotics are now being referred to as psychobiotics, or "bacteria for your brain," and are being used to successfully treat depression, anxiety, and other psychiatric problems. In one recent study, a multispecies probiotic supplement taken for four weeks reduced cognitive reactivity to sad mood, which is a strong marker for depression (the more a person reacts to sad mood with dysfunctional thoughts, the more prone they are to a depressive episode).16 The strongest effects were seen for reducing rumination and aggressive thoughts. According to the researchers:17
"These results provide the first evidence that the intake of probiotics may help reduce negative thoughts associated with sad mood. Probiotics supplementation warrants further research as a potential preventive strategy for depression."
In another study showing the importance of microbes for your mood, researchers revealed why gardening seems to make so many people happy. Mycobacterium vaccae is a type of bacteria commonly found in soil, which people may ingest or inhale when they garden.18 Remarkably, this microbe has been found to "mirror the effect on neurons that drugs like Prozac provide."19 It helps to stimulate serotonin production, helping to make you feel happier and more relaxed. Taking a probiotic, or being exposed to microbes through soil, are not the only ways to increase your exposure to these beneficial "bugs." Fermented foods, including fermented vegetables, are one of the best sources of probiotics there is.
Mindfulness Can Help You Find Happiness
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. Another option is practicing "mindfulness," which 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 and, ultimately, happier:
- 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