By Dr. Mercola
If I were limited to only one area of my life in which I could aspire to be happy, undoubtedly I would choose my health. In my experience, having a sense of health and well-being opens the door to contentment, purposeful living and pleasure. In contrast, the absence of health can be limiting and sometimes downright depressing. It's easy to regard happiness as something that happens to you, but I believe being happy is a choice, a state of mind you must actively seek.
When you are consistently in a happy frame of mind, you are more likely to eat well, exercise regularly, get better sleep and manage stress more effectively. All of those activities are beneficial habits associated with optimal health. It's well known that happiness and good health are closely linked. In fact, scientific research has shown happiness positively affects your heart health, immune system, stress levels, disease rates and longevity.
Being Happy Protects Your Heart
A 2012 analysis1 by Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH), suggests positive mood may reduce your risk of heart attacks, strokes and other heart-related events. After reviewing more than 200 previous studies published in two major scientific databases, the authors found happiness, life satisfaction and optimism were associated with a reduced risk of heart disease.
Said study author Julia Boehm, Ph.D., a postdoctoral research fellow in the department of society, human development and health at HSPH:2 "The most optimistic people had an approximately 50 percent reduced risk of experiencing an initial cardiovascular event compared to their less-optimistic peers. From the research, it also appears these positive factors slow the progression of disease."
Notably, the favorable association between happiness and heart health remained true regardless of factors such as age, body weight, smoking and socioeconomic status. Boehm and her team observed optimistic people seem more motivated to treat their bodies better than those with a negative disposition, which may impact heart health. Boehm notes:3
"We found if you have a positive disposition you're more likely to exercise, eat well and get enough sleep at night. This can have positive biological effects in terms of inflammation, cholesterol, blood pressure and lipids. Engaging in healthier behaviors can lead to healthier bodily functions."
Emotional Vitality Is a Great Health Resource
The featured analysis echoes previous long-term research.4 A 2007 HSPH study involving 6,025 men and women aged 25 to 74, followed over a mean period of 15 years, concluded emotional vitality influences the risk of coronary heart disease (CHD).
Researchers characterized emotional vitality as a sense of positive energy, the ability to effectively regulate emotion and behavior, and positive well-being, which includes feeling engaged and interested in life. About the research outcomes, study author Laura Kubzansky, Ph.D., HSPH professor of social and behavioral sciences, said:5
"Findings suggest individuals with higher levels of emotional vitality had reduced risk of developing CHD. … [O]ne mechanism underlying this relationship may be health behaviors.Greater emotional vitality was significantly associated with less smoking, moderated alcohol consumption and more physical activity."
Being Happy Strengthens Your Immune System
While evidence from scientific studies suggests your mental state can influence your overall health, it has proven difficult to explain how subjective moods affect your body on a molecular level, especially your nervous and immune systems. Psychoneuroimmunology (PNI) is the field tasked with searching for these explanations.
Under the umbrella of PNI, a small body of research led by Steven Cole, professor of medicine, psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at the UCLA School of Medicine, has linked happiness to the function of your immune cells."There's an intrinsic connection between our experience of life and the molecular function of our bodies," says Cole.6
According to Cole, the balance of your immune system's two primary functions — fighting viral infection and fighting bacterial infection through inflammatory response — is changeable based on your life experiences. His earlier work suggested negative experiences such as being diagnosed with cancer or depression result in increased activity of inflammation genes in your immune cells.7,8
"Over the past 15 years, we have found diverse social and psychological experiences that cause a sense of threat or uncertainty can evoke a similar response in our immune cells. We're now beginning to ask how positive life circumstances might potentially counteract those negative-threat effects at the molecular level."
Emotional States Influence Genetic Expression
Cole partnered with researchers from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, to examine the notion of happiness in biological terms.9 The team asked 80 healthy adults 14 questions about their well-being. Questions ranged from how happy participants felt to how often they felt their life had meaning, and were designed to distinguish between two forms of happiness recognized by psychologists:10
- Hedonic well-being (happiness characterized by emotions related to material and bodily pleasures)
- Eudaimonic well-being (deeper satisfaction resulting from involvement in activities with a greater meaning or purpose, such as charity work, intellectual pursuits or social relationships)
After analyzing the questionnaires to assess each participant's level of hedonic and eudaimonic well-being, Cole's team took blood samples to study the functioning of each contributor's immune cells. The bloodwork was necessary because although both types of well-being are positive emotional states associated with happiness, the gene expression they produce is different.
Interestingly, participants whose sense of happiness was rooted in eudaimonic well-being were found to have favorable gene-expression profiles, meaning their immune cells showed higher levels of antiviral response and lower levels of inflammatory response. In contrast, individuals reflecting more hedonic well-being produced gene profiles similar to people undergoing stress due to adversity.
Meditation and Mind-Body Modalities Can Pay Off in Health Dividends
In terms of follow-up research, Cole hopes to figure out how to evoke a more eudaimonic-linked profile in the immune system. For now, he believes mind-body practices like meditation can help. After all, such practices "have been shown to cultivate positive and happy immune cells," states Cole.11
Research specifically indicates meditation, prayer and yoga, particularly in the context of long-term practice, have many beneficial effects on your health, including your immune system. Researchers suggest the relaxation response realized through these activities results in:12 "… enhanced expression of genes associated with energy metabolism, mitochondrial function, insulin secretion and telomere maintenance, and reduced expression of genes linked to inflammatory response and stress-related pathways."
Being Happy Combats Stress
Although conventional wisdom maintains smiling is an effect of being happy, it may in fact be the other way around. Research suggests if you "put on a happy face" you indeed may feel happier and less stressed. A 2012 study13 conducted at the University of Kansas affirms smiling as a stress reducer regardless of your actual mood.
For the experiment, 170 college students were trained to hold chopsticks in their mouths while maintaining one of three different facial expressions: neutral, standard smile and Duchenne (more emphatic) smile. According to researchers, the chopsticks were used to force participants to smile without them being aware they were doing so, and only half of the group members were actually told to smile.
Next, the students completed stress-inducing tasks during which they self-reported their stress levels and researchers measured their heart rates. Based on heart rate being an indicator of your body's response to stress, the results seem to reflect smiling can reduce your stress levels regardless of your mood. The main outcomes from the study were twofold:14
- Participants who were instructed to smile, and especially those bearing bigger Duchenne smiles, maintained lower heart rates as compared to the neutral-expression group
- Participants who had not been explicitly told to smile, but were forced into a smiling expression because of the chopsticks, also had lower heart rates than the neutral-expression group, but to a smaller degree
Study co-author Sarah Pressman, who currently is an associate professor of psychology and social behavior at the University of California, Irvine, said:15 "The next time you are stuck in traffic or are experiencing some other type of stress you might try to hold your face in a smile for a moment. Not only will it help you 'grin and bear it' psychologically, but it might actually help your heart health as well."
Joyful Activities Are an Important Part of Self-Care
You may have already realized many of the aspects of your life that create happy feelings are also very likely to be stress relievers. Activities such as being creative, enjoying your work, exercising, investing in a hobby and relating to friends serve a dual purpose for generating happiness and relieving stress. According to VeryWell.com, incorporating life-affirming activities into your lifestyle to balance potential stressors is an important aspect of caring for yourself:16
"When you're overwhelmed with stress, often just relieving the imminent pressures is foremost on your mind; however, following a stress-relief program that also incorporates activities known to increase overall happiness can give you short-term stress relief and the lasting gains of a happy life. And when you incorporate into your life a general state of happiness, and make habit the lifestyle features that promote it, you'll be better able to weather future stress in your life."
Being Happy Minimizes Pain, Illness and Disease
Because your emotions are a form of energy, positive emotions seem to contribute to better physical health. According to Dr. Bradley Nelson, holistic chiropractor and author of "The Emotion Code," when you feel an emotion, what you're really sensing is the vibration of a particular energy.17
These "balls of energy," particularly the ones associated with intense emotions, can become lodged just about anywhere in your body, where they tend to cause disruptions in your body's energy system. When left unchecked, the disruptions created by negative emotions may eventually translate into physical issues such as pain, illness and disease. You may not realize your body cannot tell the difference between an actual experience that triggers an emotional response and an emotion fabricated through a thought process alone.
For example, when you worry about something negative that might occur but has not actually happened, your body may not know the difference between mere thoughts and reality, which may trigger your body's stress response. Persistent ruminating and over-focusing on the negative in an emotional sense can open the door to all sorts of health problems.
The converse is true for positive emotions like happiness. If you choose to consistently dwell on the positive and pleasant aspects of life, your mind will elevate in ways that give you a more upbeat outlook. This upbeat outlook, or happiness, can in turn fuel healthy attitudes and habits that will help you combat illness and disease.
Wherever You Are, Be Present
A great technique to help elevate your thoughts is the practice of mindfulness, which is a means of actively paying attention to the moment you're in right now by maintaining an internal rather than external focus. Rather than letting your mind roam free, when you're mindful you're tuned into the present moment inside yourself versus focused on your racing thoughts about external circumstances.
Aside from helping you harness an internal sense of strength to go after what you want in life, including a more positive, happier mental state, mindfulness can also help reduce stress-induced inflammation. 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 colored by emotion (such as "I have a performance review tomorrow," versus "What if I get a bad review and don't get the raise I need?")
- Reframe emotional thoughts as simply "mental projections" so your mind can rest
In the video below, Dr. Mike Evans, former staff physician at Toronto's St. Michael's Hospital and founder of Reframe Health Lab, speaks to some of the science of happiness, including mindfulness.
Being Happy Lengthens Your Life
While it's long been thought being happy can improve your quality of life, research shows it may increase the quantity of your life too. In 2014, researchers from Princeton University, Stony Brook University and University College London (UCL) studied 9,050 English people to determine if happiness contributes to a longer life span.18
Participants, who were an average age of 65, were asked to respond to a questionnaire designed to measure their eudemonic well-being (the type of happiness related to your sense of purposefulness and meaning about life). Researchers divided respondents into four categories based on their answers, ranking them from highest to lowest well-being.
The study results were adjusted for factors such as age, gender, physical health and socio-economic status to rule out any influences that may negatively affect length of life. Notably, people expressing the greatest sense of well-being were 30 percent less likely to die during the follow-up period, and lived on average two years longer than those reporting the least well-being.
Study leader and professor Andrew Steptoe, head of the research department of behavioral science and health at UCL's Institute of Epidemiology and Health Care, suggests the research raises the possibility that higher levels of well-being may indeed be related to improved physical health and longevity:19
"We have previously found happiness is associated with a lower risk of death. These analyses show the meaningfulness and sense of purpose older people have in their lives are also related to survival … [T]he findings raise the intriguing possibility that increasing well-being could help to improve physical health."
Happiness — A Secret Leveraging Agent
A 2011 review20 of more than 160 studies of human and animal subjects, published in the journal Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being, also suggests "happy people tend to live longer and experience better health than their unhappy peers." Lead author Ed Diener, University of Illinois professor emeritus of psychology and Gallup senior scientist, shares his perspectives on the research:21
"Happiness is no magic bullet, but the evidence is clear and compelling that it changes your odds of getting disease or dying young. Although there are a handful of studies that find opposite effects, the overwhelming majority of studies support the conclusion that happiness is associated with health and longevity."
With a few exceptions, Diener notes most of the long-term studies his team reviewed discovered variables such as anxiety, depression, a lack of enjoyment of daily activities and pessimism are associated with higher rates of disease and shorter lifespans.
If you struggle with happiness and need more tips and pointers beyond what's been suggested here — such as meditation and mindfulness training — please see the following link to a previous article with a long list of habits known to promote happiness and a joyful state of mind.