Happiness is something we all strive for. And why wouldn’t we? Happiness feels great, both physically and mentally. The best part is having the amazing ability to control how you feel, especially the lifestyle factors that are correlated with happiness. Research shows that being happy can directly affect your health, and even prolong your life.
“Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.”
Aristotle, the ancient Greek philosopher, wrote this sentence more than 2,000 years ago. He identifies happiness as the central purpose of human life, and as a goal in itself. According to Aristotle, happiness consists of achieving health, wealth, knowledge, friends, etc. through one’s lifetime.
This requires us to make choices, which often may be difficult. Wanting immediate pleasure is more tempting while serving the greater good can be painful and requires sacrifice. Developing character requires a strong effort of will to do the right thing, under any circumstances.
But to return to happiness… there is a number of reasons why it can make you healthier. For one, happy people are more likely to eat healthier meals, consistently exercise, and participate in stress-relieving activities.
Unhappy people seem to be more prone to bingeing on junk food or spending their leisure time sitting on the couch. They choose this instead of cooking a healthy meal and being active, both of which can contribute to your overall wellbeing. Being happy promotes healthy lifestyle habits that improve your overall health. People with positive physiological attributes (like optimism) are more likely to eat healthier food such as fruits and vegetables, and exhibit fewer depressive symptoms (1).
A study in 2017 of over 10,500 people showed a correlation between psychological well-being and increased physical activity and high consumption of fresh vegetables and fruits (2). Not only does happiness lead to physiological well-being; it also decreases the likelihood that you will make bad lifestyle decisions.
Choosing decisions that will benefit your wellbeing – like avoiding binge drinking, fast food, and smoking – will directly increase your happiness. This is a double-edged sword, because happiness is not only based on psychology; it also depends on our lifestyle choices. For example, eating unhealthy food directly affects our mind-gut connection.
Bottom line research is showing that being happier doesn’t just make you feel better. It also brings a multitude of potential health benefits.
A healthy immune system is important to your overall health. Research has shown that happier people have a better cellular immune response to the flu (3). Being exposed to a virus like the common cold does not guarantee that you will become sick. The health of your immune system greatly dictates whether you’ll experience symptoms.
Suggested read: The Mind-Gut Connection
Another study assessed volunteers on their emotional state and exposed them to either a cold virus or flu virus (4). Not only were the positive people less likely to become ill; they also reported fewer symptoms.
Cortisol is a hormone that helps the body respond to stress. Stress is not all bad, but chronic stress may lead to high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and weight gain.
In fact, 70% of adults in the US say they feel stress or anxiety daily (5). Over 30 percent of those who feel daily stress have taken prescription medication to manage stress, nervousness, emotional problems or lack of sleep.
Stress is also linked to disturbed sleep patterns. When you’re stressed, your cortisol remains elevated and signals your body to be energized, making it difficult to relax. One study with over 700 adult participants found that sleeping problems were 47% more common in those who reported low levels of positive well-being (8).
A study of over a 32,000 individuals in the United States showed that happy people live longer (8). The risk of death was as much as 14% higher among those who stated they were not happy. This may be explained by the observation that happier people are more likely to engage in health-promoting behavior, like making good dietary choices and exercising.
A comprehensive review published in Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being that referenced more than 150 individual studies reported that there is “almost no doubt” that happiness can influence health. The lead author, Edward Diener, also added:
“People are doing a lot of things to stay healthy; they’re jogging, riding their bikes, eating fruits and vegetables … We want to remind people that there’s one more thing you need to work on that can also have a big effect on your physical and emotional well-being … Learning to enjoy your work, being more grateful and having really positive relationships are important, too.”
Scientific evidence suggests that positive emotions can help make one’s life longer and healthier, start by focusing on the things that bring you happiness. Remember, you have the amazing ability to control how you feel. Engage emotionally to feel a sense of enthusiasm, hopefulness, and fulfillment in whatever you do. Be optimistic by assuming that good things will happen. Be grateful and build resilience to stress. Develop and appreciate social support from your friends and family. This is a recipe for happiness that will make you healthier. The choice is yours!
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Call it intuition, instinct, or a gut feeling: if we followed it, we just might be a lot happier. Intuition is a skill we are all born with, but one we submerge in the business of modern living.