By Dr. Mercola
Being happy feels great, both mentally and physically, and it’s often said that happy people are physically healthier than their unhappy peers. However, there are a number of reasons why this could be. Happy people may be more likely to eat healthy, exercise and engage in stress-relieving activities, all of which will affect overall health, for instance.
Unhappy people may be more inclined to binge on junk food or alcohol or spend their leisure time sitting on the couch instead of being active, contributing to ill health on both mental and physical levels. What’s intriguing, though, is research showing that being happy may directly affect your health, even helping you to live longer — after controlling for lifestyle factors.
So, someone who’s typically happy and content may enjoy better physical health than someone on the other end of the happiness spectrum, even if both people eat the same diet, exercise the same and have similar sleeping habits. The question researchers are now looking into is, why?
Happy People Less Likely to Get Colds and Flu
Being exposed to a virus like the common cold or flu is not a guarantee that you’ll become sick. Instead, your immune system largely dictates whether or not the exposure actually makes you sick. It turns out that your “emotional style” also plays a role in your susceptibility to the common cold.
Researchers assessed more than 300 people for their emotional style, including how often they tended to experience positive emotions (happiness, pleasure, relaxation) and negative emotions (anxiety, hostility, depression).1 They were then exposed to one of two cold viruses, which was dripped directly into their nose.
For both viruses, people who were happier had a lower risk of developing a cold. Specifically, one-third of those with a negative emotional style (NES) came down with a cold, compared to 1 in 5 of those with a positive emotional style (PES). The researchers explained:2
“Although PES was associated with lower levels of endocrine hormones and better health practices, these differences could not account for different risks for illness … The tendency to experience positive emotions was associated with greater resistance to objectively verifiable colds. PES was also associated with reporting fewer unfounded symptoms and NES with reporting more.”
A separate study assessed nearly 200 volunteers for their emotional style and then exposed them to either a cold virus or a flu virus. Not only were the positive people less likely to become ill but they also reported fewer symptoms. “These results indicate that PES may play a more important role in health than previously thought,” the researchers noted.3
Emotional Well-Being May Help You Live Longer
Experiencing emotional well-being, positive mood, joy, happiness, vigor, energy and other measures of “positive affect,” along with positive dispositions like life satisfaction, hopefulness, optimism and a sense of humor, is associated with increased survival in healthy people, including reduced cardiovascular mortality.4
Further, people with diseases, including renal failure and HIV, and positive psychological well-being also had reduced death rates, suggesting once again that happiness may indeed be protective over your physical health. As for why, researchers wrote in the Journal of Personality:5
“At the biological level, cortisol output has been consistently shown to be lower among individuals reporting positive affect, and favorable associations with heart rate, blood pressure, and inflammatory markers such as interleukin-6 have also been described.
Importantly, these relationships are independent of negative affect and depressed mood, suggesting that positive affect may have distinctive biological correlates that can benefit health.”
For example, 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.6 For those 60 and over, happiness is also linked with improved mobility and a lower risk of developing a disability over an eight-year period.7
Researchers at UCLA even 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, which could further bolster your physical health and longevity.8
Prioritizing ‘Gross National Happiness’ Could Promote Global Health
The more that happiness and other measures of positive psychology become recognized as valid promotors of good health, the more it makes sense to promote happiness as part of public health policy. In industrialized countries like the U.S., however, there is a tendency to link happiness with material wealth, even though residents of the richest countries are not necessarily the happiest.
Measuring happiness on a more rounded scale is therefore necessary to gauge true emotional well-being, and adopting goals to increase these happiness measures worldwide could improve public health.
The idea of promoting populationwide happiness and well-being is not a novel one, as it’s already been implemented in Bhutan, where it’s prioritized even over economic development. According to the World Health Organization (WHO) Bulletin:9
“Bhutan was the first country in the world to pursue happiness as a state policy. The Bhutanese concept of happiness is deeper than the common meaning of happiness in industrialized countries.
The philosophy of gross national happiness has several dimensions: it is holistic, recognizing people’s spiritual, material, physical or social needs; it emphasizes balanced progress; it views happiness as a collective phenomenon; it is both ecologically sustainable, pursuing well-being for both current and future generations, and equitable, achieving a fair and reasonable distribution of well-being among people.”
WHO believes that turning gross national happiness into policy could have far-reaching implications for global health, and such trends seem to be increasing, including in Europe, where measuring people’s well-being over economic production has been suggested.
Further, WHO noted, “Following a resolution proposed by Bhutan, the United Nations convened a high level meeting at which Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called for development outcomes that value and measure happiness and well-being.”10
Happiness Affects Everything From Your Endocrine System to Wound Healing
In a review of more than 20 literature reviews and 150 studies, researchers from the University of Utah have compiled many intriguing ways in which happiness or, as they call it, subjective well-being, influences human health. Among them:11
• Cardiovascular system — Subjective well-being is linked to cardiovascular functioning, cardiovascular events and cardiovascular mortality.
• Immune system — Positive emotions may influence immune activity via endocrine, behavioral and other factors.
• Endocrine system — Subjective well-being may alter hormones. For instance, positive mood may lower levels of cortisol while negative mood may be associated with rising blood glucose levels, suggesting it may alter insulin levels.
“The endocrine changes are relevant to the cardiovascular and immune changes discussed above,” the researchers noted.
“Sympathetic altering hormones (catecholamines) and hypothalamic pituitary adrenal cortical axis hormones such as cortisol play a role in regulating these other systems, and may be an early step in SWB [subjective well-being] altering the health‐influencing mechanisms.”12
• Wound healing — Wounds may heal faster in people with greater subjective well-being, while patients may heal faster after surgery if they have greater life satisfaction. Meanwhile, married couples in conflict had wounds that healed more slowly than those in a supportive relationship.
Lead author Edward Diener, professor of social psychology at the University of Utah, told Time that there’s “almost no doubt” that happiness and health are connected, adding:13
“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.”
Positive Attributes That Can Make You Healthier
The effects of mental well-being may be so strong when it comes to physical health that even children who have a more positive outlook may enjoy better health in adulthood, according to Harvard School of Public Health researcher Laura Kubzansky. Certain attributes in particular appear to be particularly beneficial for preventing or managing health conditions like heart attack, stroke, diabetes and depression, including:14
- Emotional vitality, which involves a sense of enthusiasm, hopefulness and engagement
- Optimism, or having the outlook that good things will happen (Kubzansky found optimistic people may cut their risk of coronary heart disease in half15)
- Strong social support from friends and family
- Strong self-regulation, including the ability to be resilient in stressful times, choose a healthy lifestyle and avoid risky behaviors
Kubzansky believes your go-to psychological state may be 40 to 50 percent genetic. In another study of nearly 1,000 pairs of adult twins, researchers at the University of Edinburgh also suggested that genes account for about 50 percent of the variation in people's levels of happiness.16
The underlying determinant was genetically caused personality traits, such as being sociable, active, stable, hardworking or conscientious. But while some people may be naturally happier than others, there’s still a lot of room for change, for better or worse, and it’s very possible to cultivate happiness.
How to Cultivate Happiness
You may be in the midst of an unhappy time in your life, in which it feels virtually impossible to “turn off” the sadness or anxiety. Keep in mind that everyone feels negative emotions sometimes, and it’s not always possible to change them with the flip of a switch.
That being said, it is possible to make small, steady changes that may ultimately help to cultivate more happiness in your life. Make a point to show gratitude, for instance, by starting a gratitude journal and reflecting each morning on what you’re thankful for.
Research showed that when study participants engaged in a gratitude intervention consisting of a gratitude diary and grateful reflection four times a week for three weeks it led to improvements in measures of depression, stress and happiness.17
Simple steps like writing thank-you notes and smiling and hugging others can also help you to get in touch with your sense of gratitude, as can the Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT). The video below shows you how to tap specifically for gratitude.
A mindfulness intervention, consisting of a mindfulness diary and mindfulness meditation, led to similar improvements),18 and this is another tenet of happiness as it helps you to live in the present moment, not focused on past regrets or future worries. Kubzansky, the Harvard researcher, uses playing the piano to help stay in the moment.
“When I’m playing piano,” she said in a news release, “I’m in the moment. I’m not worrying or thinking or trying to work out a problem. I’m just doing this thing that takes all my attention … Everyone needs to find a way to be in the moment, to find a restorative state that allows them to put down their burdens.”19
Happiness is also about identifying and having a sense of purpose. The term "eudaimonic well-being" originated with Aristotle and describes the form of happiness that comes from activities that bring you a greater sense of purpose, life meaning or self-actualization.
This could be your career or your family, or it could be gleaned from volunteering or learning a new skill. Ultimately, the more positive changes you can make to tend to your mental health — such as taking time for yourself each day, appreciating the simple pleasures in life and making connections with friends and family — the better your physical health will become.
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