- Happiness & health
- Focusing on the positive
- State of mind=state of body
- A happiness policy?
- Mapping happiness
- Being in the moment
- The Important Connection Between Happiness and Health
- What does ‘happiness’ mean?
- What does all this have to do with physical health?
- Happiness and Heart Disease
- Happiness and Immune Health
- Happiness and Chronic Pain
- Happiness and Longevity
- The Cycle of Happiness and Health Within the 6 Dimensions of Wellness
- The Link Between Happiness, Health, and Literacy
- “Happiness itself is a meaningless term because you can’t measure it.”
- What do the happiest places have in common?
- “About 50 to 150 years ago, enlightened leaders in today’s happiest places shifted their focus from just economic development to policies that favored quality of life.”
- How do we become happier?
- “We’re often misguided or just plain wrong about what will bring happiness to our lives.”
- What else should you consider if you want to move to a happier place?
- “After 50, happiness typically climbs and keeps going up beyond one hundred — as long as you keep your health.”
- Is there a downside to pursuing happiness?
- “The problem is that we all have 99 problems … a gray hair, a wrinkle, or there’s a dent in the car, and so on.”
- How has your own approach to happiness changed?
- Six Ways Happiness Is Good for Your Health
- 1. Happiness protects your heart
- 2. Happiness strengthens your immune system
- 3. Happiness combats stress
- 4. Happy people have fewer aches and pains
- 5. Happiness combats disease and disability
- 6. Happiness lengthens our lives
Happiness & health
Could a sunny outlook mean fewer colds and less heart disease?
Do hope and curiosity somehow protect against hypertension, diabetes, and respiratory tract infections?
Do happier people live longer—and, if so, why?
These are the kinds of questions that researchers are asking as they explore a new—and sometimes controversial—avenue of public health: documenting and understanding the link between positive emotions and good health.
A vast scientific literature has detailed how negative emotions harm the body.
Serious, sustained stress or fear can alter biological systems in a way that, over time, adds up to “wear and tear” and, eventually, illnesses such as heart disease, stroke, and diabetes.
Chronic anger and anxiety can disrupt cardiac function by changing the heart’s electrical stability, hastening atherosclerosis, and increasing systemic inflammation.
Jack P. Shonkoff, Julius B.
Richmond FAMRI Professor of Child Health and Development at HSPH and at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and Professor of Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, explains that early childhood “toxic stress”—the sustained activation of the body’s stress response system resulting from such early life experiences as chronic neglect, exposure to violence, or living alone with a parent suffering severe mental illness—has harmful effects on the brain and other organ systems. Among these effects is a hair-trigger physiological response to stress, which can lead to a faster heart rate, higher blood pressure, and a jump in stress hormones.
Focusing on the positive
“But negative emotions are only one-half of the equation,” says Laura Kubzansky, HSPH associate professor of society, human development, and health.
“It looks there is a benefit of positive mental health that goes beyond the fact that you’re not depressed. What that is is still a mystery.
But when we understand the set of processes involved, we will have much more insight into how health works.”
Kubzansky is at the forefront of such research.
In a 2007 study that followed more than 6,000 men and women aged 25 to 74 for 20 years, for example, she found that emotional vitality—a sense of enthusiasm, of hopefulness, of engagement in life, and the ability to face life’s stresses with emotional balance—appears to reduce the risk of coronary heart disease. The protective effect was distinct and measurable, even when taking into account such wholesome behaviors as not smoking and regular exercise.
|Research suggests that certain personal attributes—whether inborn or shaped by positive life circumstances—help some people avoid or healthfully manage diseases such as heart attacks, strokes, diabetes, and depression. These include:|
Among dozens of published papers, Kubzansky has shown that children who are able to stay focused on a task and have a more positive outlook at age 7 report better general health and fewer illnesses 30 years later. She has found that optimism cuts the risk of coronary heart disease by half.
Kubzansky’s methods illustrate the creativity needed to do research at the novel intersection of experimental psychology and public health.
In the emotional vitality study, for example, she used information that had originally been collected in the massive National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, or NHANES, an ongoing program that assesses the health and nutritional status of adults and children in the United States. Starting with the NHANES measure known as the “General Well-Being Schedule,” Kubzansky crafted an adaptation that instead reflected emotional vitality, and then scientifically validated her new measure. Her research has also drawn on preexisting data from the Veterans Administration Normative Aging Study, the National Collaborative Perinatal Project, and other decades-long prospective studies.
In essence, Kubzansky is leveraging gold-standard epidemiological methods to ask new public health questions. “I’m being opportunistic,” she says. “I don’t want to wait 30 years for an answer.”
Laura Kubzansky doesn’t want her research on positive emotions to be used to blame people for getting sick.
State of mind=state of body
Some public health professionals contend that the apparent beneficial effects of positive emotions do not stem from anything intrinsically protective in upbeat mind states, but rather from the fact that positive emotions mark the absence of negative moods and self-destructive habits. Kubzansky and others disagree. They believe that there is more to the phenomenon—and that scientists are only beginning to glean the possible biological, behavioral, and cognitive mechanisms.
Previous work supports this contention. In 1979, Lisa Berkman, director of the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies, co-authored a seminal study of nearly 7,000 adults in Alameda County, California.
Participants who reported fewer social ties at the beginning of the survey were more than twice as ly to die over the nine-year follow-up period, an effect unrelated to behaviors such as smoking, drinking, and physical activity.
Social ties included marriage, contact with friends and relatives, organizational and church membership.
A happiness policy?
If scientists proved unequivocally that positive moods improve health, would policymakers act? Some observe that, in the U.S., we define “happiness” in economic terms—the pursuit of material goods.
They contend that even an avalanche of research showing that emotional well-being protected health would have no traction in the policy world.
Many Americans believe, after all, that people are responsible for their own lives.
But others see direct policy implications.
“In public health, it’s important to understand how we can translate guidelines into behavior,” notes Eric Rimm, HSPH associate professor in the Departments of Epidemiology and Nutrition and director of the program in cardiovascular epidemiology.
“Seventy to 80 percent of heart attacks in this country occur not because of genetics nor through some mysterious causative factors. It’s through lifestyle choices people make: diet, smoking, exercise. Why are people choosing to do these things? Does mood come into play?”
The toll of toxic stress goes far beyond poorer health for individuals—population-wide, the cost of chronic diseases related to these conditions is enormous. “Imagine if we could enact a policy that would reduce heart disease by just 1 percent,” suggests Shonkoff.
“How many billions of dollars and how many lives would that save? Now what if we could also reduce diabetes—which is growing in epidemic proportions—and even stroke?” The point, Shonkoff says, is that society pays a considerable cost for treating chronic diseases in adulthood, and reducing toxic stress early in life may actually get out in front of these diseases to prevent them.
|In Laura Kubzansky’s Society and Health Psychophysiology Lab—modest and neutral as the blandest therapy office—volunteers responding to a Craigslist ad for a research study are in for a surprise. First, they are rigged up to a tangle of electrodes, which continuously monitor heart rate, cardiac output, and other measures. A cuff measures blood pressure. Test tube spittoons collect saliva to be tested for stress-related hormones such as cortisol and DHEA.Then comes the fun. The volunteers must give a five-minute improvised speech on a knotty topic, such as the gasoline tax or welfare reform. Next, they are asked to perform a complicated math exercise, such as counting backward from 2,027 by 13—swiftly, and with a loud buzzer signaling a faulty calculation, after which they must start over. Two lab assistants occasionally toss off challenging remarks. And the nerve-wracking performance is videotaped.The experiment gauges the potentially beneficial effects on heart health of oxytocin, a natural hormone that acts as a neurotransmitter and is thought to be both a cause and effect of positive social relationships. Kubzansky manipulates three variables: oxytocin levels, stress, and social support. She administers oxytocin—a prescription drug that cannot be purchased in a conventional drug store—through a nasal spray. She induces stress by asking the volunteers to publicly perform. And she creates social support by having some participants bring an encouraging friend with them, while others are instructed to show up alone.The experiment is designed to answer several questions: How do the stress-reduction benefits of oxytocin compare to those of social support? Does oxytocin offer the same protective effects in women as in men? Most important, does oxytocin tamp down the damage from toxic stress hormones that course through the body under duress, causing corrosive effects over time?|
Kubzansky concedes that psychological states such as anxiety or depression—or happiness and optimism—are forged by both nature and nurture. “They are 40–50 percent heritable, which means you may be born with the genetic predisposition. But this also suggests there is a lot of room to maneuver.
” Her “dream prevention”: instill emotional and social competence in children—with the help of parents, teachers, pediatricians, sports coaches, school counselors, mental health professionals, and policy makers—that would help confer not only good mental health but also physical resilience for a lifetime.
Even in adulthood, it’s not too late to cultivate these qualities, she says.
While psychotherapy or meditation may work for one person, someone else may prefer faith-based activities, sports, or simply spending time with friends.
“My guess is that many of the people who are chronically distressed never figured out how to come back from a bad experience, focus on something different, or change their perspective.”
Drawing on recently compiled data from a nationally representative study of older adults, Kubzansky is beginning to map what she calls “the social distribution of well-being.” She is working with information collected on participants’ sense of meaning and purpose, life satisfaction, and positive mood.
By tracking how these measures and health fall out across traditional demographic categories such as race and ethnicity, education, income, gender, and other categories, she hopes to understand in a fine-grained way what it is about certain social environments that confers better frame of mind and better physical health.
The last thing she wants, Kubzansky says, is for her research to be used to blame people for not simply being happier—and therefore healthier.
Referring to one of her first major studies, which found a link between worry and heart disease, she said: “My biggest fear was that journalists would pick it up and the headlines would be, ‘Don’t worry, be happy.’ That’s useless.
Not everyone lives in an environment where you can turn off worry. When you take this research the social context, it has the potential to be a slippery slope for victim blaming.”
Being in the moment
Kubzansky, who is married and has two young children, says her work has made her think a lot more about finding balance in her own life. To that end, she says, she recently signed up for a yoga class. She also plays classical piano—both chamber music with friends and solo hours at the keyboard for her own enjoyment.
“When I’m playing piano,” she explains, “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.”
That insight is also at the center of her research. “Everyone needs to find a way to be in the moment,” she says, “to find a restorative state that allows them to put down their burdens.”
Sara Rimer is a Boston-based journalist and author. Madeline Drexler is editor of the Review.
The Important Connection Between Happiness and Health
Over the last couple of decades, there has been a growing body of scientific research connecting happiness to physical health and overall well-being. Much of this research has come from the emerging field of Positive Psychology, a branch of psychology with a slightly different focus than other psychological research.
Historically, psychology has focused on understanding and offerings remedies for anxiety, depression, fear, stress, and other mental states and disorders that contribute to a sense of unhappiness.
Positive psychology seeks to examine the benefits and causes of positive emotions, compiling a body of research that helps us understand the traits and conditions that lead to happiness.
Today, there is a considerable amount of research that offers strong evidence that positive emotions have a significant impact on physical health, resulting in a higher-quality, healthier, and longer life. What does this mean for health care professionals focused on active aging and senior living? Let’s take a deeper look at the research to find out.
What does ‘happiness’ mean?
many other components of mental and emotional health, happiness is largely subjective. Even so, it is possible to measured and study the concepts around what it means to be happy. Most happiness research is focused on four primary points of study:
- Personal well-being: Research that focuses on personal well-being examines subjective experiences of joy, contentment, and a sense that one’s life is meaningful and “good”.
- Happiness traits: Optimism, enthusiasm, humor, gratitude and a sense of hope for the future.
- Positive emotions: Experiential, fleeting, in-the-moment feelings such as happiness, love, joy, excitement, and contentment.
- The physical sensation of being happy: What does happiness feel ? How does sensory experience provide enjoyment and enrich our lives?
Positive Psychology researchers seek to not only offers insight into each of these dimensions, but isolate distinct areas of the brain that become active as we experience different moods and emotions.
Studies show that there are three primary factors that contribute to a state of “chronic happiness” – a state of being that is more resilient to the normal ups and downs of life: Genetics, circumstances, and efforts.
While it might be tempting to assume that circumstances such as wealth are a major contributor, research indicates that our circumstances are only responsible for roughly 10% of our happiness.
50% of our happiness is ly due to genetic temperament and disposition, leaving a whopping 40% firmly within our control.
Efforts that contribute to happiness include daily behavior patterns (habits), how we choose to think about people and situations, and what we select as personal goals and meaningful activities.
What does all this have to do with physical health?
Quite simply, studies show that happier people have a higher immune system, fewer chronic pain conditions, are unly to experience a fatal accident, and have a lower risk of diabetes and heart disease.
Happiness and Heart Disease
Researchers at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine followed 1,500 siblings with a strong family history of heart disease.
The study found that positive well-being – optimism, happiness, life satisfaction and vitality — contributed to a nearly 30% reduction in heart disease for healthy people with a genetic predisposition to the disease.
Breaking it down further, those with the highest risk of having a heart attack were 50% less ly to have one if they exhibited traits of positive well-being.
Another study published in the Neurobiology of Aging, found that individuals who reported higher levels of happiness also had lower resting heart rates and low blood pressure when compared with those who felt less happy.
Happiness and Immune Health
There is a large body of research showing that happiness is related to a strong immune system, including a higher lihood of recovering quickly from illness and disease. A study from the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that people who were highly optimistic with low levels of stress and anxiety experienced a stronger antibody response after receiving a flu shot.
Researchers at Carnegie-Mellon University assessed the general positivity in individuals between the ages of 21 and 55 before exposing them to cold or flu viruses. Those who’s emotional well-being could be descried as largely happy, lively, and calm had significantly less risk of becoming sick than those who reported feeling anxious, angry or depressed.
Happiness and Chronic Pain
Research shows that happy people with a largely positive mood are more able to cope with chronic pain. This makes sense when you consider that pain is something we experience on both an emotional and physical level.
It’s a distinctly sensory event that causes emotional responses of fear and anxiety.
When pain strikes, having a positive disposition has been shown to improve resilience, increase our tolerance to pain, and help us live a high-quality life despite chronic pain.
Happiness and Longevity
One of the most talked about studies when it comes to the link between happiness and longevity is often referred to as the “nun study”. Researchers examined 60 years of diary entries from nuns who began journaling in their 20s. Overall, those whose diaries revealed the most positive emotions outlived the others by an average of 7 – 10 years.
In a 5-year study of British adults aged 52-79, researchers found that those who generally felt happy and content with their lives were 35% more ly to outlive those who felt unhappy and unsatisfied with their life.
The Cycle of Happiness and Health Within the 6 Dimensions of Wellness
As research continues to prove, happy people tend to be healthier people.
We also know that healthier people tend to be more physically active and socially connected, two factors that further contribute to overall health and well-being – AND generate positive emotions. In this way, happiness, physical exercise, and social connection work together to create an upward-spiral.
Positive emotions lead to the desire for physical activity and a drive to foster social connections, both of which lead to better health and more positive emotions. Also… physical activity can boost positive emotions and provide a platform for social connection, leading to better health and a desire to be more active and socially connected.
On and on the cycle goes. Adding even more momentum, people who are generally satisfied with their life are less ly to smoke, more ly to eat a healthy diet, and less ly to take unnecessary risks with their physical health.
So, how can health care professionals support this happiness-health cycle for adults of all ages?
There’s no magic bullet to happiness, and some of it is genuinely our control.
However, since whole person health cannot be separated from lifestyle choices and differences in mental, emotional, social, and spiritual needs and desires, building momentum behind the cycle of happiness and health sometimes begins with engaging in an activity that supports just one level of the Dimensions of Wellness.
For example, encouraging someone who is feeling isolated and lonely to attend an exercise class or hiking group supports physical health and fosters social connection.
Meaningful social connection can support emotional and intellectual health, providing the energy and motivation to engage in additional physical activities. Better physical health generates a sense of well-being that motivates greater social involvement.
All of these things work together to replace feelings of loneliness with those more aligned with happiness.
The Link Between Happiness, Health, and Literacy
After exploring the places in the world where people live longest, National Geographic fellow, NYT best-selling author, and founder of Blue Zones, LLC, Dan Buettner turned his focus to the places where people live happiest.
Why do people in places Denmark, Costa Rica, and Singapore report being happier than the rest of us? If you’re considering a move in America, what should you look for in a new city? And what will push the needle regardless of where we live?
DB: There are a few enormous databases around the world (Gallup is the biggest) that use survey data to assess happiness. But happiness itself is a meaningless term because you can’t measure it. The components of happiness that you can measure, and that I’ve been most interested in are:
Pride: This is about how you evaluate your life overall. How satisfied are you with your job? Your family? Are you financially secure? Is your mom proud of you? Do you feel you live your values?
Pleasure: You only remember about 2 percent of your life — highs marriages and awards, and lows getting dumped. You don’t remember most of the minutiae, or say, what you had for lunch last Tuesday.
So if I ask you to think of your life as a whole and tell me how happy you are, you’re only using about 2 percent of memory to make an assessment. Because you can remember how the past 24 hours felt, this bucket is about what you ate for lunch yesterday.
How much joy did you feel in the last 24 hours? How much did you smile, laugh, cry? How do you experience life?
Purpose: How often do you use your strengths to do what you do best? How engaged are you with your life?
“Happiness itself is a meaningless term because you can’t measure it.”
DB: You want a balanced portfolio. (I sound a financial advisor when people come to me about their happiness.) It’s important to live with a sense of purpose and to experience some joy every day, but not at the expense of overall satisfaction.
You can take our quiz online to get a happiness self-diagnosis, and it comes with a prescription for rebalancing with evidence-based tips. We sucked in 100 million data points to study happiness around the world and did a regression analysis to see what made a difference in happiness.
What do the happiest places have in common?
DB: There is no such thing as a happy place where everyone is magically smiling and partying all the time. It takes work to create a really happy place, and it’s always the result of enlightened leaders. About 50 to 150 years ago, enlightened leaders in today’s happiest places shifted their focus from just economic development to policies that favored quality of life.
In general, happy places have four main focuses:
1. Make sure all kids can read. Education is not about printing PhDs, but making sure that 80, 90, 100 percent of kids are reading. The education of girls is especially important.
Not coincidentally I believe, the happiest places, Denmark and Costa Rica, were first to educate daughters of farmers and peasants.
Overall, girls who are educated grow up to lead different lives, make more informed voting decisions, have fewer children, and become parents who educate their kids. Everyone is elevated when girls are educated.
2. Public health is more important than sick care, which is how I think of the American health care system. It’s not just about treating disease; in the happiest places, there tend to be squads of people that go out and visit homes and catch health issues before they become major problems.
3. Trust. People trust politicians, police, and each other in happier places. If you’re making a comfortable salary and your boss offers you a 100-percent raise to leave your trusty neighborhood and go to a neighborhood full of people who don’t trust each other, don’t go.
4. Equality. A hundred dollars for a single mom who is trying to make ends meet between paychecks is immeasurably more valuable than it is for a millionaire. For greatest happiness, you want that $100 to go to the greatest utility.
“About 50 to 150 years ago, enlightened leaders in today’s happiest places shifted their focus from just economic development to policies that favored quality of life.”
If this is sounding a liberal agenda — it’s not. It’s just correlations between the happiness people report and what’s happening where they live.
That said, the happiest places also tend to be places where there are not a lot of guns or army presence. In Costa Rica, there’s no army. No parents ever worry about their children being shipped off to fight. In Denmark and Singapore, almost no individuals own guns.
Our Blue Zones Project, which started off focusing on helping places to become healthier, is now looking to help cities and towns reshape their policies, local laws, and ordinances to make it more ly that their residents will be happy.
How do we become happier?
DB: We’re often misguided or just plain wrong about what will bring happiness to our lives.
I estimate that some 280 advertising impressions rinse over our psyches every day, encouraging us to eat food that’s not good for us and buy things we don’t need.
Pop psychology techniques tell us to savor life, keep an appreciation journal, and so on. Some of these are good ideas but for most of us, they are all diets — we don’t do them enough to make a difference.
What we distilled from our research was how to actually stack your personal deck of cards in favor of happiness. Here are the aces:
If you want to get happier, reshape your environment. We know for sure that health brings happiness. Forget trying to have a great career if you let your health go to hell.
Ideally, you want a home with a lot of light, green plants, and a dog — and set your default background music to Mozart. All favor happiness.
Set up your bedroom so that it’s an easy environment to sleep in. And if it’s possible, get eight, or even nine-plus hours of sleep.
“We’re often misguided or just plain wrong about what will bring happiness to our lives.”
If you’re choosing between a front porch and a back deck, choose the front porch — it’s a social invitation.
Spend six to seven hours a day socializing face-to-face. And you want to have the ability to spontaneously connect with people. Right now, I’m looking out my bedroom window and people are walking a path that wraps around an urban lake. If I go out my front door, I’ll bump into someone.
Ideally, you want three to five friends who you can have a meaningful conversation with, who care about you on a bad day. And you want your friends to be happy, too. Unhappiness is contagious.
If you’re sitting on a barstool at the end of the night, listening to a friend bitch, you’re probably going to feel less happy.
You can also feel lonelier when you’re with someone who is lonely than you would if you were by yourself.
Find a best friend at your office. Money doesn’t appear to have a significant impact on happiness — if you make enough to get by.
What else should you consider if you want to move to a happier place?
DB: In Blue Zones of Happiness, I argue that most Americans spend most of their lives in about 10 miles of home — the life radius. Where you live is an important driver of happiness. We see people report a 20-percent jump in happiness just by moving; sometimes their happiness even doubles.
For instance, people who moved from an unhappy region to Copenhagen, Denmark, reported the higher happiness level of their new home within one year.
If you’re unhappy and living in a place where overall happiness is reportedly low, moving to a place Boulder, Colorado, or San Luis Obispo or Santa Barbara in California will stack your happiness deck. In general, in America, people are happier in medium-sized cities than in suburbs or the biggest cities.
And college towns tend to be the happiest. Of course, picking up and moving your family and your life isn’t possible for many people, but there are things you can do no matter where you live.
For example, you want to be close to green space — ideally within a couple hundred yards. There’s a lot of research on the connection between the outdoors and happiness.
People who live in a sunny place are about 5 percent more ly to be happy, and same for people who live near water, be it a river, stream, ocean, lake. People who live in the mountains are also more ly to be happy.
So wherever you live, spend as much time in and around nature as you can.
“After 50, happiness typically climbs and keeps going up beyond one hundred — as long as you keep your health.”
DB: It varies from country to country. In general, people are pretty happy and optimistic in their twenties. In America, when you have children, daily happiness (or positive emotion) and life satisfaction usually drop.
In Denmark, where moms tend to have the help they need and solid health care, their happiness goes up in all domains. In America, we also tend to work too much — the ideal is probably 35 hours a week and we work closer to 45. The least happy age, on average, is 50.
But after 50, happiness typically climbs and keeps going up beyond 100 — as long as you keep your health. The happiest people are centenarians.
Is there a downside to pursuing happiness?
DB: Trying to chase happiness is a recipe for neurosis. We all know people who are constantly trying to improve themselves. The problem is that we all have 99 problems … a gray hair, a wrinkle, or there’s a dent in the car, and so on.
We can work really hard to prioritize the top nine of our 99 problems — but by the time they’re fixed, there will be nine new things on the list. So, shift the focus off of those 99 things and toward something else: your passion, your work, volunteering, your kids.
When you focus more on others, those 99 problems tend to diminish.
“The problem is that we all have 99 problems … a gray hair, a wrinkle, or there’s a dent in the car, and so on.”
If you set up your ecosystem the right way — shape your surroundings, home life, house, workplace, choose a good community — you can forget about trying to pursue happiness.
How has your own approach to happiness changed?
DB: I’ve been exploring this for a decade. I probably used to work harder than I do now. I’m naturally social so I indulge in social activities. I focus on staying fit. I’ve taken the time to know exactly what I’m good at, what I to do, and what I can contribute — every day I wake up with that in mind.
I’m maniacal about getting the right amount of sleep. I rarely have to set an alarm now.
I’ve kind of jettisoned some people my life who were not making me happy. I don’t advise dumping your old friends, especially if they need you. But if I’m not doing someone any good, and he/she isn’t doing me any good, I’ve given myself permission to back away. And I’ve tried to surround myself with more people who trigger ideas.
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Six Ways Happiness Is Good for Your Health
Over the past decade, an entire industry has sprouted up promising the secrets to happiness. There are best-selling books The Happiness Project and The How of Happiness, and happiness programs Happify and Tal-Ben Shahar’s Wholebeing Institute.
Here at the Greater Good Science Center, we offer an online course on “The Science of Happiness” and boast a collection of research-based happiness practices on our new website, Greater Good in Action.
But all of these books and classes raise the question: Why bother? Many of us might prefer to focus on boosting our productivity and success rather than our positive emotions. Or perhaps we’ve tried to get happier but always seem to get leveled by setbacks. Why keep trying?
Recently, a critical mass of research has provided what might be the most basic and irrefutable argument in favor of happiness: Happiness and good health go hand-in-hand. Indeed, scientific studies have been finding that happiness can make our hearts healthier, our immune systems stronger, and our lives longer.
Several of the studies cited below suggest that happiness causes better health; others suggest only that the two are correlated—perhaps good health causes happiness but not the other way around.
Happiness and health may indeed be a virtuous circle, but researchers are still trying to untangle their relationship.
In the meantime, if you need some extra motivation to get happier, check out these six ways that happiness has been linked to good health.
1. Happiness protects your heart
Love and happiness may not actually originate in the heart, but they are good for it. For example, a 2005 paper found that happiness predicts lower heart rate and blood pressure.
In the study, participants rated their happiness over 30 times in one day and then again three years later.
The initially happiest participants had a lower heart rate on follow-up (about six beats slower per minute), and the happiest participants during the follow-up had better blood pressure.
Research has also uncovered a link between happiness and another measure of heart health: heart rate variability, which refers to the time interval between heartbeats and is associated with risk for various diseases.
In a 2008 study, researchers monitored 76 patients suspected to have coronary artery disease.
Was happiness linked to healthier hearts even among people who might have heart problems? It seemed so: The participants who rated themselves as happiest on the day their hearts were tested had a healthier pattern of heart rate variability on that day.
Over time, these effects can add up to serious differences in heart health. In a 2010 study, researchers invited nearly 2,000 Canadians into the lab to talk about their anger and stress at work.
Observers rated them on a scale of one to five for the extent to which they expressed positive emotions joy, happiness, excitement, enthusiasm, and contentment.
Ten years later, the researchers checked in with the participants to see how they were doing—and it turned out that the happier ones were less ly to have developed coronary heart disease. In fact, for each one-point increase in positive emotions they had expressed, their heart disease risk was 22 percent lower.
2. Happiness strengthens your immune system
Do you know a grumpy person who always seems to be getting sick? That may be no coincidence: Research is now finding a link between happiness and a stronger immune system.
In a 2003 experiment, 350 adults volunteered to get exposed to the common cold (don’t worry, they were well-compensated).
Before exposure, researchers called them six times in two weeks and asked how much they had experienced nine positive emotions—such as feeling energetic, pleased, and calm—that day.
After five days in quarantine, the participants with the most positive emotions were less ly to have developed a cold.
Some of the same researchers wanted to investigate why happier people might be less susceptible to sickness, so in a 2006 study they gave 81 graduate students the hepatitis B vaccine.
After receiving the first two doses, participants rated themselves on those same nine positive emotions. The ones who were high in positive emotion were nearly twice as ly to have a high antibody response to the vaccine—a sign of a robust immune system.
Instead of merely affecting symptoms, happiness seemed to be literally working on a cellular level.
A much earlier experiment found that immune system activity in the same individual goes up and down depending on their happiness.
For two months, 30 male dental students took pills containing a harmless blood protein from rabbits, which causes an immune response in humans. They also rated whether they had experienced various positive moods that day.
On days when they were happier, participants had a better immune response, as measured by the presence of an antibody in their saliva that defends against foreign substances.
3. Happiness combats stress
Stress is not only upsetting on a psychological level but also triggers biological changes in our hormones and blood pressure. Happiness seems to temper these effects, or at least help us recover more quickly.
In the study mentioned above, where participants rated their happiness more than 30 times in a day, researchers also found associations between happiness and stress. The happiest participants had 23 percent lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol than the least happy, and another indicator of stress—the level of a blood-clotting protein that increases after stress—was 12 times lower.
Happiness also seems to carry benefits even when stress is inevitable. In a 2009 study, some diabolically cruel researchers decided to stress out psychology students and see how they reacted. The students were led to a soundproof chamber, where they first answered questions indicating whether they generally felt 10 feelings enthusiasm or pride.
Then came their worst nightmare: They had to answer an exceedingly difficult statistics question while being videotaped, and they were told that their professor would evaluate their response. Throughout the process, their heart was measured with an electrocardiogram (EKG) machine and a blood pressure monitor.
In the wake of such stress, the hearts of the happiest students recovered most quickly.
4. Happy people have fewer aches and pains
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Unhappiness can be painful—literally.
A 2001 study asked participants to rate their recent experience of positive emotions, then (five weeks later) how much they had experienced negative symptoms muscle strain, dizziness, and heartburn since the study began.
People who reported the highest levels of positive emotion at the beginning actually became healthier over the course of the study, and ended up healthier than their unhappy counterparts.
The fact that their health improved over five weeks (and the health of the unhappiest participants declined) suggests that the results aren’t merely evidence of people in a good mood giving rosier ratings of their health than people in a bad mood.
A 2005 study suggests that positive emotion also mitigates pain in the context of disease. Women with arthritis and chronic pain rated themselves weekly on positive emotions interest, enthusiasm, and inspiration for about three months. Over the course of the study, those with higher ratings overall were less ly to experience increases in pain.
5. Happiness combats disease and disability
Happiness is associated with improvements in more severe, long-term conditions as well, not just shorter-term aches and pains.
In a 2008 study of nearly 10,000 Australians, participants who reported being happy and satisfied with life most or all of the time were about 1.
5 times less ly to have long-term health conditions ( chronic pain and serious vision problems) two years later.
Another study in the same year found that women with breast cancer recalled being less happy and optimistic before their diagnosis than women without breast cancer, suggesting that happiness and optimism may be protective against the disease.
As adults become elderly, another condition that often afflicts them is frailty, which is characterized by impaired strength, endurance, and balance and puts them at risk of disability and death.
In a 2004 study, over 1,550 Mexican Americans ages 65 and older rated how much self-esteem, hope, happiness, and enjoyment they felt over the past week. After seven years, the participants with more positive emotion ratings were less ly to be frail.
Some of the same researchers also found that happier elderly people (by the same measure of positive emotion) were less ly to have a stroke in the subsequent six years; this was particularly true for men.
6. Happiness lengthens our lives
In the end, the ultimate health indicator might be longevity—and here, especially, happiness comes into play.
In perhaps the most famous study of happiness and longevity, the life expectancy of Catholic nuns was linked to the amount of positive emotion they expressed in an autobiographical essay they wrote upon entering their convent decades earlier, typically in their 20s.
Researchers combed through these writing samples for expressions of feelings amusement, contentment, gratitude, and love. In the end, the happiest-seeming nuns lived a whopping 7-10 years longer than the least happy.
You don’t have to be a nun to experience the life-extending benefits of happiness, though. In a 2011 study, almost 4,000 English adults ages 52-79 reported how happy, excited, and content they were multiple times in a single day. Here, happier people were 35 percent less ly to die over the course of about five years than their unhappier counterparts.
These two studies both measured specific positive emotions, but overall satisfaction with one’s life—another major indicator of happiness—is also linked to longevity.
A 2010 study followed almost 7,000 people from California’s Alameda County for nearly three decades, finding that the people who were more satisfied with life at the beginning were less ly to die during the course of the study.
While happiness can lengthen our lives, it can’t perform miracles. There’s some evidence that the link between happiness and longevity doesn’t extend to the ill—or at least not to the very ill.
A 2005 meta-analysis, aggregating the results of other studies on health and happiness, speculates that experiencing positive emotion is helpful in diseases with a long timeline but could actually be harmful in late-stage disease.
The authors cite studies showing that positive emotion lowers the risk of death in people with diabetes and AIDS, but actually increases the risk in people with metastatic breast cancer, early-stage melanoma, and end-stage kidney disease.
That increased risk might be due to the fact that happier people underreport their symptoms and don’t get the right treatment, or take worse care of themselves because they are overly optimistic.
As the science of happiness and health matures, researchers are trying to determine what role, if any, happiness actually plays in causing health benefits.
They’re also trying to distinguish the effects of different forms of happiness (including positive emotions and life satisfaction), the effects of “extreme” happiness, and other factors.
For example, a new study suggests that we should look not just at life satisfaction levels but life satisfaction variability: Researchers found that low life satisfaction with lots of fluctuations—i.e., an unstable level of happiness—was linked to even earlier death than low life satisfaction alone.
All that said, the study of the health benefits of happiness is still young. It will take time to figure out the exact mechanisms by which happiness influences health, and how factors social relationships and exercise fit in. But in the meantime, it seems safe to imagine that a happier you will be healthier, too.