New research increasingly shows a link between positive emotions and good physical health. It may be a case of chicken and egg—people who are happier tend to cultivate healthier habits and those who practice healthy habits report greater happiness—but health and happiness are clearly connected. There are also simple practices that will boost both your happiness and your health.
How Happiness Affects Health
The role of negative emotions on health has long been studied, with clear evidence that serious, sustained stress or fear can over time cause people’s bodies to get worn down and become susceptible to illnesses such as heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. “We need to take more seriously the possibility that positive emotional style is a major player in [reducing] disease risk,” said Sheldon Cohen, psychology professor at Carnegie Mellon. Results of his studies confirm that people who are happy, lively, calm or exhibit other positive emotions are less likely to become ill when they are exposed to a cold virus than those who report few of these emotions.
A 2012 study published by the Harvard School of Public Health reviewed more than 200 studies that found a connection between positive psychological attributes, such as happiness, optimism and life satisfaction, and a lowered risk of cardiovascular disease. Happiness (or the continuous cultivation of a positive and grateful attitude rather than seeking external pleasures and continuous stimulation), on the other hand, can play a significant role in boosting a person’s health and resiliency.
Cultivating Healthy Habits
It’s never too late or too difficult to cultivate the kind of happiness that is connected with good health.
Our health is shaped by five key factors (in order of importance): our behavioral choices, social circumstances, environmental conditions, genetics and access to medical care. While these affect each another, the good news is that we are not simply trapped by our circumstances. In fact, studies show that much less than half of our state of health is determined by our biology.
The biggest factor in determining our health is actually the daily choices we make in terms of our diet, physical activity, sex, stress and more. It is also determined by the attitude and mindset we cultivate.
It isn’t simply that happy people are healthier, but people who have a sense of well being often find it easier to maintain healthy habits. Happier people often eat better, exercise more often and enjoy good sleep than those who are not. Harvard School of Public Health professor Laura Kubzansky who has studied the link between health and happiness says, “People who have an optimistic mindset may be more likely to engage in healthy behaviors because they perceive them as helpful in achieving their goals.”
Cultivating the happiness habit
People who deliberately cultivate positive thinking and positive habits often find these to be mutually reinforcing. It might take effort at first but soon people find healthy practices to be rewarding both in terms of increased vitality and sense of well-being.
The charity Action for Happiness surveyed 5000 people and discovered that “our day-to-day habits have a much bigger impact on our happiness than we might imagine.” While they found that there were many habits linking health and happiness, it was also vital for people to accept and be kind to themselves.
Kindness linked with mindfulness, a technique that focuses on the present rather than the past or future, and which encourages gratitude and enjoyment of what is.
Action for Happiness developed a list of healthful behaviors that contribute to well-being:
• Giving: do things for others
• Relating: connect with people
• Exercising: take care of your body
• Appreciating: notice the world around
• Trying out: keep learning new things
• Direction: have goals to look forward to
• Resilience: find ways to bounce back
• Emotion: take a positive approach
• Acceptance: be comfortable with who you are
• Meaning: be part of something bigger
Whether you feel happy or not, you can make positive choices that boost both your mood and your health—and that is something to smile about! You will also invest in a healthier brain and body for your own future.