How happiness affects your health
7 simple ways to maximize it
29 Apr 2021
You might have noticed that when you are happy, you feel healthier.
There’s a good reason for that – there’s solid scientific research which suggests overall happiness and good health are closely linked. From strengthened immunity to better sleep, reduced stress, improved heart health and even living for longer, studies show that a positive mood is likely to result in robust healthiness.
But, are there ways to maximize the health benefits of happiness and future-proof your health for those times when you’re not so happy? SmartCitti investigates…
What are the health benefits of happiness?
Happiness might seem hard to define at times, but researchers see it as an umbrella term for positive emotions such as contentment, being worry-free, feeling loved, safe, well looked after, and experiencing joy and satisfaction from life on a regular basis.
“Happiness always matters because at a deeply fundamental level, it is what motivates individuals,” says SmartCitti’s Architect of Happiness, Dr Al-Husban. “It impacts almost every aspect of our lives— how we perceive our world, how we perform, how we socialise and interact.”
Carolyne Bennett, SmartCitti’s Happiness Guru, says: “I’d like to emphasize that happiness encompasses many emotions and states of mind such as joy, passion, excitement, compassion, contentment, calm, peace, love, hope, etc. Whenever people experience any of these, they would naturally feel happier. So, simply put, happiness is feeling good. It’s a state of internal being that includes the wellbeing of mind, body and soul.”
The link between happiness and a healthy lifestyle
People who are unhappy are often more likely to indulge in unhealthy behaviors than people who report they feel happy, studies have shown.
This is because in a bid to feel happier they are statistically more likely to seek out short-term quick fixes which are negative for health, such as smoking cigarettes, drinking too much alcohol, eating unhealthy foods such as refined sugar and carbs, plus they’re more likely to sleep poorly, and not manage stress or their weight well.
“Happiness significantly impacts how we behave, and this has to do with the connections between emotion and cognition,” explains Dr Al-Husban. “Happiness, in a way, is a complex composite of thoughts and emotions.”
By contrast, people who report they feel happy are more likely to eat healthy diets which are rich in fresh fruit and vegetables. These are packed with essential vitamins and minerals and contain key nutrients to help the body thrive. Unhappy people often feel more stress which burns up the body’s stores of non-negotiable nutrients we need such as magnesium.
Studies have shown that people who feel happy are 33% more likely to take regular physical exercise. This is crucial for managing stress, boosting energy and happiness levels, as well as looking after your heart health, it lowers blood pressure, strengthens bones, and helps maintain a healthy weight. Exercise also helps you sleep better at night.
Poor sleep and unhappiness are also linked. In a study of over 7000 adults, 47% respondents reported that they don’t feel happy also had trouble with falling asleep and staying asleep. Sleep is crucial for wellbeing and great health as it is when the body goes into repair mode and clears out cellular debris. Poor sleep results in a feeling of exhaustion and brain fog, people feel less able to cope with stress, which can lead to an array of mental health problems including depression and chronic fatigue.
How happiness combats stress
Stress is seen by medics as a key factor behind chronic illness. It is believed to increase an individual’s risk of heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, asthma, gastro-intestinal problems such as Irritable Bowel Disease and obesity, as well as depression and anxiety.
Long-term, chronic work stress also leads to medical burnout, which can take years to recover from and was officially classified as a disease by the World Health Organization in 2020.
Happy people have been found by studies to perceive stress differently to unhappy people. The result is they manage stress better because their cortisol levels are lower.
Cortisol is known as the flight or fight hormone and is what triggers that awful panicky feeling when people feel as though they’re under threat. If the body already has high levels of cortisol, an individual is more likely to feel far more highly stressed by a situation than someone in the same situation who has lower levels of cortisol. Cortisol is also responsible for weight gain, poor sleep on a regular basis, it is linked to type 2 diabetes as well as high blood pressure.
This is a cocktail for poor health and if the situation goes on unchecked, it could lead to mental and physical health issues, even early death in extreme cases.
Carolyne Bennett says: “Science has shown that it is possible to become addicted to the body’s stress response and its neurological pathways on a neurochemical level. So, our happiness greatly depends on how we’ve consciously and unconsciously trained our brains to respond.”
People who report feeling happiness on a regular basis are more likely to exercise regularly which is crucial for managing feelings of stress.
If a person works off the stress of a difficult day at work by going for a run, they will lower the body’s stores of cortisol. They will go to sleep feeling more rested than someone who has turned to junk food or alcohol to combat stress, which in turn leads to ongoing negative feelings and poor health the next day too.
Other positive ways to manage stress that happy people turn to on a regular basis include yoga, meditation and simply talking things over with a trusted friend or therapist. All of these have been shown to be a positive influence on physical and mental health, as well as lowering cortisol and blood pressure.
The link between happiness and immunity
Since the global pandemic, we’ve all become acutely aware how crucial immune health is.
Several studies have concluded there is a link between happiness and a healthy immune system. Researchers believe that this is lifestyle-related.
Stress has a negative impact on immunity. The positive lifestyle behaviors happy people tend to take part in such as exercise, good stress management and eating a healthy diet have all been shown to help the immune system to function effectively every day.
Whilst more research is needed, a study of university students concluded that people who report feeling happy are less likely to contract colds than people who report they are unhappy.
How happiness helps protect your heart health
High blood pressure has been linked to heart disease, which is the single biggest cause of premature death across the globe.
Researchers have found there’s a strong link between happiness and low blood pressure. In a study of over 6,500 people who are older than 65, scientists found that feeling happy and positive about life was linked to a 9% lower risk of high blood pressure.
A key takeaway is that people who feel happy are less likely to smoke or drink heavily and are more likely to exercise, manage stress effectively and sleep well. These are all crucial for keeping blood pressure low and keeping your heart healthy.
Can being happy help you live for longer?
It’s no surprise that scientists suspect that being happy can help you live for longer.
Happiness lowers your risk for cardiovascular disease, enables better sleep, improves your diet, lowers your blood pressure, and allows you to maintain a normal body weight through regular exercise, as well as reducing the damaging effects of chronic stress.
A long-term study which took place over thirty years and studied a group of 32,000 people found there was a 14% higher risk of death in participants who claimed they were unhappy.
The truth is that it’s difficult for scientists to accurately measure, because whilst an individual’s heart disease might be caused by an unhealthy lifestyle which has its roots in unhappiness, the cause of death would be officially recorded as heart disease. However, it’s fair to say that the habits of happy people – regular exercise, stress management and eating a healthy diet as well as prioritizing quality sleep each night – all help people to live for longer.
How to future-proof your health and happiness levels
We all have times in life when we feel unhappy and stressed. This is often caused by factors beyond our control such as a car accident, a home break in, or perhaps ill health or the death of a loved one. Whilst it’s natural to feel sad and worried there are positive ways you can cope that will help ensure you get through this stressful moment in your life without damaging your long-term health or happiness levels.
1. Do what you can to prepare for the unexpected
Nobody wants to deal with the stress of a burglary, for example, but if you have a comprehensive home insurance cover then at least you’ll have peace of mind knowing that you won’t face the cost of having to buy replacements for the items that have been stolen. Make sure your insurance policies are up to date and that you loved ones are covered too. This will give you all peace of mind and less fear if the worst does happen.
2. Learn positive coping mechanisms
If you are going through a period of stress, knowing how to cope in a positive way is crucial. Learning to meditate is not as difficult as some people think. Try an app like Headspace which includes simple to follow, one-minute meditations to help banish stress and shake off the worries from your mind to enable the body to switch into sleep mode.
3. Build moments of joy into your day
Learning to laugh at the stresses of life helps to counteract them. If you can’t find humor in dark moments, you can still build in joy. Go for a walk with your phone switched off and spend time in nature, being present, noticing the sounds around you. Walking also helps the mind to process negative thoughts and feelings, working as an active meditation. Cook a delicious and nutritious meal for yourself and a loved one and really savor it and their company, without the TV on in the background. Spend time diving into the pages of a good book. All these things will help you feel better.
4. Talk about whatever is stressing you
Talk therapy has been shown to be highly effective for managing times of extreme stress. If you can’t afford a therapist then try writing things down in a journal. This will help to get problems out of your mind and onto the page and will enable you to see proactive ways to deal with them.
5. Build healthy habits into your day
It’s never too late to give up smoking, cut back on drinking alcohol, switch to a healthier diet, or start exercising. The brain takes thirty days to build a habit so if you go to the gym and do cardio every day for a month it will become a habit you keep up long-term. Try going first thing in the morning, not only will this give you a gentle boost of endorphins to start your day, but it will also be out of the way and you won’t be able to find excuses to not go later in the day. Quitting smoking is hard, but it is possible, and the health benefits will mean you’ll find exercising easier, and you’ll enjoy the taste and smell of healthy foods more. Try doing ten minutes of yoga every morning upon waking and ten minutes of meditation every night before bed. This way you’ll have healthy habits to rely on and help you cope if you go through a difficult time in your life.
6. Prioritize sleep
Good sleep is crucial for great health and happiness. You can learn to sleep well again and fix your sleep schedule, even if you’ve got used to coping with poor sleep. First, switch off from work a good four hours before bed. This means no reading or sending emails or thinking about work. If you can’t stop thinking about work, then try meditation. This will teach you to recognize your thoughts as they enter your mind and ignore any unhelpful ones. Try to exercise during the day so your body is physically tired, even if your mind isn’t. Stress burns up magnesium which helps sleep, so take a quality magnesium supplement from your local pharmacy an hour before bed. Have a relaxing bath and then try a guided sleep meditation before you drift off. The key is to remember sleep isn’t the goal, but resting your body is. If you really can’t sleep though try talking to a medical professional. If you can get into the habit of sleeping well it will stand you in good stead and help you to cope better if you go through a period of extended stress.
7. Focus on helping other people
There’s strong evidence to suggest that when we focus on making other people happy, it makes us happy too. Volunteer to help in your local community. Perhaps you could walk dogs at the local shelter or help a charity? Or, why not try random acts of kindness? This could be paying a stranger’s bus fare, or buying them a coffee, it could be as simple as opening doors, or helping an older person cross the street. Or it might be a question of helping your family and friends more. Keep it simple, and the emotional rewards will be huge.
There is a strong link between happiness and good health. If you feel unhappy, there are ways to boost your happiness and your health levels. These include eating a healthy diet, drinking less alcohol, giving up smoking, sleeping well at night, managing stress in a positive way, and exercising regularly. This will lead to you feeling happier and therefore being healthier long-term.
Carolyne Bennett says: “One size does not fit all when it comes to happiness because there are other factors involved. We don’t begin our lives the same way, we don’t have the same levels of reserve and we have different programs running. This is why some of us may be more deficient in one aspect of happiness than others.
“The good news is that science has proven that our brains are malleable. This is known as neuroplasticity. It means we can change the thought and behaviour patterns (programs) and neural pathways that have been pre-set in us by the circumstances of our lives. These programs or patterns arise from a combination of influences including our families, our social circles, our communities, and the wider society. So, happiness is a beautiful and complex thing that requires a process of self-discovery and self-awareness.”
Dr Al-Husban adds: “To sum it up, happiness is important because by influencing our emotions, thoughts, and behaviours, it also impacts our health, performance, learning, and interactions significantly."