The Pursuit of Happiness Part 1: Six Ways Happiness Is Good for Your Health

Adapted  from the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley

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.

Happiness is the meaning and purpose of life, the whole aim, and end of human existence. ~ Aristotle

Need some extra motivation to get happier? Check out the ways that well-being 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.  In a 2010 study, researchers invited nearly 2,000 Canadians into a 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 like 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 likely 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 likely to have 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 another study 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.

4. Happy people have fewer aches and pains

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 like 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.

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 likely to have long-term health conditions (like chronic pain and serious vision problems) two years later.

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 like amusement, contentment, gratitude, and love. In the end, the happiest-seeming nuns lived a whopping 7-10 years longer than the least happy.

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 like social relationships and exercise fit in. But in the meantime, it seems safe to imagine that a happier you will be healthier, too.


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