There are very few people who would say they wouldn’t like to be happier, and it’s easy to see why. The feeling of happiness is a wonderful experience, emotionally and mentally, and it makes sense that we’d want to create more of that in our lives.
An entire industry has sprung up around the concept of happiness, and how to cultivate more of it. From bestselling books such as The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin to online courses like The Science of Happiness from The Greater Good Center – there’s every resource available to help you explore your happy self.
But what about the why of doing so beyond a nice feeling?
Research is showing that bringing more happiness into your life has far more benefits than merely feeling good. Read on to find out more about what they are.
What are the Benefits of Happiness?
It was Aristotle who once said “Happiness is the meaning and purpose of life, the whole aim and the end of human existence” – a sentiment that is still true today. While Aristotle had a philosophical notion of the importance of happiness for human well-being, today we have a range of science and research to back it up.
Scientific studies have begun to reveal a host of physical health benefits surrounding happiness including a stronger immune system, stronger resilience in the face of stress, a stronger heart and less risk of cardiovascular disease, alongside quicker recovery times when overcoming illness or surgery. There is even a body of research that indicates being happy may help us to live longer lives.
Across all of the research, there is a conflict between whether feeling happier directly leads to better health outcomes, or whether it is merely a correlation (Newman, 2015).
Some researchers have hypothesized that feeling happier and more positive leads to greater participation in activities that are healthier including exercise, eating healthy, socializing and good sleeping habits (Sin, Moskowitz, & Whooley, 2015). Either way, the two are connected, and researchers are continually seeking to explore the link further.
A Look at the Research
Below is an overview of some of the research exploring the physical health benefits of happiness:
Steptoe & Wardle (2005) asked participants to rate their happiness at 30 different points in one day. Participants were asked to repeat the exercise three years later. Their findings showed that individuals who rated themselves as the happiest at both the first and later exercise were also those with a lower heart rate and blood pressure. People with lower heart rates and blood pressure are less likely to suffer from cardiovascular disease. This suggests that feelings of happiness contribute positively to these physical measurements.
Bhattacharyya, Whitehead, Rakhit & Steptoe (2008) also found a link between happiness and heart health. The researchers studied individuals who already had, or were suspected of having coronary heart disease. They asked participants to rate their happiness, and their hearts were then tested for symptoms. Those who rated the highest for happiness on the day also had the healthiest heart patterns. This suggests that happiness can still have health benefits, even when illness or disease is already present.
As well as heart disease, happiness has also been linked to reducing the risk of a stroke. Strokes occur when the blood flow to the brain is disrupted, resulting in a loss of physical control and responsiveness. Depending on the severity and longevity of the disruption, a stroke can have dire consequences for the individual. Ostir, Markides, Peek & Goodwin (2001) found older adults with a higher reporting of positive well-being, had a reduced likelihood of experiencing a stroke by 26%.
Some of the earliest studies in this area have focused on the immune system. Stone et al (1987) explored the persistence of the human immune system when participants reported positive moods by having them ingest a pill that caused an immune response. Participants were asked to rate their mood across different days and then their saliva was tested for antibodies in response to the pill. Those who rated themselves the happiest had a higher level of antibodies. The results suggest that feeling more positive can help support the immune system to defend against foreign bodies.
Two studies further explored the impact of positive emotions on the immune system. Cohen et al (2003) asked participants to rate their experience of positive emotions over a two-week period. They then exposed them to the common cold virus and checked in five days later to see who had developed a cold. Those who rated themselves as experiencing the most positive emotions in the preceding two weeks were less likely to have fallen sick. A similar study exposed participants to the hepatitis B vaccine and asked them to rate their positive emotions. Those who rated highest for positive emotions were twice as likely to have a high antibody response (Marsland et al, 2006).
Zautra, Johnson & Davis (2005) found that happier people are better able to mitigate pain when experiencing chronic illness. Participants with chronic pain, such as arthritis, were asked to rate their positive emotions across a three-month period. Their personal experiences of pain relating to their illness were also measured. Those who reported higher ratings of positive feelings also reported fewer increases in pain. Similar studies also found these results to be consistent with participants with chronic pain (Zautra, Smith, Affleck & Tennen, 2001, and Strand et al, 2006).
Most Interesting Scientific Findings
Perhaps some of the most interesting scientific findings looking at the impact of happiness is around the connection to life longevity.
A number of studies have looked at the connection between positive emotions – including happiness – and life expectancy. A longitudinal study spanning 13 years conducted by Carstensen et al (2011) found that emotional experience (positive or negative) predicted mortality.
Participants in the study who reported more positive over negative emotions in everyday life were more likely to have survived the length of the study.
Further research seeking to explore the connection found similar results:
Lawrence, Rogers & Wadsworth (2015) explored the impact of happiness on 32,000 participants and their survival rate over a 30-year period. Participants who were rated the least happy had a 14% higher chance of death than their happiest counterparts.
A quantitative review of 70 observational studies explored the link between positive affect (well-being) and life expectancy, in both healthy participants and participants who had already been diagnosed with a health condition. Healthy participants who were rated as having a higher positive affect reduced their risk of death by 18%, and by 2% for those with a pre-existing condition (Chida & Steptoe, 2008).
A further study exploring this connection also indicates that it is the consistency of life satisfaction (or happiness) that has an impact on life longevity. Boehm et al (2015) found that participants who reported a low sense of life satisfaction with a high level of variability (meaning they went through high and low phases) were more likely to die early than participants who reported a consistently low sense of satisfaction.
Researchers have speculated over why this link seems to exist, and why it is so prominent for participants who rate the highest for happiness and positive emotions. Many believe it is because individuals who are happiest, are also more inclined to engage in activities and behaviors that are positive for their overall health, including physical exercise, eating healthy, not smoking, sleeping well, and even meditation (Strine et al, 2008)
6 Proven Health Benefits of Happiness
With so much research showing the multiple positive benefits for our health when we’re happy, here are the top six proven health benefits:
1. Improved Heart Health
Several studies have linked happiness with improved heart health and lower risk of heart disease by 13-26% (Kim, Smith & Kubzansky, 2014, Boehm et al, 2011, Kubzansky & Thurston, 2007, Davidson, Mostofsky & Whang, 2010).
2. Ability to Combat Stress More Effectively
Excess stress causes higher levels of cortisol – the stress hormone – which can lead to a number of health conditions. Multiple studies have found that individuals who are happier have consistently lower cortisol levels in their blood (Smyth et al, 1998, Davydov et al, 2005, Steptoe et al 2008).
3. A Stronger Immune System
Some research has indicated that being happier can support a strong immune system, leading to greater health all round, and the ability to fight infections or disease more effectively (Stone et al, 1987, Cohen et al, 2003, Marsland et al, 2006).
4. Overall Healthier Lifestyle
Happiness has also been linked to several positive and highly beneficial health habits, that promote a greater sense of wellbeing. This includes eating a healthier diet (Dubois et al, 2012), engaging in more physical activity (Sapranaviciute-Zabazlajeva et al, 2017), and overcome poor sleeping habits (Steptoe et al, 2008).
5. Can Help Reduce Pain
Researchers believe that individuals who are happier, have a better perspective and are able to accept new thoughts easily, which can lead to a lower experience of pain especially connected to chronic conditions such as arthritis (Fredrickson, 2004, Berges, Seale & Ostir, 2014).
6. Increased Life Longevity
One of the most interesting finds from the research for health benefits of happiness is its connection with life longevity. Researchers believe that because of the impact happiness has on all of the above health benefits, it can ultimately help you live a longer life (Carstensen et al, 2011, Lawrence, Rogers & Wadsworth, 2015, Chida & Steptoe, 2008).
The research examining the connection between happiness and positive health benefits is still relatively new, and more research is continuing to emerge. That being said, it certainly seems from the current data that working on being happier will have plenty of health benefits.
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