Happiness – It’s good for your wellbeing you know!
The past two years have made many of us evaluate our lives and think about what really makes us happy. The concept of happiness is, of course, very different for everyone, but research shows that as well as making us feel better, ‘happiness’ also provides a range of possible health benefits.
Happiness is a positive emotion that brings a sense of wellbeing, joy and contentment. On a scientific level, when we are happy, ‘messenger cells’ transmit signals between neurons (nerves) and other cells in our bodies. These neurotransmitters play a part in many bodily processes, including mood regulation.
Certain hormones help to promote positive feelings of pleasure and happiness:
- Dopamine is a hormone and neurotransmitter. It plays a role in how we feel pleasure, as part of our brain’s reward system.
- Serotonin is also a hormone and neurotransmitter, which is responsible for helping to regulate mood, digestion, sleep and more.
- Endorphins are produced by the body to relieve stress and pain.
- Oxytocin is known as the ‘love’ or ‘cuddle’ hormone that promotes bonding and trust. It also functions as a neurotransmitter to help regulate stress responses and calms the nervous system.
How does being happy help your physical and mental wellbeing?
When we think about what we want for ourselves and our loved ones, most of us would say health and happiness. Most people strive to be happy, but why is this so important for our mental and physical wellbeing?
Promotes a healthier lifestyle
A study of more than 7,000 adults showed that individuals who were ‘happy’ were more likely to be leading a healthy lifestyle. It showed that those with positive wellbeing were 47% more likely to consume fresh fruit and vegetables, and 33% more likely to be physically active (with 10 or more hours of physical activity per week) than those with less positive wellbeing.
Another study of over 700 adults showed that individuals who reported low levels of positive wellbeing were 47% more likely to experience sleep problems, such as struggling to fall asleep and having difficulty staying asleep.
Supports your immune system
Being happy may help to maintain a good immune response. In one research study, 81 university students were given a vaccine against Hepatitis B. Results showed that happier students were almost twice as likely to create a high level of antibodies in response, which is a sign of a strong immune system.
Another study of over 300 healthy people, investigated the risk of developing a cold after being given nasal drops with a common cold virus. Results showed that the least happy people were nearly three times more likely to develop the common cold that those who reported being happy.
It is not known exactly why being happy helps your immune system, but it could be that happiness impacts the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, which regulates your immune system, hormones, digestion, and stress levels. Also, the fact that happy people are more likely to lead a healthier lifestyle helps with all-round health.
Being happy may help to reduce stress levels. A study of over 200 adults required them to complete a series of stressful, lab-based tasks. Results showed that the cortisol levels (a hormone that is increased by excess stress) of those that were happiest were 32% lower than for those who reported being unhappy.
Protects your heart
Studies has shown that being happy has been linked with a reduction in blood pressure, which is a major risk factor for heart disease.
A long-term study of 1,500 adults over 10 years, found that even after risk factors such as age, cholesterol, and blood pressure was taken into account, happiness was associated with a 22% lower risk of developing heart disease.
Further research is needed, however it is worth noting that the positive effects of happiness could be linked back to the fact that happy people are more likely to lead a healthy lifestyle, including heart-healthy activities such as eating healthily, exercising regularly, and not smoking.
May help to reduce pain
There have been a number of studies about how happiness affects levels of pain and physical functioning associated with arthritis. In a study of over 1000 people who had painful arthritis of the knee, those who were happier walked 8.5% more steps per day. Studies have also shown that higher levels of positive wellbeing were linked with reduced levels of pain and stiffness.
Happiness appears to reduce pain in other conditions too. A study in nearly 1000 people recovering from a stroke, found that their pain levels three months after leaving hospital were 13% lower in the happiest individuals.
It is suggested that positive emotions help to broaden perspective, encouraging new thoughts and ideas, and this may help people to build effective coping mechanisms which can reduce the individual’s perception of pain.
How can we increase our happiness?
▪ Become more active: Aerobic activity (‘cardiovascular’ exercise that causes your breathing and heart rate to increase) is thought to be the best type of exercise to increase your happiness. Exercise can help ease anxiety and depression by releasing feel good endorphins and other natural brain chemicals (such as dopamine and serotonin) that enhance feelings of happiness and wellbeing.
▪ Eat a healthy diet: Studies show that eating more fruit and vegetables will increase your happiness levels, as well as improving your health in the long-term. Certain foods can also have an impact on hormone levels, such as spicy foods, which may trigger endorphin release or foods high in tryptophan (such as chicken, turkey, eggs, cheese, fish), which have been linked to increased serotonin levels.
▪ Get a good night’s sleep: When we don’t sleep well, this negatively impacts our happiness levels, so ensuring good ‘sleep hygiene’ and a routine will help.
▪ Practice gratitude: Thinking about the many things we have to be grateful for, is a good way of increasing happiness. Take time each day to write down what you are grateful for, as this helps you focus on the positives in your life. Also, throughout the day, make a conscious effort to look out for things that you are grateful for.
▪ Get outside: We have recently written about how spending time outside in nature improves mental wellbeing. Try to make sure you get outside every day, whether that be for a walk in the park, doing some gardening, or even just a trip to the post box.
▪ Meditation and mindfulness: Meditation and mindfulness can reduce stress, improve sleep and, of course, increase happiness. This doesn’t have to be complicated, it could just mean sitting with your own thoughts for five minutes, or practicing some breathing techniques.
▪ Smile: Even if you have to ‘put on’ a smile, smiling can trick your brain into lowering your heart rate, reducing stress, and elevating your mood.
▪ Perform an act of kindness: As well as being kind to ourselves, being kind to others will have the effect of increasing your happiness levels.
▪ Let yourself feel unhappy moments: While we would love our lives to be nothing but happiness, we have to acknowledge the more difficult times. When you feel unhappy, let yourself experience that feeling, then think about what made you feel this way, and what you can do to help yourself feel better. Self-care is very important when you feel unhappy. Be sure to take some time for yourself when needed.
▪ Try not to put off stressful situations: It is not possible to avoid all stressful situations. Rather than feeling overwhelmed by stress, try to tackle the stressful situation head on. You will likely feel a lot better after you have dealt with it.
▪ Connect with friends: Spending time with close friends and family can increase levels of happiness. This doesn’t have to be limited to humans either; studies show that spending time with a pet can offer similar benefits.
▪ Plan technology-free time: Most of us spend so much time on our phones and electronic devices, it can feel scary to think about putting them away in a drawer and spending time away from these devices. However, you may find that you are surprised by the effects of having device-free time. Being away from the pull of a device, will allow your mind to wander and enable you to be more mindful of your surroundings. You can spend this technology-free time with others or on your own. Start with small periods of time, and then as you feel more comfortable, increase the amount of time that you spend technology-free.
▪ Listen to music: Listening to music you enjoy can help to improve your mood and this positive change in mood can increase serotonin production.