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Being Happy Can Improve Your Health

And vice versa.

05/12/2016 9:45 AM AEDT | Updated 05/12/2016 9:46 AM AEDT
Tom Merton
"Whatever your pathway to happiness, make sure to take time to cultivate it."

Health is everywhere. It's on social media, it's on our televisions, there are entire cookbooks dedicated to being gluten free or raw or paleo or whatever method you choose to be healthy. Of course, with our improved diet and the latest fitness program, we expect that we will become the best version of ourselves all of a sudden.

Good health is absolutely correlated with happiness. In studies of obesity and happiness in developed countries, the healthier someone's weight, the happier they are. Interestingly, in less affluent societies, bigger bodies can be happier, probably as a reflection of easier access to food and leisure activities that increase weight. This makes a lot of sense. Ill-health is a stressor in our lives and a real burden. So if being unhealthy can ruin your mood, can being happier make you healthier?

Does happiness make you healthy?

One thing we can say with certainty is that unhappiness brings physical health issues. On the slightly more extreme end of the spectrum, people who have depression or anxiety are known to have more physical ill health than those without it. People with depression experience fluctuations in their weight, have a poorer diet and have a higher risk of heart disease.

People who don't have full-blown depression are still at risk. According to major health studies such as the UK Million Women Study, unhappiness is associated with engaging in behaviours that are bad for one's health, such as smoking, eating too much and not exercising. So with unhappiness convincingly leading to ill health, is the converse true?

When it comes to heart attacks, anger or unhappiness has been made to be the bad guy. There is some evidence to say that when we don't feel so chipper, the risk of heart attack goes up. Being happy appears to protect your heart.

While not strictly happiness, volunteering to help others also seems to increase both health and happiness. The 'power of positive thinking' is something that is thrown about frequently, with claims that being happy helps you live longer, fight cancer and ward off serious disease. Being happy may also help you live longer, but this finding is sometimes conflicted depending on the study of happiness being looked at.

The difficulty in proving any of this is that we can't necessarily say for sure that it's happiness that creates all of these positive benefits when there are a lot of other things going on that may impact health. However, people who are happy are likely to make better decisions and participate in behaviours that are much more conducive to health because they have a degree of self-belief and openness. They also don't have a chronic activation of their 'fight or flight' mechanism, designed to gear the body towards a major stressor. Over the long term, the hormones and brain patterns in the 'fight or flight' response directly cause your body systems to gear towards a slightly ill-health-prone state.

None of this is to say that if you are unhappy, momentarily or longer, that it is necessarily causing ill health. Likewise, if someone struggles with a serious disease such as cancer, placing much importance on the benefits of positive thinking may actually make them feel guilty or like failures if they don't recover.

So while we cannot absolutely say that health is created by happiness, we can say that being unhappy is likely to make you unhealthy. Therefore, cultivating happiness is one thing in your armoury that can be used to optimise you health.

How do we achieve happiness (and then healthiness)?

First of all, turning into a Stepford wife is not the solution. We are talking about a way to feel genuinely good about yourself, cultivate stress management and social supports. Faking it until you make it has a place sometimes, but over the long term, your brain needs to feel good about things.

To cultivate happiness, it's important to be sociable, develop friendships, exercise and meditate. Making time for leisure activities or practicing a religion can bring a deep sense of satisfaction. The power of developing emotional intelligence or practicing gratitude tends to improve your mood and your outlook on life. Finally, developing a sense of enjoyment from all of life's experiences, big and small, is associated with happiness, especially as we get older and the extraordinary events of our youth aren't as available as they once were.

Whatever your pathway to happiness, make sure to take time to cultivate it. The modern world is especially hard on our minds with constant exposure to experiences that induce depression, hopelessness, fear or anxiety. While it might be easy to sell the benefits of working hard for a beautiful body, working towards a beautiful mind will probably help you be both healthy and happy.

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