Why we all need a good dose of happiness to boost our health
Miriam Akhtar MAPP is one of the UK’s leading experts in positive psychology. She has been working with traditional herbal medicine brand A.Vogel sharing how to improve happiness in our lives and why happiness is so vital to good health.
What is happiness?
This is a question which has been contemplated throughout history. We all want to be happy but what does that actually mean? For the past two decades there has been a science of happiness, which demonstrates what does and doesn’t make a difference to our wellbeing. This year, positive psychology, officially comes of age reaching its 21st.
Miriam Akhtar says, “There is a scientific formula for happiness developed by Prof Martin Seligman, the academic who co-founded positive psychology. He originally identified three main pathways to authentic happiness; pleasure, engagement and meaning".
The pleasant life is about the feel-good factor - the experience of pleasure, enjoyment and positive emotions such as bliss, ecstasy and comfort.
The engaged life is about flow – the satisfaction you gain from being fully absorbed and at one with whatever you’re doing. Engagement comes through using your strengths and abilities in the world.
The meaningful life comes from belonging to and serving something that you believe in and that is bigger than the self. Meaning is about the things that are important to you in life and what gives your life purpose.
The benefits of happiness: A happy mind is a happy body. Happiness leads to healthier lifestyles. Happy people engage in more health-promoting behaviours, around diet and exercise and have better heart health. Research has shown that happy people have stronger immune functioning and are therefore less vulnerable to illness. They also suffer less chronic pain in conditions such as arthritis.
Health behaviours: The higher your wellbeing, the more likely you are to engage in healthy behaviours e.g. around diet, exercise and sleep. People high in subjective wellbeing often perform healthier behaviours, and this mediational pathway may be a major cause of their greater health and longevity.
Stress: Positive emotions are associated with lower cortisol levels. They undo the effects of stress on the body. In terms of undoing the sequelae of negative emotions, research shows that positive emotions make people more resilient to stress, with the ability to bounce back in mood and physiology more quickly after a stressor affects their cardiovascular system.
Strengthens the immune system: A study by Pressman and Cohen (2005) outlined how positive emotions specifically alter immune activity via endocrine, behavioural, and other activities.
Heart function: Consistent associations are found between subjective wellbeing and cardiovascular functioning, which in turn is related to health.
Endocrine system: Positive affect was inversely related to levels of norepinephrine and cortisol after awakening. Insulin levels may also be affected by moods eg Skaff et al. (2009) showed that negative affect predicted rising blood glucose levels the next day, while glucose one day did not predict moods the next day. The endocrine changes are relevant to the cardiovascular and immune changes.
DNA and anti-ageing: Jacobs et al. (2011) found that meditation was associated with greater telomerase (protective endcaps on DNA) in immune cells, and this was mediated by the effects of the practice on increasing feelings of control and decreasing neuroticism. The authors suggested that activities that raise people’s sense of well-being can have substantial effects on fundamental physiological processes. Although it is early in the history of research in this area and there are few studies, the findings are promising in offering a direct tie from psychological well-being to ageing and health at the cellular level.
Genetic studies that utilise the identical chromosomal make-up of twins can help rule out genes as the sole cause of the health and subjective wellbeing relationship. Sadler, Miller, Christensen, and McGue (2011), for example, found that subjective wellbeing was related to increased longevity in identical twins. Because subjective wellbeing predicted longevity even between identical twins, the results indicated that the relation between subjective wellbeing and longevity cannot be entirely due to either genes or shared family environment.
Wound Healing: One study found that the process of skin-barrier recovery was faster for individuals who had greater positive affect and it has also been found that surgical patients heal more quickly if they are high in life satisfaction (Kopp et al., 2003).
Happiness doesn’t only affect quality of life, it also impacts on quantity
The biggest benefit of all is that happy people live longer. Longitudinal studies have consistently showed that happy people have greater longevity.
Stress less and create euphoria
While happiness is more than simply an absence of stress, it can be a barrier to achieving it. While a bit of stress can be mildly stimulating and spur you on to achieve more (and this sense of accomplishment can make you happy), the fact 12.5 million working days in the UK are lost due to work-related stress. The World Health Organisation has described it as ‘the health epidemic of the 21st century’ this suggests it is a problem.
Being hooked up to technology 24/7 doesn’t help, not least because most of us are almost permanently ‘on call’. Psychologist Dr Megan Arroll author of The Shrinkology Solution* suggests a ‘digital detox’ one day a week but simply taking a daily short phone-free walk can help reduce stress levels.'
Another potent de-stressor is exercise – sustained activity encourages your body to produce endorphins, feel good chemicals that can lead to a sense of euphoria and help to push and motivate you to achieve more (and feel good because of it).
Nature can also heal and boost happiness plus it can improve our health, our relationships, reduce stress, and has definitely been found to make us happier and more creative. A.Vogel’s founder, Alfred Vogel said; ‘To find the true quality of life, live in harmony with nature and be aware of nature’s powers.’
The 5-a-day of fruit and veg for physical health is a well-known piece of advice, but did you know that there’s an equivalent for mental health? The 5 Ways to Wellbeing condenses the science of wellbeing into five easy actions to build your happiness.
- Connect – the biggest source of happiness is other people
- Learn – keep your brain active by learning something new – a skill or hobby
- Active – be physically active, one of the best way to benefit mental health
- Notice – what positives are there to notice? The beauty of nature? A kind gesture?
- Give – being altruistic opens up the meaningful happiness of eudaimonic wellbeing
* Affiliate Link - see About for more information