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Happiness is good for your health

It’s official – happiness is good for your health

There’s nothing particularly new about finding a connection between health and happiness. But when the Dalai Lama famously said that the very purpose of life is to be happy, he was quick to add that the more we care for the happiness of others, the greater our own sense of wellbeing.

What’s interesting about this statement is that while many people acknowledge that good health can lead to happiness, they don’t always think about it the other way around. And yet, in practical terms, there is a great deal of scientific evidence to suggest that happiness can, in itself, have a positive impact on our health.

It’s no coincidence that the study of happiness has been investigated more and more in recent years, to the point where it is now considered an actual science. And the more we delve into the details, the more insights we discover on how best to live our lives.

Did you know?

At Bupa Global, the connection between health and happiness is very close to our heart. In fact, our purpose is to help people live longer, healthier and happier lives.

Woman stretching at the top of a mountain during sunset

Science and happiness

Scientists estimate that our genes account for 50% of our happiness, while life circumstances (such as wealth, career and possessions) account for just 10%, with the rest being shaped by our behaviour. The good news is that genes do not determine our behaviour. Instead, according to the science of ‘Positive Psychology’, there are plenty of traits that can be modified by making the right environmental and behavioural choices.

Evidence from a significant Harvard study has shown that having positive emotions can actually help us to live longer and reduce the risk of health problems. Or on the flipside, chronic anger, worry and hostility can raise our blood pressure, stiffen our blood vessels and increase the risk of heart disease. So, it seems that keeping our emotions in check is good for our health.

Perhaps the most surprising finding from the study was that many of the things we associate with happiness are largely insignificant. Factors like being young and physically attractive have little or no bearing on us being happy and neither does having children, money or material possessions.

Perhaps the most surprising finding from the study was that many of the things we associate with happiness are largely insignificant. Factors like being young and physically attractive have little or no bearing on us being happy and neither does having children, money or material possessions.

The quickest route to happiness

It is, of course, all very well accepting that happiness makes us healthier. But the million-dollar question is how do we get there? According to research from the Harvard study, the answer to the age-old question of what makes us happy, is to focus on three evidence-based pathways.

So, there you have it. Happiness isn’t just good for your peace of mind, it’s officially good for your health. And most important of all, there’s plenty you can do to make a positive difference. In the words of the Dalai Lama, “Happiness is not something ready-made. It comes from your own actions.” To find out more about the link between health and happiness take a look at this TED video on what makes a good life – a lesson from the longest study on happiness.

Pathways to happiness

1. What we think

A large part of happiness comes down to perception and expectation. So, in order to reach our goals, we should seek out pleasurable emotions and sensations at every opportunity – both at home and at work.

The cliché “business before pleasure” is a prime example of thinking about things the wrong way. In reality, doing something that makes us feel good promotes energy and calmness, which are both effective tools to combat stress and make us more productive.

Being optimistic can also pay dividends as it helps us to maintain our sense of personal control over things. Significantly, one study found that, on average, optimists have a 19% longer lifespan.

2. What we love

In order to be truly happy, we need to embrace the things we love. This means pursuing activities that fully engage our attention – rather than constantly fighting our instincts.

The satisfaction we gain from being totally immersed in what we are doing is known as being in a "flow." Typically, this is when we are working effortlessly without any awareness of time, when we’re not thinking about ourselves and when we’re not interrupted by extraneous thoughts.

3. What we do

Life is full of choices and if we are to improve our chances of happiness, we need to choose wisely. Sometimes, this is about helping others, being true to ourselves and finding our purpose in life. But smaller details can be important too – such as finding time for people and eating the right food.

A 2017 study from Deakin University (AU) found that an anti-inflammatory Mediterranean-style diet (high in vegetables, fish, olive oil and nuts) reduced symptoms of depression in 32% of people. Foods like tuna, salmon, nuts, seeds, bananas, green tea, dark chocolate, spinach, blueberries and blackberries are also known to boost serotonin and other happiness hormones. Thanks to an exciting new field of study called psychobiotics, we are likely to learn more on the “gut-brain-happiness” axis in the near future.

Finally, it’s worth pointing out that good relationships are fundamental to our happiness. According to the Harvard study we mentioned earlier, people who are more socially connected to family, friends and community are physically healthier and live longer than people who are less well connected. Good relationships are also known to sharpen our memories, while loneliness and isolation can lead to a decline in our health during midlife. It can also result in earlier brain malfunctions and a shorter life expectancy.

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Sources

Positive Psychology: Harnessing the power of happiness, mindfulness, and inner strength. Harvard Medical School. Special health report. 2016. Harvard Health Publishing. by Harvard Health (Publications Author, Editor), Ronald D. Siegel (Editor), Steven M. Allison (Editor) (https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/positive-psychology-harnessing-the-power-of-happiness-mindfulness-and-inner-strength), last accessed in August 2019

Psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky, The How of Happiness (http://thehowofhappiness.com/), last accessed in August 2019

Holden, R. Be happy: release the power of happiness in you. Hay House Publications, 2009

Peterson, C. A primer in positive psychology. Oxford University Press, Inc., (2006)

Seligman, M. E. P. Authentic happiness: Using the new positive psychology to realize your potential for lasting fulfillment. Free Press, (2002)

A randomised controlled trial of dietary improvement for adults with major depression (the ‘SMILES’ trial). Felice N. JackaEmail author, Adrienne O’Neil, Rachelle Opie, Catherine Itsiopoulos, Sue Cotton, Mohammedreza Mohebbi, David Castle, Sarah Dash, Cathrine Mihalopoulos, Mary Lou Chatterton, Laima Brazionis, Olivia M. Dean, Allison M. Hodge and Michael Berk. BMC Medicine201715:23. (https://doi.org/10.1186/s12916-017-0791-y), last accessed in August 2019

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