The Science of Health and Happiness

The idea: negative emotions can lead to illness, whereas positive emotions can promote good physical well-being.

The research: still growing, still no clear scientific consensus.

Despite ongoing research and growing evidence towards the fact that happiness leads to an overall physical wellness, research on the matter has a long way to go. “Firstly, ‘happiness’ is only one of many positive psychological states that may be causing the correlating trends. Others include: sense of satisfaction, sense of purpose, emotional well-being, and optimism. ‘A well controlled research study in a large population showed that people who are more optimistic or have greater sense of purpose were 20% less likely to develop major illnesses like diabetes, or coronary heart disease.’ Secondly, skeptics in the science world tend to hone in on valid questions like, ‘is the person who is happier really less likely to get a heart attack? Does a good job, marriage, family, etc. protect against diabetes?’ Lastly, some may believe that happier people just tend to lead lives with healthier habits; eating well, exercising, no smoking and controlled drinking, etc.”

Laura Kubzansky and K. “Vish” Viswanath, co-directors of the Lee Kum Sheung Center for Health and Happiness at Harvard, study just this. They believe that happiness should be a topic studied by scientists, instead of looked at as a “cute catchphrase”, and while the greater public may be interested in the topic, funding is lacking yet seriously needed to study the links between psychological and physical functioning. Here is what their studies have found thus far:

What determines happiness:

50% – Genetics: twin studies have shown that half of our propensity for happiness is inherited.

40% – Behavior: much of our ability to experience happiness is governed by our choices, such as our health habits, socializing, and overall motivation to lead a positive life.

10% – Circumstances: differences in external factors, such as physical appearance and income, have the smallest influence.

Links Between

Heart Health: In 2005, heart studies showed that people who experienced more overall feelings of happiness had average heart rates at 6 fewer beats per minute. In 2010, happiness and heart health was measured on a 10-year timeline; for every one-point increase in positive emotion on a five-point scale, a person’s risk of developing coronary heart disease dropped 22%.

Immunity: Volunteers for this study were assessed on their tendencies towards positive and negative emotions, then exposed to rhinovirus (causes the common cold). Research concluded that people who were happier and more optimistic were less likely to develop a cold.

Chronic Pain: If women suffering from osteoarthritis and fibromyalgia had all around more positive emotions, they felt pain to a lesser degree in following weeks. If women suffering from these illnesses had negative emotions, the pain was felt worse.

Obesity: a 2010 study linking obesity with lower emotional well-being showed that obese people were more likely to experience stress, worry, depression, and anger.

Longevity: studies suggest that happiness is not the cause of longevity; however, happier seniors who were studied against their peers (who were unhappy) were twice as likely to live in a five-year time span.

Although scientific analysis is ongoing to determine the links between physical and psychological health (i.e. your direct psychological effects on developing (or not developing) acute and chronic systemic disease), happiness is a state of being we all know to exist and that we can improve on every day.

Links Between-2

Sleep more: adults who get the recommended 7 hours of sleep have a better shot at achieving emotional well-being.

Exercise: physical activity boosts the actions of endorphins, which are natural mood enhancers. Exercise is increasingly becoming a standard part of treatment for those suffering from depression and preventing relapses.

Get outside: Sunlight (enough exposure, not too much) can boost the synthesis of serotonin, which is a neurotransmitter (chemical) in your brain that helps regulate mood.

Eat more fish: Omega-3 fatty acids have been linked to a decreased risk of mental disorders.

Stand up straight: a 2014 study showed that those who had a habit of maintaining an upright posture reported feeling more enthusiastic, excited, and strong.

Smile: studies showed that “smilers” had a lower drop in positive emotions during stress, and had lower heart rates when recovering from stress. Studies even showed that artificially inhibiting the ability to frown (i.e. botox) may even help relieve depression.


Sources/Citations: TIME “The Science of Happiness” 2016-2017 special edition; Time Inc. Books, New York, NY.




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