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How happiness affects health

Happy people tend to be healthier people. Learn how happiness affects health and nine ways to improve both.

According to the research — and yes, there is ample research on how happiness affects health — 50% of your general happiness level is dictated by genetics and 10% current circumstances. The other 40% is under your control. Keep reading to learn nine science-backed ways to be happier for better health.

Happy people are healthier, less stressed people

Numerous studies on how happiness affects health happiness deal with better heart health, including lower heart rate and blood pressure and greater heart rate variability. Happy people are less likely to develop coronary heart disease. Happiness is also associated with a stronger immune system, including more robust antibody response to vaccines and lower likelihood to develop colds. Happy people experience less pain. They also have fewer long-term health conditions and are less likely to be frail or have a stroke. Happy women are less likely to develop breast cancer.

Overall, happy people live longer.

In one fascinating study, nuns who wrote happy essays when they entered the convent as young women lived 7–10 years longer. Why is this? It could be, at least in part due to happy people being better able to manage stress. Happy people tend to have lower cortisol levels, indicating a better ability to recover from stress.

Chronic stress causes development of negative emotional responses, which can lower happiness and decrease health. Indeed, 60–80% of primary care visits are related to stress. Each of the following healthy habits also helps stress reduction.

1. Be optimistic

People with a greater internal locus of control, meaning they feel they control their own destiny as opposed to external forces determining their fate, tend to be happier and have less stress. Optimists who credit themselves for the good things in their lives and see their destiny as under their control live longer. They are more empowered. Multiple studies confirm that optimism is associated with lower risk of cardiovascular events while pessimism is associated with a higher risk. Experts recommend reframing situations in your mind with positive self talk and other methods to understand that, while sometimes your choices might not be optimal, you always have a choice.

2. Do things you enjoy

While certain factions of the wellness/fitness industry like to claim that pain leads to gains, that’s probably not the case. Depriving yourself of what you enjoy in order to attain some sort of fantastical wellness is self-sabotage. Immersing yourself in activities you enjoy can create a “flow state” in which time flies, which researchers in the positive psychology field say is an effective strategy to manage stress, thereby increasing happiness. Some research has found that people engaging in leisure activities had more positive mood, less stress, more interest, and lower heart rate.

3. Spend money on experiences, not things

While vacation is a known happiness booster (both the trip itself and the anticipation of it), spending money on visits to art galleries or concerts may make you happier than that new iPhone. Don’t have time to read or take that daily walk? According to research, spending money on outsourcing tasks to buy yourself time for leisure is linked to increased happiness.

4. Try new activities and learn new skills

Not only does outsourcing cooking buy happiness, the act of trying that new restaurant you’ve been eying may be good for your health. New experiences and adding variety to your daily routine make you feel happier. The desire to challenge your mind and learn keeps you happier and less prone to experiencing deleterious effects of stress. Learning a new skill causes short-term stress, but improves your emotional state in the long term, helping you feel more happiness on a daily basis. Don’t talk about things you want to do, just start doing them. And understand that it will be hard. Learning new skills is hard. You may never master it, but you will experience huge emotional benefits from the journey.

5. Spend time outside

Studies have correlated subjects' happiness with the amount of green space in their urban area. Other research has shown home outdoor activities like gardening to improve emotional well-being.

6. Be active

Among all stages of life, people with high or moderate physical activity levels are happier and more satisfied with life than those who have low physical activity.

7. Cultivate meaningful relationships

Close relationships can make you happier. Spend time with the people you care about. And hopefully these are happy people because happiness is contagious. Healthy relationships are linked to better overall health. Bad relationships are linked to stress, which diminishes the immune response. Being part of a community. Spending time with friends and family, even the ones that are far away as technology can make it feel like you’re in the same room. These relationships are conducive to the deep conversation that research says is better for boosting happiness than small talk. Researchers have also found social isolation to be detrimental to overall health.

8. Be mindful

This could mean meditation, but it could also just mean being present in the moment. Living in the now. When you go to a concert, watch it, experience it. Don’t record it on your phone to show everyone on Instagram you were there. Not only does that annoy real fans and the bands, it also takes you out of the present, distracting you from truly experiencing the moment. It’s not just Gen X; science says stop doing that.

9. Turn off the news

While moderate news consumption can help you feel more connected, chronic news watching is associated with higher stress and lower mood. One study on news consumption following the Boston Marathon bombing found that six or move hours of media exposure related to the bombing were associated with higher acute stress than being directly exposed to the bombings themselves. See numbers 2–7 for less stressful, more happiness-conducive ways to spend time.

Be happy to be healthy, be healthy for better happiness

It's not just how happiness affects health, but how health affects happiness. Happiness leads to healthy behaviors. Happy people don’t drink to excess. They like themselves, so they treat their bodies well. They don’t binge eat. They practice better stress relief than lighting up a cigarette. They like their lives, so they make the little decisions every day to live them as long as possible. They do the things that make them happy. Happy people are a delight to be around, so people flock to them, their happiness contagious. They are part of a community. They are not self destructive. Happiness leads to healthy behaviors, so happy people are less likely to develop chronic, lifestyle-related diseases.