August Focus: Why Happiness is Healthy

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The feeling of happiness – whether you equate it with optimism, joy, well-being, personal achievement or all of the above – goes hand-in-hand with healthier habits. People who are in good spirits tend to eat better, exercise more frequently and get better sleep than those who are not. This could be, in part, because leading a healthy lifestyle helps you achieve your goals, leading to happiness.It could also be that such habits lead to better health, which in turn lends itself to a better mood and happiness. Beyond these rather common-sense associations, however, is intriguing research that suggests there’s something more about happiness that makes you healthy.Emotions are known to be contagious among people in direct contact (this is true for friends, acquaintances, and even strangers), and new research suggests they may also be contagious via social media. After analyzing over one billion status updates from Facebook users, the researchers from the University of California in San Diego found that each happy post encouraged an additional 1.75 happy updates among their Facebook friends. The researchers suggested social networks may be an important tool to improve mental, and thereby physical, health: 

“Our study suggests that people are not just choosing other people like themselves to associate with but actually causing their friends’ emotional expressions to change… We have enough power in this data set to show that emotional expressions spread online and also that positive expressions spread more than negative.

…If an emotional change in one person spreads and causes a change in many, then we may be dramatically underestimating the effectiveness of efforts to improve mental and physical health. We should be doing everything we can to measure the effects of social networks and to learn how to magnify them so that we can create an epidemic of well-being.”

 

CNN highlighted some of the most interesting research on what makes people happy:

  • Emotional well-being rises with income (but only up to $75,000, after which no additional rises are seen)
  • Research suggests experiences make us happier than possessions; the “newness” of possessions wears off, as does the joy they bring you, but experiences improve your sense of vitality and “being alive” both during the experience and when you reflect back on it
  • Older adults tend to have a greater sense of happiness than younger adults, perhaps because they regulate emotions better, are exposed to less stress, and have less negative emotions (and perhaps a diminished negative response).

A big factor in being happy? Practice mindfulness!

Practicing “mindfulness” means that you’re actively paying attention to the moment you’re in right now, helping you to keep your internal focus. Rather than letting your mind wander, when you’re mindful you’re living in the moment and letting distracting thoughts pass through your mind without getting caught up in their emotional implications. Mindfulness can help to reduce stress-induced inflammation, and it’s a strong example of how you can harness your own sense of power and control to achieve what you want in life, including a more positive, happier mental state. Simple techniques such as the following can help you to become more mindful:

  • Pay focused attention to an aspect of sensory experience, such as the sound of your own breathing
  • Distinguish between simple thoughts and those that are elaborated with emotion (such as “I have a test tomorrow” versus “What if I fail my test tomorrow and flunk my entire class?”)
  • Reframe emotional thoughts as simply “mental projections” so your mind can rest

Still, for many, happiness can be a poorly defined, elusive goal. One way to think about happiness is to define it as “whatever gets you excited.” Once you’ve identified that activity, whatever it is, you can start focusing your mind around that so you can integrate more of it into your daily life.

Here’s to you, and YOUR happiness!
*This information was adapted from ‘Why Happiness is Healthy’ published in April, 2014 by Dr. Mercola.*

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