• Shawn Wilson, M.A.

Happiness Leads to Better Physical Health

Photo credit: Gabriel Silvério

Oftentimes we focus on how negative emotions and experiences, such as depression, anxiety, and stress, impact us mentally and physically. However, it is just as important to focus on the impact of positive emotions.

Case in point, as reported by TIME, researchers published a review that examined how self-rated well-being impacts physical health. Self-rated (also called subjective) well-being is how people evaluate their own lives as good and desirable versus negative and undesirable.

Well-being includes many different constructs including the extent people experience positive emotions (called positive affect), such as enjoyment and contentment, and the extent people experience negative emotions (called negative affect) such as depression, anger, stress, and anxiety. Well-being also includes constructs such as optimism and life satisfaction.

The review found that well-being predicts health and a longer life. Perhaps that is no big surprise, but still good to confirm in any case.

The more important question is how does well-being lead to better health? In psychology terms, we call these causal factors mediators. Here are six mediators for the relationship between well-being and physical health:

1. Heart health: Well-being is linked to better cardiovascular functioning, which in turn leads to better health, fewer heart-related problems, and a longer life.

2. Immune functioning: Well-being leads to a better immune system, which makes sense as stress can lead to a compromised immune system and positive emotions protect against stress!

3. Hormones: Stress impacts the endocrine system, including the stress hormone cortisol and insulin. Positive well-being can help protect the endocrine system from becoming dysregulated. This is important because the endocrine system is impacts diseases such as diabetes.

4. Telomeres: Telomeres protect the ends of DNA strands and can be reduced by exposure to stress. When telomeres are reduced, it leads to premature cell aging and a host of health problems. Positive well-being seems to protect these telomeres from becoming worn down prematurely.

5. Healing wounds: Studies have actually shown that happier individuals physically heal faster from wounds and have quicker recoveries from surgery, pretty incredible stuff!

6. Healthy behaviors: Happier people tend to smoke less, eat better, and exercise more. Over time these healthy behaviors lead to better physical health.

The researchers note that studying the relationship between constructs such as well-being and health is complicated. There can often be other variables not examined in the studies that help account for apparent relationships. And there are bidirectional relationships between well-being and health. This means that well-being is related to better physical health, but physical health is also related to better well-being. As such, it is tricky to statistically disentangle how well-being and health are related to each other over time.

These concerns being noted, there is consensus that positive well-being is related to better physical health through a variety of mechanisms. Some of which are in our control, such as the healthy behaviors, and many of which are not within our conscious control, such as our immune system functioning.

In conclusion, what have we learned? Prioritize your well-being, including your happiness and life satisfaction. Do things you are passionate about, whether it is a meaningful career, volunteer work, a hobby, or increased family time. Build meaningful relationships with others. Get rid of unhelpful stress and worry from your life.

In a negative situation that you cannot get out of for the moment? Try to change your relationship with the situation to make yourself feel better, such as telling yourself "This is only temporary, good things are coming soon." Frequently it is hard to be grateful when we are stressed and overwhelmed, but try to find something you appreciate about the situation, whether it is the opportunity to show how strong you are, or even appreciate basic things such as having shoes to walk in, a meal to eat, and clothes to wear.

Why bother? Your health depends upon it.

Article link: http://time.com/4866693/happiness-improves-health/

Scientific paper link: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/aphw.12090/full

The Clinically Relevant Insights Blog, part of ShawnWilsonPhD.com, shares news and research regarding psychology and wellness.

#wellbeing #happiness #physicalhealth #positivepsychology

© 2020 by Shawn Wilson