Marie-Josée (MJ) Salvas Shaar, MAPP '07, CPT, has studied, tested, coached, and taught smart health habits for over 13 years. Combining positive psychology with fitness and nutrition, she created a coaching method that builds better sleep, food, mood, and exercise habits, as described in her book, Smarts and Stamina: The Busy Person's Guide to Optimal Health and Performance, which includes 50 practical health-building activities. Today MJ gives keynotes for corporate wellness programs and offers continuing education for wellness professionals, who can license her Smarts and Stamina Online program. Full bio. MJ's articles are here.
“Happier people live longer,” is old news for us positive psychology fans. That happier people tend to be healthier is also something we’re now well aware of, in large part thanks to Sheldon Cohen’s research showing that happier people enjoy a stronger immune response and to happiness gurus Diener and Biswas-Diener whose research shows that happier people pay closer attention to their health habits than moodier individuals.
While it’s already helpful to identify that happiness can support good health habits, I’d like to provide more information about why that is so and about how to manage that process intentionally.
But first, an illustrative metaphor
When we watch a movie, the soundtrack gives us a lot of cues about what’s going to happen.
Imagine the following scene: a woman enters her home late at night. All the lights in her house are out. As she opens the front door, she sees a man standing by the window.
If that scene unfolds to the tune of creepy, scary music like that used in a horror movie, we imagine that she’s about to get attacked and chopped to pieces. But if the same scene unfolds to the sound of sexy saxophone, we imagine that she’s the victim of a much more pleasant kind of attack!
Well, biochemicals are to the body as soundtrack music is to a movie. As we go about our days, the events we experience generate a biochemical reaction in our body. See your self-esteem threatened in public, and your cortisol levels will spike. Connect meaningfully with a good friend, and your serotonin will rise instead.
The Two-Way Biochemical Connection
Not only do events affect which biochemicals are produced in our bodies, but also our biochemicals influence how we interpret events, affecting our subsequent behavior.
For example, generally elevated levels of cortisol can lead to:
- poor digestion
- feeling irritable and impatient
- cravings for high-sugar and high-fat foods
Ever craved chocolate at the office after a co-worker served you some harsh “constructive criticism” in a meeting? Now you know why. The social threat raised your cortisol level, which in turn prompted you to reach for a high-sugar, high-fat treat.
As an other example, having ample serotonin circulating in your brain and body leads to:
- sound sleep
- better regulation of our responses to stimuli such as appealing food
- feeling more cool, calm, and collected
If you tend to sleep better after warm get-togethers with friends and family members, don’t be surprised. The warm vibes stimulated the production of serotonin, which in turn helped you sleep.
The Health-Happiness Equation
Now back to the health-happiness equation. Understanding our biochemical activity can help us manage our habits. If for example we detect a chocolate craving and start to experience other symptoms of high cortisol, we can find our way back to a better state by engaging in cortisol-reducing behaviors such as exercise. If we avoid the extra sugary calories at the same time, all the better! Since cortisol and serotonin are usually inversely related, seeking a serotonin boost can be just as effective, which can be done by taking a nap, or performing a relaxing breathing exercise.
So you see, understanding our biochemical activity and managing our responses accordingly can really help us feel happier and be healthier. That’s the essence of the Smarts and Stamina health promotion model. If you’d like to learn more on the topic, see Smarts and Stamina: The Busy Person’s Guide to Optimal Health and Performance, which I coauthored with Kathryn Britton. Louisa Jewell wrote a review of it here on PPND.
If you can contribute more concrete evidence linking health and happiness, please do share!
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Diener, E. & Biswas-Diener, R. (2008). Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth. Wiley-Blackwell.
Diener, E. & Chan, M. (2011). Happy People Live Longer: Subjective Well-Being Contributes to Health and Longevity. Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being. 3(1), 1-43. Request a reprint here
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