“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!
Benson, H. (November 2010). Introduction to the relaxation response & the biopsychosocial- spiritual model of health. Presented at the Harvard Medical School conference, One-Day in Mind-Body Medicine. Boston, MA.
Miller, G. E., & Cohen, S. (2001). Psychological interventions and the immune system: A meta-analytic review and critique. Health Psychology, 20, 47–63.
Dement, W. (2000). The Promise of Sleep: A Pioneer in Sleep Medicine Explores the Vital Connection Between Health, Happiness, and a Good Night’s Sleep . New York: Random House.
Dickerson, S. S., & Kemeny, M. E. (2004). Acute stressors and cortisol responses: A theoretical integration and synthesis of laboratory research. Psychological Bulletin 130(3), 355-391.
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
Roizen, M. F. & Oz, M. C. (2005). YOU: The Owner’s Manual, Updated and Expanded Edition: An Insider’s Guide to the Body that Will Make You Healthier and Younger. New York: HarperCollins.
Shaar, M.J. & Britton, K. (2011). Smarts and Stamina: The Busy Person’s Guide to Optimal Health and Performance. Philadelphia, PA: Positive Psychology Press.
Shaar, M.-J. & Britton, K. H. (2011). Le Compas Bien-être: de la psychologie positive à la sante positive. In C. Martin-Krumm & C. Tarquinio (Eds.), Traité de Psychologie Positive: Fondements Théoriques et Implications Pratiques. Bruxelles: DeBoeck.
Somer, E. (1999). Food & Mood: The Complete Guide to Eating Well and Feeling Your Best, Second Edition, Second Edition. New York: Holt Paperbacks.
Taylor, S. E. & Sherman, D. K. (2004). Positive psychology and health psychology: A fruitful liaison. In P. A. Linley & S. Joseph (Eds.). Positive Psychology in Practice (pp. 305-319). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.
Weil, A. (2010, April 20). Job stress can lead to obesity.
Young, S. (2007). How to increase serotonin in the human brain without drugs. Journal of Psychiatry and Neuroscience, 32(6), 394–399.
Nature image courtesy of the author.
Saxophone music courtesy of akahodag
Buddha, Exemplar of calm and collected courtesy of creatingkoan
Dear Marie Jose: What a wonderful comparison you provided!! These kinds of examples are very relevant to those of us attempting to influence corporate conversations that relate to strategies for creating a healthy workplace and reducing worker absenteeism. We already know that a satisfied health care provider impacts the satisfaction level of patients under their care. But where we still fall short is the link to the health of our employees. Wishing you all the best, Cathy
MJ – this is complex. What about the research showing that sugary drinks improve self regulation
Thanks Cathy for your warm encouragement! Did you know that According to Dr. Ron Goetzel, Director of Cornell University’s Institute for Health and Productivity Studies and Vice-President of Consulting and Applied Research at Thomson Medstat, presenteeism costs can outweigh an employer’s medical costs? Could be a new argument for you to explore and see if that helps in getting more people to listen. 😉
My best to you,
Oz – very good question! Here’s my hypothesis on that: we know that sugary drinks help produce a little extra serotonin, and we also know that serotonin helps us regulate our behaviors. So it’d follow logically that sugary drinks help self-regulate.
I wrote Baumeister about that (for readers that may not know Baumeister, he is a lead researcher on self-regulation), and he said that while he thought my hypothesis was very interesting and made a lot of sense, they never did any sort of measurement on serotonin levels versus the ability to self-regulate. So it remains a hypothesis for now, but I’d love to see research on it at some point!
In the meantime however, since serotonin is not only produced by sugary drinks but by any form of carbohydrate, we can try to get the same boost from a healthier source – like a fruit or a serving of whole grain.
MJ – but fruit makes you fat
Its all too hard
As usual you create a wonderful image that helps me retain this. I love the image of the “soundtrack.” Thank you, I will reference you when I use this in my workshops. Additionally, I think your hypothesis regarding the link between seratonin, sugar and self-regulation might be interesting. In Baumeister’s latest book, Willpower, he talks about the self-regulation necessary in social circumstances. Using your example of the workplace, the self-regulation of holding ourselves back from attacking the person who criticizes us is very demanding. So, that situation simultaneously increases cortosol while driving ego-depletion, thus the need for glucose. It could be interesting to test your hypothesis.
Additionally I like your concept of “listening” to the soundtrack to understand how we are reacting to some of the corporate challenges. Too often the executives I work with just try to ignore them or push on and eventually it will catch up to them.
Thanks for some inspiring thoughts.
You are so right, Scott! We’d love to believe that we can perform at high intensity continuously for 15 hours each day, but the reality is that the human body just isn’t made that way! And the “catching up” happens in 2 ways: in the immediate, productivity decreases – and that’s really not hard to observe if we are slightly mindful. I know when I hit that point, I start to wonder what to tackle next that won’t be too taxing so I can still progress with my then limited resources. I discovered that going for a moving break is what is most refreshing to me, and I end up happier with my accomplishments at the end of the day. But sometimes I don’t find the discipline to go beyond my mental paradigms and choose to stay at my desk – and it really is a question of discipline, I think. So when I lack that discipline, it usually leads to poorer performance and higher frustration. The second way in which it catches up to us is more long-term, either via illnesses, diseases, burnouts, or increasingly, the use of prescriptive drugs so we can keep going. So that’s why I invest my energy into helping people listening to their internal music – and I hope to make a difference in their lives.
Thanks for the reinforcement!
There’s another review of Smarts and Stamina, this one in the Hometown Annapolis Press Achieving Happiness: Use smarts and stamina to better your health by Dr. Thomas Muha.
Bonjour MJ, je t’ai vu a l’emission quebecoise et jai trouver l’emission tres interessante, je me demandais si il y avais une version francaise de ton livre Smarts and Stamina ou quel livre me refere tu pour m’aider a travailler la psychologie positive. merci.
Merci pour tes bons commentaires sur ma participation à l’émission “2 filles le matin”. “Smarts and Stamina” n’est malheureusement pas disponible en français pour l’instant – et ça prendra plusieurs mois pour qu’il le soit. Si tu veux me contacter par email – firstname.lastname@example.org et me donner un peu plus d’information sur ce que tu recherches (but visé, niveau technique voulu), je pourrais te faire une recommandation de livre plus appropriée. Merci, et bonne journée!
Marie-Josée your scientific approach to the message is refreshing. So important that we not ignore the connection of mental and physical health. Our bodies (including our brains) are wired to protect us from harm. In a natural environment, stress and the chemicals it produces are beneficial, helping us respond appropriately (and survive). Adrenaline, for example, gives us a shot of strength, rapid thinking, and (temporary) superhuman ability. Flash forward to the modern world. Constant stress triggers the “appropriate” response too often. Stress turns into strain. It’s no wonder that happy people live longer. The challenge: giving happiness and serenity their proper priority. Yes, business demands we stay busy. Doing that with joy and enthusiasm is the real key to long-term success.