Exercise Your Happiness

” Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”

– Preamble to the Constitution of

The World Health Organization,


Our quality of life, health and longevity is highly correlated to our emotional state, specifically happiness.  The wellness movement has triggered a strong interest in examining the impact that our emotional and mental states have on the human body.  It has become quite evident that our thoughts and beliefs have a direct effect on our physiology ( immune system, metabolism, neurology, energy systems, cardiology, etc..).  We are what we think and believe!! Therefore,  both self-actualization and self-direction impact the compass that directs our lives and longevity.

The  health and fitness industry is now embracing wellness concepts and interconnectedness of mind and body – shifting from the body’s core strength to a person’s core values as we begin to examine the role of well-being in achieving optimal health.  This broader and more transformative approach is helping our clients to facilitate change by helping them to become more resourceful, creative and whole.  Our role as facilitators is to teach our clients about self-responsibility and how their thoughts, beliefs and emotions impact their health and longevity.  Positive thinking and happiness can create new neural pathways and  a positive biochemical state in the brain.  It is important to understand that benefiting from this new state requires time and practice as the new patterns of thinking take time to develop.

New research  ( Diener, 2011) supports a growing body of evidence that happiness is beneficial for  morbidity ( risk of illness), survival of illness and longevity.  It has been proven that negative emotions such as fear or sustained stress can lead to heart disease, stroke and diabetes; that chronic anxiety and anger can facilitate atherosclorosis and elevated systematic inflammation; and that early-childhood ” toxic-stress” from neglect or abuse has a direct impact on the brain and other organ systems (Rimer and Drexler, 2012).  Furthermore , they claim that happiness has a positive health benefit absent mental health conditions (i.e. Alzheimers).  In addition, studies show that optimism is a significant predictor of positive physical health outcomes related to mortality, survival, cardiovascular outcomes, immune function, cancer, and outcomes related to pregnancy and pain health.

So, if health is so impacted by positive thinking  it stands to reason that longevity is also affected.  One study supports this fact:  People in their 20’s who wrote positive autobiographies tended to outlive those who wrote more negative accounts. Moods and emotions are consistently associated with certain bio markers such as blood pressure, cortisol and inflammation, as well as disease indicators such as arteriosclorosis (Diener and Chan, 2011).  Also, individuals who exhibit more positive emotions develop fewer colds and less likely to get the flu.

Diener and Chan suggest the current health recommendations which focus on avoiding obesity, eating correctly, abstinence from smoking and exercising should also include positive well-being to the list.  They point out while happiness is not a “magic bullet”, and,  in and of itself may not prevent or cure disease, it does increase your odds  of avoiding certain disease and dying young.

Martin Seligman, widely recognized as the father of positive psychology notes:  “All studies of optimism and cardiovascular disease converge on the conclusion that optimism is strongly related to protection from cardiovascular disease.”  The impact on cancer however is not as clear.  Seligman  suggests that “highly optimistic people may have a lower risk of developing cancer and that positive well-being  may have beneficial effects for cancer patients when the disease is not very severe.”  It has been proven however that positive thinking can improve immune function which in turn can improve the chances that your body can better fight off cancer or other auto-immune disease.

Older adults may see significant health changes related to happiness.   Findings support that positive feelings broaden one’s horizons and build social, physical and intellectual skills.   Sonya Lyubomirsky notes in her book ” The How of Happiness:  A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want”  that by-products of happiness and positive well-being include:  higher income, better work outcomes and productivity,  more satisfying social rewards, longer marriages, greater number of friends, stronger social support, better energy and better physical health ( bolstered immune system, lower stress levels and less pain) and longer life.

How is happiness measured?

1. Biological measures:  brain imaging, hormones levels, brain biochemistry.

2. Self-reporting:  journaling and recalling daily thoughts, feelings and events.

Diener defines happiness  “not as a goal but as process that requires positive attitudes about life and continuing with innovative and creative involvement with activities.”  She continues:  ” A life full of meaning and values, supportive social relationships and rewarding work is the framework for a happy life.  The presence of happiness within that framework requires positive attitudes, spiritual emotions such as love and gratitude and material sufficiency.”

Robert Holden (2009) describes  happiness as  ” the journey from the ego-mind to the heart of your unconditional self.”  He continues:  ” happiness is your true nature, who you are, what you experience when you accept yourself.”  He suggests conducting a “happiness interview.”

–  What is definition of true happiness?

– Are you living it?

– Who is the happiest person you know?

– What has this person taught you?

Happiness and feelings of  positive well-being come from within. It is our perception of events and of others that generate our state of mind and emotions.  People don’t make us happy or sad, but rather it is  our reaction to them that determines our emotional state.

Lyubomirsky explains that about 40% of our happiness is within our power to change through the ways we act and think.  Another 50% can be attributed to a genetic ” set point” or baseline that is similar to the set point theory in weight management.  Only about 10% of our happiness is associated with life circumstances  ( i.e. money, health, marriage, etc..)  Diener points out that this means that many changes we create in our lives can make us only 10% happier at most!!

Lyubomirsky says: ” It is in our power to achieve real and lasting happiness. It is something inside of us ( not outside) – a way of perceiving and approaching the world we live in.”  One thing the research shows is that it takes diligence and work.

She lists five characteristics that determine the effectiveness or sustainability of happiness strategies:

1.  Frequency of positive emotions.

2.  Optimal timing and variety ( keep strategies fresh and find timing that works for you – such as every night or morning).

3.  Social support ( buddies, mentors, support groups).

4.  Motivation, effort and commitment, as with pursuing any goal.

5.  Development of new habits that become easier to maintain.

Happiness – Enhancing Strategies ( Lyubomirsky 2007)

1.  Express gratitude through journaling or sharing your appreciation with others.

2.  Cultivate optimism – write about what a  positive life looks like.

3.  Avoid over thinking and over analyzing.

4.  Practice random acts of kindness.

5.  Develop nurturing relationships.

6.  Engage in new activities and projects.

7.  Set and commit to new goals.

8.  Develop strategies for coping with stress.

9.  Learn to forgive.

10. Exercise regularly and develop a healthy nutrition plan.