Happiness as a health boost


Professor Lieven Annemans is not only known as “the happiness professor,” but is also a health economist. He recently said that happiness has finally become a serious science. And that’s good news. Just as overall happiness has a hefty impact on job happiness and vice versa, happiness and good health go hand in hand.

As poet Leigh Hunt wrote in the early 19th century, “The groundwork of all happiness is health.”

 However, science looks differently at the link between the two concepts and sees it the other way around. After all, various scientific studies show that our feeling of happiness has a positive impact on our health and that happy people even live longer. However, it is not the case that healthy people are necessarily happy, but happiness and health can certainly create a vicious circle, even in the workplace.

 This article zooms in on some scientifically proven facts about the impact of happiness on health. We have consulted a variety of sources and have found interesting conclusions in the fascinating article that appeared several years ago in the Greater Good Magazine at the University of California, Berkeley.

1. Happiness protects your heart

In 2005, researchers showed that happiness predicts lower heart rate and blood pressure. In the study, participants assessed their feelings of happiness more than 30 times in one day and again three years later. This follow-up confirmed the biological associations with happiness: The initially happiest participants reported a lower heart rate in the follow-up measurement (about six beats per minute slower), and the happiest participants during follow-up had better blood pressure. In addition, the results showed that greater happiness was associated with lower salivary cortisol, both on workdays and non-workdays. The happiest participants had 23 percent lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol than the least happy. When you know that cortisol is produced when stress is involved, you know that this is particularly good news.

“Happiness coincides with lower salivary cortisol, both on workdays and non-workdays.”

In 2008, a U.S. study revealed a link between happiness and another measure of heart health: heart rate variability, which refers to the time interval between heartbeats and is associated with the risk of various diseases. Is happiness linked to healthier hearts, even in people who may have heart problems? That definitely seems to be the case as participants who rated themselves as the happiest on the day their hearts were tested showed a healthier pattern of heart rate variability on that day.

Over time, these effects can lead to serious differences in heart health. In a 2010 Canadian study, researchers invited nearly 2,000 participants to the lab to talk about their anger and stress at work. Observers rated them on a scale of one to five for the extent to which they also expressed positive emotions, such as joy, happiness, enthusiasm and satisfaction. Ten years later, the researchers checked in with the participants to see how they were doing, finding that the happier participants had a 22% lower risk of developing coronary heart disease.

“Happiness decreases coronary heart risk with 22%.”

2. Happiness strenghtens your immune system

Nutrition expert Eric Edmeades always says how you don’t have an immune system, but how you are your immune system. In the exact same way, you don’t have happiness, you are happy. And being happy appears to lead to a stronger immune system.

The activity of a person’s immune system increases or decreases depending on his happiness.

As early as 1987, researchers determined that the activity of the immune system in a person rises and falls according to his feeling of happiness. For two months, 30 male dental students took pills containing a harmless rabbit blood protein that causes an immune response in humans. They also assessed whether they experienced different positive moods that day. On days when they were happier, the participants had a better immune response, as measured by the presence of an antibody in their saliva that defends against foreign substances.

The experts wanted to investigate why happy people are less prone to disease. So they gave 81 graduate students a hepatitis B vaccine in 2006. After receiving the first two doses, participants rated themselves on nine positive emotions. Those who reported many positive emotions were almost twice as likely to have a high antibody response to the vaccine-a sign of a robust immune system. Rather than just affecting symptoms, happiness literally seemed to work at the cellular level.

“Happiness appears to work on the cellular level.”

3. Happiness combats stress

We already saw how happiness can reduce the production of the stress hormone cortisol. Moreover, happiness seems to mitigate the unhealthy effects of stress, or at least help us recover more quickly. By unhealthy effects we think, for example, of psychological risks, but also of biological changes in hormones and blood pressure.

“Happiness tempers the unhealthy effects of stress.”

So a sense of happiness also seems to have a healthy impact, even when stress is unavoidable. In a 2009 study, researchers decided to stress out psychology students and see how they reacted. The students were led to a soundproof room, where they first answered questions indicating whether they generally felt feelings like enthusiasm or pride. Then they were confronted with their worst nightmare: they had to answer extraordinarily difficult statistical questions while being videotaped, and they were told that their professor would grade their answer. Throughout the process, their hearts were monitored with an electrocardiogram machine and a blood pressure monitor. The happiest students showed the quickest recovery from stress.

4. Happy people have fewer aches and pains

A 2001 study shows how people who had suffered from symptoms such as muscle tension, dizziness and heartburn since the beginning of the study saw their health improve during the five-week trial. This occurred in those people who reported the highest levels of positive emotions. Their unhappy counterparts saw their health deteriorate even further.

“People with higher happiness ratings report less pain.”

A 2005 study suggests that positive emotions also reduce pain in the context of disease. Women with arthritis and chronic pain rated themselves on positive emotions every week for about three months. Over the course of the study, those with higher overall happiness ratings had reported significantly less pain.

Also in 2015, Washington experts examined the link between happiness and pain. Typically, chronic pain is treated with medications. However, many of these pills do not provide much pain relief and can even cause negative side effects. Alternative treatments such as massage, heat, acupuncture and physical therapy are promising. Counseling with a psychologist or therapist is another way to manage chronic pain. One form of counseling, called positive psychology, focuses on our strengths and resources to guide us on the path to happiness. The researchers looked at whether the feeling of happiness had any impact on the experience of pain and sadness in 400 people with different types of disorders. Participants were asked about how bad their pain was (pain intensity), to what extent the pain interfered with their daily lives (pain interference), as well as about depression, stress and anxiety (distress). Finally, researchers also asked about 3 different ways of experiencing happiness:

  1. having a life with lasting meaning,
  2. living an enjoyable life,
  3. being involved in or participating in meaningful activities.

The results? Participants who reported more happiness mentioned less pain interference and distress. Experiencing meaning and leading a meaningful life appeared to be most strongly (and negatively) associated with pain intensity, pain interference, and distress.

5. Happiness fights disease and disability

Many studies have zoomed in on the link between the feelings of happiness and illness or disability. The conclusions all point in the direction of happiness as a strong buffer against serious illness. This is just one of the reasons why happiness at work is so important: happy employees are indeed healthy employees and that is a win-win-win for the employee, the team and the organization.

And even after retirement age, happiness protects our health. For example, Researchers found that happy older people were less likely to suffer a stroke. Despite the robust emergence of diversity and inclusion, this appeared to be especially true for men

6. Happiness extends our life span

Ultimately, perhaps the ultimate health indicator is longevity – and happiness definitely plays a role here. In perhaps the most famous study about happiness and longevity, the life expectancy of Catholic nuns was linked to the amount of positive emotions they expressed in an autobiographical essay they wrote when they entered the convent decades earlier, usually in their twenties.

Researchers looked through these writings for expressions of feelings such as amusement, contentment, gratitude and love. In the end, the nuns who seemed happiest lived as much as 7-10 years longer than the least happy.

“Happy people live longer.”

You don’t have to be a nun to experience the life-extending benefits of happiness. A 2010 study tracked nearly 7,000 people from California for nearly three decades and found that those who were more satisfied with their lives at the beginning were less likely to die over the course of the study. Satisfaction, as we also find in the Tryangle model for happiness at work, is the much-needed breeding ground for happiness.

Also, the longest-running study, the Grant Study of Adult Development (Harvard University)  teaches us that happiness has an impact on longevity. The Harvard researchers literally write, “Good genes are nice, but joy is better.”

Although happiness can extend our lives and significantly reduce our chances of ailments and diseases, it cannot work miracles. Moreover, the research in this area is quite young, so there are still many question marks. Linking the feeling of happiness to health also leads to a very broad field of research, with not only physical health, but also mental health as important points of attention. In addition, happiness is also determined by many factors, which means that there is still a great deal of work to be done. However, the current conclusions all point in the direction of “a happier you will be healthier too”, also at work.

This blog article is linked to “The Cactus Files #3: The two-way street between health and happiness”.

If you want to know more about The Cactus Files, check out this article or watch the series on Youtube.