“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, thanks to happiness gurus Diener and Biswas-Diener showing that happier people pay closer attention to their health habits than moodier individuals.
While it’s helpful enough to identify that happiness can support good health habits, I’d like to explain why that is and how to manage that process intentionally.
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, horror movie music, we imagine that she’s about to be attacked and chopped into pieces. But if the same scene unfolds to the sound of sexy saxophone, we imagine that the man has very different intentions!
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
Events affect which biochemicals are produced in our bodies, and in turn, our biochemicals influence how we interpret events, affecting our subsequent behavior.
For example, generally elevated levels of cortisol can lead to insomnia, insomnia, poor digestion, feeling irritable and impatient, cravings for high-sugar and high-fat foods.
Ever craved a sweet treat 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 another 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.
Our Health Promotion Model
Now, back to the health-happiness equation. Understanding our biochemical activity can help us manage our habits. For example, if we detect a symptom of high cortisol, such as a chocolate craving, 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.
Understanding our biochemical activity and managing our responses accordingly can really help us feel happier and be healthier. If you’d like to learn more on the topic, see our book Smarts and Stamina: The Busy Person’s Guide to Optimal Health and Performance.
And if you can contribute more concrete evidence linking health and happiness, please share!
This article is © 2011, Positive Psychology News Daily.
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