Don’t worry, be happy. If only it was that easy! While worry (as well as stress, anger and overall negativity) creates wear and tear on our bodies and has been proven to lead to serious illness like heart disease, stroke and diabetes—and the issue is compounded if those emotions stem from genetic imbalances and traumatic early life experiences—negative emotions aren’t the only things that affect happiness. Our diets, social circles, activities, and sleep habits are just some of the many lifestyle habits that contribute, according to research conducted by Harvard University. What else plays a role? And how can you help improve your overall happiness, health and well-being? There are science-backed ways that suggest a healthy lifestyle improves happiness.
Here are eight simple ways a healthy lifestyle improves happiness:
1. You’re Happier When…You Eat Well.
A healthy lifestyle improves happiness, and there’s one main component in taking the steps toward living healthy: your daily food intake. The foods you eat form the building blocks of your body, including your brain. Food is also the fuel for everything that goes on within your body and mind, including thoughts and emotions. According to Psychology Today, the digestive system has a surprising influence on your mental state. Ninety-five percent of the serotonin (a natural mood stabilizer that helps with sleeping, eating and digesting) is found in the gut. When the ratio of good and bad bacteria is off in your gut, our mood and behavior follows suit.
Eat yourself happy by eating frequently to maintain steady blood sugar levels. Seek out whole, nutrient-dense foods. Eat prebiotic and probiotic foods. And choose organic foods whenever possible to avoid exposure to toxins and oxidative stress, says Psychology Today.
2. You’re Happier When…You Exercise.
In a December 2016 study, published in Annals of Behavioral Medicine, adults over the age of 50 with healthy psychological well-being were more likely to be physically active over the course of an 11-year study. Additionally, those with higher psychological well-being at the start of the study displayed greater levels of physical activity a decade later, suggesting positive emotions can enhance psychological health and increase physical activity. How are exercise and happiness related? It’s likely a combination of things. Exercise increases serotonin (the neurotransmitter targeted by antidepressants), normalizes sleep, and biologically “toughens up” the brain so stress has less of an impact.
3. You’re Happier When…You Reduce Stress.
From premature aging and hormonal imbalances to feelings of anxiety, fear and irritability, stress is harmful to your health and well-being. However, practices like yoga and Tai Chi can help reduce and manage stress while improving strength, flexibility and body awareness. “We can all benefit from all that these two forms of exercise have to offer and better yet, these exercise disciplines exclude no one,” says Certified Personal Trainer Brenda Coyler. “From Bikram hot yoga to a gentle Tai Chi class, there are plenty of places to find classes to suit your needs.” It needn’t even be in a gym; you could gain the same benefits in a virtual class or video.
Relaxing practices like yoga and Tai Chi are also particularly effective at pushing the brain towards more relaxed thoughts and overall positivity. Stress responses are triggered by discomfort and disorientation. When we twist the spine, we’re creating stress on the body (lactic acid builds up in the muscles and we’re disoriented by being upside down). But exercise and yoga, specifically, with its deep breathing techniques and calming environment can retrain the body and nervous system to stop invoking stress responses (negativity) allowing optimism to take its place.
4. You’re Happier When…You’re Well Rested.
Believe it or not, sleep deprivation puts your body in a pre-diabetic state, alters metabolism, makes you much more likely to be overweight, increases appetite, decreases productivity and compromises your immune system. (Did we mention sleep deprivation also makes you irritable and more likely to be depressed?) Despite this, only 10% of American adults prioritize sleep over daily living. Younger adults, adults and older adults should strive for seven to nine hours of sleep per night, says the National Sleep Foundation. The best sleep comes uninterrupted. Turn off all electronic devices before bed. Stick to a static sleep cycle with consistent bed and wake-up times, even on the weekends. And, avoid regular afternoon naps.
5. You’re Happier When…You Learn.
Engaging in mentally stimulating activities creates new brain connections and more backup circuits, says Harvard Health. So whether you learn a new language, take up a new sport or volunteer for a project that involves a skill you don’t usually use, you’re building cognitive reserve, which is associated with lower rates of dementia and better thinking skills. Having a job keeps you mentally active, but it’s wise to get in the habit of trying new things so that when you retire you’re likely to keep learning.
6. You’re Happier When…You’re Connected.
There’s a strong association with happiness and personal relationships, according to results taken from the Harvard Study of Adult Development—one of the longest-running studies on happiness. The project has followed 724 men since they were teenagers in 1938. Every two years, researchers ask members questions about their lives and their mental and emotional wellness and family members are also interviewed. Participants reported that personal connections (marriage, contact with friends and relatives, and organizational and church membership) create mental and emotional stimulation: They’re automatic mood boosters, says Harvard Health. Isolation has the opposite effect, as proven in a separate seminal study of over 7,000 adults conducted in 1979. Participants who reported fewer social ties were twice as likely to die over a nine-year follow-up period.
7. You’re Happier When…You Give Back.
Whether it’s building houses for the homeless or tending the community garden, people need a purpose. And in fact, volunteering can enhance one’s mental and physical health, life satisfaction, social well-being and stave off depression, according to a July 2017 study published in BMC Public Health. There are several websites designed to help you find and learn more about volunteer opportunities in your area. Churches are also terrific volunteer hubs and valuable for those seeking community and connections with like-minded people.
8. You’re Happier When…You Go Outside.
It takes effort to unplug from technology. But when we do, and when we spend time in nature, we’re happier, according to a February 2016 PLOS One study. Participants were challenged to “do something wild” every day for 30 days, and researchers saw scientifically significant increase in health, happiness, connection to nature and active nature behaviors, such as feeding birds and planting flowers—for months after the challenge had ended. A July 2018 report published in Environmental Research goes even further, suggesting exposure to nature reduces the risk of type II diabetes, cardiovascular disease, premature death, preterm birth, stress and high blood pressure. Get outside, make time for yourself and live healthy—after all, research has shown that a healthy lifestyle improves happiness!