The Science Behind Happiness and Its Impact on Health

Janet Tiberian
By Janet Tiberian
March 29, 2016
Happiness and Health

The expression "Don't Worry, Be Happy" became a common phrase after it was made popular through the 1980s song of the same name; and it’s good advice. Years of studies suggest that happiness can improve quality of life because happy people tend to have better jobs, excel at work and be more satisfied with marriages and friendships. Recently, scientists began expanding their understanding of happiness by studying the impact it has on health.

HAPPINESS AND A HEALTHY HEART
A team of researchers from Columbia University Medical Center followed a group of healthy adults for a decade assessing their risk for heart disease through positive emotions like happiness, enthusiasm and contentment, and negative feelings such as depression, hostility and anger. A five-point scale ranging from none to extreme was developed to score the outlook of participants. The data suggested that participants lacking a positive outlook had a 22 percent higher risk of heart disease than those with a slightly positive outlook, who in turn, had a 22 percent higher risk than those with a moderately positive outlook. The research also suggested that these findings may be due to the longer periods of rest or relaxation and quicker recovery from stressful events experienced by happier people.

Can happiness prevent breast cancer?

A few years ago Israeli researchers found that happiness may reduce the risk of developing breast cancer. The study was based on questioning the life experiences of women between the ages of 25 and 45, some with breast cancer and some without. Although the study did not account for family history or weight, it did suggest that younger women with a history of negative life events had a higher risk of breast cancer. Many studies have shown that stress alone is not a cause of breast cancer; however, more research is needed to better understand the role of stress when primary risk factors exist.

What can interfere with happiness?

Happiness can be influenced by personal experiences, emotional issues and lifestyle habits, particularly stress and poor sleep.

Stress
Stress triggers our hypothalamus to produce the hormones adrenaline and cortisol, which are responsible for the fight-or-flight response. This increases heart rate, blood pressure and respiration rates. Further, blood flow from the skin, gastrointestinal system and musculoskeletal system is reduced and diverted to the brain, heart and adrenal glands. And if these hormones remain elevated, over time, the adrenal gland will become fatigued, leading to the overproduction of hormones while responding to stress. This can eventually cause a hormonal imbalance and symptoms such as fatigue, low energy and depression. Additionally, stress causes a decrease in neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine which have a calming effect and regulate processes like emotional expression, sex drive, appetite and sleeping, ultimately impacting our happiness.

Insomnia
Which comes first: depression or insomnia? Insomnia is a common symptom of depression as worry, sadness and hopelessness often interfere with falling asleep. Since fatigue makes it difficult to enjoy life, it can lead to depression. In fact, many people report being in a bad mood after just one night of poor sleep. A University of Michigan study found that an extra hour of sleep each night had a greater impact on one's happiness than making an additional $60,000 a year. Further, nightly tossing and turning commonly sparks anxiety, which can trip the fight-or-flight response and contribute to depression.

Stress and lack of sleep are common in our society, and your MDVIP-affiliated physician can help you recognize when worry and sleeplessness become a problem. It’s definitely time to talk with your doctor if you experience chronic stress that is impacting your physical and emotional wellbeing. If you’re not sure if you’re getting enough sleep, talk with your doctor and use a diary to track your sleep patterns and how you feel. Your doctor can help you determine the best ways to reduce stress and improve your sleep.

The toll of unhappiness 

While some data supports that happy people produce more antibodies that protect them from many health issues, there is a lot of well-documented evidence linking unhappiness, stress and anxiety with a weaker immune system and an increased risk of disease. This is why some researchers theorize that it is not actually happiness protecting our health but instead, a positive mindset and upbeat outlook that replace negative moods and destructive habits, which can ultimately take a toll on our health. One study suggests that grief can exacerbate diabetes, while another study found that negative emotions can aggravate rheumatoid arthritis. Depression is also notoriously linked to a number of health issues including heart disease, stroke, asthma, digestive ailments, accidents, substance abuse, overeating, excessive gambling, chronic pain, adult attention deficit disorder and suicide. If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, make an appointment with your MDVIP-affiliated physician.


About the Author
Janet Tiberian
Janet Tiberian

Janet Tiberian is MDVIP's health educator. She has more than 25 years experience in chronic disease prevention and therapeutic exercise.

View All Posts By Janet Tiberian
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