Skip to main content
Habits and StrategiesHappiness

The Physical Benefits of Happiness

By January 31, 2024No Comments


We are all familiar with the basic guidelines for good health: exercise, eat right – more fruits and veggies, less red meat, more fish, fewer calories, more fiber, less sugar- don’t smoke, don’t abuse alcohol or drugs.  If we follow these guidelines and maintain an optimal weight, many health problems would be greatly diminished.

But there is another dimension to our health. How we think and feel, how we interact with others, and the kind of activities we spend our time doing can have a huge impact on our physical health.

We can assess these different habits and behaviors by how they affect our happiness, our relationships, and our resilience. Which helps us to function better? Which helps us to enjoy the company of family and friends? Which helps us to be more effective and to live a better life?

Fortunately, over the years there has been a great deal of very good research that is beginning to show some clear and consistent guidelines for how to practice psychological health, and live a happier and more fulfilling life.

It’s also shown some practices that can lead to a physically healthier life.

There’s a clear difference, for example, between people who are more optimistic or more pessimistic. Optimists have greater longevity – living an average of about eight years longer than pessimists. They have healthier hearts, more resilient immune systems, and even have fewer bad events happen to them – because they take active steps to anticipate and avoid them.

Optimists tend to practice healthier behaviors – for example, they tend to give up smoking, while pessimists tend not to. The skills of optimism are also a powerful inoculation against depression.

Optimists tend to be more effective in general, because they tend to look for solutions to problems, while pessimists tend to look for problems in the solutions.

Optimists tend to have better social support, because people tend to stay in contact with optimists longer. As the late Chris Peterson of The University of Michigan told a group of us, “Misery loves company, but company does not love misery.”

From the ongoing Harvard Longitudinal Study that has followed men since 1938, there was no difference in health up to age 40, but from ages 40-50, optimistic men stayed healthy, while pessimistic men began to get sick and die – usually from heart problems. If they had a 2nd heart attack, it was correlated with pessimism, not the traditional health indicators such as cholesterol or high blood pressure.

The former director of the study, Harvard professor George Vaillant, MD, shows how to apply it to your own life in his marvelous book, Aging Well: Surprising Guideposts to a Happier Life from the Landmark Harvard Study of Adult Development.

Optimism is only one element of a happy life, but it is the easiest one to improve. While some people are naturally more optimistic than others, it is possible, by practicing some fairly simple skills over time, to become more optimistic.

Conscientiousness – the propensity to follow socially prescribed norms for impulse control, to be task and goal directed, to make plans, to delay gratification – leads to greater longevity and better health.  This is true also for the spouse of a more conscientious person, whose health and longevity improve by virtue of their partner’s virtue, regardless of their personal practice (!).

Another quality that can affect our health is how many positive emotions we enjoy in our daily life. Positive feelings tend to act as an antidote to negative feelings and experiences. A ratio of about three to one positive to negative experiences is the tipping point where positive emotions come more easily, and the benefits really start to take hold.

Positive emotions relate to longevity and cardio-vascular health, as well as stronger immune functioning, lower neuroendocrine and inflammatory activity, fewer symptoms of illness, and less pain. Positive emotions also lower the likelihood of hypertension and diabetes mellitus, risk of stroke, and even susceptibility to the common cold.

Positive emotions have also been shown to counteract depression following a crisis, and minimizing depression can have a very positive effect on our health. Depressed people are much more likely to have heart problems, and depression itself can make it difficult to do the things that can improve our overall health and well-being.

There are skills that can counteract depression, and gratitude is one of these. The simplest intervention that has been shown to both increase happiness and decrease depression, is to simply think of three good things that happened at the end of each day, and why they happened.

Practicing forgiveness, avoiding holding grudges, and decreasing hostility also have a positive effect on the health of your heart.

The bottom line is this:

Practicing optimism, conscientiousness, positive emotions, gratitude, and forgiveness can not only significantly improve your happiness, but the quality of your physical health as well.

PS: My course, Mastering Emotions, Moods and Reactions can help you with this part of your life in much greater detail, with deep understanding and practical skills for mastering these systems and living well for $99, if you use this code: LB99. And now you can purchase the workbook from this course separately here.