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Does Being Happy Make You Healthy?

Happiness might be a more important factor in your health than smoking.

Happiness might be a more important factor in your health than smoking.

For more than a decade now, scientists have pursued the connection between happiness and health, and emerging research has begun to validate what many wisdom traditions have intuitively known—that having a sense of peace, fulfillment, and purpose leads to a healthier, more balanced, and longer life.

In the last few years, social scientists Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ed Diener, and Martin Seligman, among others, have explored ways to quantify happiness and chart its components. Based on his research, Seligman has even developed a “happiness formula”—Happiness = Set Point + Conditions in Life + Voluntary Action—which indicates that happiness is partly genetic, partly a result of circumstance, and partly an outcome of conscious decision-making. Indeed, by Seligman’s reckoning, the external conditions of one’s life, like having more money or a larger house, only account for 7–10 percent of actual happiness, while genetics (40 percent) and voluntary actions (50 percent) matter far more.

As Lyubomirsky argues in her book, The How of Happiness, nearly every aspect of health seems to be affected by happiness (or lack thereof): physical and mental well-being, energy levels, immune function, relationships with others, and even our life-spans. Indeed, a growing body of evidence suggests that being happier can actually make you live longer: a study of 180 nuns in Milwaukee revealed that joyful nuns tend to live longer than their gloomy counterparts. Two-thirds of somber-minded sisters in the study died before their 85th birthday, while on average the happy ones lived 9 years longer.

And while the links between physical fitness and happiness have long been known, at least on an anecdotal level, a Duke University study indicates that regular exercise may be as effective as medication in relieving depression (and we’re seeing more and more doctors prescribing yoga and exercise, along with a healthy diet, to prevent disease and compliment treatment).

All of which begs the question: how do we actually lead a happier life? The self-help shelves are now crowded with happiness titles and while it seems clear that no single prescription will work for everyone, some happiness strategies seem particularly effective—among them, physical exercise, cognitive therapy, meditation, listening to our own bodies, nurturing relationships, and finding deeper purpose.

Given the growing body of evidence connecting happiness and health, and the enormous social and financial implications of this research, we can hope that governments will increasingly shape policy to maximize happiness. In this, the United States—which, despite its immense material wealth, ranks nineteenth in the World Database of Happiness—might take a cue from, of all places, Bhutan. The small Buddhist kingdom in the Himalayas relies less on traditional economic barometers like GDP in determining policy and more on indicators of actual well-being; government ministers in Bhutan have devised a marker of Gross National Happiness to measure the well-being of their citizens. It’s a novel idea, but it isn’t it about time that our policy-makers paid attention to what actually makes us happy?

Mallika Chopra is the Pepsi Refresh Project Ambassador for Health. Learn more about the Pepsi Refresh Project here, and submit your own idea for how to move the world forward here.

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