Do happier people live longer? And if so, can a person improve their happiness the same way they can improve their physical health?
Plenty of studies have shown a connection between happiness and good health. A 2019 JAMA review paper looked at 15 studies, representing about 230,000 people. The researchers found that optimism was associated with a lower risk of heart attack, stroke and death. The paper goes on to say that “a reduction in pessimism may be important for preventive health."
Other studies have found that positive emotions can help reduce pain and boost immunity. Happiness as a stand-alone factor, research indicates, plays a definite role in longevity. The research is accumulating that happiness has a role in predicting survival among older people.
Researchers are even trying to understand the role of happiness in public health. With a well-established connection between stress and health, harnessing what we know about happiness could potentially reduce disease and sickness across populations.
But how can individuals harness optimism for their health? Happiness is complicated by circumstance and inequity. Any advice to “just be happier" can feel shallow and unhelpful, especially for people dealing with things like adversity, grief, injustice and chronic pain.
It's really about working to improve your outlook, says Laura Kubzansky, a professor at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and one of the authors of the JAMA cardiology study. In the same way that you would take steps to reduce cholesterol, you can take steps to reduce pessimism — which is to say, increase optimism.
In other words, try to think of happiness as a skill to cultivate, rather than a set way of being.
Here are a few ways to build the skill of happiness:
Focus on your connections
Having a supportive network of family and friends has always been one of the keys to happiness. But COVID-19 has changed the way we connect with people, and impacted heavily socializing, family gatherings and the things we do for entertainment.
It's even more important now to nourish your most meaningful connections, whether it's one or two key relationships or a group that brings you joy. Budget time, even in a busy schedule, to connect with others in ways that are more than just surface, small talk or obligatory Zoom calls.
Get physical activity
If you can find an activity you enjoy, you are more likely to stick with it. But even if the activity itself doesn't bring immediate enjoyment — huffing away on an exercise bike isn't necessarily fun — focus on how you enjoy the benefits, such as feeling more alert.
Find meaning in what you do
A happy life and a meaningful life aren't necessarily the same, and researchers have worked to tease out the difference. One thing they've found is that happiness tends to be linked to what others give to you, whereas meaning comes from giving to other people.
For example, taking care of children may not bring happiness (at least immediately), but it often brings meaning. What is clear is that meaning brings life satisfaction, and provides a well to draw from during darker times.
Many happiness researchers focus on gratitude as a means of increasing feelings of well-being. One study had people write and then deliver (by hand) a letter of gratitude to someone who did an act of kindness, but hadn't been thanked properly. Compared to a group who wrote about early memories, the letter-writing group showed a big increase in happiness scores.
Written, verbal or even just mental thank yous are a simple way to practice gratitude. Other people cultivate gratitude by keeping a gratitude journal. Write down one thing each day you are grateful for, or note a gift you received that day (even if the gift was simply a smile).
Ready to start cultivating your happiness skills? Learn more about the benefits of practicing gratitude.