Health And Happiness: Uncovering The Connection

Medically reviewed by Laura Angers Maddox
Updated December 18, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content Warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that could be triggering to the reader. Please see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

Over time, studies have shown that health and happiness are intrinsically linked. When you feel physically healthy, your mood may also improve, and vice versa. Understanding the connections between positive emotions and well-being can help you make the healthiest lifestyle choices to improve your mental and physical health.

Learn How Chronic Stress, Pain, And Mental Wellness Are Related

How Happiness Can Improve Health

According to researchers at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, “feeling sad can alter levels of stress-related opioids in the brain and increase levels of inflammatory proteins in the blood that are linked to increased risk of comorbid diseases including heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, and metabolic syndrome.” 

Another study showed that unhappiness could contribute to poor health, and an article published by Harvard Health describes recent research regarding the link between positive emotions and health. Compared to the vast number of studies regarding the harmful health effects of poorly-managed emotions, research on the link between happiness and wellness is not as extensive or readily available. Our ability to measure such intangibles like a sense of optimism or joy is difficult, especially in terms of affecting public health outcomes. 

According to Harvard Health professor Dr. Laura Kubzansky, “there is a benefit of positive mental health that goes beyond the fact that you’re not depressed. What that is, is still a mystery. But when we understand the set of processes involved, we will have much more insight into how health works.” Still, Dr. Kubzansky explains that “negative emotions are only one-half of the equation.” Along with a positive attitude, physical and nutritional health can affect overall happiness.

Happiness also seems to be a factor in boosting the efficacy of the immune system, with research showing that mood affected cytokine response to flu viruses. One form of happiness (a sense of life meaning) was linked to lower reported pain levels, and less distress in those who live with chronic pain.  We do know that less stress plays a positive role in promoting better health (for example, those who report less stress have a lower risk for health problems like heart attack), but researchers also report that those who are happier are also more likely to engage in behaviors that contribute to make them healthier overall, such as regular exercise and healthy eating habits. Happier people tend to be healthier people, and vice versa. 

Getty/AnnaStills

Exploring The Brain And Gut Connection

You may have heard of an event described as “gut-wrenching” or experienced “butterflies in your stomach” when anticipating a new or uncertain situation. For many, stress induces gut-related side effects like heartburn, stomach cramps, diarrhea, and nausea. This response showcases the direct link between mental health and the stomach. 

While studies show a close interaction between the brain and the gut, stress-related stomach issues are not “all in your head.” Harvard Health explains that researchers found that along with genetic predisposition, stress, depression, and other psychological factors can affect the movement and contractions of the GI tract. Mental health conditions and physical health concerns are often connected. 

Due to this connection, reducing stress or treating mental health conditions may aid in improving gut function and easing chronic stress-related stomach issues. Recent clinical reviews of specific psychotherapy treatments, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), may be useful in helping clients cope with persistent gastrointestinal distress.

The Emotional Effect Of Movement

The connection between exercise and health is primarily accepted as a fact. Additionally, some studies have uncovered a positive link between physical activity and being generally satisfied with life overall. According to a recent study published by the National Library of Medicine, an extensive survey in 24 countries showed that 18–30-year-old young adults with moderate or high physical activity had higher life satisfaction, happiness, and better-perceived health. Although the connection is not entirely clear, happy people tend to enjoy better physical health overall. 

Furthermore, the positive effect of movement is not limited to physical exercise. In a TEDx Talk, dance-movement therapist Dr. Tal Shafir explains that specific movements affect emotion. For example, smiling can “trick” your brain into feeling happy. Other movements, such as stretching, yoga, or practicing deep breathing, can also positively affect your emotional state. Healthy people are often those who take into consideration not only the body, but the mind as well. 

Strengthening The Connection Between Body And Mind

As researchers uncover the connection between health and happiness, it may become apparent that improving and maintaining both aspects can significantly improve the overall quality of our lives. Still, figuring out where to begin a journey of self-improvement can be a tremendous task. 

Initially, it may be helpful to identify problem areas in your life, either physical or emotional. Since not all physical symptoms result from emotional distress, it can be valuable to manage your health with the help of a medical professional. For example, if you experience chronic physical discomforts such as stomach pain or indigestion, first consult a physician to explore the root cause of these issues further.

Learn How Chronic Stress, Pain, And Mental Wellness Are Related

Counseling Options 

Often, proper mental health management can reduce physical discomfort. However, experiencing physical discomfort can make reaching out to an in-person therapist difficult. In these cases, online talk therapy can be highly effective in treating the physical symptoms associated with depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions. In addition, online therapy allows clients to choose between phone, video, and live chat sessions with their therapist. 

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) can be a practical and productive way to identify personal difficulties and learn to manage emotions. According to the American Psychological Association, CBT is based on several core principles, including:

  1. Psychological problems are based, in part, on faulty or unhelpful ways of thinking.
  2. Psychological problems are based, in part, on learned patterns of unhelpful behavior.
  3. People living with psychological problems can learn better ways of coping with them, thereby relieving their symptoms and feeling more effective in their lives.

A licensed therapist can offer personalized treatment and guidance to improve your concerns or conditions. They can also offer support in achieving personal goals related to a focus on positive psychology and outlook in your own life. The American Psychological Association emphasizes that “CBT differs from many other forms of psychological treatment” due to “ample scientific evidence that the methods that have been developed actually produce change.”

Furthermore, CBT has seen significant advancement in research in recent years. An uptick in digital mental health intervention has increased availability of affordable online therapy options through platforms like BetterHelp, which offer matched-based systems to help clients receive quality support from home.  

Along with therapy and mental health management, maintaining a healthy, active lifestyle is often considered beneficial to overall health and happiness. Implementing a daily outdoor walk or incorporating more greens and proteins into your diet may be manageable first steps to strengthening the connection between your health and happiness. 

Takeaway

While research on the topic is ongoing, the connection between happiness and health seems to be apparent in the scientific world, as well as in the lives of individuals. Developing body and mind awareness can play a crucial role in living a happy and healthy life. While taking charge of your physical health is often essential, reducing stress and controlling emotions can be equally important. Consider contacting a therapist for further guidance and support as you strive for emotional fulfillment and personal well-being.

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