Health is the secret of happiness

In the long history of mankind, no goal has been more consistently represented, discussed, and pursued than happiness. In fact, our constant focus as a species on happiness – across centuries, continents and circumstances – is probably only matched by the variety of means by which we have tried to obtain it. From Greek philosophers like Aristotle, religious texts like the Koran and the Bible to modern happiness science and self-help books, happiness is a goal we never stop chasing and a feeling we never stop craving.

Although we have traditionally pursued happiness through relationships and religion, status and substance use, money and material possessions, by far the most enduring and powerful factor in our happiness is the quality of our physical health. The profound influence of health on our capacity for happiness is easily demonstrated in two ways: First, the state of our health greatly affects how we feel. Energy, vitality, motivation, and resilience are just some of the many dimensions we typically describe as emotions, which are often instead a manifestation of our physical health. While few would argue that it is possible to experience happiness despite the discomfort of a medical illness, no one can deny that it is more difficult.

Second, the quality of our physical health determines the limits of what we can do. Even in the best of circumstances, the feeling of happiness can be as fickle as the weather or the stock market. Limit our already fickle capacity for happiness even further with diseases and disabilities that rob us of our ability to move and change the world around us, to engage with and experience the people and concerns we care about, and happiness becomes as ephemeral as a rainbow.

Given the intimate connection between physical and mental health, combined with research that shows that simply 2.7% of American adults are already physically healthy—based on standards of not smoking, exercising regularly, eating a nutritious diet, and maintaining a recommended level of body fat based on DEXA scans (dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry; 1)—it is perhaps no wonder that levels of happiness in The US has been declining since the 1990s (2).

How health turns into happiness or its opposite

Source: Thomas Rutledge

Emerging metabolic research and behavioral neuroscience offer even more precise insights into how our physical health directly and indirectly regulates our emotional well-being. As summarized in the figure above, our lifestyle habits and underlying biology form a symbiotic relationship that underlies our physical and mental health. Like two sides of the same coin, behavior and physiological processes act as inseparable components of a repeating cycle throughout our lives.

At any given moment, our feelings and functional abilities are the product of a complex interplay of processes occurring at the level of our genes and epigenome, the capabilities of our organs, and the state of our hormones and neurotransmitters. Although our emotions and behavior are effects of these processes, they are both causes in a vicious or virtuous health cycle. The quality of your sleep last night changed the state of hundreds of genes, the nutrition provided by your diet today offers either an abundance or a deficiency of the ingredients your body needs to create and convert neurotransmitters and hormones, and the frequency and intensity of your physical activity throughout the day, it alters the function of dozens of hormones and even alters the state of your gut microbiome (3).

Informed by modern research, it becomes impossible to view our everyday lifestyle choices as inconsequential. They are actually powerful levers and control switches that determine our capacity for health and happiness.

We know more than ever that happiness is an inside game. As science enables us to gain more and more insight into the human body, the connection between mind, body and spirit recognized by philosophers centuries ago is explicable as an interaction between our behavior and biology. However, this study offers more than an explanation for this phenomenon. It also reveals the remarkable power of our healthy habits to improve our potential for happiness.

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