“Happiness is the highest form of health”, said the Dalai Lama, and he could be right.
The desire to do what makes us happy is high because it feels good. But do happy feelings only have psychological benefits, or are there physical benefits as well?
That was the question Kostadin Kushlev, Professor of Psychology at Georgetown University and colleagues at the University of Virginia and the University of British Columbia, wanted to answer.
The team designed a 3-month psychological intervention using evidence-based tools from positive psychology to increase subjective wellbeing – a term used to describe how people evaluate their lives.
In the experiment, 155 adults with an average age of 45 completed quality of life and health questionnaires. In addition, the scientists recorded the participants’ blood pressure and BMI during the intervention and 3-months later.
Half the group received 12-week training, either online or in group sessions, and half were added to a waiting list.
The ENHANCE program (which stands for Enduring Happiness and Continued Self-Enhancement) aimed to increase three key aspects of happiness.
Part one identified personal values, strengths and goals.
Part two focused on emotional regulation, mindfulness and tools to recognise and overcome unhelpful patterns of thought.
Part three taught ways to cultivate more gratitude, positive social interaction and engagement in the community.
The findings published in the journal Psychological Science found that during the program and 3-months later, the treatment group reported fewer sick days compared to the control group.
The results indicate that feeling happier helped people feel better about their general health, even when no physical changes to blood pressure or BMI were found, which may have been due to the short duration of the study.
The effectiveness of the program was the same for online and in-house training.
“Using an externally valid manipulation to boost subjective wellbeing beyond the laboratory, the current work joins a growing body of literature suggesting that increasing subjective wellbeing can lead to feeling healthier. Happiness might be good not only for the mind but for the body as well.” wrote the authors.
Kushlev.K., Heintzelman.S., Lutes.L et al. (2020). Does happiness improve health? Evidence from a randomised controlled trial. Psychological Science, 1-15. Doi: 10.1177/9056797620919673.