Happiness: The Most Important Part of Your Health

I just got done watching an amazing documentary on Netflix called Happy (check it out, it’s on instant view). Only about 75 minutes and truly one of the best documentaries I’ve watched in a while. I spend a lot of time hammering nutrition info into your brain on here but I think it’s time I touch on what may be the most important aspect of anyone’s life that will lead you to all your health and fitness goals: happiness.

I was thinking a lot tonight about the importance of consistency. If I eat right every day, establish healthy habits, and workout on a regular basis then my body is going to be happy and I’m going to get the results I want. But what about consistency in our minds? Ever notice how one day you can feel sexy, empowered, accomplished and then the next like a failure without any real reason? Take a minute to think about what triggers a shift in your mental patterns:

  • More or less sleep
  • What you’re eating
  • How active you are
  • Arguments or agreements
  • Stress from work or family/friends

Sometimes in a lot of ways it may be easier to be more consistent with what time we do our workout then how we allow our brains to function. But it is possible to establish happy habits and an overall mentality and outlook on life, too.

Here are some amazing things I learned from this documentary:

Our ability to be happy is 50% hereditary, 10% circumstantial, and 40% what we chose. Does that come as a shock to you? Most people think that what happens to us determines our happiness. You got a raise at work = happiness or losing your house = depression. While these things do affect us, they are not as long term as you might think. And while some people are just naturally happier than others, there’s a huge portion that you have control over. Observing our emotions, our thought processes, and not instantly viewing them as facts but merely patterns and impulses can allow us to be happier and choose who we want to react and move forward.

Extrinsic vs. Intrinsic goals. When you think of extrinsic things you want like your job, the kind of car you drive, the clothes you wear, they can often seem less grounded than your intrinsic goals, such as what kind of social interaction you want to have, your own personal goals and self growth, and your community/friends. In my senior year in college I wrote a paper on roommate relationships that showed the same thing, how people with an external locus of control (everything that happens to me is a force beyond my control) were less happy and motivated than people with an internal locus of control (my actions play a part in the outcomes). While there will always be things that are beyond our control, we must take responsibility for our own health and our own lives. Hope that wasn’t too much of a tangent 🙂

Dopamine synapses, which are in large part responsible for that happy feeling, deteriorate as we age. Luckily, there are things we can do to strengthen our synapses and keep dopamine receptors in full force. These include:

  1. Physical exercise – being active releases dopamine in our brains. Go on a long run or think about your High School football days and you’ll remember that rush you felt out on the field. Being active every day is not only important for our bodies and our health but also for our minds! Staying active keeps us happy and keeps those synapses active. Your brain is a lot like a muscle, you’ve got to use it to keep it functioning!
  2. Getting in the zone – when we play sports, go rock climbing, or do anything requiring focus that makes us zone in and forget other things around us, we actually utilize these dopamine synapses in a very similar way. We let go of our ego when we do this. And it doesn’t just have to be sports. Playing music, whether its an intricate piano recital piece or just jamming out on a drum set puts our minds in a state of trance where we hone in on one specific task. People who experience this on a daily basis are more happy in general. Think about it. Everyone has had a job (if not currently) where some days are slower than others. On those busy days you might leave work feeling like you didn’t get enough done, but you’ll also feel accomplished for everything you did. On slow days, it can feel like we aren’t challenging ourselves or accomplishing anything. For me anyway, these are the days I want to go home and eat ice cream for no particular reason. I remember feeling extremely happy at one of my first jobs when I was 16. I worked in a Dry Cleaners and pinned tags on clothes all day but there was such a rhythm and a method to it that time flew by. Think of things that get your brain in the zone like crafting (Pinterest has endless ideas), working with your hands, writing, singing, playing games, crossword and Sudoku puzzles, editing photos, painting, mapping out directions, planning an event, doing your nails, working on your car, etc.
  3. Counting your blessings – in a study where students wrote down 5 things there were grateful for every Sunday night, those that did this task proved happier than those who didn’t. Make it a habit to think about what you are happy and grateful for on a weekly basis, then make it daily. If can you write these things down, even better. Post them on Facebook, make it a fun challenge for you and your friends to spend a week where every day you write a positive post. Get a jar and cut out strips of paper to leave by it and any time you get a chance write down something you are thankful for that day or in general. It could be as simple as being able to pay the cable bill or the fact that your friend is recovering from surgery. Then choose a time to get together with your friends and family and read them, maybe every month or every year at Thanksgiving.
  4. Acts of kindness – little things you can do for others will not only make your heart warm and fuzzy but will also increase your happiness. The studies prove it! I remember one time I was taking the ferry back to Seattle after a weekend with my Mom and the woman at the toll booth told me that the man in front of me had already paid for my car, so I paid for the one behind me, it was a thrill! Helpothers.org is a great site for getting ideas on how to help others or make someone else smile, tons of inspiring stories, too.
  5. Cooperation – this was extremely interesting. The more we work to cooperate with others, the more dopamine we actually release. We live in a society that focuses so much on competition that we forget the importance of cooperation. When we work together in groups or teams, with roommates, friends, and family, we build on these relationships and help our synapses. Think about how great you’ve felt after planning something with a boyfriend or girlfriend and cooperating with each other even as you may have had to change your original plans. Those acts of give and take are good for our brains!

Other things I found interesting is that once our basic needs are met – see Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs if you want to read deeper into the Pyschology edge of this – money really doesn’t make us much happier. The example they used was that the happiness differene between someone who makes $5,000 and $50,000 is huge, but once you have your bases covered, more money doesn’t really make us happier. I dunno, I kinda thought “duh” on that one 🙂

People who are happier also recover faster and and in different ways from traumatic events then people who aren’t. Some of this may sound obvious, but I found it all to be fascinating.

So now you have some ways to work on being happier. The happier you are, the more you’ll want to workout, to make healthy choices and encourage and motivate the people around you to do the same.

Also – in case you were curious, the picture above is of me at age 3 or 4. Who wouldn’t be happy in a bunny suit with a Big Bird stuffed animal 😉

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3 thoughts on “Happiness: The Most Important Part of Your Health

  1. Sarah, thanks for this very inspiring post. Happiness has now become a field of study not just some vague concept. As you pointed out WE are in charge of how happy we are to a great extent. ❤

    Like

  2. Pingback: 10 Ways to Stop Snacking at Night « sarahdoesfitness

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