Health and happiness depend on each other

A growing body of research bolsters the case that a happy outlook can have a real impact on your physical wellbeing.

New research published in the journal Psychological Science has shown that both online and in-person psychological interventions – tactics specifically designed to improve subjective wellbeing – have positive effects on physical health. The online and in-person methods were also equally effective.

“Though prior studies have shown that happier people tend to have better cardiovascular health and immune-system responses than their less happy counterparts,” said Kostadin Kushlev, a professor in Georgetown University’s Department of Psychology and one of the authors of the paper, “our research is one of the first randomized controlled trials to suggest that increasing the psychological well-being even of generally healthy adults can have benefits to their physical health.”

Intervention for Healthy Outcomes

Over the course of six months, Kushlev and his colleagues at the University of Virginia and the University of British Columbia studied how people’s physical health was affected by the improvement of their subjective wellbeing.

A group of 155 adults between the ages of 25 and 75 who were not hospitalised or undergoing medical treatment were randomly assigned to either a wait-list control condition or a 12-week positive psychological intervention which addressed three different sources of happiness. These are the “Core Self”, the “Experiential Self”, and the “Social Self”.

In the first 3 weeks of the program, the participants focused on the Core Self. This helped the individuals to identify their personal values, strengths, and goals. The next 5 weeks focused on the Experiential Self, and covered emotion regulation and mindfulness. Participants were also given the tools to identify maladaptive patterns of thinking. The final 4 weeks of the program addressed the Social Self, and taught participants to cultivate gratitude, foster positive social interactions, and engage more within their community.

The program, called Enduring Happiness and Continued Self-Enhancement (ENHANCE), was made up of weekly modules which were either led by a trained clinician or completed individually using an online platform. None of the modules focused on promoting physical health or health behaviours.

Each module consisted of an hour-long lesson with information and exercises; a weekly writing assignment, such as journaling; and an active behavioural component, such as guided meditation.

“All of the activities were evidence-based tools to increase subjective well-being,” Kushlev noted.

When the program concluded, the participants were each given individual evaluations and recommendations of which modules would be most effective at improving their happiness in the long term. Three months later, researchers followed up with the participants to evaluate their health and wellbeing.

A Happy Future

Participants who participated in the program reported increased levels of subjective wellbeing over the course of the 12 weeks. They also reported fewer sick days than control participants both throughout the program and during the three months after it ended. The online mode of administering the program was also shown to be just as effective as the in-person mode led by trained facilitators.

“These results speak to the potential of such interventions to be scaled in ways that reach more people in environments such as college campuses to help increase happiness and promote better mental health among students,” Kushlev said.

Source : Kostadin Kushlev, Samantha J. Heintzelman, Lesley D. Lutes, Derrick Wirtz, Jacqueline M. Kanippayoor, Damian Leitner, Ed Diener. Does Happiness Improve Health? Evidence From a Randomized Controlled Trial. Psychological Science, 2020; 31 (7): 807 DOI: 1177/0956797620919673