The Biology of Happiness

By Michelle Flythe | March 1, 2005 | 0 comments

According to new research, happiness isn’t just a state of mind. It affects your heart rate, your body chemistry, and it could contribute to substantial physical health benefits over time.

British researchers Andrew Steptoe, Jane Wardle, and Michael Marmot asked 228 volunteers, ages 45-59, to rate their levels of happiness over a workday and a leisure day, and monitored their blood pressure and heart rate regularly. Volunteers also gave saliva samples and completed a mental stress test. Study results showed that people with higher happiness ratings not only had a lower heart rate, but also had lower levels in their saliva of cortisol, a hormone associated with stress, and less concentration in their blood of a plasma that’s connected to heart disease.

While some of the differences between happier individuals and their less happy counterparts were small, the researchers point out the potential impact of these seemingly minor variations over an extended period of time. “If differences of this magnitude are elicited in everyday life when people are exposed to daily hassles and challenges,” they write, “the result could be a marked difference in cardiovascular disease risk.” They also note that lower levels of cortisol are related to reduced long-term risk of abdominal obesity, type II diabetes, hypertension, and immune system problems.

For years, research has shown that reducing depression, stress, anxiety, and other negative states decreases the risk of heart disease and other maladies. This study has gone a step further by linking a positive emotional state to physical health benefits. Indeed, when the researchers measured their participants’ levels of psychological distress, they found that the physical health benefits of happiness occurred independent of whether or not participants showed any signs of depression or another negative state. This suggests that there may be a distinct biology of happiness that carries its own set of health benefits, beyond the benefits of simply not being depressed.

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