“Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.”
The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle said these words more than 2,000 years ago, and they still ring true today.
Happiness is a broad term that describes the experience of positive emotions, such as joy, contentment and satisfaction.
Emerging research shows that being happier doesn’t just make you feel better — it actually brings a host of potential health benefits.
This article explores the ways in which being happy may make you healthier.
Being happy promotes a range of lifestyle habits that are important for overall health. Happy people tend to eat healthier diets, with higher intakes of fruits, vegetables and whole grains (1Trusted Source, 2Trusted Source).
A study of more than 7,000 adults found that those with a positive well-being were 47% more likely to consume fresh fruits and vegetables than their less positive counterparts (3Trusted Source).
Diets rich in fruits and vegetables have consistently been associated with a range of health benefits, including lower risks of diabetes, stroke and heart disease (4Trusted Source, 5, 6Trusted Source).
In the same study of 7,000 adults, researchers found that individuals with a positive well-being were 33% more likely to be physically active, with 10 or more hours of physical activity per week (3Trusted Source).
What’s more, being happier may also improve sleep habits and practices, which is important for concentration, productivity, exercise performance and maintaining a healthy weight (10Trusted Source, 11Trusted Source, 12Trusted Source).
One study of over 700 adults found that sleep problems, including trouble falling asleep and difficulty staying asleep, were 47% higher in those who reported low levels of positive well-being (13Trusted Source).
That said, a 2016 review of 44 studies concluded that, while there appears to be a link between positive well-being and sleep outcomes, further research from well-designed studies is needed to confirm the association (14).
A healthy immune system is important for overall health. Research has shown that being happier may help keep your immune system strong (15Trusted Source).
This may help reduce your risk of developing colds and chest infections (16Trusted Source).
One study in over 300 healthy people looked at the risk of developing a cold after individuals were given a common cold virus via nasal drops.
The least happy people were almost three times as likely to develop the common cold compared to their happier counterparts (17Trusted Source).
In another study, researchers gave 81 university students a vaccine against hepatitis B, a virus that attacks the liver. Happier students were nearly twice as likely to have a high antibody response, a sign of a strong immune system (18Trusted Source).
The effects of happiness on the immune system are not completely understood.
It may be due to the impact of happiness on the activity of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, which regulates your immune system, hormones, digestion and stress levels (18Trusted Source, 19Trusted Source).
What’s more, happy people are more likely to take part in health-promoting behaviors that play a role in keeping the immune system strong. These include healthy eating habits and regular physical activity (17Trusted Source).
Normally, excess stress causes an increase in levels of cortisol, a hormone that contributes to many of the harmful effects of stress, including disturbed sleep, weight gain, type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure.
In fact, one study in over 200 adults gave participants a series of stressful lab-based tasks, and found that the cortisol levels in the happiest individuals were 32% lower than for unhappy participants (25Trusted Source).
These effects appeared to persist over time. When the researchers followed up with the same group of adults three years later, there was a 20% difference in cortisol levels between the happiest and least happy people (26Trusted Source).
A study of over 6,500 people over the age of 65 found that positive well-being was linked to a 9% lower risk of high blood pressure (29Trusted Source).
Happiness may also reduce the risk of heart disease, the biggest cause of death worldwide (30Trusted Source).
One long-term of 1,500 adults found that happiness helped protect against heart disease.
Happiness was associated with a 22% lower risk over the 10-year study period, even after risk factors were accounted for, such as age, cholesterol levels and blood pressure (34Trusted Source).
It appears that happiness may also help protect people who already have heart disease. A systematic review of 30 studies found that greater positive well-being in adults with established heart disease lowered the risk of death by 11% (35Trusted Source).
It is important to note that some of these effects may have been due to an increase in heart-healthy behaviors such as physical activity, avoiding smoking and healthy eating habits (1Trusted Source, 2Trusted Source, 10Trusted Source, 36Trusted Source).
That said, not all studies have found associations between happiness and heart disease (37Trusted Source).
In fact, a recent study that looked at nearly 1,500 individuals over a 12-year period found no association between positive well-being and the risk of heart disease (38Trusted Source).
Further high-quality, well-designed research is needed in this area.
Being happy may help you live longer
A long-term study published in 2015 looked at the effect of happiness on survival rates in 32,000 people
The risk of death over the 30-year study period was 14% higher in unhappy individuals compared to their happier counterparts.
A large review of 70 studies looked at the association between positive well-being and longevity in both healthy people and those with a pre-existing health condition, such as heart or kidney disease
Higher positive well-being was found to have a favorable effect on survival, reducing the risk of death by 18% in healthy people and by 2% in those with pre-existing disease.
How happiness may lead to greater life expectancy is not well understood.
It may be partly explained by an increase in beneficial behaviors that prolong survival, such as not smoking, engaging in physical activity, medication compliance, and good sleep habits and practices
Arthritis is a common condition that involves inflammation and degeneration of the joints. It causes painful and stiff joints, and generally worsens with age.
A number of studies have found that higher positive well-being may reduce the pain and stiffness associated with the condition
Being happy may also improve physical functioning in people with arthritis.
One study in over 1,000 people with painful arthritis of the knee found that happier individuals walked an extra 711 steps each day — 8.5% more than their less happy counterparts .
Happiness may also help reduce pain in other conditions. A study in nearly 1,000 people recovering from stroke found that the happiest individuals had 13% lower pain ratings after three months of leaving the hospital
Researchers have suggested that happy people may have lower pain ratings because their positive emotions help broaden their perspective, encouraging new thoughts and ideas.