Over the years we have reiterated in many different ways that the goal of good physical health cannot be approached in isolation. The philosophy of Complete Wellbeing underscores the importance of taking care of the various aspects that affect an individual’s quality of life. Several studies have been pointing to intrinsic interconnectedness of health and happiness.
Now, new research published in the journal Psychological Science has shown that becoming happy improves your health. The researchers employed tactics that were specifically designed to boost subjective wellbeing. The study found that both online and in-person psychological interventions have positive effects on self-reported physical health. What’s more, there was no difference between the impact of online and in-person interventions—they were found to be 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 randomised controlled trials to suggest that increasing the psychological wellbeing even of generally healthy adults can have benefits to their physical health.”
Kushlev and his colleagues at the University of Virginia and the University of British Columbia spent six months examining the impact of improving the subjective wellbeing of otherwise healthy individuals on their physical health.
How the study was conducted
155 adults between the ages of 25 and 75 were randomly assigned either to a wait-list control condition or a 12-week positive psychological intervention that addressed three different sources of happiness: the “Core Self,” the “Experiential Self,” and the “Social Self.”
The first three weeks of the programme focused on the Core Self, helping individuals identify their personal values, strengths, and goals. Then, for the next five weeks, the focus shifted to the Experiential Self, covering emotion regulation and mindfulness. This phase also gave participants tools to identify maladaptive patterns of thinking. The final four weeks of the programme addressed the Social Self, teaching techniques to cultivate gratitude, foster positive social interactions, and engage more with their community.
Called Enduring Happiness and Continued Self-Enhancement (ENHANCE), the programme consisted of weekly modules either led by a trained clinician or completed individually using a customised online platform. None of the modules focused on promoting physical health or health behaviours such as sleep, exercise, or diet.
Each module featured 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 wellbeing,” Kushlev noted.
When the programme concluded, researchers gave participants individual evaluations and recommendations of which modules would be most effective at improving their happiness in the long term. Three months after the conclusion of the trial, researchers followed up with the participants to evaluate their wellbeing and health.
The finding: Becoming happy improves your health
Participants who received the intervention reported increasing levels of subjective wellbeing over the course of the 12-week programme. They also reported fewer sick days than control participants throughout the programme and three months after it ended.
The study found that the online mode of administering the programme was as effective as the in-person mode that trained facilitators led.
“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.
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