Millions of grandmothers used to say, stop frowning or your face will freeze that way. Despite millions of eye rolls in return, it turns out they were right. A furrowed brow does make you look older and stress is one of the greatest aging accelerators. But there’s more. As Sara Rimer puts it in “Happiness and Health” in the Harvard School of Public Health, there is “a vast scientific literature” on the physical harm of negative emotions. They “can alter biological systems in a way that, over time, adds up to ‘wear and tear’ and, eventually, illnesses.” On the flip side, there is a growing body of research showing that happiness has a positive influence on our physical health.

We already know how much stress and the resulting inflammation — from emotions, poor nutrition, infection, or lack of sleep — are strongly linked to acne, aging, hair loss, complications from nail biting, as well as rosacea, eczema and psoriasis flareups. Emotional well being is so important to these diseases that support groups are standard in psoriasis management, for example.

Chronic negativity is also associated with “heart disease, stroke, and diabetes,” and can even “disrupt cardiac function…hastening atherosclerosis, and increasing systemic inflammation.”

That negativity needs to be avoided is clear. But how does happiness actually help our health? A UC Davis study2 has linked meditation to an increase in telomerase, an enzyme fundamental to the long-term youth of cells. Another3 from Johns Hopkins showed that happier people are a third to 50% less likely to have a heart attack compared to those who were unhappy. Some studies suggest that happier people may be better able to resist getting a cold when exposed to the virus.

Happy people tend to have more energy and take better care of themselves — from food choices to regular exercise, strong social ties, and even daily sunscreen — which helps sustain happiness by releasing endorphins and maintaining good health.

Happier people tend to have lower blood pressure and live longer, too. One study followed 25- to 74-year old men and women for 20 years. Across the more than 6,000 subjects, “emotional vitality — a sense of enthusiasm, of hopefulness, of engagement in life, and the ability to face life’s stresses with emotional balance — appears to reduce the risk of coronary heart disease. The protective effect was distinct and measurable, even when taking into account such wholesome behaviors as not smoking and regular exercise.” A study as far back as 1979 of over 7,000 people showed that unhappier people (measured as having “fewer social ties”) “were more than twice as likely to die over the nine-year follow-up period, an effect unrelated to behaviors such as smoking, drinking, and physical activity.”

So the goal is to get healthy and happy because it creates more health and happiness.

How? Luckily, it seems there’s no big secret — just hark back to some more of Grannie’s nuggets of wisdom: be grateful, be kind, nurture loving relationships, eat right, exercise regularly, prioritize balance, and stop and smell the roses, for instance.

More lessons can be found in Harvard’s 75-year long Grant Study on happiness, the subject of George E. Vaillant’s book, Triumphs of Experience. Among them (another Grannie classic) don’t cry over spilled milk. As Vaillant shared in a Wall Street Journal interview, the happier men in the study did not focus on what that had gone wrong. Instead, “they had learned how to savor the things that had gone right.” Or, learn from 79-year old Charles Boatwright who, looking back on his roller coaster ride of a life, shared, “It’s not what you’ve accomplished in a day, but how the day felt.” Focus not on the acquisitions or the doing but on the gratitude and positive feelings.

Getting healthy can help you feel good and look amazing. And a growing body of evidence suggests that getting happy can improve your biological systems. Not like we needed more reasons to choose happiness — but improved health, a longer life and a prolonged glow while living it seem like some pretty awesome ones.

Sources:

1. Rimer, Sara. Happiness & Health. Harvard School of Public Health. Winter, 2011. 
2. Jacobs, T.L., et al., Intensive meditation training, immune cell telomerase activity, and psychological mediators. Psychoneuroendocrinology (2010), doi:10.1016/j.psyneuen.2010.09.010 and Positive psychological changes from meditation training linked to cellular health. UC Davis News and Information. Nov. 3, 2010. 
3. Yanek, LR, Kral, BG,, Moy, TF, Vaidya, D, Lazo, M, Becker, LC, Becker, DM. Effect of Positive Well-Being on Incidence of Symptomatic Coronary Artery Disease. American Journal of Cardiology. Volume 112, Issue 8 , Pages 1120-1125, 15 October 2013. 
4. Cohen, S., Doyle, W. J., Turner, R. B., Alper, C. M., & Skoner, D. P. (2003). Emotional style and susceptibility to the common cold. Psychosomatic Medicine, 65, 652-657. 
5. Vaillant, G. (2012). Triumphs of Experience: The Men of the Harvard Grant Study. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press

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