A happy outlook on life can have a very real impact on your physical well-being, including fewer sick days, according to a new study published in the journal Psychological Science.
“Though prior studies have shown that happier people tend to have better cardiovascular health and immune-system responses than their less happy counterparts, 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,” said Dr. Kostadin Kushlev, a professor in Georgetown University’s Department of Psychology and one of the authors of the paper.
The findings show that both online and in-person psychological interventions — tactics specifically designed to boost subjective well-being — have positive effects on self-reported physical health. The online and in-person interventions were equally effective.
For a six-month period, Kushlev and his colleagues at the University of Virginia and the University of British Columbia investigated how improving the subjective well-being of people who were not hospitalized or otherwise undergoing medical treatment impacted their physical health.
A group of 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 focused on three different sources of happiness: the “Core Self,” the “Experiential Self,” and the “Social Self.”
The first 3 weeks of the program focused on the Core Self, helping the participants identify their personal values, strengths, and goals.
The next 5 weeks focused on the Experiential Self, covering emotion regulation and mindfulness. This phase also gave participants the tools to identify dysfunctional patterns of thinking.
The final 4 weeks of the program looked at the Social Self, in which participants learned techniques to cultivate gratitude, foster positive social interactions, and engage more with their community.
The program, called Enduring Happiness and Continued Self-Enhancement (ENHANCE), consisted of weekly modules either led by a trained clinician or completed individually using a customized online platform. None of the modules focused on promoting physical health or health behaviors, 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 behavioral component, such as guided meditation.
“All of the activities were evidence-based tools to increase subjective well-being,” Kushlev said.
When the program ended, the participants were given individual evaluations and recommendations of which modules would be most effective at improving their happiness in the long term. Three months after the end of the trial, the research team followed up with the participants to evaluate their well-being and health.
The results show that participants who received the intervention reported increasing levels of subjective well-being over the course of the 12-week program. They also reported fewer sick days than control participants throughout the program and 3 months after it ended.
The online mode of administering the program was shown to be 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.