Happiness & Health: Making Positive Changes

As many of you know, runners from all over the world flocked to Sussex today for the famous Brighton Marathon. I took a stroll along the seafront today, cheered on a few of the runners and watched in awe as people crossed the finish line.

It’s a huge achievement, isn’t it? Imagine spotting the finish line in the distance, knowing you’re almost there, being able to proudly add the ‘Ran Brighton Marathon 2014″ to your mental CV. Not only that, but the vast majority take on the run to raise money for charities and good causes – so not only have you racked up almost 30 miles on your fitness clock, but you’ve made a huge difference to the lives of others. Not bad for a day’s work, eh? 

As I watched the runners cross the finish line, I couldn’t help but feel inspired by their determination and spirit. Above all, I was in awe of how healthy the runners must be to cover such a stretch in such a short time.

recent study by Action for Happiness found that health plays a key role in our happiness. When asked to select the three most important factors for their own happiness and well-being, interviewees stated that ‘my relationships with my partner/family’ was most important, with 80% of people choosing this. The next highest was ‘my health’ at 71% – proving that a significant number of people know that their overall health contributes directly to their happiness.

It’s also proven that happiness is good for our health. Another study by Harvard School of Public Health examined 200 separate research studies on psychological well-being and cardiovascular health. Optimism and positive emotion were found to provide protection against cardiovascular disease – that is, to slow progression of heart disease and reduce risk – by around 50%, of those experiencing a cardiovascular ‘event’, such as a heart attack.

So, it seems that our overall health can affect how happy we are – but equally, our overall happiness affects how healthy we are. The two go hand in hand; but where do we start? How can we start making positive changes?

A few weeks ago, I decided to make a few changes myself, as a means of experimenting with my happiness levels . Though I take happiness very seriously (well, it is our specialty!), I know that external factors and things out of my control can contribute to how happy I might feel on a daily basis. However, I’m also aware that the happier I am in day to day life – that is, the more I appreciate the little things – the less likely I am to be bothered by the factors that are out of my control.

I also wanted to ensure that the changes I wanted to make were doable. It’s all well and good to think “I’ll swim 10 miles every day” or “I’ll only eat beans for 7 weeks”, but if we set ourselves unrealistic goals, we’re not very likely to achieve them.

With my health in mind, I decided to change my diet to understand how the things I eat might affect my happiness. I’ve always been a healthy eater – I LOVE vegetables – but I decided to take this a step further.

For 4 weeks, I’ve stopped eating meat, I’ve exercised more than usual, and I’ve been drinking much more water than usual. The changes haven’t been overwhelming or, dare i say it, even noticeably difficult; I’ve replaced meat with meat-substitutes and leave the car at home more often, choosing to walk where possible. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how easy it’s been to make simple changes that dramatically influence my health.

I’ve also been surprised by the benefits I’ve experienced so far – I’m considerably more alert when at work, I’m sleeping better, and I feel great knowing that I’m making a huge difference to my health, every day.

Shawn Achor, a Happiness Guru from Harvard University, devised an experiment entitled the 21 Day Challenge. I tried the experiment a couple of years ago, and it made a huge difference to my overall happiness. Achor claims that happiness is something we need to work on, that takes time and energy to get right. Take a look at the researched habits below, which form the 21 Day Challenge:

1. Write down three new things you are grateful for each day into a blank word document. Research shows this will significantly improve your optimism even 6 months later, and raises your success rates significantly.

2. Write for 2 minutes a day describing one positive experience you had over the past 24 hours. This is a strategy to help transform you from a task-based thinker, to a meaning based thinker who scans the world for meaning instead of endless to-dos. This dramatically increases work happiness.  

3. Exercise for 10 minutes a day. This trains your brain to believe your behavior matters, which causes a cascade of success throughout the rest of the day.  

4. Meditate for 2 minutes, focusing on your breath going in and out. This will help you undo the negative effects of multitasking. Research shows you get multiple tasks done faster if you do them one at a time. It also decreases stress and raises happiness.  

5. Write one, quick email first thing in the morning thanking or praising a member on your team. This significantly increases your feeling of social support – Achor’s study at Harvard showed this was the largest predictor of happiness for the students. 

As you can see, exercise plays a key role in this experiment, which contributes to our overall health. The next step in my personal happiness experiment is to retake the 21 Day challenge – I’m keen to understand how my diet, combined with the habits in the Challenge, contribute to my overall health and wellbeing.

Have you actively tried to increase your happiness? Perhaps you’ve taken the 21 Day Challenge, or created your own happiness experiment? If so, we’d love to hear about it – comment in the section below, or contact us.


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