It is universally accepted that the state of your mind affects the state of your body. If you feel stressed out and overwhelmed you are likely to experience fatigue and muscle tension. Equally, if you feel happy and calm you are likely to have more energy and physical vitality. The mind and body exist within a dynamic relationship whereby every cell contains the essence of your thoughts and emotions. The implications of the mind body connection are profound when you consider that you are having a 24/7 conversation with yourself.
Glass Half Full
What is the quality of your conversation? Do you tend to see the glass half full? If you answered yes, you can expect to have higher levels of happiness, life satisfaction and improved health. If you answered no, research shows that pessimism and high stress compromise well-being and lead to significant loss in confidence, motivation and productivity. Equally happiness has been linked to the primary measures of wellbeing. Increased happiness levels lead to increased health potential. In our work for the past 20 years, we feel fortunate to have spent 10 of these years working in alternative medicine witnessing firsthand the mind, body and spirit connection to health and well-being. 1
Stress Makes You Less Intelligent
An interesting fact you may not be aware of is that stress actually makes people less intelligent. When you don’t deal with stress effectively your thought process becomes rigid and simplistic and your ability to perform mental tasks and solve problems is diminished. Stress literally decreases oxygen flow to your brain, thereby decreasing your mental clarity and creativity. It excites your nervous system causing you to feel edgy and less emotionally resilient and flexible with yourself and others. This is hardly the optimal mind-set for your health and success. The mind and body are intricately connected.
Mind Body Stress
Neuropeptides, discovered by researcher Candace Pert in the 1980s, are one of the most significant science-based links to the min body connection. Neuropeptides are located on the outside of every cell and are responsible for communicating emotions. Previously, emotions were considered the domain of the emotional brain. Thanks to this discovery, we now understand that emotions are located in the brain, stomach, immune system, endocrine system, heart, and essentially every major body system, organ, and cell. This is known as the field of Psychoneuroimmunoendocronology.2
What this means for you: You can use your mind to calm, energize, and even heal your body. What you think—and especially what you feel—directly impacts your physical body and vice versa. Consider the quality of your emotional tone on a daily basis. Are you primarily content, calm, and happy? Or do you tend to feel impatient, stressed, and anxious? The discovery of neuropeptides substantiates the wealth of research on the health and well-being effects of optimism. When you strengthen your happiness muscle, you improve your overall well-being.
The Happiness Habit to Change Your Brain
Brain plasticity is an area of study that has received significant attention in the last 5 years. It refers to the ability of the brain to “re-wire” itself in response to conditions. What this means to you is that if you want to be happier you can change your brain by practicing new habits of mind. Contrary to popular belief, you don’t BREAK habits you simply REPLACE them. When you practice new habits you naturally weaken old ones. In doing so, you change your brain. Increasing happiness takes practice and conditioning much like building muscle mass through weight training. Comparing happiness to muscle development is a paradigm shift for many people. If you want to learn a new language, improve your tennis serve or build bigger biceps it is universally accepted that you must practice these new skills. The same is true for emotional well-being training.
Epigenetics: Genes Are Not Hardwired
In addition to understanding the power of neural plasticity, the field of epigenetics brings new hope for anyone wanting to experience more happiness and joy in life. According to epigenetics, factors occurring outside of your DNA can actually change your genes. These external factors include your environment, lifestyle choices, energetic influences, thought patterns and emotional stress. This is a completely different approach than genetic determinism. Stem cell biologist and bestselling author Bruce Lipton is at the forefront of the evolving field of epigenetics. According to Lipton, “The difference between these two (epigenetics and genetic determinism) is significant because this fundamental belief called genetic determinism literally means that our lives, which are defined as our physical, physiological and emotional behavioral traits, are controlled by the genetic code,”3
Given emotional stress and thought patterns can impact your genes, this has significant implications for health and happiness. Applying effective strategies to decrease stress and increase happiness is key to overall well-being. In fact, Lipton goes on to say,
“You can control your genes by influencing your beliefs and personal attitudes. How I see the world and my perception controls not just internal biology and genetic behavior but it controls how I create a world around me, your mind’s perception of the world changes the biology and chemistry of your body which changes the cells in your body.”4
What are the specific areas of training that have been shown to increase happiness? First consider that happiness is not just an emotion. Happy people have identifiable happiness characteristics that lead to seeing the glass half full, which anyone can develop with focus, practice and conditioning. Let’s explore five keys to happiness to assist you in rewiring your brain for the happiness habit.
Top Five Keys to Happiness
1.Purpose in life—Do you feel your life has meaning and that you make a positive contribution?
Purpose and meaning are positively correlated with three fundamental aspects of life experience: wealth, health, and happiness. Groundbreaking research from the Netherlands has shown that doing something you enjoy or feel passionate about daily is the single most important factor leading to health and longevity. The study was conducted with 25,000 people over the course of 25 years as a lifespan review. This single factor, amazingly, surpassed all other lifestyle factors—even diet, exercise, smoking, and alcohol consumption. The conclusion: discover your strengths and passions and engage in them daily and you will live a long healthy life. It sounds simple, yet statistics show that most people don’t feel purposeful.5
2. Self acceptance – Do you appreciate who you are?
Be yourself by being true to your uniqueness and heart’s desires. When you embrace what is important to and defining of you, you increase self-confidence, self-trust, self-respect and self-acceptance.
3. Strong social relationships–Do you have a core group of people who you connect with regularly?
Countless studies have demonstrated that we are physically and mentally healthier when we’re surrounded by a supportive network of family and friends. Social support provides many benefits, including improved performance, longevity, happiness, health, recovery time, motivation, stress management, and marital satisfaction.6
Social support has been shown to decrease anxiety, depression, pain, and fatigue while improving mood, self-image, and feelings of control.7 Health and happiness are cultivated through your relationships with others. To help demonstrate the importance of social connections, let’s consider what happens when you don’t engage in regular socializing.
Not spending time with friends has been shown to be as detrimental to your health as smoking or being overweight, according to Harvard Medical School. That is a bold discovery and offers a strong incentive to allow your socializing to be a source of health and happiness.8
4. Feeling of control—Do you feel empowered to make desired changes in your life?
Feeling a sense of control has been associated with decreased stress as it leads to feeling autonomous, competent and empowered. Stressors aren’t stressful if you think you can escape or solve them. Yet it’s critical at this stage to be clear about what you’re actually controlling. If you believe this includes other people, places, or things, you’re going to experience more stress. What you can control is how you choose to respond in the present moment.
5. Gratitude – Do you regularly feel grateful for the people, things and experiences in your life?
Grateful people are healthier people. People who keep weekly gratitude journals exercise regularly, sleep better, report fewer physical symptoms, feel better about their lives as a whole, and are more optimistic when compared to those who focus on problems or neutral life events. According to studies by Lyubomirsky and colleagues, the simple practice of counting your blessings each day has further shown profound effects on health and happiness. This exercise has lasting benefits that are more reliably attached to reducing depression than stopping smoking is attached to reducing cancer. In another study, researchers observed that just five minutes of genuinely feeling a positive emotion such as appreciation or compassion can give a beneficial boost to the immune system and heart rhythm coherence. Coherence reflects more balanced heart rhythms that are correlated with health and well-being.9
Happiness is a universally aspired state of being and more than available to every one of us through practice and training!
Click here to learn how The Happy Map book can support you on your happiness journey!
Coaching and Counseling
Hilary Stokes Ph.D. and Kim Ward Ph.D. have been a team for 20 years, specializing in mind, body, spirit psychology. They are the authors of the bestselling books The Happy Map: Your roadmap to the habit of happiness and Manifesting Mindset: The 6-step formula for attracting your goals and dreams and founders of Authenticity Associates Coaching and Counseling. They are passionate about combining the best of holistic and traditional approaches to health and happiness. If you are interested in learning the answers to the most frequently asked questions on how to decrease stress and increase happiness sign up for their free video series.
- Stokes, H. & Ward, K. (2014).The Happy Map: Your roadmap to the habit of happiness. San Diego: Bonsai Press
- Pert, C. (1999). Molecules of emotion: The science behind mind-body medicine. New York: Simon and Schuster.
- Graham, D. (2008, September). Genetics, Epigenetics, and Destiny. Superconscious Magazine.
- Bhavika (2013, February 6). Alter Your Genes and Cure any Disease. Fractal Enlightenment.
- Perkins-Reed, M. (1990). When 9 to 5 isn’t enough (revised ed.). Carlsbad, CA: Hay House.
Perkins-Reed, M. (1991). Discovering your life’s purpose (audiobook). Carlsbad, CA: Hay House.
- Holt-Lundstad, J., Smith, T., Layton, J. (2007). Social relationships and mortality risk: A meta-analytic review. PLoS Med, 7(7), e1000316. doi: 10.1371/journal.pmed.1000316
- Classen, C., Butler L., Koopman, C., Miller, E., DiMiceli, S., Giese-Davis, J., Fobair, P., Carlson, R., Kraemer, H., Speigel, D. (2001). Supportive-expressive group therapy and distress in patients with metastatic breast cancer: A randomized clinical intervention trial. Archives of General Psychiatry, 58, 494–501.
Goodwin, P., Leszcz, M., Ennis, M., Koopmans, J., Vincent, L., Guther, H., Drysdale, E., Hundleby, M., Chochinov, H., Navarro, M., Speca, M., Hunter, J. (2001). The effect of group psychosocial support on survival in metastatic breast cancer. New England Journal of Medicine, 345, 1719–1726.
Brusilovskiy, E., Mitstifer, M., Salzer, M. (2009). Perceived partner adaptation and psychosocial outcomes for newly diagnosed stage I and stage II breast cancer patients. Journal of Psychosocial Oncology, 27(1), 42–58.
Høyer, M., Johansson, B., Nordin, K., Bergkvist, L., Ahlgren, J., Lidin-Lindqvist, A., Lambe, M., Lampic, C. (2011, May 23). Health-related quality of life among women with breast cancer: A population-based study. Acta Oncologica, e-pub ahead of print.
- Holt-Lunstad, J., Smith, T., Layton, J. (2010). Social relationships and mortality risk: A meta-analytic review, PLoS Med, 7(7), e1000316. doi: 10.1371/journal.pmed.1000316
- Lyubomirskly, S., King, L., Diener, E. (2005). The benefits of frequent positive affect: Does happiness lead to success? Psychological Bulletin, 131(6), 803–855.