Her stomach was filled with butterflies. His face was hot with anger. Her limbs were heavy with sorrow. His heart leaped with joy.
Emotions do not remain restricted to the brain – they filter down throughout the whole body, energizing limbs and activating organs. In a 2013 study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences entitled “Bodily maps of emotions,” Finnish researchers induced different emotions in a set of 701 participants and then asked them to describe where in their body they felt those emotions. When participants were angry, they felt heightened activity in their face and upper body. When participants were sad, they experienced increased activity in their chest and decreased activity – or heaviness – in their limbs. Only one emotion increased activity in the entire body: happiness.
What makes happiness so special? Researchers aren’t sure, but a vast amount of research has indicated that the widespread physiological effect of happiness can have positive influences on everything from cognition to cholesterol. For instance, a 2007 Harvard study entitled “Emotional vitality and incident coronary heart disease: benefits of healthy psychological functioning” published in the journal Archives of General Psychiatry found that emotional vitality – defined as hopefulness, a positive engagement in life and the ability to stay calm in the face of stress – reduced the risk of coronary heart disease. Researchers found these same results even after controlling for individuals who smoked or failed to perform regular exercise. In another study, the same researchers found that optimism cut the risk of coronary heart disease in half. Other research found that people who are happy tend to eat better, exercise more frequently and fall asleep more easily, all of which contribute positively to physical health.
But happiness doesn’t always happen
What about individuals who aren’t happy? What about people suffering from mental illness? Many research studies have found that negative emotions such as anxiety and anger put wear and tear on the body, ultimately raising the risk of serious illness. For instance, a study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal entitled “Enjoyment of life and declining physical function at older ages: a longitudinal cohort study” found that individuals, who were 60 years old and older and who said that they enjoyed life less, were more likely to develop disabilities over an eight-year period.
Unfortunately, mental illness physically changes the brain and alters the production of neurotransmitters, hindering an individual’s ability to experience calmness or serenity. People with mental illness cannot simply “choose” to become happy.
“My biggest fear was that journalists would pick it up and the headlines would be, ‘Don’t worry, be happy,’” explained Laura Kubzansky, Ph.D., M.P.H., a professor at Harvard who has performed extensive research on the health benefits of happiness and led the above Harvard studies. “That’s useless. Not everyone lives in an environment where you can turn off worry. When you take this research out of the social context, it has the potential to be a slippery slope for victim blaming.”
What, then, can a person with mental illness do to receive the health benefits associated with happiness? They can get treatment – according to a 2008 survey conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), only half of adults in the United States with a serious mental illness received treatment for their disorder. The road to recovery from mental illness is difficult and fraught with challenges, but for the majority of individuals, that bright, full-body glow of happiness is well within reach.
National Happiness Happens Day is on Aug. 8, 2015. Take time to celebrate and do something that makes you smile.
Sovereign Mental Health Services provides innovative, cutting-edge treatment for a wide range of mental health disorders including depression, anxiety, PTSD, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. Sovereign’s unique brain wellness program helps patients achieve happiness both within and outside of the program. For more information, please contact 866-954-0529.
Written by Courtney Lopresti, M.S. neuroscience, Sovereign Health Group writer