The Link Between Happiness and Your Immune System
It's no surprise that stress can mess with your body, but the latest science is looking into the flip side. And as it turns out, experiencing a sense of well-being can have a fortifying effect on the body that's distinct from simply having an absence of stress.
"It really looks as though these positive processes are acting independently from the negative ones. If anything, they may have stronger links with immunity," says Julienne Bower, Ph.D., a professor of psychology and psychiatry and a researcher at the Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology at UCLA. "Sometimes it's easier to increase people's happiness than to decrease stress."
In other words, even during the heaviness of a pandemic, practices that boost eudaemonic well-being - which includes a sense of connection and purpose in life and is associated with healthier immune profiles - can help. (Related: The Most Common Misconceptions About Happiness, Explained)
How Happiness Boosts Your Health
In two 2019 studies, Bower and her colleagues found that six weeks of mindfulness training led to positive immune changes in young breast cancer survivors, including a reduction in the expression of genes related to inflammation - which is a factor in conditions like heart disease, and therefore something you want to safeguard against. The survivors also showed increases in eudaemonic well-being; the greater that was, the greater the effect on the genes.
Scientists hypothesize that these benefits are related to the activity of the sympathetic nervous system, the one responsible for the fight-or-flight response. "When you activate reward-related regions of the brain - the areas we believe are triggered by these positive psychological processes - that may have downstream effects on the sympathetic nervous system," explains Bower. (Related: What I Learned from an At-Home Stress Test)
What's more, in a study published in Psychological Science, people who followed a three-month "principles of happiness" program, in which they did things like keep a weekly gratitude journal and practice mindfulness meditation, reported higher levels of well-being and one-third fewer sick days than those who did nothing to boost their bliss.
Of course, when you feel good, you may also be more likely to practice healthy habits like exercising and eating well. But there's more to it than that, says Kostadin Kushlev, Ph.D., a co-author of the study and a professor and researcher at Georgetown University. "Past research suggests that positive emotions can support immune function above and beyond the well-established effects of stress on illness," he says. They bolster your body's resistance to viruses and increase antibody activity to fight invaders.
How to Get the Immune System Perks
Try a Two-for-One
When your spirits need a pick-me-up, the best thing you can do is help someone else. "Research shows that we get a well-being boost from doing nice things for others," says Santos says. So go out of your way to be kind to a stranger who appears to be struggling. Plan a volunteer project that's been on hold. These actions create a feedback loop that floods your brain with positive thoughts, says Elizabeth Lombardo, Ph.D., a psychologist and the author of Better Than Perfect (Buy It, $17, amazon.com). A 2017 study in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology found that people who did such acts of kindness over four weeks showed an improved expression of genes linked to immune-response function.
Stick to Your Wellness Routine
Keeping up other healthy lifestyle practices will keep your immune system functioning well, such as getting enough sleep, moving your body, and eating nutrient-dense foods. And you can try the mindfulness exercises used in Bower's studies by downloading the UCLA Mindful app at uclahealth.org. (Here's more on how exercise effects your immune system.)
Make It Personal
Happiness is a behavior, and the more you do it, the more you'll feel it. "The secret is to pick activities that bring you joy and practice them regularly," says Kushlev. So if you love bike riding, get out there whenever you can. Take more walks in the park. Cuddle with your dog. Don't try to follow other people's examples. You do you. (You can also pick up one of these out-of-the-box hobbies.)
Take Back Your Time
Aim for what scientists call "time affluence" - the feeling that you have the time to engage in meaningful activities and relationships. This is important because the opposite, "time famine, the feeling that you have no free time, can be as big a hit on your well-being as unemployment, according to research," says Laurie Santos, Ph.D., a psychology professor at Yale and the host of The Happiness Lab podcast. Start by scaling back one huge time suck - your phone. Put it out of reach a few times a day, says Santos, and you'll start to feel freed up. (See also: 5 Things I Learned When I Stopped Bringing My Cell Phone to Bed)
Find the Real Payoff
Since people haven't been able to do much during the pandemic, some have replaced fun experiences with buying things to feel better. Start redirecting your energy to activities. "Experiences deliver more lasting satisfaction in the form of anticipation, in-the-moment joy, and remembered happiness than possessions do," says Lombardo. Try a stand-up paddleboarding class. Or plan that trip you've been dreaming of.
Shape Magazine, November 2020 issue