Happiness as Medicine

two happy and smiling teen girls, one staring into the distance and the other staring at her friend

Achieving health and longevity often requires us to view our body in mechanical terms I often use cars as examples to overcome the overwhelming complexity of that which I like to call ME. This article is going to discuss an often overlooked topic in health, happiness. There are many clinical studies on happiness and its effect on health and overall it’s clear that happiness affects overall health. Why exactly? Scientists aren’t really sure. They just know from their studies that there is a direct correlation between happiness and health. Happy people get sick less and tend not to develop debilitating disease states later in life.

What is happiness?

Using my car analogy, happy cars are ones where all the fluids and chemicals are present in the right balance. The same is true for humans. Happiness, biochemically speaking, is the correct balance of dopamine, Oxytocin, serotonin and endorphins.[1]

These powerful chemicals are the key to happiness, which we then experience as an emotional state of being. What’s interesting is that this ends up being a feedback loop. Feeling happy causes our bodies to release more of this positive brain chemistry.

Because happiness is primarily chemical in nature it has been the goal of modern psychiatric medicine to achieve a balance of these chemicals artificially. Antidepressants and mood enhancers are now given out like candy on Halloween. Some of these are Celexa Lexapro, Luvox, Paxil, Pexeva, Prozac, Sarafem and Zoloft. Here is the problem, just taking one of them and Googling the side effects of Zoloft we learn that the lesser side effects are: drowsiness, dizziness, tired feeling;

mild nausea, stomach pain, upset stomach, constipation;

  • dry mouth;
  • changes in appetite or weight;
  • sleep problems (insomnia); or.
  • decreased sex drive, impotence, or difficulty having an orgasm.
  • Alternatives to Prescription Drugs
  • If you’re like me you’re asking, is there a way to manage this brain chemistry with something other than prescription drugs? Let me stop here and say that clinical depression is a severe condition that can often lead to death and if you are experiencing depression please consult a medical professional immediately. Here is the number to the National Suicide Prevention Hotline 1-800-273-8255

Strangely enough, forcing yourself to smile actually has a positive biochemical impact. Simply turning up the corners of your mouth your brain is triggered to release endorphins and hormones that cause you to feel happier. This ends up becoming part of the positive feedback loop I mentioned earlier. So, you can actually kickstart this chemical loop by simply smiling.

Smiling is contagious

Smiling is most often done in the presence of others and it’s nearly impossible to remain taciturn in the company of people who are smiling. So, hanging out with happier people will help you be happier on a regular basis.

Nature vs Nurture

How much of happiness is genetic and how much is due to our own efforts? Laura Kubzansky HSPH associate professor of society, human development, and health at Harvard University says that psychological states such as anxiety or depression as well as happiness and optimism, are both the result of nature and nurture. “They are 40–50 percent heritable, which means you may be born with the genetic predisposition. But this also suggests there is a lot of room to maneuver.” Her dream is that happiness be taught as a skill to children making them more resilient adults.

How to be Happy

We talked about smiling as one small way to kickstart a feeling of happiness. But if you really need a jolt of happiness, it’s going to take getting out of your chair. Exercise causes a release of endorphins that provides a euphoric feeling not unlike one you might get taking morphine. In fact, you may have heard of people getting addicted to the “runner’s high.” Yes, it’s truly addictive.

I brought up exercise first to get it out of the way. There is more than one way to manage brain chemistry and one of the best ways is through diet. My absolute favorite way to “get happy” is by eating dark chocolate. Studies have shown that eating dark chocolate (greater than 70% cacao) has a positive effect on mood, not just in the short term, but when eaten regularly it improves metabolism and makes semi-permanent changes in brain chemistry.

Eating fish and other omega3 fatty acid containing foods has been shown to overcome depression. Foods such as flaxseed, chia seeds, walnuts, salmon, tuna, herring, and mackerel improves mood while also fighting against arterial plaque and debilitating brain diseases.

Many people reading my articles are strong believers in supplements. I see taking supplements far different than I do taking prescription drugs. To me, supplements are simply adding to my diet, foods often in concentrated form beyond what I might get eating the food out of the field or off the tree. My very favorite happiness supplement is rhodiola rosea. This adaptogen has a long history of making people feel better going back to 77 AD when it was documented in De Materia Medica by Greek physician, Dioscorides. The Vikings used it for endurance and it is currently used in Scandinavian countries to treat seasonal affective disorder.

Now I am going to tell you a way to be happy without eating anything, taking a supplement or lifting a finger. Positive thinking has the ability to affect brain chemistry and overall happiness. Psychologytoday.com says that thoughts can affect brain chemistry. The methods of positive thinking are too numerous to mention here. But I will mention cognitive therapy, and EFT Tapping. Do a Google search on either of these. I particularly have found EFT very effective.

Health Impact of Happiness

Cortisol, often called the stress hormone, is one we definitely need to control, not only to improve our mood, but our waistlines. This hormone is known to affect the buildup of body fat, particularly around your waist.

A British study showed that the happiest participants had lower levels of cortisol. Also, their hearts beat more regularly and slower. They also did better on stress tests. The study involved 216 government employees in London. They were white, 45-59 years old, more than three years away from retirement, and hadn't been diagnosed with heart disease or high blood pressure. The women were all starting or had completed menopause. The result of both blood and stress tests showed that the happiest people had the best results.

Summing it all up

Happiness not only makes us feel better emotionally it has major impacts on our health, everything from not getting colds to lowering the rates of heart disease. Yes, part of happiness is genetic. But, if genes controlled our lives then no one could ever overcome their genetic disposition to do things like become a great athlete, musician or artist. Genes, while making it easier for some people, are not an absolute limit. There are positive steps you can take that include, eating the right foods, taking supplements, exercising, hanging out with happier people and simply smiling. Give a smile, feel better.



  1. http://www.unlock-your-happiness.com/what-causes-happiness-biochemistry.html#sthash.swKK2oxQ.dpuf
  2. Happiness & health, Harvard News Winter 2011
  3. http://www.webmd.com/balance/news/20050418/happiness-may-bring-better-health
  4. http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/positive-thinking/art-20043950
  5. CMAJ. 2014 Mar 4;186(4):E150-6. doi: 10.1503/cmaj.131155. Epub 2014 Jan 20.
  6. https://www.britishcouncil.org/voices-magazine/famelab-whats-science-behind-smile

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Posted by Ted Coombs

Ted Coombs
Ted Coombs is a medical anthropologist, futurist and author who is passionate about health through knowledge.