You’re aware of this popular saying: A healthy life is a happy life.
Here’s a U-turn to that catchphrase: A happy life is a healthy life.
Both are true because there’s a definite two-way relationship between our health and happiness.
Some of us might not know, but science has shown happiness has many advantages for our health. And, to a great extent, our health depends on our immune system.
So we may safely suggest there is a positive relationship between the body’s immunity and our happiness. Let’s quickly look at how one influences the other:
- People are happier when they are in good health and not dealing with illnesses.
- To prevent illnesses and recover fast, we rely significantly on our immune system.
- When our immune system is working well, we’ve a better chance of being happier.
How do emotions affect the immune system?
A strong immune system fights off viruses effectively. Emotions play an important role in the onset or progress of cancer, HIV, cardiovascular disease, and autoimmune illnesses.
Research data supports the idea that people with a more negative emotional style recruit their immune response poorly and may be more susceptible to sickness than people with a positive emotional style.
Scientists have extensively studied the complex interplay between the immune system and the central nervous system in schizophrenia and depression. However, little research exists on the effects of positive emotions, particularly happiness, on immunity.
Humor boosts our immunity. Salivary IgA (Immunoglobulin A) concentration increased considerably after study participants saw a hilarious video, but not significantly after they watched an educational video.
Optimism may be a protective factor against stress-related changes in our immune system, according to most experts.
When confronted with two conflicting goals, optimists are more likely to stay engaged with both, as this study suggests. They are also more likely to experience higher short-term stress as a result of handling both together.
The study authors concluded optimists perform worse than pessimists in terms of immunity when faced with goal conflict, but do better when not facing any goal conflict.
Does love increase immunity?
Love in relationships appears to enhance couple immunity.
In 2013, researchers Jaremka and colleagues found marital distress can predict long-term immunity impairments. They found spouses in more distressed marriages had larger decreases in cellular immune function over time than spouses in happier marriages.
Dr. Anna Phillips at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom tested the antibody response of married couples to an influenza vaccine. She found that a bereavement in the previous year had a connection with a lower peak-antibody-response to influenza vaccination.
The study also revealed those in happy marriages had better protection against flu viruses.
The Gottman Institute found that people who often treat their partners with contempt suppress their partner’s ability to fight off viruses and cancers. Incidentally, according to John Gottman, contempt is predictably the most destructive behavior to cause breakups in couples.
According to researchers Lois Verbrugge and James House from the University of Michigan, an unhappy marriage can increase one’s risk of getting sick by 35% and even shorten lifespan by four to eight years. (Unfortunately, yours truly could not find the source of the original paper).
Greta Hysi from the University of Tirana, Albania, reviewed 40 papers on the effects of marriage on health and found that higher levels of negativity, which contribute to marital dissatisfaction, directly impacted a couple’s physical health.
Can stress weaken the immune system?
Research suggests psychological stress can weaken the immune system.
Clinical levels of anxiety appear to impair immune function, but subclinical levels appear to boost immunity, according to research.
Kiecolt-Glaser, a psychologist, and Glaser, an immunologist, published their findings in 1993 that said the immunity in medical students weakened under the stress of the annual exams.
The test-takers had fewer natural killer cells (NK cells), and reduced gamma-interferons (IFN-γ), and low counts of T-cells (T-lymphocytes).
[Natural Killer cells are a type of white blood cell that fights viruses and tumors. IFN-γ is a cytokine critical to both innate and adaptive immunity. T-lymphocytes are a type of germ-fighting cell.]
In 2002, Layne McGuire, Kiecolt-Glaser, and Glaser found that even subclinical, long-term, mild depression may subdue immunity.
Suzanne Segerstrom, 2004, found that stress of any significant duration, from days to months, can severely weaken the immune system in old people.
In 2005, Sarah Pressman and Sheldon Cohen reported that social isolation and loneliness weakened the immunity of students in CMU, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Does happiness increase immunity?
Happiness has a positive impact on one’s immune system. According to researcher Sheldon Cohen and his team at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), Pennsylvania, happy people are 3 times less likely to catch a cold. They also found that positive thinkers who develop symptoms of the cold complained less about them.
In the CMU study, the experimenters exposed a group of students to a common cold virus (scientific name: rhinovirus). Some students exposed to this virus had their happiness levels boosted, while others didn’t receive the same sort of treatment. There were two significant findings.
First, the students who were given the happiness boost were less susceptible to catching the infection. Second, even those students who caught the virus reported milder symptoms when compared to the other group who were not given the happiness boost.
The results, which were quite astonishing, pointed to this: Happiness can boost our immunity.
We found that people who regularly experience positive emotions, when exposed to rhinovirus, are relatively protected from developing an illness. – Dr. Sheldon Cohen
Eudaimonic well-being, which embraces ideas such as overall life satisfaction, self-development, personal growth, and purposeful engagement, is linked to immunological biomarkers that show a more stable immunity.
Simply put, eudaimonic happiness could be one of the reasons for our immune system’s stability.
Researchers have undertaken various studies to understand the intricacies of this relationship. These findings have given us additional insight into why it’s important to stay happy for optimal health.
Looking at this information, it’s easy to understand how happiness is linked to a strong immune system.
Let’s face it: Happy are those who enjoy sleeping as much as staying awake and thus ensure that suffering from lack of sleep is an improbability of all sorts. Happy are those who get in their daily dose of exercise. By the way, do you know what is ikigai?
On a more serious note, however, despite all the research done, there are very few papers that have been successful in establishing a clear-cut relationship between happiness and one’s immunity system. That’s not to say that researchers and academics alike, don’t believe that there is a link here. The problem is that it’s a hard concept to prove.
Happiness Tips For Stronger Immunity
Now, based on research, here are two quick happiness tips for stronger immunity:
1. Have A Positive Outlook On Life
Some may argue that “positivity” is a subjective concept but please, but set aside such philosophical arguments for some time, and explore what science says.
Researchers discovered a surprising result in a study on patients from families susceptible to heart disease.
Some patients in this study group had a positive outlook on life, while others had a negative outlook. The researchers found that those who were buzzing with positivity had a 33% lesser likelihood of getting a heart attack.
Other similar studies, on different types of diseases, found the results were the same. Those who had an optimistic mindset were less susceptible to getting the condition.
Positivity and a positive outlook account for something good. Have a positive attitude towards life for better immunity.
Check out this incredible post (and video) on how to build a positive mindset; we’re sure it may change how you think about positive thinking.
2. Contribute To The Greater Good
Focusing on contributing to the greater good (eudaimonia) rather than selfish pleasures (hedonia) will result in more complete and fulfilling satisfaction. It will also have a more favorable impact on your immune system than would otherwise be the case.
Acts of kindness, sharing, cooperation, and compassion have the opposite effect on our bodies as stress does. When we are nice, we reduce our stress and, as a result, our immune system works more efficiently.
In one study, researchers collected immunoglobulin-A (IgA) samples from 132 volunteers before and after they watched a video of Mother Teresa carrying out acts of kindness and compassion. Their IgA levels significantly increased. The levels also stayed high for a while afterward, as they recalled specific parts from the film.
In another study, researchers at the HeartMath Institute in Boulder, Colorado, encouraged volunteers to cultivate sentiments of care and compassion for only 5 minutes. Their immune systems got a boost when their IgA levels rose by roughly 50% and remained elevated for some time.
The study authors Rein, Atkinson, and McCarty, wrote:
Results from this study indicate that self-induction of a positive emotional state is more effective at stimulating S-IgA than external methods.
Remember a time when someone was kind to you, and be with that emotion for just 5 minutes. It will boost your immune system.
Also, try being kind and helpful to people in this world. Find at least one person outside your immediate family and friends, and help them without expecting anything in return.
One random act of kindness for someone may not transform humanity, but it may change that one person’s world for a little better. Even when we think our contribution is trivial, we must accept with humility that this is what we can do at the moment.
With the right intentions and opportunities, we can follow up with more such acts.
How happy are we in everyday life?
Carruthers and Hood (2004) suggested that a person experiences happiness when both positive affect and life satisfaction are high. In our everyday lives, most of us appear and report to be more or less happy.
Humans are unique. We can understand and manipulate our situations and surroundings to obtain large amounts of naturally occurring rewarding stimuli. Consider falling in love: how we maneuver situations to get exclusive rights to our person of love.
On the flip side, we are also good at creating a wide range of unnatural substitutes for rewarding our brains, such as opioids, artificial sweeteners, and adult films.
However, the human brain is not always in the obvious process of reaping an advantage or enduring a punishment.
The more palpable feelings take up only a small portion of the mind’s time during the day. Some moods can pervade the day, whether in a negative sense, such as anxiety, or in a positive sense, such as love.
Overall, we are mostly in a state of emotional neutrality, neither happy nor sad. We interpret this state of absence of struggles as peaceful and happy.
Happiness is a subject of study that both philosophers and scientists find intriguing. Its effects on daily life are hard to pin down in a single article or even a single book. Thanks to breakthrough experiments in positive psychology, we’re slowly and steadily learning about its nuances.
We suggest this highly readable science-based book: Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling On Happiness.
What are the three types of immunity?
The immune system is our best natural line of defense against pathogens. Other than vaccines, boosting the immune system is a potential treatment option for COVID-19 patients.
It defends our body by producing antibodies that kill pathogens (like viruses, bacteria, fungi, protozoans, and worms) and resisting infections. White blood cells, a vital part of our immune system, patrol throughout our body via the bloodstream and catch foreign antigens.
The three types of immunity in humans are:
- Innate immunity: Natural immunity, inherited at birth, mostly from mothers.
- Adaptive immunity: Adaptive immunity, acquired continually through life, primarily from interactions with the environment (including vaccines).
- Passive immunity: Temporary immunity, “borrowed” from non-self source, short-lived in duration.
There are many factors that impact your immunity, but a cheerful nature and satisfying lifestyle is one that has a vital share of control over your immune system.
While happiness impacts the immune system positively, there are other aspects of your life that impact your immunity in different ways:
- A diet rich in flour, salt or sugar has a negative impact on our immune system.
- A diet rich in Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Vitamin E, Zinc and Magnesium has a positive immunological effect.
- Lack of sleep negatively impacts the immune system.
- Lack of exercise has a negative effect on one’s immune system.
At the end of the day, no matter how you look at happiness, philosophically, morally, or scientifically, the goal is to achieve it. Be happy, and stay happy; its logic does not always need to be proven.
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Author Bio: Sandip Roy—a medical doctor, psychology writer, and happiness researcher. Founder and Chief Editor of The Happiness Blog. Writes popular science articles on happiness, positive psychology, and related topics.
• Our story: Happiness Project
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