If there's ever a time for gratitude, it's on International Day of Happiness, celebrated on Monday 20 March this year.
While we appreciate it’s not possible to just snap your fingers and feel instantly ecstatic, the day provides a good opportunity to celebrate some of the health benefits happiness can bring, when we have a feel-good experience.
Research suggests happy people are less likely to get sick, more likely to reach their goals, and make more money on average than those who aren’t feeling their best. Makes sense.
But more surprisingly, those with a positive outlook can live seven and a half years longer on average than those who see the glass as half empty (this is a similar comparison to the effect not smoking has on your life span!).
Sure, we know being happy can boost our mental health, but there are plenty of other sneaky ways happiness can impact our bodies. Here's everything you should know, from experts around the country.
The health of your skin is a simple sign of how happy you are. “The skin is the most sensitive organ in the body to assess a person’s happiness,” advises Dr Andrew Affleck, consultant dermatologist at BMI Fernbrae and BMI Albyn hospitals in Scotland.
“If you are happy and relaxed, your skin will be happy too, with optimal blood flow (not pale or too flushed), and no excess sweat that you can sometimes get if you are stressed or anxious.”
That’s something Dr Anton Alexandroff, consultant dermatologist at BMI The Manor Hospital in Bedford agrees with.
“When people are happy, they produce hormones called endorphins – there is emerging evidence that endorphins are involved in strengthening the skin barrier, have an anti-inflammatory effect and promote wound healing,” he explains.
“So, if you are happy, it can be argued that you are less likely to suffer from dermatitis, psoriasis and more likely to heal wounds faster and better.”
On the flipside, Dr Affleck says being unhappy can aggravate many skin disorders via neuro-immunological (the central nervous system and immune system) and endocrine mechanisms (hormones released by glands into circulatory system). In other words a bad mood = bad skin.
“Being elated and happy lowers the levels of the stress hormone cortisol, while increasing the production of endorphins and serotonin, which is also known as the happiness hormone,” explains David Brudö, CEO and co-founder of mental wellbeing and personal development app Remente.
“These happiness hormones create a sense of feeling content, which in turn make the brain function at its best capacity.”
When you’re happy you smile and smiling can have a positive impact on your health, including your heart health. “The release of endorphins through smiling increases blood flow and lowers blood pressure,” explains Susannah Schaefer, CEO of the International Children’s Charity, Smile Train. “This means that you can lower your risk of heart disease and other cardiovascular problems – just by cracking a smile!”
Who knew being happy could actually keep wrinkles at bay? “Happiness can mean retaining the appearance of youth for longer,” says Rana Das-Gupta, consultant plastic surgeon at The Meriden Hospital in Coventry.
Das-Gupta says happiness can influence skin ageing because it reduces the shortening seen in telomeres (the protein caps on the ends of our DNA chromosomes that shorten as we get older). “This research promises to show a cellular link between happiness and youthfulness,” she says.
Your blood pressure
“Happiness and contentment can lower blood pressure,” explains Dr Robin Northcote, consultant cardiologist at Ross Hall, King’s Park and Carrick Glen hospitals in Scotland.
And this in turn can have a knock on effect. “We eat less and more healthily, drink less and smoke less,” Dr Northcote adds. “All of these result in less heart disease, diabetes and stroke and all the while we enjoy the endorphin release which makes us even happier!” Winning!
They say you can eat your way to happiness by consuming the right kind of foods, but how content you are has an effect on your stomach health too. “If you are happy, your body is more likely to carefully swallow, digest and process a range of foods without any ill effects, acid reflux or indigestion,” explains Mr Ewen Griffiths, consultant general and gastrointestinal surgeon at The Edgbaston Hospital in Birmingham.
“Interestingly, an unhappy mind and stress can significantly affect the gastrointestinal tract,” Dr Griffiths continues. “For example irritable bowel syndrome or indigestion and reflux are known to be much worse if you are stressed or anxious.” If you’re at all concerned he suggests getting checked by a medical professional.
Your immune system
Feeling under the weather? Time to put a smile back on your face. “Laughing and smiling encourages the release of serotonin,” explains Susannah Schaefer. “Like endorphins, serotonin is a neurotransmitter which contributes to a person’s happiness and wellbeing. Serotonin has many positive benefits – one of which is boosting the immune system.”
Your stress levels
“Happiness has real physical changes in the body,” explains Dr Simon Taggart, consultant chest and general physician at The Alexandra Hospital in Manchester.
“Lower levels of stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline gives us a warm glow inside the body and warms our hands and feet. Happiness creates a more relaxed state of mind, and this shines through as a loss of the excessive muscle tension in our faces.”
Your life span
The simple act of cracking a smile could add years to your lifespan! “Studies have shown that a happy disposition can have a powerful impact on a person’s health, as well as their life expectancy,” explains Susannah Schaefer.
Watch: These science-backed happiness hacks will only take you 5 minutes