December 9, 2022
By Ram Rao, Ph.D., Principal Research Scientist for Apollo Health
What could you possibly achieve by experiencing true happiness? True happiness improves cognition, stimulates optimal health, and extends longevity, among several other benefits. Several research studies have shown that happy people have an advantage over unhappy ones — they are physically and mentally healthier, and they may also live longer. These studies examined several types of emotions, including but not limited to life satisfaction, optimism, hopefulness, and a sense of humor, among others, and put these outcome measures under the umbrella of subjective well-being (SWB).
The summary of research findings on the relationship between happiness and cognition includes:
1. Happiness strengthens mental and physical immunity, strengthens the heart, and provides quicker recovery times from illness or surgery.
2. Happy people exhibited a high SWB compared to less happy individuals and had better health, strong immunity, and longevity.
3. A high SWB was related to a lower mortality rate.
4. Unhappy and stressed people with low SWB had higher blood pressure levels and low immune responses compared to happy people with high SWB.
Furthermore, other independent surveys by research epidemiologists noted a strong correlation between happiness and optimal health. Some researchers have anecdotal evidence that happiness leads to greater participation in healthier activities, like daily exercise, healthy eating, socializing, and good sleeping habits. These evidence-based research studies suggest that happiness causally influences memory, health, and longevity.
Researchers have noted that negativity and unhappiness led to low SWB, linked to cognitive decline and greater deposits of two harmful proteins responsible for Alzheimer’s disease. Researchers measured negative thinking behavior, such as ruminating about the past and worrying about the future, in over 350 people over the age of 55 over two years. About a third of the participants also underwent a PET (positron emission tomography) brain scan to measure deposits of tau and beta-amyloid. The scans showed that people who were stressed and harbored negativity had more tau and beta-amyloid buildup, poor memory, and greater cognitive decline over four years compared to people who were happy and declared themselves as optimists. The study also tested for levels of anxiety and depression and found greater cognitive decline in depressed and anxious people. Thus, it appears that chronic negativity and unhappiness could increase the risk of dementia.
While several mechanisms may explain how negativity might increase dementia risk, researchers believe that negativity-associated stress hormones like glucocorticoids damage the hippocampus, the part of the brain essential for forming, organizing, and storing memories. Other studies have linked negativity with atrophy of the hippocampus and faster rates of hippocampal volume loss. With up to 20 percent of the population suffering from some chronic negativity during their lifetime, it’s important to recognize its deleterious effects on memory and cognition.
Negativity can be tricky, as some negative emotions may be quite difficult to process or express. For those whose negativity drastically affects their mental stability, it’s best to consult a professional for help. Remember, you do have substantial power over your life choices. Taking better care of your health and wellness can lead to true happiness, facilitating a healthy and long life. Incorporating several stress management tips, such as those in this stress guide for members of our PreCODE or ReCODE Programs, is akin to investing in happiness that will provide physical and mental stability. Interestingly, some top 10 happiest countries also rank as the top 10 healthiest countries. So now we understand why the world danced happily to the tunes of Bobby McFerrin’s hit song “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” As the year ends, let’s make a resolution to always be happy in the New Year and subsequent years.