Over a century ago, William James observed, “We don’t laugh because we’re happy, we’re happy because we laugh.” I would go further. I believe, that in most cases, we don't exercise because we're happy, we're happy because we exercise.
A new study from Penn State found that people who reported higher positive psychological states were more likely to be physically active. In a classic “chicken-or-the-egg” scenario, this finding begets the million-dollar question, “Does being physically active make someone more likely to report higher positive emotions, or does having a positive affect make someone more likely to exercise?” Odds are the two go hand in hand and work in tandem to create an upward spiral in which each is perpetually fueling the other.
This is great news because you can enter this feedback loop by either deciding to start exercising, or by deciding to have a more positive explanatory style. You can kickstart an upward spiral of well-being by becoming more physically active and watch your positive emotions increase—or you can focus on savoring more positive emotions with the focus on healthy behaviors and create a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The October 2015 study, “Positive Affect and Health Behaviors Across 5 Years in Patients With Coronary Heart Disease,” was published in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine.
For this study, the researchers assessed the psychological well-being of 1,000 participants who had a history of coronary heart disease at baseline and again at a five-year follow up. They asked each participant to rate the extent to which he or she had felt 10 specific positive emotions that included being "interested," "proud," "enthusiatic," "inspired," etc.
Those who reported more positive emotions were more likely to be physically active. They also slept better and were less likely to smoke, compared to patients with lower levels of positive states.
"Negative emotions and depression are known to have harmful effects on health, but it is less clear how positive emotions might be health-protective. We found that positive emotions are associated with a range of long-term health habits, which are important for reducing the risk of future heart problems and death. Higher levels of positive emotions were associated with less smoking, greater physical activity, better sleep quality and more adherence to medications at baseline."
Interestingly, positive emotions at baseline didn't necessarily predict changes in health behaviors five years later. However, increases in positive emotions across the five-year period were associated with improvements in physical activity, sleep quality, and less smoking. Because mindset is never fixed, it appears that those who had an "attitude adjustment" by becoming more positive over the five years also adopted healthier habits.
There are a wide range of possible causes linking healthy lifestyle habits and positive psychological states according to the researchers at Penn State. In a press release, Sin et al said,
"There are a number of reasons why positive emotions are linked to optimal health habits. People with greater positive well-being may be more motivated and persistent in engaging in healthy behaviors. They might have more confidence in their abilities to maintain routines such as physical activity and sleep hygiene. Positive emotions may also enable people to better adjust their health goals and to proactively cope with stress and setbacks."
Although the correlation between positive emotions and healthy behaviors is evident, it's impossible to know for sure which came first. Ultimately, it doesn't really matter. By taking a dual-pronged approach of simultaneously deciding to exercise more and to see the glass as half-full through "pragmatic optimism" I believe that anyone can create an upward spiral of psychological and physical well-being.
If you'd like to read more on this topic, check out my Psychology Today blog posts:
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