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3 Ways Happiness Can Improve Health

Which comes first: happiness or success?

I was at a Starbucks in New York, completely minding my own business, when...

Actually, in truth, I was at a Starbucks intentionally eavesdropping on the conversation of some people at the table next to me, when I overheard one slightly overweight woman say to her three fit friends, "I've tried 19 diets over the past year, and none of them worked. I'll be so happy when I look more like you."

My first thought was that if you've tried 19 diets in a year, you've tried none. I then looked at my watch and realized I was cutting it close to be at my talk to a large bank. So I bolted for the door onto Wall Street.

A few minutes later, I was giving a talk on how the business world needs to reverse the happiness formula. Most people think, if I work harder at my company, then I'll be successful, and then I'll be happy. But my research proves that formula is backwards. Every time you're successful at work, your brain changes the goalpost of success. Thus, your brain never quite gets to happiness. Moreover, if you can raise your happiness in the present, then every business outcome improves. It is what we call the "happiness advantage." Watch my TEDx video explaining the happiness advantage research.

That's when it hit me. That woman at Starbucks, was failing at her diets because she was using the wrong formula. The science of the happiness advantage has as much to do with dieting and exercise as it does for productivity and profitability.

Most people think, if I can lose ten pounds, then I'll be happy. Or once I get a six pack, then I'll be happy and girls will like me. Or man, I'd be so happy if I looked like the person on the cover of that health magazine. So people go about figuring out which flaw to fix first, resurrecting new years resolutions, and buying magazines to remind them that they don't yet look how they'd like to look. We think about how happy we'll be once we do all 90 days of P90X.

But most diet and exercise plans we set for ourselves fail. That's why it's such a fantastic cash cow for publishers, because the failure rate is so high. Once people fail, they try some or other diet or exercise plan. But the main reason we fail to hit goals is because we are working against our brain, not with it. Our brains are actually designed over the long run to function better at positive, rather than negative, neutral or stressed. When you are negative, you spend a lot of your brain's resources activating the Jerk (the amygdala) instead of the Thinker (the prefrontal cortex). The more you use the Jerk to exercise, the less successful you will be long term.

If you want a quick experiment to prove this, try doing bicep curls with weights that are heavy for you. Then after a few reps in, try to think about something that stresses you at work. You'll find your brain gives out 20-30% faster than it would otherwise.

We need to stop thinking, "I will be happy when..." That puts happiness after your diet and exercise goal which means you miss out on a huge advantage.

A few months after sitting in that Starbucks, I met Zelana Montminy (Dr. Z) and Michelle Gielan (UPenn), two health and wellness experts in the field of positive psychology who helped connect my research in the Happiness Advantage the health sphere.

Watch a video of me and Dr. Z describing some of this research.

It's fine, even great, to want to be more fit and eat healthier, and it's great to set exercise goals. But most people doom their chances for success by starting with negative thoughts. They start with the fact that they don't like something about themselves. They fixate on it, and decide to be unhappy until they fix it. Without happiness, you miss out on all of the happiness advantage: increased energy, improved self-efficacy, higher resilience, improved immune system and greater consistency. Here are three ways to use happiness to improve your health and achieve your health goals.

#1 Start with happiness. If you are going to start a diet or exercise plan, start with happiness. Make a list of the attributes you like about yourself which will help you accomplish the goal. For example, "I like that I'm good convincing my friends to have fun" means that you might want to use that skill set to start a running group or inspire a friend to be a workout buddy. In The Happiness Advantage, I describe how positive brains have 31% higher levels of productivity, higher pain tolerance, 3 times the levels of creativity, are 90% more likely to live to 85, and their symptoms feel less acute. You can apply this human potential bump to your diet and exercise goals, instead of starting at a deficit as your brain records how unhappy it is about your current health.

#2 Change your mindset. Stick with me on this one, make the exercise or diet fun. As Dr. Z says, "By prioritizing happiness, you increase the chance of achieving the health outcome you seek. But happiness is in the mind so you must work on your brain before your body." That sounds harder than it is. I like lifting weights because you can see the results quickly. But I hate sitting on a bike reading. I should say "hated," because I just got a kindle. I don't know how people have the agility to turn physical pages on an old fashioned book while swinging on an elliptical machine, but biking and kindling is even easier than learning to ride a bike. I bought fun books, that grab my attention, and now, I actually find myself not only starting with cardio, but I finish my workouts by biking when I need to know what happens in my book. Now I look forward to reading, so I'm looking forward to biking.

#3 Reward yourself. Make sure that your reward is not food related. The goal for this is to keep the happiness fueling you throughout the process, not just months/years later at the completion of your goal. If you don't have happiness fueling you, your brain will get bored or frustrated.

Which comes first, happiness or health? The happiness advantage research is clear. If you do not start with happiness, you'll miss out on both.