Regular exercise is one of the best ways to ensure your own happiness. Almost everyone has heard of endorphins, the feel-good hormones that our bodies release after intense workouts. But is there a deeper link between exercise and happiness?
First, it’s important to understand that regular changes in our overall subjective experience of well-being are perfectly normal. Our bodies go through many different natural cycles that are related to the seasons, time of day, hormone production, and many other factors.
It is not important that you always feel happy. What is important is to cultivate habits and lifestyle changes that incline the body and mind toward states of well-being. Exercise is one of the most reliable ways to counteract restlessness, anxiety, depression, fatigue, and other negative emotional states.
However, before elaborating on the specific links exercise has to happiness, it may be helpful to first review the ordinary conditioned responses many people have to sub-optimal emotional states.
Familiar Ways of Dealing with Unhappiness
Some familiar ways of coping with unhappiness are to eat excessively, sleep, sit in front of the television, or increase intake of tobacco, alcohol, and drugs. The problem with these solutions is that most of them, as coping mechanisms, have only short-term positive effects, and set the mind and body up for an [i]increase[/i] in overall unhappiness.
While the occasional comfort food or afternoon nap can be healing for the body, making a habit of these coping mechanisms leads to an overall decrease in well-being.
The Role of Exercise in Happiness
That’s where exercise comes in. As mentioned above, intensive biking, running, hiking, strength training, yoga, swimming, or any other type of exercise causes the production and release of hormones known as endorphins. Endorphins perform two basic functions in regard to our feelings. The first is that they inhibit pain. The second is that they induce a mild state of euphoria. That is because endorphins bind to opiate receptors in the brain.
Exercise also leads to increased production of antibodies, proteins produced by the immune system that are used to fight off antigens, which are disease causing bacteria or viruses. This is significant in regards to happiness because there is a strong correlative and reciprocal relationship between happiness and the strength of the immune system. That is, happiness strengthens the immune system, and a strong immune system encourages happiness.
You can read more about the link between the immune system and happiness at the Scientific American.
Focus, Breath Control, and Tuning Out External Stimuli
Studies on the effects of meditation on happiness may provide clues as to why exercise makes us happier people. An article published by WebMD suggests three factors that meditation shares with exercise which may encourage the experience of happiness. These are focus, breath control, and the tuning out of external stimuli.
Much interest and research have gone into studying meditation’s effects on the brain, and the conclusions are undeniably positive. The areas of the brain associated with happiness light up dramatically after 20 minutes of meditation. After many years, these changes in the brain become permanent.
There’s more information about meditation over at WebMD.
Significantly, studies also suggest that around 20 minutes, cardiovascular exercise begins to have a positive effect on the body and mind. It’s clear that happiness is not just a hormonal or neurochemical byproduct, but also an extension of how we are using our subjectivity. The studies of meditation and the correlative subjective states of focus, breath control, and tuning out of external stimuli, suggest that these three factors may play a significant role in exercise’s effect on emotional moods.
This suggests that exercise is just as effective as prescription medication in resolving depressive episodes.
The Mystery of Happiness
The long-term effects of exercise include overall improvement in health, energy levels, physical attractiveness, and many other factors that are obviously connected to happiness. However, since happiness is a subjective phenomenon, it’s a bit difficult to study. The point is that exercise encourages well-being. It may not necessarily be the ultimate solution to unhappiness, but it’s a healthier way to feel good than digging into a pint of ice cream.
This field of research is still full of interesting questions and propositions. No one is entirely sure of the full range of influences that lead to happiness. Some psychologically minded researchers suggest that exercise encourages happiness by diverting the mind away from negative thoughts.
Others suggest that the happiness produced by exercise is directly linked to the development of “mastery,” a word that is growing in popularity among sports psychologists, life coaches, and researchers from different academic fields. This may be particularly true when the exercise is competitive, team-based, or requires a high level of skill to perform.
Overall, the field is still open to much study and interpretation. Happiness must ultimately be found internally and in a holistic manner that spreads to all aspects of one’s life. Exercise is just one means of facilitating the process of attaining lasting happiness.