As we get older, we tend to reevaluate the things that are important to us. Things that once seemed so earnest start to become less consequential as our value systems shift and evolve. The fervor of youth is usually best suited for chasing dreams and accumulating objects of desire. But as life progresses and values change, we begin to think about health and longevity in ways we never have before. As I continue to creep into my 30s, I sometimes reflect on how my priorities have changed in comparison to when I was 20. My focus now being drawn towards things like my bond with my family, taking better care of myself, seeking out personal fulfillment, and an increased interest in World War II for some reason. I dare say that’s probably a stark contrast to who I was even 10 years ago, and who knows how that will change 10 years from now. All I really know is that, as of right now, I feel I am in a pretty good place mentally and physically.
But does focusing on our own individual happiness have greater consequences than we realize? For the past few decades there has been a growing field of research dedicated to exploring just that. Psychoneuroimmunology (PNI) is an emerging area of study that has been gaining traction since the late 70s. To describe it briefly, it’s the study of how our central nervous system and our immune system interact, communicate with, and affect one another. Mounting evidence has suggested that these two systems, once thought to operate strictly independent of each other, are actually complexly interwoven.
The driving force behind this research has been in the attempt to untangle the relationship between our emotional state and our physiological well-being. So far, most of the data points to the same conclusion; there is a strong correlation between your mental health and your physical health.
Early versions of these studies would look at how a person’s immunoglobulin A levels compared to levels of salivary cortisol across varying degrees of the participants’ self-reported emotional states. The results found that people who reported to be generally happier tended to produce higher levels of the immune antibodies and lower levels of cortisol, a hormone often associated with stress. This was an interesting finding at the time, but not enough to be conclusive or temper mainstream skepticism.
As the science improves, however, tests are becoming more reliable and still positing results supportive of the theory that mind and body are more symbiotic than previously thought. In the late 90s, a broad study was done on about 850 individuals. In this study, the participants (with consent and generous compensation) were exposed to the rhinovirus, which causes the common cold. The participants were instructed to report their emotional state a few times a week for several weeks before being given the virus. The results came back strongly indicating that those who reported to be more consistently happy were more likely to not contract the cold, or if they did get a cold they reported the symptoms as being less severe.
These and hundreds of other studies have been consistently leading to the same conclusion. Those who have a more positive affective style are likely to enjoy more physical health benefits, while those with a negative affective style could be more vulnerable to infection and illness. It’s even been suggested that happiness can be linked to slower aging, as happier people have been found to have longer protein caps on chromosomes known to get shorter with age.
The good news is, for the most part, we tend to steadily fluctuate around a default positive mood. As long as basic needs are met and stressors are limited, regular happiness is part of human nature. There will always be reasons to worry. It takes effort to manage these things, but it’s worth it.
So, if you regularly find yourself down in the dumps, it may be time to reevaluate the things that you focus your time and energy on. In the cyclical grind of life, it can become all too easy to find yourself in a rut, unable to find joy in the things that matter. Take a step back, look at the big picture, and ask yourself – “what is really important to me?” I believe the answer to that question is what can lead us to lasting contentment. Because after all, when it comes to happiness, there may be more at stake than just your mood.