child clapping outdoors

If you’re happy and you know it clap your hands…

A Chinese proverb states, “Sometimes your happiness is the cause of your smile, but sometimes your smile is the cause of your happiness.” Intriguingly, studies have actually shown that “facial feedback1” is a real phenomenon and the act of smiling does increase positive affect! What the proverb intuitively hints at is what we do with our bodies (even our face it seems) influences our emotional state, and there is mounting evidence to support this.

Exercise is not only medicine for many physical ailments, it is one of the most powerful (and yet least utilised) antidepressants available. The depression relieving benefits of exercise rival antidepressant medication2, which is hardly surprising given that our muscular system is arguably our bodies largest internal pharmacy, producing a myriad of myokines3 that have widespread effects. But exercise can do more than relieve depression; it also promotes positive psychological functioning, or for want of a better word, happiness. In the words of Martin Seligman, recognised as the father of the Positive Psychology movement, “at least half of positive psychology occurs below the neck”.

Exercise is but one of the pillars of Lifestyle Medicine known to promote psychological and emotional wellbeing4. For example, there is mounting evidence5 that food feeds mood. Proudly, Australian-based researchers (including our very own Professor Felice Jacka) are playing a lead role in exploring the food-mood connection. But once again, not only is positive nutrition being shown to relieve negative affect, there is evidence that it also enhances positive affect and makes people happier. For example, a study6 involving 80,000 participants from the United Kingdom reported a dose-response relationship between happiness and the consumption of fruits and vegetables. Approximately eight to nine daily serves of fruit and vegetables appears to confer optimal happiness benefits (after which the happiness benefits plateau off because happiness has limits!). To more fully elucidate causality (perhaps happier people are just more inclined to eat more fruits and vegetables!), New Zealand researchers7 conducted an innovative study and found that people tend to report feeling happier the day after consuming more fruits and vegetables, indicating that fruit and vegetable consumption drives affective responses and not the other way around.

The take-away message is that the pillars of Lifestyle Medicine – like exercise and nutrition – are not only excellent for the prevention, management and treatment of physical conditions, which has historically been the focus of Lifestyle Medicine, they also help happiness. This is a compelling message that makes Lifestyle Medicine very attractive – after all, everyone wants to be happy.

Even greater potential to promote happiness exists when Lifestyle Medicine embraces evidence-based strategies from Positive Psychology, such as mindfulness, practicing gratitude, identifying and activating signature strengths, and engaging in service activities. Encouragingly, this is occurring. Last May I attended the Happiness Science Summit in Texas, hosted by the American College of Lifestyle Medicine, which for the first time brought leaders in Lifestyle Medicine and Positive Psychology together. These two disciplines are entirely complimentary and it is exciting to reflect on their combined ability to add years to life and life to years.

Perhaps instead of “If you are happy and you know it, clap your hands” we should be singing “If you want to be happy and you know it, clap your hands (i.e. move), as well as eat more nutritiously, be more mindful, practice gratitude, and….”. Indeed, Lifestyle Medicine, especially when combined with practices from Positive Psychology, offers a rich opportunity to lift the mood and lives of many. That is something to be happy about (so clap your hands!).

  1. Laird, J. D. (1974). Self-attribution of emotion: The effects of expressive behavior on the quality of emotional experience. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 29(4), 475-486.
  2. Blumenthal JA, Babyak MA, Doraiswamy PM, et al. Exercise and pharmacotherapy in the treatment of major depressive disorder. Psychosom Med. 2007;69(7):587-96. doi: 10.1097/PSY.0b013e318148c19a
  3. Hoffmann, Christoph and Weigert, Cora (2017). Skeletal muscle as an endocrine organ: The role of myokines in exercise adaptations. Cold Spring Harbour Laboratory Press 
  4. Mikkelsen, K., et al (2017). Exercise and mental health. Maturitas, 106, 48-56.
  5. Firth, Joseph, et al. (2019). The effects of dietary improvement on symptoms of depression and anxiety: a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Psychosomatic Medicine, 9000, Publish Ahead of Print.
  6. Blanchflower, David G., Oswald, Andrew J., and Stewart-Brown, Sarah (2013), ‘Is Psychological Well-Being Linked to the Consumption of Fruit and Vegetables?’, Social Indicators Research, 114 (3), 785-801.
  7. White BA, Horwath C, Conner T (2013). Many apples a day keep the blues away – Daily experiences of negative and positive affect and food consumption in young adults. The British Psychological Society, 18(4), 782-798.

This article has been written for the Australasian Society of Lifestyle Medicine (ASLM) by the documented original author. The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the original author and do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of the ASLM or its Board.

Darren Morton is the Course Coordinator for Postgraduate Studies in Lifestyle Medicine at Avondale College. He is also the developer and presenter of The Lift Project, which is program that brings together evidence-based strategies from Lifestyle Medicine and Positive Psychology for improving psychological and emotional wellbeing. ASLM readers are welcome to use the coupon code ‘thanksASLM‘ to receive a 20% discount off the program (and ASLM will receive a donation too).