How often have you wanted to be happier? I’m betting that most of you are content. You have good lives, count your blessings, and are relatively happy with what you have going on right now. But how many of you think that you could be happier…if only…you had a better car? A bigger house? More money in the bank? These are typical things that Americans think will make them happier…but they are actually wrong. Studies have shown that there is little to no correlation between having these things and being happier. In fact, studies have also shown that people who have more money tend to be just as happy, if not slightly less happy than people without a lot of money. So what does make us happier?
Well, exercise can be an answer! Regular exercise acts as a mood booster, and a stress reliever for most people. It also happens to be very good for your body. You’ve probably heard of the ‘runner’s high’ that many people report getting after a race or a good long run has been finished. However, most of the happiness benefits have been shown to come not from long workouts, but from smaller workouts done over a longer period of time.
Stress is a prevalent issue, but the stress response actually is beneficial during exercise. When you begin a workout, your heart rate rises and triggers the body’s fight-or-flight instinct. The brain releases a chemical called brain-derived neurotrophic factor to protect neurons from the anticipated effects of a prolonged battle. At the same time, the brain releases endorphins to numb pain and facilitate peak performance.
These chemicals also induce feelings of well-being. Endorphins can cause euphoria (known as the runner’s high). Brain-derived neurotrophic factor soothes ruffled neurons to promote a sense of clarity. This is why a problem can seem more manageable after a walk or run to clear your head. Your brain has literally returned to baseline to allow you to respond most effectively to environmental threats.
The useful thing about brain-derived neurotrophic factor and endorphins is that they are addictive, just like nicotine. When people crave cigarettes, they are expressing the desires of nicotinic receptors in the nervous system. The urge to smoke can feel overwhelming. Similarly, the body can become addicted to the sense of clarity and well-being that often follows exercise.
If exercise truly is addictive, why isn’t everyone a triathlete? The answer may lie in the conditions under which exertion triggers happiness. As with many addictive behaviors, the greatest euphoria occurs when starting a workout regimen. This may partially explain the enthusiasm new gym members feel and why so many of them stop going after a few months. As the happiness effect tapers off, people are no longer biochemically rewarded for working out. It becomes another chore, and only the highly motivated continue.
Fortunately, an answer exists that doesn’t involve extraordinary willpower. Much public attention has focused on research findings that just 20 minutes of exercise per day can have substantial physical benefits.
Additional studies suggest that the same routine powers feelings of happiness as well. Just as a smoker reaches for that first morning cigarette, so the person hitting the gym daily can expect a mood boost. The brain becomes conditioned to the expectation of the regular release of endorphins and other mood-enhancing chemicals.
Daily workouts are the best way to maximize the happiness effect. Weekend warriors and people who exercise every other day are less likely to feel a mood boost. They are too frequently active to benefit from the beginners’ high. At the same time, they don’t exercise regularly enough to form a biochemical habit.
For many people, an effective solution is to alter their expectations of what a workout should be. Rather than exercising strenuously when energy and schedule allow, aim for 20 or 30 minutes per day of moderate activity such as walking. If this seems like too much, start with 10 minutes. The point is to establish a daily exercise habit that trains the brain to respond with feelings of happiness.
Daily exercise becomes a self-reinforcing habit motivated by positive feelings. Once your brain associates workouts with happiness, you’ll wonder how you managed so long without those running shoes.