Jennifer Turpin Stanfield by Jennifer Turpin Stanfield

How often have you said, “I just want to be happy”? Perhaps you have been on the giving or receiving end of the phrase, “I just want you to be happy.” It seems that we are all in a perpetual pursuit of happiness.

Happiness is an inherently subjective construct. Cultural differences, past experiences and individual expectations all play a role in our personal definitions of happiness. Social scientists have been trying to quantify happiness for decades. While there is no universally agreed-upon definition, here is an idea that may resonate with you. Happiness researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky proposes that happiness is a construct that consists of two main components: positive emotions and life satisfaction. People who describe themselves as happy experience positive emotions such as love, joy and affection more often than negative emotions. Additionally, happy people feel high levels of satisfaction with how they are progressing toward their life goals (Lyubomirsky, 2008).

Exercise to Cultivate More Positive Emotions

It is unrealistic to expect to feel positive emotions all the time. After all, experiencing negative emotions from time to time is part of being human, and we experience a full range of emotions as our circumstances and situations change. However, if we look at negative emotions through the lens of contentment, they can serve a purpose. We can use the information we gather from negative emotions to make decisions about our health behaviors and relationships, and to set realistic personal goals. While negative emotions can be useful, it is important not to give them too much free reign. Dwelling on negative emotions can flood your body with stress hormones that can lead to both health and behavioral consequences such as insomnia, depression, high blood pressure, overeating and alcohol misuse.

Somewhere between avoiding negative emotions and ruminating over them lies resilience, which is the ability to adapt and cope. And not only when life hands us the proverbial lemon, but with day-to-day stressors as well. Exercise is one healthy habit that can help us do that. Exercise reduces stress hormones in the body while simultaneously improving mood. Dr. Jeremy Sibold, a professor in the department of Rehabilitation and Movement Science at the University of Vermont, found that just 20 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise performed in the morning can have an immediate impact on mood. Moreover, Sibold found that the mood boosting effects of exercise can last for up to 12 hours. So, your morning workout will not only help you to start your day off feeling happier, it may help serve as a stress buffer if and when you encounter difficult situations throughout the day.

Here is some more good news: It appears that any type of physical activity can improve happiness. Researchers at the University of Michigan aggregated data from more than 23 published studies spanning more than three decades. Participants were diverse in terms of age, ethnicity and socioeconomic status. The researchers found that exercise was consistently linked to happiness. This was true for walkers and joggers, and for those who practiced mind-body forms of exercise such as yoga. Those meeting the physical activity guidelines of accumulating at least 30 minutes of physical activity on most days of the week were 30% more likely to report feeling happy than those not meeting the guidelines, but researchers observed increased happiness scores among individuals who worked out as little as once or twice a week.

Exercise is Just One Piece of the Puzzle

While exercise seems to play a pivotal role in happiness, remember that this is simply one piece of the puzzle. People who self-identify as happy often report having healthier relationships with family and friends and higher levels of spiritual wellness (Harris Poll, 2017). So, in your pursuit of happiness, remember to nurture your relationships and to set aside a little quiet time each day for contemplation and meditation. And, of course, keep moving.


Harris Poll (2017). Harris Poll Survey of American Happiness.

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