Along with eating fresh fruits and veggies, adding happiness-boosting activities to your daily to-dos can give your immune system a boost, according to science.

By Mary Anderson
November 20, 2020
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It's no surprise that stress can mess with your body, but the latest science is looking into the flip side. And as it turns out, experiencing a sense of well-being can have a fortifying effect on the body that's distinct from simply having an absence of stress.

"It really looks as though these positive processes are acting independently from the negative ones. If anything, they may have stronger links with immunity," says Julienne Bower, Ph.D., a professor of psychology and psychiatry and a researcher at the Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology at UCLA. "Sometimes it's easier to increase people's happiness than to decrease stress."

In other words, even during the heaviness of a pandemic, practices that boost eudaemonic well-being—which includes a sense of connection and purpose in life and is associated with healthier immune profiles—can help.

How Happiness Boosts Your Health

In two 2019 studies, Bower and her colleagues found that six weeks of mindfulness training led to positive immune changes in young breast cancer survivors, including a reduction in the expression of genes related to inflammation—which is a factor in conditions like heart disease, and therefore something you want to safeguard against. The survivors also showed increases in eudaemonic well-being; the greater that was, the greater the effect on the genes.

Scientists hypothesize that these benefits are related to the activity of the sympathetic nervous system, the one responsible for the fight-or-flight response. "When you activate reward-related regions of the brain—the areas we believe are triggered by these positive psychological processes—that may have downstream effects on the sympathetic nervous system," explains Bower.

How to Get the Immune System Perks

To get the immune-boosting benefits of happiness, start with a kind gesture, like sending a nice email to a friend. A 2017 study in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology found that people who did such acts of kindness over four weeks showed an improved expression of genes linked to immune-response function. And you can try the mindfulness exercises used in Bower's studies by downloading the UCLA Mindful app at uclahealth.org.

Of course, keep up other healthy lifestyle practices to keep your immune system functioning well, too, such as getting enough sleep, moving your body, and eating nutrient-dense foods. (Here's more on how exercise effects your immune system.)

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