Lessons From Psychology for Healthier, Happier Life


By Catherine A. Sanderson, Amherst College

Psychology can transform our understanding and appreciation of life, in unexpected ways. It also provides clear strategies we can all use to live happier, healthier lives. Adopting a positive mindset can improve happiness, health, and longevity, so let’s take a look at few lessons that can be learnt from psychology for a healthier and happier life.

A happy woman cheering with her arms extended
The secret to happiness can be unearthed with psychology where research-backed evidences show how positive mindset can make a difference. (Image: U2M Brand/Shutterstock)

Thoughts Matter

Research from the field of positive psychology points to a very simple strategy for increasing happiness: Focus on what you are grateful for in your life.

In one study, researchers randomly assigned people to one of three groups:

  1. Those in the first group—the gratitude group—were asked to write down five things they were grateful for in their lives over the last week; their lists included such things as God, kindness from friends, and the Rolling Stones.
  2. Those in the second group—the hassles group—were asked to write down five hassles they’d experienced in the last week; their lists included such things as too many bills to pay, trouble finding parking, and a messy kitchen.
  3. Those in the third group—a control group—were asked to list five things they had done in the last week; their lists included attending a music festival, learning CPR, and cleaning out a closet.

People in each group made their assigned list once a week for nine weeks. Before the study started, and again after it ended, all participants rated their overall health, including moods, physical symptoms, amount of time they spent exercising, and how they felt about their life as a whole. The researchers then compared how people in these different conditions changed over time.

Practice Gratitude

People in the gratitude group felt fully 25% happier than people in the other two groups. They were more optimistic about the future and they felt better about their lives. They also reported fewer physical symptoms—headaches, coughing, nausea, and so on.

In what was an interesting and unexpected finding, people in this group also reporting exercising more than those in the other conditions. So, simply reminding yourself of what’s good in your life also seems to push you to exercise more.

Exercise Leads to Better Health

And this surprising aspect of how thoughts matter leads us to our second key takeaway: Exercise matters. Exercise may even help treat depression, and, at least in some cases, be as helpful as psychotherapy or anti-depressants.

Researchers in one study randomly assigned people with clinical depression to one of three groups:

  • People in one group engaged in regular aerobic exercise—three 45-minute sessions once a week for four months. They did not receive any drugs to combat depression.
  • People in another group received drugs to relieve the symptoms of depression for four months but did not engage in any type of aerobic exercise.
  • People in the third group engaged in regular aerobic exercise and received drugs, again for a four month period.

The researchers found that people in all three groups improved at the exact same rate. So, yes, anti-depressants do work, but aerobic exercise alone, even without the use of drugs, is just as beneficial at lifting symptoms of depression.

This article comes directly from content in the video series Introduction to Psychology. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Exercise for Holistic Development

Evidence now shows that exercise has even more benefits, including improving thinking and memory skills, and potentially reducing the risk of dementia. Even pretty low levels of exercise, such as walking a few times a week, leads to changes in brain activity that improve cognitive functioning, even for people showing early signs of dementia.

So, another key takeaway from research in psychology is that the benefits of exercise basically cannot be overstated—whether for physical health, mental sharpness, or psychological well-being.

Close Relationships Ensure Happiness

One of the most influential and impressive psychology studies of all time, conducted by Harvard University researchers and known as the Grant Study, underlines the importance of close relationships.

Every two years—starting in 1938—study participants completed measures of their physical and emotional health as well as their work status, friendships, and family life. This study was designed to answer the most fundamental question for us all: What are the predictors of a good life? And their findings point to a clear answer: The only real and consistent predictor of happiness is relationships.

Happy young man playing with a kid
Close-knit personal relationships contribute to happiness. (Image: Evgeny Atamanenko/Shutterstock)

As George Vaillant, who directed this study for three decades described it, there are two pillars of happiness: “One is love. The other is finding a way of coping with life that doesn’t push love away.” And subsequent research bears this out again and again.

Influence of Social Norms

Finally comes the influence of social norms, the unwritten rules that shape our behavior. Errors we make about social norms explain many missed opportunities, such as why we fail to express interest in a potential friend or romantic partner, why we often fail to step up and act in the face of an emergency, and why we often don’t speak up in the face of bad behavior of all types, from bullying in schools to hazing in fraternities to corporate fraud in the workplace.

And yet, the remedy can be quite simple: Telling people about the power of social norms, already helps people engage in better behavior. And understanding the errors we make in perceiving social norms, and the consequences of such misperceptions, can go a long way towards helping us avoid such errors.

We can all become better at understanding the psychological processes that lead us to misperceive what those around us are actually thinking; we misbelieve that all women want to be thin, and we wrongly suppose that other people never feel sad or lonely.

But women who learn how campus social norms contribute to unhealthy body image ideals show lower rates of disordered eating later on, and people who learn that many of their peer’s struggle with mental health challenges have a more positive view of mental health services.

In short, reducing the mistakes and misunderstandings we make about other people can also improve our own psychological and physical well-being.

Common Questions about Lessons From Psychology for Healthier, Happier Life

Q: What is the secret to happiness as per the findings of the research work conducted?

Research from the field of positive psychology points to a very simple strategy for increasing happiness: Focus on what you are grateful for in your life.

Q: How can exercise help in ensuring better health?

Exercise has multiple health benefits, including improving thinking and memory skills, and potentially reducing the risk of dementia.

Q: What is the significance of close relationships?

As per the Grant study conducted by Harvard researchers, the only real and consistent predictor of happiness is relationships.

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