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An “Exercise” in Happiness

Updated: Sep 5, 2023

Happiness is a choice that can be particularly hard to make. Achievement often comes from sacrifice and struggle. Many of my fondest memories come after I persevered in some way. I may have set a goal and worked toward it or been faced with a particularly tough circumstance and was able to work through it. Conquering a quest worth sharing on social media is what can make us happy, not scrolling through the achievements of others.

“Resolve to keep happy, and your joy and you shall form an invincible host against difficulties.” - Helen Keller

I partnered with Emily Brandt, a former standout personal finance student of mine who now majors in Neuroscience at The Ohio State University, to write a series of articles focusing entirely on happiness and the strategies we can use to achieve it. Her first task for me was to take The Science of Well-Being, often referred to as Yale’s Happiness course. For those unfamiliar with the course, it is the most popular class in the history of Yale.


As Emily took the course, she noted how what was being taught connected to our mission at Modern Husbands. In other words, we wanted to use the science of happiness to drive what we share in our posts. Emily found that much of the course covered subconscious problems we tend to fall victim to and how we can overcome those to increase our overall mood.


This post will focus on the physical practices we can engage in to boost our moods further. In other words – the importance of exercise, and here’s why.


Let's start with a quiz. I'll share the answer at the end of the article.


How did the happiness of individuals successful in a weight loss program compare to those who failed and didn’t lose weight?

  • Those who DID lose weight were happier

  • There was no difference

  • Those who did NOT lose weight were happier


When our bodies experience pain or stress, our immune system releases endorphins. Endorphins are neurotransmitters that bind to receptors in your brain to reduce your perception of pain. Said differently, endorphins are the body’s natural drug for pain reduction. Endorphins are also released when your body experiences pleasure. When this occurs, endorphins bind to receptors and produce a feeling close to that of morphine.


Exercise decreases depression symptoms, increases academic performance, and boosts our overall mood. What’s the lesson? We are happier when we are healthier and working out.


This isn’t new to you if you’re a muscle-bound athlete who works out twice daily. I envy those who have families and can continue to commit to being standout athletes, and that’s not the intended audience of this post. We were thinking more about men who work out just enough to not need new pants or compete in adult leagues or regular pickup basketball.


Happiness is anchored in and contributes to the invisible threads of connections to others.

Many of us find working out more enjoyable when working out with others. Examples include:

  • Playing pickup basketball with friends.

  • Hiking with your spouse.

  • Attending regular gym workouts with a partner.

My wife and I work out at OrangeTheory a couple of times a week, where punishing our bodies to burn calories seems to work better in the dark while being yelled at by hyper-fit instructors. It could be the social connection of working out with my wife or watching on the screen how my calories burned compared to others.


Not all of us are weekend warriors, and that’s okay. What matters most is that we consistently partake in any physical activity for around 30 minutes every day, whether we do this by walking, running, or playing a sport.


Dr. Santos recommends tracking what you did for your physical activity and describing how you felt before partaking in that activity vs. how you felt afterward. By also doing this, you can remember the positive feelings (such as the feeling of accomplishment) that can often be overshadowed by the negative feelings of actually getting up to do these activities.

Most middle-aged people working out are happier, which should be the priority.


Consider the bigger picture. Global unhappiness is rising, and men can be particularly vulnerable to mental health problems. Over six million suffer from depression yearly, which are the reported cases. Men are less likely than women to seek help for depression, substance abuse, and stressful life events.


For some, a healthy lifestyle is not enough; they are on the quest for a perfect body. Does this make us happier? This part of the course resonated with Emily. A challenge in her transition to college was that this was the first time she had not participated in high-level cheerleading. She was offered a scholarship to be a cheerleader at the University of Tennessee but chose not to cheer in college.

“Before starting college, I, like many of my peers, had been repeatedly warned about the ‘freshman 15’. It was my first time not playing any sports, I had no adult supervision, and I had an unlimited dining plan that allowed me access to food at almost any hour. I decided to take the initiative to keep myself healthy by working out when I had time in my schedule. However, my ultimate goal was not just about being healthy but rather trying to have a perfect body, which started me down a path that ran in the opposite direction of happiness.”


Attaining a “perfect body” is not going to make you happier. Jackson and colleagues followed 1,979 obese individuals over four years in diet programs. After the program ended, they divided all the participants into three groups: weight loss, weight gain, and weight stayed the same. Jackson and colleagues found that, as a whole, weight loss programs make every person, no matter what group they’re in, experience more depressive thoughts and feelings.


As far as the quiz answer at the beginning of this post: Jackson and colleagues found that those individuals who were successful in the weight loss program became even more depressed than those who failed and didn’t lose weight.


So what’s your takeaway?


Ignore the perfect body weight loss "programs". Focus on achieving a happy and healthy lifestyle by working out at least 30 minutes a day, trying to do so with friends or family, and setting a goal that keeps you happy, which could be a weight that is just enough to not need new pants.

 

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Citations


Santos, Laurie. “The Science of Well-Being.” Yale Course on Happiness. https://www.coursera.org/learn/the-science-of-well-being. Accessed 20 Aug. 2022.


Eid, M., & Larsen, R. J. (2008). The science of subjective well-being. Guilford Press.


Edwards, D. (2021, April 2). The 5 amazing benefits of outdoor exercise [infographic]. Primal Play. Retrieved September 16, 2022, from https://www.primalplay.com/blog/benefits-of-outdoor-exercise


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