Yes, a healthy diet and lifestyle can make you happier
Do you want to feel happier? Can you? New research from the UK shows that you most certainly can with the age-old advice to “eat your vegetables” (and fruit), and “play sports.”
“Lifestyle has a large and very significant impact on the physical health of individuals,” said the study authors. They wanted to find out whether lifestyle habits can also influence emotional health and life satisfaction.
Many factors affect how happy you feel:
- Your personality traits
- The environment you live in (neighbourhood, house)
- Your demographics (marital status)
- Your economics (job, income)
But, what about eating nutritious foods and being physically active? Can they also help people to feel happier?
The results of their study showed that, yes, both fruit and vegetable consumption, as well as participation in sports, are positively related to life satisfaction. This means that the more fruits and vegetables and sports that people partake in, the higher their levels of life satisfaction are. This is true for both men and women. In this study, the researchers found that women tended to eat more fruits and vegetables than men, and men tended to partake in more sports than women.
The researchers used data from the Understanding Society Database, to find out if people who have better lifestyles have more life satisfaction. What makes this study unique is that the researchers weren’t looking for more data on the links between healthy lifestyles and happiness, instead, they wanted to figure out if healthy lifestyles can result in happiness. To do this they used a few key questions to tease out what comes first: a healthy lifestyle or satisfaction with life. These questions tried to figure out who can delay gratification and have more self-control. For example, they asked participants how successful they are in sticking with diets versus always trying to eat healthier because it pays off in the long run. The researchers argue that the answer to this question would not affect the participants’ life satisfaction scores, but it may play a large role in how successful participants are in implementing healthy lifestyle changes like eating more fruits and vegetables or participating in sports. Their idea is that people who are better able to delay gratification and have a healthier lifestyle can then result in higher satisfaction with life.
This study shows that implementing day-to-day healthy lifestyle improvements and keeping a focus on long-term benefits not only makes one more physically healthy, but also can result in being more satisfied with life.
The bottom line of this study is that: “F&V consumption and sports activity have a positive, significant impact on life satisfaction,” said the study authors. In fact, “Our … estimates show clearly that F&V and sports activity (both investments in a physically healthy future) are very effective in improving subjective wellbeing.”
How can you be happier by eating more fruits and vegetables or participating in more sports?
The first thing to do is to have long-term health goals and be prepared to implement healthier lifestyle habits day-to-day to reach those goals. In other words, think about your “why”? Why do you want to eat more nutritious foods or be more physically active? This will be very unique to you, but may be, for example, to prevent or recover from a health issue, or to be strong enough to participate in an event or experience, or maybe to live long enough to make a difference in the world or to people you care about.
Then, when you have your long-term health goal—your why—clearly defined, be ready, willing, and able to action the steps you need to reach that goal. Delay gratification you may get by putting off that healthy meal or workout. Focus on the long-term. Think about how happy and satisfied you will be with your life in the future when you keep those everyday commitments to eat healthier and be physically active.
Pro tip: It may help to post some reminders of your long-term goal around your home and to make your healthier lifestyle habits convenient to do. For example, wash and chop your fruits and vegetables when you get home from the grocery store or market, and have your workout gear ready to go the night before. Then, do it.
About the study:
- This particular study is one of the first to try to determine whether eating more fruits and vegetables and participating in sports makes people happier or more satisfied with their lives. It was a stronger study than simply making correlations/associations between the two where you can’t determine what comes first: lifestyle changes or life satisfaction (e.g., do people who are more satisfied with their lives eat more fruits and vegetables and participate in sports?). They tried to discern that the lifestyle changes came first by factoring in the tendency to delay gratification and apply self-control. These people who can more easily delay gratification and apply self-control can implement healthy lifestyles (first), and as a result, be more satisfied with their lives.
- Note that all studies have limitations. That’s why it’s important to look at multiple studies, giving more weight to the ones that have a better design to answer the questions being asked. For this one, the researchers specifically looked at sports, not other areas of physical activity. They also didn’t look at other things like alcohol consumption, smoking, or more details about the participants’ nutrition. They also didn’t look at people’s personalities or genetics.
- Pro tips from the study authors to help you help your clients and patients improve their lifestyle habits by sharing not just information, but behavioural nudges to help the “doer” keep the commitment of the “planner’s” long-term health goals:
- “Given the amount of information provided by health professionals regarding the impact of lifestyle on health, it is clearly not a lack of information that mitigates against healthy lifestyles. The fact that New Year’s resolutions often involve such activities is testament to this awareness. The fact, however, that in the vast majority of cases, New Year’s resolutions are broken is also testament to the fact that there are other factors at play here. Chief amongst these is the ability to delay gratification. Thaler and Shefrin (1981) identify a number of devices to help with such self-control including monitoring as is done by calorie counting systems or commitment devices (such as natural clinics which enforce a certain lifestyle while in their environs). Certain types of nudge have been suggested in the work by Loewenstein and co-authors related to asymmetric paternalism to improve health behaviours (Loewenstein et al., 2007). Thaler and Shefrin (1981) argued that the planner has different objectives from the doer and it is clear that the planner who sets New Year’s resolutions is, in many cases, defeated by the doer who breaks them by concentrating on short term consumption gains. This division seems to be closely related to the human brain function, something long recognized by neuroscientists (e.g. Bjork et al., 2009; Figner et al., 2010; McClure et al., 2007). Behavioural nudges that help the planning self to reinforce long-term objectives are likely to be especially helpful in maintaining a healthy lifestyle.”
- This is a self-reported observational study that included survey answers by 14,159 people in the UK. This means it’s not as strong as a randomized control trial (which would be even better than observational because it would be experimental).
- Study strength is rated a 4/7 according to this chart: https://www.compoundchem.com/2015/04/09/scientific-evidence/