How to become calmer, smarter, and happier

The latest exercise-science research suggests increased physical activity can improve your mood, make you smarter, and promote “enduring happiness.”WOW!

There are two (and possibly more) ways regular physical activity works to make you calmer, smarter, and happier.

First, physical activity has positive effects on the production and action of chemicals in your brain that directly affect mood and brain function. These chemicals, called neurotransmitters, communicate information (both excitatory and inhibitory) throughout the brain and body. Neurotransmitters relay signals between nerve cells (called neurons) that regulate the release of other chemicals to produce either stimulating or relaxing brain and body functions. For example, the brain uses neurotransmitters to tell your heart to beat, your lungs to breathe, and your stomach to digest. They also influence sleep, mood, and perception. In addition, they affect such factors as motivation, levels of arousal, or anxiety. Neurotransmitters even have an effect on food addictions and perceived appetite.

A neurotransmitter imbalance has been found in many emotional and mental health disorders. Not surprisingly, perhaps more than 80 percent of Americans have suboptimal neurotransmitter levels due to increased stress, poor diet, neurotoxins, genetic predisposition, drug use (prescription and recreational), alcohol and caffeine overuse, and low levels of physical activity.

Change is good

Physical activity impacts mood, brain function, and happiness in another way. Research shows regular physical activity can actually change one’s brain tissue.

Beginning in our late 20s, most of us will lose about one percent per year of the volume of our hippocampus—and perhaps other parts of the brain related to memory, certain types of learning, and emotions. Until recently, scientists thought humans were born with a fixed number of brain cells and could not generate more. However, research demonstrates physical activity stimulates adult human brains to generate new cells, particularly in the hippocampus area.

These chemical and physical changes, brought about through the stimulating effects of increased physical activity, have direct and positive effects on mood, brainpower, and happiness.

Physical activity and mental health

Based on research, here are a few of the documented psychological benefits of regular physical activity:

  • Helps alleviate depression. Therapists report patients who exercise regularly simply feel better and are less likely to overeat or abuse alcohol and drugs.
  • Reduces anxiety. Just five minutes of walking, swimming, or biking has been shown to have an impact.
  • Counteracts feelings of hopelessness.
  • Decreases tension, fatigue, anger, and sadness.
  • Enhances self-esteem and body image.
  • Improves interpersonal relationships.
  • Reduces pain, mainly due to production of endorphins—a natural opioid substance produced in the brain.

Physical activity and brain power

“I thought of that while riding my bicycle,” said Albert Einstein of the Theory of Relativity.

Regular physical activity can slow or reverse the brain’s physical decay, as it does with muscle. Physical activity appears to develop a brain able to resist physical shrinkage, enhance cognitive flexibility, and enrich mental functions.

Here is an example of one clever research study that shows physical activity can make you smarter:

Mice in a laboratory were divided into four distinct groups with different housing and food arrangements. Group 1’s quarters included different sensual and taste stimuli—they dined on nuts, fruits, and cheeses with plenty of flavored waters. Their “beds” were colorful plastic igloos; they had access to neon-hued balls, plastic tunnels, nibble toys, mirrors, and seesaws. Group 2 had access to all of the same stimuli as group 1, plus they had small disc-shaped running wheels. But this group was only given dull kibble chow. Group 3’s cages were nearly empty (no toys, no running wheels). They also received standard, dull kibble chow. Finally, Group 4 had running wheels but no other toys or treats, and they, too, only ate the standard kibble chow.

Before and after the experiment the animals completed a series of cognitive tests and were injected with a substance that allowed scientists to track changes in their brain structures. The results of this study are amazing.

Only one thing stimulated brain function: running on the wheels. The animals that exercised, whether or not they had any other stimulation and regardless of diet, had healthier brains and performed significantly better on the cognitive tests. Animals that didn’t run, no matter how enriched their environment or diet, did not improve brainpower.

These startling results with animals appear to apply to humans as well. When a group of 120 older men and women were assigned to walking or stretching programs for a major 2011 study, the walkers exhibited larger brain-hippocampi areas after one year. Meanwhile, the stretchers lost brain volume to normal atrophy. The researchers concluded the walkers had regained two years or more of brain hippocampal youth. Sixty-five-year-olds had achieved the brains of 63-year-olds simply by walking!

Voluntary choices make up about 40 percent of enduring happiness, so remember to choose happy thoughts and activities.

Voluntary choices make up about 40 percent of enduring happiness, so remember to choose happy thoughts and activities.


Physical activity and enduring happiness

Psychologists have discovered the underlying basis related to enduring happiness (defined as lasting happiness, not immediate pleasures). They’ve created the following formula:

Enduring Happiness = Biological Set Point + Life’s Conditions + Voluntary Choices

Biological set point represents happiness that is coded into our DNA and determines the range of our potential happiness, from being an optimist or pessimist, extrovert or introvert, or everything in between. The basis for the discovery of the biological set point is derived from studies of identical twins separated at birth. Research shows identical twins have statistically similar happiness levels whether they grow up in the same environment or not. In addition, studies of people who had really good things happen to them (i.e., win the lottery) or bad things happen to them (i.e., death in the family or loss of employment) tend, over time, to settle back to their biological happiness set point. Biological set point contributes about 50 percent to total happiness.

Life’s conditions equate to our current life’s situation. These are elements of our lives over which we have little control. Surprisingly, our life’s conditions (sickness, race, gender, sexual preference, religious upbringing, parents, weather, wealth, health, job, or marriage) have little impact on enduring happiness. Life’s conditions contribute about 10 percent to total happiness.

Voluntary choices represent elements in our life we can control. They include what we choose to think about (stories we tell about ourselves, how we internalize the past, how we anticipate the future, how we interact with the world, what we choose to pay attention to) and the daily activities we choose to do. Our voluntary choices contribute about 40 percent to total happiness.

The important takeaway message from the happiness research is that while we cannot change our nature, we can choose enduring happiness by choosing thoughts and activities that maximize our happiness—within our nature.

Do happy activities to be happy

Regular physical activity categorizes as a “happy activity.” Other happy activities include helping and giving to others, offering support to loved ones, gardening, playing with children, etc. During happy activities we are not aware of how we feel in the moment. But after the activity is over, we look back and realize we had fun, or feel proud of the result. This often produces a state of mind called flow, or being in the zone, and this promotes enduring happiness. Many different studies show those who regularly participate in physical activity rate their happiness levels significantly higher than sedentary individuals.

Measure your enduring level of happiness

Researchers use a life satisfaction survey to measure enduring happiness. Each individual rates their general happiness on a 1-7 scale according to five questions.

Take the happiness survey yourself and see how happy you are. Incorporate more physical activity in your life for a few weeks, take the survey again, and see for yourself how happy you become.

Using a 1-7 scale, rate the following statements according to the values below. Then, total your points to interpret your score.
____ In most ways my life is close to my ideal.
____ The conditions of my life are excellent.
____ I am satisfied with my life.
____ So far I have gotten the important things I want in life.
____ If I could live my life over, I would change almost nothing.
Scoring Scoring Interpretations
7 – Strongly agree
6 – Agree
5 – Slightly agree
4 – Neither agree nor disagree
3 – Slightly disagree
2 – Disagree
1 – Strongly disagree
31-35 Extremely satisfied
26-30 Satisfied
21-25 Slightly satisfied
15-19 Slightly dissatisfied
10-14 Dissatisfied
5-9 Extremely dissatisfied

Clark P.J., et al. (2012). New Neurons Generated from Running Are Broadly Recruited into Neuronal Activation Associated with Three Different Hippocampus-involved Tasks. Hippocampus.
Csikszentmihalyi, M.K. (2008). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. (HarperCollins)Kohman R.A., et al. (2011). Voluntary Wheel Running Reverses Age-induced Changes in Hippocampal Gene Expression. PLoS One. 6(8):e22654.
Kohman R.A., et al. (2012). Voluntary Wheel Running Enhances Contextual But Not Trace Fear Conditioning. Behavioral Brain Research. 1;226(1):1-7.
Lyubomirsky, S. (2008). The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want. (Penguin Press)
Seligman M. (2002). Authentic Happiness. Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment. (Simon & Schuster Inc.)

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