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One Major Effect Exercise Has on Your Happiness, New Study Says

Research is inextricably linking the two.
FACT CHECKED BY Faye Brennan

Everybody wants to be happy. Of course, depending on who you ask, the word "happiness" can have many different meanings: Some see happiness as a corner office and a high salary, while others focus more on family or creative fulfillment.

One common happiness theme, however, is that most of us are constantly kicking it just a bit further down the road. "Once I land my dream job I'll be happy," or "I'll be much happier when we find a bigger apartment." This rarely ever plays out as we imagine. Happiness, like so much else in life, is more about the journey than the destination.

So, what's the best way to cultivate more happiness? You've probably heard more times than you can count that exercise can help. The mood-boosting effects of exercise are well-documented, and it's become standard practice for doctors to prescribe more movement to patients who report feeling down or flat-out depressed.  Michael Otto, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Boston University, told The American Psychological Association that it can take as little as five minutes to feel the mood-boosting effects of working out.

A temporary good mood isn't exactly "happiness," though, as many end up feeling just as anxious or down as before their workout within a matter of hours. To get a better idea of the long-term effects of consistent exercise—and a healthy lifestyle, in general—a new study published in the Journal of Happiness Studies defined happiness as "life satisfaction." Read on to learn more about the study's findings. And for more, check out the 3 Major Secrets to Living to 99, According to Betty White.

An active and healthy lifestyle increases happiness

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Conducted by scientists at the University of Kent and the University of Reading, the new study looked at a data sample from over 14,000 people that covered their diet and exercise habits, perceived life satisfaction, and delayed gratification or self-control. The study authors found that consistent exercise can indeed result in increased happiness.

What's more, they also found that eating fruits and vegetables regularly also appears to be a key aspect of the "happiness recipe." With those two findings in mind, the researchers reported positive causation between a healthy lifestyle and improved life satisfaction and well-being.

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Exercise causes happiness—not vice-versa

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The research team used a method called "instrumental variable approach" on the data to do away with any effect happiness had on lifestyle choices. This is a very important aspect of the research because it allowed the study authors to focus solely on the influence of lifestyle on happiness. For the first time ever, this study shows that exercise and a healthy lifestyle causes increased life satisfaction and happiness… not the other way around.

In other words, staying active and eating right makes people happy, as opposed to naturally optimistic individuals tending to work out more. Plenty of earlier studies have found an association between exercise and well-being, but "the present results enable us to make a causal statement about the relationship between lifestyle and life-satisfaction," the study authors write.

Related: 30 Little-Known Ways Losing Weight Can Change Your Life

Self-control is a big factor

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The research team adds that self-control and the ability to delay gratification plays a big role in the happiness equation. The capacity—or lack thereof—to put off leisure time or dinner to squeeze in a workout has a major influence on lifestyle choices, which will ultimately have either a positive or negative effect on life satisfaction.

"Our estimation results indicate, first, that the ability to delay gratification is significant in influencing lifestyle and this latter, in turn, has a significant impact on well-being," researchers write. "The ability to delay gratification enables individuals to give greater weight to the investment component of these decisions rather than merely the affective component."

In this way, we should all consider healthy lifestyle choices like regular exercise and clean eating to be "money in the bank" toward our own happiness. Making the right lifestyle decisions is like investing in a better future.

Related: The 5 Exercises You Should Never Skip As You Get Older

All it takes is a little nudge

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It's no secret that more people than ever before are leading largely stagnant, sedentary lives. Aside from the litany of reasons to exercise more for one's physical health, the study authors hope their work motivates many to start living healthier for another reason: their happiness.

"If a better lifestyle not only makes us healthier but also happier, then it is a clear win-win situation," says Dr. Adelina Gschwandtner from the University of Kent's School of Economics.

Professor Uma Kambhampati from the University of Reading's School of Economics adds: "To establish that eating more fruit and vegetables and exercising can increase happiness as well as offer health benefits is a major development. This may also prove useful for policy campaigns around environment and sustainability."

For more, check out The Secret Exercise Tricks for Getting Flat Abs Faster.

John Anderer
John Anderer is a writer who specializes in science, health, and lifestyle topics. Read more
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