By Dr. Laura Pawlak
“Life Is Good.” These three words have blossomed into a worldwide slogan. Why? You feel good just reading the words.
These days life elicits more worries than “happies.” Good times are short-lived and may be prone to addiction: compulsive shopping with credit cards; eating comfort foods loaded with calories; drinking too much alcohol; or searching for drug dealers to soothe emotional or physical pain. Sustainable happiness begins with the simple things: the food you eat and the work you do.
Brain imaging has identified the pathway that produces good feelings. Named the Reward Circuit, you experience an emotional response to foods consumed and work performed. Thus, the recommendation to “eat right and move more,” can improve both happiness and health.
Is eating right a happy experience? It’s pretty obvious that foods high in fat, sugar, and salt light up the Reward Circuit, elevating feelings of joy. Is it possible to eat foods that are healthy for the brain and add “happy” to your mood?
Researchers at the University of Warwick in Coventry UK say “yes!” The staff followed 12,000 adults from Australian households for six years. Participants kept food diaries and answered survey questions about their lives as well as their mental and emotional health. By the end of the second year, participants who changed from eating no fruits and vegetables a day to eight portions a day reported feeling happier. Participants who did not increase their intake of fruits and vegetables over the same period experienced a drop in happiness score. The “happy” power of fruits and vegetables was equivalent to going from unemployment to a job. (American Journal of Public Health, August, 2016)
Consuming eight servings of fruits and vegetables each day (about four cups) provides thousands of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory nutrients that improve brain function in measurable, mood-altering ways.
What about work? Regardless of the wording (labor, exercise, work, or toil), the brain activates, controls, and evaluates movement. Both psychologists and neuroscientists have independently addressed the theory that work ignites positive emotions.
Psychologists investigated a unique consumer issue called “The Ikea Effect,” that is, the consequences of buyers’ assembling items purchased. The study concluded that assembling an item boosted feelings of pride, confidence, and competence even when the end product was poorly assembled. It appeared that work, especially with the hands, activated the Reward Circuit.
Real-time imaging of the brain, conducted by Kelly Lambert, a neuroscientist, confirmed the conclusions of the Ikea study. Dr. Lambert recruited persons with untreated depression and set up work projects, such as pottery-making, wood carving, or knitting. She demonstrated that labor with the hands and arms activated the Reward Circuit, elevating positive emotions sufficiently to eliminate the symptoms of depression in her patients. Dr. Lambert labeled the process as “effort-driven reward.” Yes, work can be a happy experience. And, when the effort is purposeful and helps others, the happiness rating is even higher. (“Lifting Depression” by Kelly Lambert, 2010)
“The groundwork for all happiness is good health.” –Leigh Hunt, English poet
Dr. Laura Pawlak (Ph.D., R.D. emerita) is a world-renown biochemist and dietitian emerita. She is the author of many scientific publications and has written such best-selling books as “The Hungry Brain,” “Life Without Diets,” and “Stop Gaining Weight.” On the subjects of nutrition and brain science, she gives talks internationally. n