7 Surprising Ways Happiness Can Improve Your Health

Want more reason to put on your rose-colored glasses? Happiness can have all sorts of uplifting effects on your health. Overall, feeling upbeat and optimistic might even add years to your life: An analysis of several studies showed that happiness can extend life expectancy by several years compared with people who are chronically pessimistic and unhappy. Here are seven more reasons to give your inner Debbie Downer the boot.

1. Lower havoc-wreaking stress hormones According to a study in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, people who consider themselves happy tend to have lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol circulating in their bodies. High levels of cortisol has been linked to everything from poor sleep to weight gain to impaired memory function. Want to send your stress hormones plummeting in under a minute? Try diaphragmatic breathing. Put your hand about an inch above your navel and take a deep breath in, making sure your hand is rising and not only your chest. Now count to three as you inhale and exhale slowly.

2. Stronger hearts Positive people tend to have healthier hearts, including lower concentrations in their blood of a type of plasma that's associated with heart disease. When researchers at Columbia University Medical Center studied nearly 2,000 participants over a 10-year period, they found that the happiest people were 22 percent less likely to develop heart disease during that period than participants who fell toward the middle of the emotional scale. Other studies have shown that an upbeat outlook correlates with a lower heart rate, which is also a sign of a healthier heart.

"Happy people are better at fighting off invading pathogens."

3. Fewer colds and flus People who tend to see the glass as half-full don't just feel less miserable when they have a cold - they actually catch fewer viruses. When researchers studied a group of stressed-out law students, they found that those who were optimistic had more of the blood cells that contribute to a strong immune system than their pessimistic peers. In a separate study, a large group of participants were exposed to the same virus, and those who rated their outlook as upbeat were the least likely to actually come down with the bug. In other words, happy people were better at fighting off invading pathogens and staying healthy even in the face of sickness.

4. Growing skillset When you approach new tasks with positive self-talk, your brain responds to the challenge more effectively than when you doubt or criticize yourself. So the next time you're lacing up your sneakers, try nixing the thought, "Everyone else will cross the finish line ahead of me" with a happier and more affirming thought, such as, "Given enough time, I can definitely finish this foot race." Tackling a fresh challenge with an upbeat attitude makes it more likely that you'll succeed and that can increase the odds that you'll want to continue trying new activities. Salsa dancing, anyone?

5. Manage chronic conditions better Stress and anxiety can make managing a chronic health condition more overwhelming. While no doctor would recommend putting on a fake smile when it comes to facing an illness, if you're able to take even a few minutes to express gratitude for the good things going on, your health will thank you. Studies show that practicing this mindfulness, such as gratitude journaling or meditating, can help people feel better as they juggle diabetes or chronic heart conditions. And researchers have linked feeling better and more at ease with your illness to better sleep, more acceptance and less stress. You can think of it as a positivity cycle, with happiness feeding your health feeding your happiness. So if you're feeling overwhelming by a medical condition, consider seeking out support to lighten your burden (and your mood).

"People who seek out new friends are happier and healthier."

6. Have stronger social bonds It's inevitable to lose touch with some friends over time, but people who actively seek out new social circles are both happier and healthier. Studies show that having regular contact with 10 or more people significantly ups your mood and your longevity. And don't worry that you need to find a dozen best friends to feel the effects, either. Even chatting with the librarian when you swing through the library to pick up books each week or starting a book club with a few acquaintances can be enough to buoy your spirits and create a ripple effect of positive health effects.

7. Less aches and pains Could smiling help you feel less pain? Maybe. When Washington University researchers looked at people suffering from chronic pain conditions, such as arthritis and spinal cord injury, they found that those who were able to appreciate the meaning in their lives were more likely to report lower levels of chronic pain. Even better, happiness helped these people push past their pain and embrace life. Happy participants reported that their pain was less likely to hold them back and get in the way of their daily lives, and they felt less distressed overall. Researchers linked that upbeat attitude to ongoing ways that the group gave back and found meaning, including volunteering at a food bank, working toward personal goals and participating in spiritual activities like church.