Get fit, feel happy. Or is it the other way around?
As a fitness instructor, motivational speaker and lifestyle coach, Chalene Johnson has heard it hundreds of times: “If I can just lose 20 pounds, I’ll be happy.” Or, “I’ll be happy once I get back in shape.” The problem is, she says, it doesn’t work that way.
“Most people assume that if they can achieve their physical goals, they’ll be happy. So they go to extreme measures, and either they fail because the goal was too big, or they succeed at their goal, but find out it doesn’t change how they feel about themselves—so they still perceive themselves as failing.”
While setting personal health and fitness goals is important, believing that happiness will come from reaching those goals can set someone up for failure. “Happiness never comes from the outside,” Chalene says. “It comes from a combination of all areas of our lives. Certainly, a lot of people start from the outside, but it is the other changes they make in their lives along the way that truly make them happy.”
She says working on fitness goals may help put other areas of life in balance. For example, people may work fewer hours or spend less time in front of the television; they might start eating healthier meals and make better choices. As all of those different areas of their life begin aligning, they are less likely to self-medicate with food or alcohol—and as a result, they feel happier overall.
Chalene’s observations, which come from more than 20 years of fitness and lifestyle coaching, have growing scientific evidence to back them up. Tim Sharp, Ph.D., executive coach, clinical psychologist and adjunct professor at the University of Technology, Sydney, Business School and RMIT University & School of Health Sciences, is also founder of The Happiness Institute, based in Sydney. His research theory, called “The Primacy of Positivity,” proposes that practicing the principles of positive psychology and doing what is necessary to create a happy life must be the first step—not the end result.
Taking such an approach “will boost motivation and energize a person to then do more of what they need to do, such as live a healthy life,” he says. “All of these principles are very possible before goal attainment.”
The belief that happiness comes from reaching goals can actually have a negative effect on people, creating what Tim calls “the tyranny of when.” “[This] is the phenomenon resulting from a group of related thoughts and beliefs associated with imagined and seemingly desirable, but currently unreached, goals,” he explains. “For example, ‘I’ll be happy when…I have more money, a bigger house or a better job.’”
In a paper published in the March 2011 edition of Coaching: An International Journal of Theory, Research and Practice, Tim explains how “the tyranny of when” can thwart goals and lead to a range of problems, including negative and self-defeating emotions. When someone is operating under “the tyranny of when” and fails to reach a goal, they may have already talked themselves out of being happy. As a result, any success or progress they might have made on the way to reaching that goal is discounted. For example, instead of being happy about losing eight pounds and celebrating that accomplishment, someone might be disappointed because they didn’t lose the 10 pounds they had intended.
As a countermeasure, Tim is among those who propose a new approach that challenges the tradition of working toward goals. He argues that achievement and success are more attainable if happiness and positivity are created first. “So even if happiness is not an explicit goal in and of itself, it should still be seen as a highly useful means to a desired end.”
Reversing the Thought Process
Shawn Achor, author of the books Before Happiness and The Happiness Advantage says the practice of attaching happiness to a goal or accomplishment is “scientifically broken" and believes it interferes not only with our overall happiness, but with our outcomes and success.
“Every time you record a victory, your brain changes the goal post of what success looks like,” he notes, adding that it means we will always need a new accomplishment to continue feeling successful. However, research Shawn has conducted at Harvard University indicates that the level of happiness created by the success doesn’t change or increase with each success; it remains the same.
In other words, greater success does not, by itself, translate to greater levels of happiness. “But flip around the formula, prioritize creating a positive brain in the present, and suddenly, every single business and educational outcome rises,” he says. “Raise happiness levels in the present and your success rate rises dramatically.”
Successfully reaching personal weight and fitness goals requires becoming realistic about what one wants to accomplish, and about the result that reaching that goal will have. “Part of the frustration that can oftentimes come from trying to speed toward certain goals is that sometimes those goals are irrational,” he says. “Start with a realistic assessment of where you are, but maintain the belief that your behavior matters in the present: ‘Can I work out today?’ ” That’s a simpler and more attainable goal than vowing to exercise six days a week.
Looking at the goal in smaller, bite-size pieces makes it more manageable, and creates more victories to celebrate. It also helps us stay positive and makes us less likely to berate ourselves if we have an “off” day, knowing it can be compensated for the next day. Becoming more realistic and staying committed while not making happiness contingent upon the outcome are important shifts in thinking that allow us to accept ourselves more readily—and be able to celebrate the accomplishment of simply taking better care of ourselves. And, best of all, pursuing a healthier and more fit lifestyle will automatically support each individual’s personal quest for happiness.
Which Comes First?
Dr. John Ratey, an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard and the author of the book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain explains that exercise and happiness go hand-in-hand. The challenge lies in getting people to recognize its many benefits and stop looking at it merely as a tool for physical attractiveness.
“There’s a feeling among many people that exercise is work, and that’s a problem,” he says. “They see it as a chore or as work instead of seeing it as something that has tremendous benefits to them. We are such a push-button, immediate digitalized response world that we demand change immediately, and that’s our downfall when it comes to exercise. If people are using this to improve their outward physical appearance, they know it’s going to take some time.”
However, he says anyone who exercises can enjoy immediate benefits, even though they aren’t necessarily the kind of results that will show up on the scale in the morning. “People talk a lot about endorphins that are released through exercise, but that is just part of it,” John says. “When we begin exercising, we almost immediately begin releasing dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin. Those are all neurotransmitters that deal with feelings of reward, alertness, contentment and feelings of wellbeing.”
Even more importantly, the brain begins to secrete something known as “brain-derived neurotrophic factor,” or BDNF, a protein that is associated with the growth and development of neurons within the brain. John calls BDNF “brain fertilizer,” noting that it has been proven effective in combating both depression and anxiety, and even has been successful in fighting substance abuse issues.
Exercise: The Stress Killer
“In general, it allows us to combat stress hormones directly within the body, but also to combat outside stresses overall. And all of those things contribute to our feelings of happiness.” John says the key to enjoying a fitness regimen—and therefore, increasing the odds of staying with it—is to understand the immediate benefits it creates and begin appreciating what it can do in the short term rather than focusing on long-term benefits.
“People know that it’s going to have long-term effects; it can fight depression and Alzheimer’s and help them lose weight,” he says. “But we’ve become too accustomed to only placing an emphasis on the physical. There are tremendous immediate emotional and cognitive effects to exercise.”
Maintaining a commitment to fitness can create a sense of mastery and pride in accomplishment—while at the same time, triggering a series of positive neural responses within the brain. It can lower blood pressure and blood sugar levels in just a few minutes, and it improves mood and enhances the quality of sleep. John says it doesn’t matter what the activity is; regardless of whether it’s yoga, CrossFit, weightlifting or Zumba, any exercise that stresses and challenges the brain will engage it immediately and set the benefits in motion. In fact, he notes that the brain is more engaged during exercise than it is during any other activity—including studying.
“The thing that people need to think about is that they are doing something to make them feel better today,” John says. “When you exercise and increase your overall feeling of wellbeing for today, you’re going to feel better about everything that happens that day. You’re going to feel happier overall.”
A 2013 study by Katherine M. Appleton of Queen’s University in Belfast, U.K., published in the Journal of Health Psychology further illustrates John’s point. Her study showed that regular exercise helped people feel better about themselves and their appearance—even when there were no obvious outward physical changes. Participants were divided into two control groups; one group spent 40 minutes reading six days a week, the other group spent that same amount of time exercising. Neither group showed changes in their appearance, but at the end of the study, the exercise group showed marked improvement in their body image, while the reading group showed no change in their body image.
Katherine wrote that her study “confirm(ed) current theories of body image, where changes in body image are mediated by body perceptions as opposed to actual body indices.” What she saw firsthand was that exercise can help improve body image and mindset, even if no weight was lost or if measurable improvements were made in the shapes of their bodies. Katherine’s findings are similar to those being made by other psychologists and scientists around the globe.
Many experts today believe that the link between physical activity and happiness is inextricably linked, and that exercise is a way to unleash happiness—something that could play a pivotal role in helping people reach their personal health and fitness goals.
Reaching Realistic Goals
Harvard psychologist Tal Ben-Shahar, Ph.D., who teaches a course on positive psychology, frequently preaches a gospel of exercise to induce and maintain happiness. “Physical exercise, three times a week, is equivalent to some of our most powerful psychiatric drugs in terms of its effect on depression and anxiety,” he said during the PBS television program, Life (Part 2).
He has frequently been quoted as saying avoiding exercise is the equivalent to taking depressants. And Niyc Pidgeon, a U.K.-based positive psychologist specializing in physical activity, sport and exercise, has created a performance pyramid similar to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to illustrate the formula for reaching optimal performance in life. Her model places “mindsets and optimism” as the essential foundation for building other necessary characteristics such as self-awareness, positive emotions and emotional intelligence.
“Choosing an [optimistic] mindset can be fundamental in developing, enhancing and maintaining performance,” she says. “Optimism is associated with more positive and authentic relationships, better physical health and a longer lifespan.”
What emerges is a sort of chicken-and-the-egg question between exercise and happiness. Exercise is proven successful in releasing stress, unleashing feel-good chemicals in the brain, and enhancing mood and motivation. At the same time, those who see the results of exercise as the path to their happiness may find themselves disappointed, disillusioned—and ultimately unsuccessful at both finding happiness and reaching their goals.
“If you solely focus on your physique and that outcome, you’re going to be disappointed,” concludes Chalene. “You have to find what makes you truly happy in life first. You have to create that balance in your life. Otherwise, you will stay on this hamster wheel of trying to be happy forever.”