What does a happy body look like?

Year of Happy two linesWelcome to week 1 of The Year of Happy‘s month on the body. The Year of Happy is a free online course in the science of happiness. Not signed up yet? Enter your email here and you’ll get a weekly dose of readings and videos to further your happiness education. 

It’s the difference between waking up with eager anticipation and stumbling zombie-like into the shower; between a brisk afternoon walk and an emergency trip to Starbucks; between a dinner cooked with love and care or haste and guilt.

So far, you could say that the Year of Happy has focused on positive psychology above the neck: thoughts, feelings, and mindsets. This month, we delve into the positive psychology of the body – specifically, how food and exercise play a role in happiness.

It’s easy to overlook the body, even though it’s our perpetual companion. We’re constantly choosing clothes, looking in mirrors, grabbing snacks, and moving around. It’s part of our identity, part of the impression we make on others, and a major source of pride or shame. Any program of self-improvement can’t afford to ignore it.

The health of our bodies transforms the health of our minds, and scientists look at physical health in different ways. There are biological markers like blood pressure, temperature, pulse, and body mass index. There are functional abilities, like being able to walk across a room or do our daily activities. And then there’s vitality, a sense of aliveness and energy that only we ourselves can measure. In fact, how healthy we think we are – our own feelings and assessments of our health – might be more important to happiness than our medical test results. 

So how are you feeling today? Part of the answer might have to do with what you had for lunch.


Did you know that the average American eats 52 teaspoons of sugar per day? And to go along with our sweet tooth, we’ve shifted to a diet of refined carbs, oils made from vegetables and seeds, and factory-farmed meat and fish. Research has shown that people who consume this diet have more depression, anxiety, mood swings, hyperactivity, and other emotional problems.

“We all want to be happy, but every day most of us consume what amounts to a series of ‘Unhappy Meals,’” write Tyler Graham and Drew Ramsey in The Happiness Diet: A Nutritional Prescription for a Sharp Brain, Balanced Mood, and Lean, Energized Body.

In their book, Graham and Ramsey aim to put forth an alternative: a diet that is good for mood, energy, and focus. They highlight the 12 “essential elements of happiness,” brain-boosting nutrients that are crucial to any program of self-improvement:

1. Vitamin B12. Vegetarians, beware: B12 is only made by bacteria living in animal digestive systems. Vitamin B12 helps build our brain cells, and a deficiency can cause irritability, depression, and cognitive decline – not to mention heart disease, cancer, and Alzheimer’s in the long run. Unfortunately, 40% of women and elderly people aren’t getting enough of it.

Find it in: Shellfish, fish, liver, beef, eggs, goat. 

2. Iodine. Iodized salt was developed as a simple way to eliminate iodine deficiency, which causes certain disabilities. Our bodies don’t produce iodine, so the only way to get it is at mealtimes. Iodine keeps the thyroid healthy and the brain developing, and a deficiency might put us at risk for mood disorders.

Find it in: Seaweed, fish, clams, shrimp, sardines, eggs, grass-fed meat and milk, potato skin. 

3. Magnesium. Magnesium is our blood vessel-relaxing, memory-improving, heart disease- and diabetes-preventing powerhouse. If we don’t get enough, we’re more likely to experience fatigue, insomnia, depression, and ADHD – and over 30% of Americans are deficient in magnesium.

Find it in: Greens, whole grains, salmon, beans, sunflower seeds, blackstrap molasses. 

4. Cholesterol. Surprise! Graham and Ramsey explain that the war against cholesterol began when doctors discovered it in arterial plaque, but that doesn’t mean it’s the biological culprit. Cholesterol protects our neurons and helps produce hormones and bile acids. Older people with higher cholesterol actually have better memory, mood, and risk of dementia, while low cholesterol has been linked to suicide and cancer risk.

5. Vitamin D. Winter getting you down? A vitamin D deficiency – due to reduced sunlight exposure – might be to blame. Low vitamin D has been linked to depression, dementia, and Parkinson’s. Time for a tropical vacation?

Find it in: Fatty fish, butter, lard, mushrooms.

6. Calcium. In addition to facilitating Vitamin D absorption, calcium also helps with bone health and neuron functioning. If you don’t get enough calcium, you might be more irritable, forgetful, anxious, or depressed. You could also suffer from osteoporosis, hormonal imbalances, weight gain, or severe PMS.

Find it in: Sardines, milk, yogurt, cheese, kale, cabbage, greens (collard, mustard, turnip), spinach, almonds, pecans, walnuts.

7. Fiber. A deficiency of inflammation-fighting fiber could increase your risk of depression and suicide.

Find it in: Green leafy vegetables, cruciferous plants (cauliflower, broccoli), beans, fruit.

8. Folate. Vital for neurotransmitter function and omega-3 production, folate improves memory, thinking, and mood.

Find it in: Spinach, kale, black beans, black-eyed peas, lentils.

9. Vitamin A. Vitamin A is used by the hippocampus and helps produce neurotransmitters like dopamine.

Find it in: Liver, egg yolks, shellfish, butter, whole milk.

10. Omega-3s. The brain and heart love omega-3s: enough of these fatty acids will help our neurons grow, enhance our mood, and ward off heart disease and dementia. A deficiency could put us at risk for depression.

Find them in: Fatty fish (mackerel, sardines, salmon), free-range eggs, grass-fed meat, flax.

11. Vitamin E. Vitamin E is the name for eight different antioxidants that protect the fat in the brain, warding off cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s, cancer, and heart disease. People suffering from depression tend to have lower levels of vitamin E.

Find it in: Almonds, olives, beet greens, turnip greens, collard greens, Swiss chard.

12. Iron. Iron helps transport oxygen in the blood, and you’ll have to get your iron levels tested before you donate any. Iron also plays a role in brain development, liver detoxification, and the production of dopamine and serotonin.

Find it in: Shellfish, grass-fed beef, duck, dark chicken meat, liver.

In the talk below, Ramsey goes into more detail about how diet affects the brain and explains how his psychiatry work led him to prescribe food as medicine:


For the purpose of studying exercise and promoting health, scientists classify it into different categories depending on intensity, or how hard our heart is working:

  • Low intensity: Under 50% of our maximum heart rate (defined as 220 minus our age).
  • Moderate intensity: 50-70% of our maximum heart rate.
  • High intensity: 70-85% of our maximum heart rate. 

Which type will boost happiness the most? Although low-intensity can be beneficial, most research shows that more intense = more happy. In some studies, high-intensity exercise was better at reducing depression and anxiety, possibly because it kicks off even bigger changes in the brain. Next week, we’ll look at a recommended exercise plan designed with happiness in mind.

Those exercise-fueled changes in the brain involve neurotransmitters, brain chemicals that facilitate communication between neurons. While the mechanisms are still being understood, exercise generally seems to balance and promote healthy levels of:

  • Endorphins: The most famous exercise-related neurotransmitter, endorphins calm the brain and relieve muscle pain.
  • Dopamine: This neurotransmitter is involved in learning, attention, movement, and reward.
  • Serotonin: The brain’s policeman, serotonin helps reduce mood swings, impulsivity, anger, aggression, and stress.
  • Norepinephrine: A surge in norepinephrine makes us feel more attentive, motivated, and confident.

Lately, researchers have started looking at brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein popularly known as Miracle-Gro for the brain. BDNF helps build new brain cells, make new connections between them, and maintain those connections. In other words, it’s one of the substances underlying neuroplasticity, the way our brain can grow and change over time, shaping our habits, skills, and feelings. In practical terms, BDNF allows us to think clearly, learn, and stay in a good mood.

Research is now showing that both exercise and diet can affect our levels of BDNF. Foods with folate, vitamin B12, and omega-3s can increase BDNF – but a diet of processed, high-sugar foods can deplete it.

In the talk below, John J. Ratey (author of Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain) explains how exercise changes brain chemistry and improves our performance at school and our health into later life.

We know that the brain affects the body; gratitude and kindness are both good for our health, for example. But the body also affects the brain – and when we have trouble getting happier by changing our minds, sometimes the best approach is to change our bodies.

Sources and further reading:

Move on to Week 2: How to cultivate a happy body

See the whole Year of Happy curriculum

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