All of us want to be happy. In our quest for happiness, we have always strived to make life less stressful and easier for ourselves in order to maximize our leisure time and relax as much as possible. Fortunately, as a species, we have been very successful at improving our lifestyle, as evidenced by the technological advancements we have made from the early stone age to the modern age of the 21st century. Our biology, however, has not had the time to catch up to the rate with which we have advanced. This disparity has caused a lot of problems for us because while our lifestyle has changed drastically, our genetics are still adapted to the environment that we lived in thousands of years ago.
No one can deny that we have increased our standard of living and longevity compared to our ancestors, but it seems that our current generation has become more unhappy than ever. Even though most people in our generation live lives that could make even the kings of the past envious, they still feel that their unhappiness would disappear if only they could achieve a more lavish lifestyle. But alas, when they finally upgrade their quality of life, they just want more and remain unsatisfied. Their quest for happiness is a very elusive one; every time they feel like they have it, it seems to slip right through them after an initial high.
True happiness is a sense of deep satisfaction; it is more subjective than objective, and the most important aspect of happiness comes from within us. In the world happiness report, the authors explore what makes people happy by comparing the reported happiness of people from different socioeconomic backgrounds, cultures, and countries. Surprisingly, it appears that people in a better socioeconomic position are not necessarily happier than their less fortunate counterparts. Income seems to only matter until a certain point where basic needs are met, and after that it does not seem to make people much happier. People in third world countries who have a sense of belonging and purpose seem to be much happier than people in first world countries who have large amounts of disposable income (Helliwell, 2012). The old saying money can’t buy happiness seems to agree with recent scientific revelations.
What these people chasing material possessions are missing in their lives is a sense of deep satisfaction, one that is permanent and does not go away. There have been many books written on the subject of achieving this sense of happiness, but none of them are easy or suited for the average person. Most of the advice that is advocated involve searching for some form of enlightenment by slowly giving up the vices of life and becoming content in meditation and a simple existence. Obviously, this is a very difficult path to follow and most people cannot completely dedicate themselves to such an arduous task. What they can do, however, is make little changes in their lifestyle which will put them on a path to achieve permanent happiness without forcing them to completely go into a monk-like existence. One of the most important changes that everyone can make in their lives to improve their happiness is to get involved in regular exercise because it can naturally enhance their physical and mental health, which is a fundamental determinant of most people’s happiness.
The explanation for why exercise, especially in the modern age is so important for our well-being lies in our biology. Our ancestors were subjected to many different evolutionary pressures, and over time evolved the mechanisms to cope with these evolutionary pressures (Buss, 2000). Life without modern technology meant that their days were filled with a considerable amount of labor. Therefore, it was important for them to be able to acquire and preserve energy as efficiently as possible. This is why we evolved a sweet tooth and maintained our ability to eat excessive calories during times of plenty and store it as fat. It was designed to combat starvation. However, in today’s age, where sugar filled food is available in every grocery store around the corner, and our bodies barely have to expend any energy working out, this survival strategy that we were genetically gifted with has become a liability. Our excessive craving for sugar completely destroys our insulin levels, and our fat reserves cause more harm than good by burdening us with increased risk for things like heart disease and diabetes. We have changed our environment to be safer and easier to live in, but it is extremely unnatural and has made it harder for us to live healthy, drug free lives because our bodies are still wired for an environment where this abundance of resources does not exist and where we had to work extremely hard just to survive.
Exercising helps us perform our tasks more optimally. People who exercise often tend to have better health, more discipline, energy, and motivation. In 2001, there was a study that gathered information from eighty-nine high school seniors about their exercise habits, interpersonal relationships, and a lot of other factors that helped illustrate their lives both inside and outside of school. It found that there was a strong positive correlation between better mental health and how much the students exercised. The students who exercised more had better relationships with their parents, including more intimacy. They also were less depressed, more involved in sports, and used drugs less frequently compared to students with a low level of exercise. On average, they also had better grades and more motivation than students who did not exercise much (Field, 2001). This study demonstrates that exercising does not mean that one must sacrifice other parts of their life. In fact, it can actually help enhance those other endeavors by helping people stay motivated and productive. Among other things, exercise has also been shown to help control weight, reduce risk of heart disease, help manage blood sugar and insulin levels, help quit smoking, improve sleep, reduce risk of cancer, and strengthen bones (Benefits of Exercise).
Not only can exercise improve physical health, but it has also been proven to benefit people diagnosed with mental illnesses. A meta-analysis of many different studies that have been done to determine if exercise benefits the clinically depressed shows that the addition of cognitive-behavioral therapies, specifically exercise, can improve treatment outcomes for most patients. The research also shows that the benefits of exercise are long lasting since depressed adults who took part in a fitness program displayed significantly greater improvements in depression, anxiety, and self-concept than those in a control group after 12 weeks of training. Most of them retained these gains throughout a 12 month follow up period (Craft, 2004). These studies show how the benefits of exercising go beyond improvements in just physical health. It can actually help people overcome mental problems like anxiety and depression.
In addition to becoming sedentary, we have become an extremely globalized society, and this has made us much more vulnerable to become miserable. Our frequent exposure to only the best parts of other people’s lives (which may or may not be true) coupled with our natural tendency to compare ourselves to others does not bode well for our self-esteem. In his article, The Evolution of Happiness, Dr. Buss talks about how the human brain has been wired to seek a sense of belonging in society. We evolved as social creatures, so our ancestors’ ability to live in close-knit groups, or tribes was a key part of their survival strategy. This meant they had to form close friendships, had a sense of belonging, and were valued for the unique skills and abilities they brought to the group (Buss, 2000). With the advent of social media and the decrease in face to face social interactions, this basic desire to have a sense of belonging and feel valued has become much harder to achieve. People tend to spend time comparing themselves to celebrities and other social media icons, which only ends up in them having unrealistic expectations of themselves that they are unable to meet. It is almost impossible to be the best at something because there is always someone else on the internet who is better. Few close friendships and a lack of self-worth affect our psychology tremendously because our ancestors’ social status and wellbeing depended on how well they were received by their tribe mates.
Getting involved in fitness helps us become more disciplined and stay focused on our own lives instead of comparing ourselves with others, and fills us with a sense of purpose. It can help alleviate some of the psychological difficulties caused by modern life. Consistently sticking to an exercise regime builds discipline. As we progress into increasingly difficult training and get close to pushing our limits, we also increase our willpower. Every time we push ourselves past our limits, we improve our confidence and find out that what we thought was impossible before was just a limiting belief. Like all good things, it is difficult in the beginning, but once the initial hurdles of building this new habit are overcome, we can reap the rewards of a healthier and more robust body. We become capable of doing more work, and increase our stamina and energy levels throughout the day. The time commitment that is required to maintain this lifestyle ensures that we spend less time doing things that are toxic and unnecessary like lurking on social media or watching mindless videos on YouTube. It starts a positive feedback loop of focusing on improving ourselves, since the tangible results we see and the natural endorphins that are released by exercising act as a reward.
Our sexual health is also greatly affected by our fitness levels. Humans are sexual beings and sex is an important part of our happiness. As a species, we have always been attracted to individuals of the opposite sex who look healthy because we tend to want to have babies that would turn out healthy. Since health and fitness are closely related, it is no surprise that fitter individuals are considered more attractive by both sexes. But the correlation between fitness and sexual health goes deeper than just physical attraction. Exercise increases blood flow to different parts of the body, including the genitals, and also helps improve sexual stamina (Benefits of Exercise). It reduces the effects of aging and helps keep the body nimble and strong so the ability to participate in and enjoy sex can be retained and even improved through exercise.
Regular exercise is a great way to improve our health and incorporating it in our lives is a fundamental step that we can all take if we want to start our journey towards finding happiness. Its impacts are far-reaching, affecting not only our physical health and our appearance, but also our relationships with others and our mental health. It helps us become stronger, more nimble, and more confident with our physical abilities and slows down our aging. It can make us more attractive, improve our sexual health, and reduce the risk of diseases like diabetes and heart attacks. There have been numerous studies that show people who exercise have better relationships with their friends and family, and countless clinics have found it effective to put their patients on exercise regimens to help them fight their mental illnesses. Exercising also helps us cut out harmful vices by redirecting that wasted time into something productive and aids in building our discipline and willpower. The results we get from exercising are long lasting and the benefits we can reap from it are numerous and extremely impactful.
Although we cannot go back in time and change the environment we live in, we can stop abusing the luxuries we have and change our lifestyle to add just even a few hours of exercise per week into our daily lives. Doing so will minimize the disparity between our biology and our environment. Instead of using artificial means to fight our biology, we will be working with our biology. This will enable us to naturally become healthier and promote a lifestyle that is more conductive to our happiness. It is a great first step to take in the journey to find true happiness, and the discipline and willpower that is gained from exercising regularly can be used to further improve many other aspects of our life.
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