According to previous research, a diet rich in fruits and vegetables can lower inflammation and related depression symptoms.1 Exercise can increase the release of feel-good hormones like serotonin.2
But those aren’t the only mechanisms at play when it comes to improving your mood, according to a recent study in the Journal of Happiness Studies.3
Researchers found that eating healthy foods along with exercising regularly gave people a boost in happiness and life satisfaction. Some of this boost in mood may be directly related to delayed gratification.
“We see that the causation goes in the other direction, from lifestyle to happiness,” says lead researcher Adelina Gschwandtner, PhD, senior lecturer in economics at the University of Kent. “Hence, it is really the fruits, veggies, and exercise that make you happier. So, it pays to make the effort to have a healthy lifestyle because, in the end, you’ll be happier as a result.”
Researchers looked at data from about 40,000 households in the UK that were part of a large-scale, long-term study called Understanding Society: The UK Household Longitudinal Study. This study collects information about people’s social and economic circumstances, attitudes, lifestyle habits, health changes, family relationships, and employment.4
Focusing on diet and activity, researchers found a strong association between these lifestyle factors and better mood. Although one possibility for this might be that happy people tend to take better care of themselves, the data suggest it is the other way around, says lead researcher Adelina Gschwandtner.3
Although healthy dietary choices and consistent exercise provide ample benefits in terms of physical function, the suggested mechanism in the recent study is actually psychological, says Gschwandtner. It is all about delayed gratification.
Being able to delay gratification helps you have a better lifestyle, and this better lifestyle makes you happier.
Those who undertake these types of behaviors are successful in maintaining them if they have a long-term perspective rather than one that’s reliant on short-term benefits. That kind of emotional investment seems to pay off over the long run.
“Being able to delay gratification helps you have a better lifestyle, and this better lifestyle makes you happier,” she says.
Gschwandtner adds that there was some variation in terms of results between men and women. The latter tended to eat more fruits and vegetables, while the former did more exercise. But those differences were not enough to skew happiness levels toward one gender over the other.
“This benefits everyone and can reduce the burden of ill health that comes from lifestyle diseases,” she says.