The pursuit of measurements for happiness

By Amy Wimmer Schwarb • Published: March 19th, 2013
Category: Health in a Heartbeat

Happiness can be elusive. The emotion one person might call “happiness” can feel like “elation” to another or just “mildly pleased” to someone else.

And so, in search of measurements for the emotion that can’t be bought and can barely be defined, medical researchers don’t monitor the pursuit of happiness, but rather the pursuit of “life satisfaction.”

Not surprisingly, exercise seems to play a role in how satisfied people are with their lives — so much so that researchers at Penn State recently determined that if you’re having a bad day, adding just a few minutes of physical activity can turn your mood around.

But what, precisely, explains the link between exercise and life satisfaction, or even a great mood?

Recent research suggests that human beings are genetically engineered to enjoy exercise. A University of Arizona researcher headed a team that examined whether other mammals experience the “runner’s high” that is well-known in humans.

The good mood humans experience after exertion is caused by endocannabinoids, the chemicals present in the reward centers of the brain. Researchers found that after brisk treadmill runs, humans and dogs register higher levels of the chemical, while ferrets — whose bodies are not built for running — did not.

The resulting hypothesis: The positive emotions humans feel after a run might have evolved to encourage our hunter-gatherer ancestors to run for their food.

It appears that humans need about 20 minutes of moderately intense running to bring on the chemical change. For couch potatoes simply exercising a time or two might not cut it, though. You have to build up the ability to maintain the right intensity.

After that, getting hooked on a feeling, to quote one song, just might lead to more satisfaction, to quote another.