by Alejandra "Alex" Ruani — Get free science updates here.
Here are two quick but considerable questions:
- Does losing weight bring happiness? Or..
- Does being happy help you actually lose weight?
In other words, is happiness just on the other side of weight loss?
Or is it possible to bring happiness whilst losing weight?
Can you relate to that?
There’s this perceived level of how one will feel ONCE the weight begins to shed. You may be able to relate to that sensitivity. Or maybe it’s something that your client has expressed frequently.
We seem to get caught up in how we will feel about our future self or imagine how we might look in the mirror with less weight. We even envisage how others might perceive us once we lose the weight.
Wanting to look a certain way, see a certain number on the scale, and fit into those clothes you used to fit into, all play a part in the feel-good-about-yourself scenario.
There is more to each person’s weight loss story than just food and exercise.
It’s as if happiness is on the other side of the equation that we feel so trapped in.
But is it?
How can we bring happiness now, whilst we are in the process?
Studies consistently reveal a strong relationship between health and happiness. These studies have produced a substantial body of evidence that health is a consistent determinant of self-reported happiness.
So that begs the question:
Does losing weight bring happiness?
Well, one might say “Of course! Why would I not be happy losing weight?”
Dr. Andrew Weil, an American medical doctor and writer on holistic health believes this:
If the body is supported by the right diet, exercise and other lifestyle choices, its innate healing mechanisms that “spontaneously” activate can bring physical systems into health and balance.
He contends that there is something very similar that can happen with our emotions, such as happiness, to support our health in body, mind, and spirit. We can create the conditions that will allow that balance to manifest willingly.
Yes, this bleeds into tying happiness to weight loss whilst actually in the process, not as a result.
So how do we begin?
Researchers Cassie Mogilner, Jennifer Aaker, and Sepandar Kamvar suggest that happiness comes about in two ways:
- The first type of happiness can be described as ‘a sense of calm well-being’ and it focuses on the present moment.
- The other type of happiness is ‘a feeling of pleasant excitement’ and it focuses on future possibilities.
Something that might be helpful is to consider the possible solution through the eyes of the ‘antithesis’ of weight loss and the first type happiness, i.e. a sense of calm well-being.
What is that antithesis?
It’s the relationship between chronic stress and weight gain.
Even though some people actually eat less in the face of strong emotion, there are many who gain weight when chronically stressed.
Since researchers have linked chronic stress to weight gain, it’s curious to inquire if the reverse can be true – that being happy can conceivably help one lose weight. For those who tend to eat more when stressed, this is worth paying attention to.
Think about it, if the hormones unleashed during stress push us towards (over) eating high-fat, sugary, comfort foods, can we use happiness and the feelings elicited in this emotion as a catalyst in actually losing weight?
Being happy and motivated during weight loss, and not taking your intention off your target, can certainly be a challenge.
Most of us believe that being thinner or achieving a certain body shape will change our lives: we’ll be more credible, successful, and lovable.
But waiting for future happiness could potentially lead to a ‘fantasy trap’. Or as Wooley and Garner say it best:
The irrationality of hopes pinned on weight loss is so striking that dieting might almost be likened to superstitious behaviour.
So, can we be happy in the present moment, during the process of losing weight, without having to wait, whilst keeping the end goal in mind?
Here are 3 steps to consider for yourself or your client in bringing happiness whilst losing weight:
1. Install automatic habits that promote success
We recently discussed how new habits can give your brain pleasure. Nobody tells you this.
Remember, when you repeat a positive action enough times, at one point it becomes automatic, effortless and highly rewarding.
This is huge!
What’s more, a positive habit that has been successfully installed has the power to make you feel great today.
As behavioural psychologist Art Markman puts it:
When you have habits that promote success, you feel happier about your daily life.
Think about this: what new rewarding habits can you install this week?
Here’s some examples:
- Satiation: Drink 2 cups of water before each meal
- Cravings: Increase my intake of plant-based superfoods to at least 5 portions daily
- Food enjoyment: Replace half of my usual portion of pasta with vegetables
- Stress eating: Go to bed 50 minutes earlier with a nice book
- Temptation: Make a healthy shopping list and stick to it when I go the supermarket
2. Use the ‘contagion effect’ to your advantage
Did you notice that during the Olympics many of us catch the ‘athletic itch’? Or those who watch a new season of the show The Biggest Loser suddenly begin to move more and eat better?
There’s a scientific explanation for this. It’s called ‘goal contagion’.
Researchers have shown how a goal can be activated in your subconscious, without you even knowing that the goal is influencing you.
You feel inspired to introduce new behaviours, unconsciously.
The contagion effect can bring the feeling of ‘pleasant excitement’ that we talked about before, the second type of happiness, whilst losing weight.
How does it work?
Socially, we tend to unconsciously ‘catch’ the goals that those around us are pursuing. Our online community is an example!
Moreover, your enviroment, the contextual information that your brain receives, who you listen to, what you read, and even the new things that you learn can help activate unconscious goals and behaviours.
This may explain why many of our Clinical Weight Loss students start losing weight before they consciously change their diets.
Eric Kandel, Nobel Prize in Neuroscience for his discoveries about habituation, says that repeated exposure to the same ideas weakens the brain’s ability to change, but whenever you learn something new, communication between neurons improve and taking new action feels more natural.
3. Seek activities that raise your endorphin levels
Any activity that makes you feel great will create powerful biochemicals in your body, which can counteract the stress effect and support weight loss.
Endorphins are a type of neurotransmitters that act on the opiate receptors in your brain, giving you feelings of happiness and delight.
The best part? Research shows that endorphins also work as an appetite suppressant.
That means that not only they make you feel amazing, but also help regulate your appetite.
Physical activity can naturally raise endorphins in your body. But there are also many other fun ways for you to seek pleasure, in particular activities that are new and exciting.
By the way, spices that contain capsaicin, such as red peppers and cayenne, are associated with the release of endorphins and increased fat burning. It depends on your personal taste, but I’d say this is another way to bring happiness whilst losing weight!
You don’t need to wait until you’re 40 pounds thinner to allow yourself to be happy.
Raising endorphins levels through pleasure, enjoyment and fun should be part of every person’s weight loss journey. Happiness and excitement can show up in the most surprising ways too, such as the ‘contagion effect’. But you can also make choices in your life to bring about situations, people, and even habits that will propel your motivation and happiness whilst losing weight.
Back to you:
Do you think you can bring happiness whilst losing weight? Or is happiness something that just “happens” once you lose the weight you intended?
Join in the conversation and let us know in the comments below! Share this with a friend or family member that might be struggling with this very idea.
Alex Ruani leads the research division at The Health Sciences Academy, where she and her team make sense of complex scientific literature and translate it into easy-to-understand practical concepts for students. She is a Harvard-trained scientific researcher who specialises in cravings and appetite neurobiology, nutrition biochemistry, and nutrigenomics. Besides investigating and teaching the latest advances in health and nutrition science, Alex makes it easier to be smarter with her free Science Catch-ups every other Thursday.