One of the main and often forgotten foundations for optimal health, as described by Ayurveda, is the pursuit of happiness.
In this article, I’ll review some of the scientific research on happiness in an attempt to validate the Ayurvedic wisdom that being joyful, grateful, and happy is step one for a healthy, long, and fulfilling life.
The physiological effect of being joyful and happy is conspicuously thin in the research, while the impact of stress, violence, and negative emotion is overwhelming!
The scientific and physiological definitions of joy and happiness have only been recently explored in journals. Joy was described in one study as, “A spontaneous, sudden, and transient concept associated with connection, awareness, and freedom while happiness is a pursued, long-lasting, stable mental state associated with virtue and self-control.” (1)
Here, they are suggesting that joy is a fleeting experience because something good happened, and that happiness is a more long-lasting state of mind.
From the Ayurvedic perspective, both states can be long-lasting—with joy representing a deeper sentiment of bliss representing our inner nature, and with happiness representing a more positive, outward, “happy” state of mind.
Most of the science on happiness and joy suggests that the emotion comes from triggering the reward system of the brain that elicits pleasure, such as winning a game, having a birthday, or enjoying a sweet. (2)
From the Ayurvedic perspective, this is a fleeting experience and unsustainable as we cannot live in a state of reward (dopamine) stimulation without crashing. This behavior is called rajasic, which means stimulated by the mind or emotion.
Ayurveda refers to the sentiment of joy and happiness that we seek as sattvic, which is behavior that is based on truth rather than a reward.
In science, these two behavioral traits are described as hedonia (pleasure of the senses-reward stimulation) and eudaimonia (pleasure of reason: living well and doing well-no reward stimulation). (2)
According to the great author, John Steinbeck, “Our species is not set, has not jelled, but is still in a state of becoming” (3)
While this was written back in 1941, we now have a whole new field of science and medicine called psychobiotics suggesting our gut microbes feel everything and are molding our behavior—be it rajasic (overstimulated and violent) or sattvic (peaceful, loving, joyful, and happy!) (4)
Ayurveda suggests that continuous overstimulated, rajasic behavior leads to a withdrawn, negative, and fear-based mindset and behavior, called tamasic behavior.
Ayurveda’s take on how we behave is now called behavioral epigenetics, where our genetics are molded according to our behavior. Engaging in less tamasic and rajasic behavior and replacing them with more sattvic behaviors will have a more positive epigenetic effect on our genetic code. (5,6,9)
Every waking day, we are all given the opportunity to encourage either more negative, isolationistic, and fear-based behavior, or more inclusive, loving, and accepting behavior.
Political and religious beliefs aside, we all have the choice to express ourselves from the deeper place of truth, acceptance, compassion, and love that lives inside all of us.
Many studies have reported on the strong impact that negative emotional stress has on one’s mood and health. (5) The long-term impact of stress from being exposed to negative, violent visual and auditory stimuli has been linked to mood concerns as well as an alteration of the microbiome via the gut-brain axis. (6)
The good news is that emerging evidence is showing that being exposed to positive visual and auditory stimuli for just 3 days can deliver a measurable boost to one’s mood. (5,6)
We are finding that the Vedic concept, “What we see, we become,” and the predicted health and longevity benefits of a sattvic lifestyle are very real—right down to our genetic code! (9)
The positive effect of joy was recently studied at HeartMath.org, and they found that regular contemplation of joy was associated with improvements in psychophysiological coherence, spirituality, and various positive emotions and feelings. While it was a small study, these changes were significant. (7)
Many emerging studies have now linked visual and auditory stress to ill health and yet, at the same time, they have mapped out measurable shifts when certain probiotics like Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium are introduced into the digestive tract. (8)
Our mood and access to a continuous state of joy and happiness is a composite of the daily visual and auditory stimuli we are exposed to, the overall level of peace, love, and sense of safety we experience daily and, of course, the microbes in our guts that depend on the above, as well as the ingestion of whole, organic, non-processed, non-refined foods.