Health // 10/06/2023

Happiness formula sport: This makes the world really happy

Image credit: Peter Conlan/unsplash
Uschi Horner

Actually, we should have known - there is a connection between happiness and sports. Studies show: The happiest countries in the world are also the countries with the highest proportion of athletes. Here are the global happiness facts - and how you can easily make your life happier and healthier.

What is happiness? Standing on a summit and breathing in the pure mountain air? Lifting dumbbells at the gym and getting out of breath? Watching a football game on TV and cheering for your team? Yes, all of that makes us happy. But statistically, happiness can also be defined: In the regularly published World Happiness Report, experts analyse where the happiest people live. The six key factors are:

  • social support
  • Income
  • Health (including mental health)
  • Freedom
  • Generosity
  • Absence of corruption.

The Scandinavian countries have been at the top of the rankings for years. Germany is ranked 16th in 2023.

Happiness perception also stable in 2023

"Average happiness and our country rankings, for both emotions and life ratings, have remained remarkably stable over the three COVID-19 years," states economist John Helliwell. "The changes in rankings that have taken place have been continuations of longer-term trends, such as the increases in the rankings of the three Baltic countries. Even in those difficult years, positive emotions were twice as common as negative ones, and feelings of positive social support twice as strong as those of loneliness."

Sport makes you happy - more than money

The positive effects of exercise are undisputed. The body releases more of the happiness hormones serotonin and dopamine. Furthermore, physical activity lowers stress levels because the hormone cortisol is reduced. In 2018, scientists from Yale and Oxford Universities evaluated the data of 1.2 million Americans and even came to the conclusion that sport makes people happier than money. Therefore, it is not surprising that there is a connection between sports and happiness.

Why are Scandinavians so happy?

A high quality of life, a good education system, social security, a strong social network, but also the beauty and vastness of nature - all this means that Scandinavians are happier than most of their European neighbours. And what is also striking is that people in the Scandinavian countries engage in regular and extensive sports. According to the Liechtenstein Sport Monitoring - based, among other things, on the European Union's Eurobarometer - Finland, Sweden and Denmark are in the top positions. Also, ahead: the small principality itself and Switzerland - both countries offer a high quality of life.

Intensive training at the top of the happiness scale

Walking, aerobics or high-intensity interval training - which sport actually makes you happier? According to researchers at the Finnish University of Turku, the answer is quite clear: HIIT. When they compared the amount of endorphins in the body after a moderate aerobics class and a one-hour high-intensity interval training (HIIT) session, they found that the participants in the HIIT group had significantly more happiness hormones in their blood. This was confirmed by Chinese researchers from Shenzhen University in a comparison of earlier studies; however, even a ten- to 30-minute workout could improve mood.

Endurance sports support Mental Health

Another study from the University of Turku was able to prove that endurance sports such as running, cycling or swimming even help with severe depression. Sport has also been shown to help reduce psychological problems and improve mental health in older people. For example, a study of women in Iran concluded that just an eight-week Pilates class had a positive effect on participants* depression and happiness scores.

The German physician, cabaret artist and happiness researcher Dr. Eckart von Hirschhausen puts it in a nutshell: "When muscles cry, the brain laughs! And in his article for the German magazine Stern "Those who run more often even grow new brain cells. Physical training has been proven to produce a natural antidepressant, the 'VGF nerve growth factor inducible protein' - in other words, a kind of fertilizer for the head lettuce."

Forest bathing: Without much effort to happiness

However, for those who want to start slowly with physical exercise due to health problems or because they are new to sports, forest bathing is recommended. The positive effect on the psyche has now been more than confirmed: Inhaling the phytoncides (including essential oils) of the plants has a stress-reducing and blood pressure-lowering effect on humans. The heart rate also stabilizes during forest bathing and thus also contributes to calming, stress reduction and general satisfaction in humans.

Forest bathing is a trend that means more than just a simple walk between densely overgrown trees. What can forest bathing do and why has the term become a whole cult? Here you can find out everything you need to know about the forest bathing trend.

On the summit of pleasures with adventure experiences

Outdoor time is simply feel-good time. Increased well-being is also linked to adventure experiences - this is the conclusion reached by professors Gill Pomfret and Carola May. In their study, the English and German scientists analysed the most important research concepts regarding well-being and adventure experiences. So, let's get out into nature and experience an adventure - like jumping into a cold lake!

Micro-adventure - a jump into the deep end

Organized sport lifts spirits

Jogging through the woods alone or playing tennis together - whether we prefer individual sports or exercise with like-minded people is a purely personal question. In New Zealand, scientists* found that organized sport has unique additional benefits for well-being. According to their study, the feeling of happiness in already active young people was increased even further by organized group sports.

Couch potato: passive sport also makes you happy

If you don't want to exercise yourself, but regularly attend sporting events, watch sports programs on TV or via stream, read the sports news or talk to others about sports, this is also positively associated with happiness. At least, that is the result of a Spanish study from 2021.

Watching sports also makes you happy

Initiatives for happier citizens of the world

In Germany (which, by the way, is ranked 16th happiest country in the world), there is already an initiative called "Recipes for Exercise" by the German Olympic Sports Confederation. The aim is to motivate people to exercise more and lead a more active lifestyle. General practitioners "prescribe" more exercise to their patients by means of an informative leaflet and recommend participation in a sports program in one of the 14 state sports associations.

Canada (13th place), on the other hand, relies on the "green pill on prescription": the physician Dr. Melissa Lem has launched the PaRX initiative. Under this program, healthcare providers prescribe time in nature for their patients. Those who receive the prescription and live near a national park are then even allowed to enter it free of charge.

In 2018, the Australian government adopted its first national sports plan (Australia is ranked 12th in the World Happiness Report). Its large-scale future paper, Sport 2030, aims to set out a clear pathway for how government action can support grassroots sport organizations and increase participation for better health and wellbeing, according to then Sport Minister Bridget McKenzie: "We need new ways to focus on and invest in sport and physical activity, so we can fulfill our potential as a nation."

Governments have recognized: Sporting nations are happier

Sport: Unique potential for Europe

And perhaps the unhappy countries of Europe will also have a chance to become happier. For as the Vice President for the Promotion of the European Way of Life, Margaritis Schinas, has recognized: "Sport alone will not solve all our problems. But besides the very obvious benefits for our health, it has a unique potential to connect us with each other and make us feel that we belong to a community." And that definitely makes you happy!

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Uschi Horner
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