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Exercise is a cheap, easy, proven strategy for helping virtually everyone in almost any circumstance, whether we are recovering from a bad day, needing a second wind to power through our to-do list, or just looking to extend our good mood when we’re feeling great…When we set our bodies into motion we also set into motion psychological health, motivation to get work done, efficient structure for our schedules, and an activity that distracts us from our worries, leaving us energized and ready to tackle the day’s challenges: WHEN LIKES AREN’T ENOUGH, Tim Bono, PhD, professor of positive psychology, Washington University, St. Louis, MO (Grand Central Life & Style, 2018)

Exercise & the Science of Happiness

Blockbuster Drug of the Century

I believe my father was ahead of his time. It was 46 years ago and I was talking with him about leaving the law firm where I had worked my way up to name partner. My plan was to continue practicing law, but be free to explore opportunities in fitness. I expected a warning that I would be giving up a steady income—something that I’d worked for over a decade to earn—to venture out into an unstable situation. That I would be putting my wife and baby boy into a risky situation. He listened patiently to the pros and cons—and without hesitation urged me to do what makes you happy.

I’m not sure where modern day parents stand, but the results are in for our young people. When a group of researchers asked young adults around the globe what their number one priority was in life, the top answer was “happiness.” Not success, fame, money, looks or love…but happiness.

Dr. Tim Bono, who teaches a much in demand course on the science of happiness at Washington University, has written a book on the subject. Our friend Dan Keating, who teaches law at Washington University, sent Carol and I copy with a note that the chapter on exercise and happiness alone is worth the price of the book. I want to tell you about some of the exciting discoveries regarding exercise and happiness. You’ll understand why Dr. Bono’s class is #1 on the waitlist and why students nationwide are lining up for similar classes on happiness. And why more college students, male and female, are exercising.

Why LIKES Aren’t Enough

Our happiness depends not only on what our lives are actually like, but also what we want them to be like. Figuratively speaking, we can modify our happiness in one of two ways: by increasing what we have or by decreasing what we want. “But just as our eyes automatically adapt to the sunshine after a movie, our sense of well-being adapts to the belongings and status we have acquired,” Dr. Bono observes. What we want quickly catches up to what we have.

“That explains why happiness levels have remained the same even though per capita income has nearly tripled over the last fifty years,” Bono continues. We have a lot more, but we also expect a lot more.

Social media has made it easier than ever to increase what we want. We naturally compare ourselves with those around us. Dr. Bono uses the experience of one of his students to show how “social media wreaks its havoc by manipulating what we want.” After breaking up with her boyfriend, she couldn’t resist looking at his Facebook page to see who is “winning” postbreakup.

As Theodore Roosevelt, twenty-sixth president of the United States, astutely observed, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” Social media makes that all the more likely. LIKES have a boomerang effect.

To disarm the thief, Dr. Bono says, “Redirect your attention instead to your own strengths, and opportunities you may have to build on them.” In that way you can increase your “haves” and minimize your “wants.”

Focusing on your strengths has been a cornerstone of positive psychology from the beginning.

“I do not believe that you should devote overly much effort to correcting your weaknesses,” Martin E. P. Seligman, PhD, father of the positive psychology movement, wrote in Authentic Happiness (Free Press, 2002). “Rather, I believe that the highest success in living and the deepest emotional satisfaction comes from building and using your signature strengths.”

You’ll want to take full advantage of the mood improving power of exercise. An unexpected benefit shocked the scientific community.

Astounding Finding

Many of Dr. Bono’s students tell him they simply do not want to exercise, that they have neither the time nor inclination—especially when they are feeling tired and down. Instead, they want to do something that makes them feel better. Bono responds by telling them that physical activity can be one of the most effective ways to improve mood and power motivation. He backs it up with a study designed to find the most effective remedy for depression.

A team of researchers from Duke University randomly assigned a group of clinically depressed adults to one of three conditions: one group was prescribed the antidepressant drug Zoloft, another group engaged in thirty minutes of vigorous exercise three times a week, and the final group combined Zoloft and exercise. The intervention lasted four months.

Previous research had combined exercise and medication, but none had attempted to isolate the effects of exercise alone. To insure compliance, all participants worked under the supervision of qualified professionals. The researchers followed up with each participant to find out how many of them were still clinically depressed and to determine the differences in recovery among each experimental group.

There was no significant difference between the three groups. In each of the three groups approximately two-thirds of the patients were no longer clinically depressed. This in itself says a lot about the power of exercise to normalize mood disorders. But the study didn’t end there. The surprise came six months later, at the ten month mark.

One of the predictors of whether someone will become depressed is whether they have been depressed before. Therefore the researchers followed up with the participants again six months later—to find out how many of the recovered patients remained psychologically healthy. Surprisingly, the “exercise only” group stood out from the other two groups. In the “Zoloft only” and “Zoloft and exercise” groups 62% and 69%, respectively, remained depression free, while 92% of the “exercise only” group were still in good spirits.

Many in the scientific community were shocked by the finding that exercise alone ended up being most effective as a buffer against relapse.

“Perhaps most surprising of all,” Dr. Bono writes, “exercise was better in the long run only in the condition in which participants were not also taking Zoloft.”

“If anything,” he continues, “we would expect that two interventions would be better than one, but those exercising without taking Zoloft were best off.”

The explanation for that counterintuitive finding spotlights an important benefit of exercise.

Self-Efficacy

One of the students who earlier had professed no interest in exercise, confided to Dr. Bono that short daily workouts in his apartment helped him feel in control, that he was “taking care of himself.”

Bono says this feeling of taking care of oneself is an important part of psychological health. “Psychologists refer to it as self-efficacy, a sense that we are the masters of our own domain, capable of carrying out our work with confidence and competence,” he explains. “For my student, small daily exercises may not have looked like it much from the outside, but they served as stepping stones to lead him out of depression and up to a path of accomplishment.”

“This feeling of self-efficacy, the sense of control and order, is precisely the explanation that [the Duke researchers] used to explain their astonishing result,” Dr. Bono writes. For those who were exercising, recovery was due to something they did on their own. For those also taking a drug, it was due in part to something they had to get from a psychiatrist.

Dr. Bono cites the following comment by the Duke researchers:

One of the positive psychological benefits of systematic exercise is the development of a sense of personal mastery and positive self-regard….It is conceivable that the use of medication may undermine this benefit by prioritizing an alternative, less self-confirming attribution for one’s improved condition. Instead of incorporating the belief ‘I was dedicated and worked hard with the exercise program; it wasn’t easy, but I beat this depression,’ patients might incorporate the belief that ‘I took an antidepressant and got better.’

Bono cautions against taking this finding too far, reminding readers that a significant number of the participants in the exercise only group did not recover from their depression. “For some people an antidepressant like Zoloft is in fact the best solution.”

Exercise is probably the first option for those able to go that route. Harvard professor John Ratey would no doubt agree. “If exercise came in pill form, it would be…hailed as the blockbuster drug of the century,” he wrote in his highly acclaimed book SPARK: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain https://www.cbass.com/Miracle-GroBrain.htm .

Why I Train

“Sure, I train for the usual reasons—to look better, feel better, live longer—but there’s more to it than that,” I wrote in my book RIPPED 2, published in 1982.

It boils down to this, quoting selectively from what I wrote then:

My bodybuilding is an important part of the positive view I have of myself. It’s part of what allows me to say, “I’m OK.”

A recent conversation with an old training partner reminded me that lifting becomes an important part of one’s self-image. He expressed many of the same things I feel about my training.

Working out is an integrating factor in my friend’s life. He says it’s like a ball of string that winds its way through his life, tying everything together. He feels like everything is all right as long as he’s still lifting weights. He wouldn’t feel right facing the world with atrophied muscles and a pot belly.

I know how he feels because I feel the same way.

My friend also likes the feeling of control he gets from training. Boxer Sugar Ray Leonard expressed the same thought recently in SPORTS ILLUSTRATED: “A lot of time, out of training, I don’t even know where I am. Training gives me sanity. That’s the one time in my life when I know what I’m doing.”

Sugar Ray and my friend have a point. So many things these days are beyond our control. The hour or so I spend in my gym calms me for the rest of my day. Controlling the stress that I undergo in my gym fortifies me for the chaos on the outside.

And my friend and I agree on another thing: we’re both going to end up with gigantic balls of string. “I’m not sure what I’m going to do with mine,” my friend said, smiling.

 

 

This photo of me writing in my training diary was taken by Bill Reynolds about the time my friend and I
pondered the psychological benefits of training. A training diary can be hugely beneficial in
keeping you on the path of progress. Mine would stack from floor to ceiling.

*  * *

That’s a pretty good example of what Dr. Bono and his psychologist colleagues call “self-efficacy.”

Regular exercise provides a sense of empowerment that goes a long way toward overcoming feelings of depression. The older you get the more you need it.  Exercise made me happy when I wrote RIPPED 2 and it still makes me happy almost 40 years later.

If you’re not already exercising regularly, now is the time to get your own ball of string rolling.

Dr. Bono’s explains in great detail why exercise makes college students and others happy. (I’ve only hit the high points here.) And that’s only one of ten chapters on the science of happiness in WHEN LIKES AREN’T ENOUGH.

August 1, 2018

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