Research-Based Links Between Happiness and Stress Relief

Music can help you get going in the morning, and feel happy throughout the day. FrancescoCorticchia/ Getty Images

One challenging aspect of stress is that it can pile up: activities that are mildly stressful can feel overwhelming when you are experiencing too much stress in other areas. Fortunately, it’s also true that small spurts of stress relief can accumulate, and can add up to increased resilience. One potential challenge that many people face when stressed and busy, however, is that they feel they lack the time or energy to practice some of the most stress-relieving and resilience-promoting activities when they need them the most.

For example, exercise is an extremely effective stress reliever, and can even build energy in the long run, but many people find it too difficult to face a workout when they’re already exhausted. Meditation can be extremely calming activity that can also build resilience, but sometimes sitting quietly can seem to amplify stressful thoughts. (There are ways around both of these issues, but many people find it easier to simply give up.)

This is why it is such great news that bursts of happiness can lead to greater resilience toward stress.  Many of the things that can lift our moods—playing with a pet, watching a funny video, or even eating chocolate, for example—are quick and easy to fit into one’s day. Savoring these experiences can expand on the benefits you’ll already experience. Read on to find out how this actually works, and then I’ll share with you some more strategies for lifting your mood.

Psychologist Barbara Fredrickson, through what is known as the broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions has pioneered a branch of study that has found that positive emotions such as joy, contentment, or appreciation carry independent and lasting benefits. Instances of elevated mood (or increased happiness) broaden one’s perspective and behavioral repertoire and build lasting personal resources including mindfulness, resilience, closer relationships, and even improved physical health as well as lower levels of depression and higher levels if life satisfaction.

What does all of this have to do with stress management? This branch of research shows how happiness and stress relief are connected: doing little things to lift your mood really can have a lasting effect on your resilience toward stress. Each time you do something nice for yourself, you’re taking a step toward feeling less stressed now and in the future, and enjoying other benefits as well!  Here is some more of what the research in this area has to say.

  • Good Moods Lead To Increased Resources: Several studies have found that positive emotions create a greater likelihood of creating resources to support social connection, and increase your ability to manage stress. While negative emotional states can lead to a “tunnel vision” experience where people focus so much on the negative that they miss opportunities in their lives, people experiencing happiness are more likely to build personal resources that are linked with resilience toward stress, including personal resilience, interpersonal resources like supportive friends, and practical resources like a secure financial situation. This increase in resources leads to more frequent good moods, and an upward spiral is created, which leads to benefits in health, happiness, and life satisfaction.
  • These Resources Are Numerous: A study of 99 college students measured mood over the past week and gave subjects a battery of personality tests and questionnaires found that positive mood predicted greater resources in coping and resilience (as demonstrated by higher GPAs and other achievements), higher quality relationships, better health, and greater resilience. Those with more negative moods scored lower in these areas.
  • Positive Mood Can Help Improve Emotional Health: One study even found that increases in good mood (also known as “positive affect”) may counteract unhappy or fearful states characteristic of mood disorders such as those involving anxiety, depression, or schizophrenia.(Note: if you are experiencing these disorders, it is also important to work with your therapist or talk to your doctor; this is not meant to replace the advice of a professional, but to supplement.)
  • Bottom Line: Ultimately, a review of literature—a study of many studies—found that positive mood and positive thinking increase one’s ability to manage stress in healthy ways, which leads to improved health outcomes such as increased immunity and longevity, as well as improved lifestyle factors such as greater job satisfaction.

So how can a stressed and busy person work these good moods into a packed schedule, you may be wondering? There are several strategies that work, and activities that you know  make you happy (with few negative consequences, of course) are a great place to start. I’m including several articles below that list more specifics that you can incorporate into your life this week.


Fredrickson, B.  (2001).  The role of positive emotions in positive psychology: The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. American Psychologist  56 (3), 218-226.

Fredrickson, B.L. (2004). The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological Sciences359, 1367–1377.

Fredrickson, B., Cohn, M., Coffey, K., Pek, J., and Finkel, S.  (2008).  Open hearts build lives: Positive emotions, induced through loving-kindness meditation, build consequential personal resources.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95(5), 1045-1062.

Garland, E.; Fredrickson, B.; Kring, A., Johnson, D., Meyer, P. and Penn, D.  (2010). Upward spirals of positive emotions counter downward spirals of negativity: Insights from the broaden-and-build theory and affective neuroscience on the treatment of emotion dysfunctions and defecits of psychopathology.  Clinical Psychology Review, 30 (7), 849-864.

Naseem, Z., Khalid, R.  (2010).  Positive thinking in coping with stress and health outcomes: Literature review.  Journal of Research and Reflections in Education, 4(1), 42-61.

Rowe, G.; Hirsch, A. B.; and Anderson, A. K.  (2007).  Positive affect increases the breadth of attentional selection.  PNAS, 104, 383-388.

Schiffrin, H. and Falkenstern, M.  (2012).  The impact of affect on resource development: Support for the broaden-and-build model.  North American Journal of Psychology, 14 (3), 569-584.

Continue Reading