It is startling how inactive we have become as a society. One in three British adults are now almost completely inactive – doing less than 30 minutes physical activity each week and burning up just 25% more calories than if they had been asleep all day! This inactivity is not just a personal health issue but also a public health crisis with 37,000 preventable deaths a year translating into an annual cost of £10billion to the UK economy.

Nic Marks

Nic Marks speaking at "Together We Move"

Finding ways to improve public physical activity levels is the focus of an interesting event this week called “Together We Move” which is being organised by Coca-Cola Europe. I have been asked to bring insights from my work on happiness and well-being to the topic.  In light of Coca-Cola’s core brand message of “open happiness”, it is fun to consider whether “activity opens happiness?”. The short answer is “probably yes”. The “probably” part is itself interesting and it raises a second question “does happiness open activity?”

First, it is important to distinguish between two different types of “happiness” – positive moods and overall evaluations of life. Really, this is the difference between “feeling happy” and “being a happy person”. The first goes up & down on a more daily basis. The second is more stable, though, it does still change.

In terms of positive mood enhancement it is clear that exercise releases endorphins that can lead to euphoric feelings – the so-called “runner’s high”. These can last beyond the physical activity itself and make us feel good for some time afterwards.

But does regular physical activity also make us happier people? Evidence from general population surveys show that people who are more physically active are more likely to be happy.  They also show that becoming more physically active over time decreases the risk of unhappiness. But other research on twins casts doubt on this being a direct causal relationship. The conundrum is that if one identical twin exercises more than the other, there is no observed difference in general happiness.

This is perturbing. What is going on? Is there something else that can explain these seemingly conflicting findings? Perhaps an independent function that both influences people’s behaviour (choosing to exercise) and their general happiness (are their lives going well).

While I have no specific evidence to back this up, I think the answer may partly lie in people’s “sense of agency” – their ability to engage with opportunities. People respond to opportunities differently. Some people absorb health information and respond positively to it – others do not. There are probably differences in their actual and perceived ability to act on the information provided. Identical twins meanwhile are genetically indistinguishable – making it much more likely that they have a similar sense of agency.  One of them chooses to exercise more – the other chooses another activity, perhaps learning a new language. Both are exerting their sense of agency in the world. Their similar levels of happiness comes from their similar sense of agency rather than their different activity levels. 

This does not mean that people’s ability to choose is unaffected by the way opportunities are presented. In fact, if we want to help people exercise more then perhaps the best strategy is making it easier for them to choose to do so. How can we make the choice to be physically active more appealing - tipping the balance from a healthy good thing (that takes effort) to a fun happiness-inducing activity (that happens to be healthy).

This is what I find exciting about “happiness” approaches – happiness itself is highly functional and helps us achieve other goals in life. This is the basis of the work I do on happiness at work – happier employees are also more engaged and bring all sorts of benefits to the organization. In this context, creating happier experiences of physical exercise will help release personal and public health benefits. 

The question remains how to do this. One example builds on some work I did while I was at the London-based think tank NEF (the new economics foundation). As part of a project with the Government Office of Science, we drew up “five ways to well-being” – a set of evidence based positive actions that lead to happiness and well-being. They are ‘messaged’ to be inviting rather than prescriptive precisely to activate people’s sense of agency. The five ways are:

  1. Connect
  2. Be active
  3. Take notice
  4. Keep learning
  5. Give

The five ways have become very popular with local practitioners and one in Norfolk devised what I think was an ingenuous way of getting people to exercise more. He created a programme called “Fitography” which was about photography and walking. He bought some cameras, taught people to take pictures and develop them. Then he took them to beautiful places – which they happened to have to walk to – to take photographs. He deliberately drew on the energy of connect, take notice and keep learning to enhance the "be active" purpose of the project. Needless to say, people loved the programme and it achieved all of its physical activity targets.

So I think that yes “activity opens happiness” but also “happiness opens activity”. There is a genuine possibility of a virtuous cycle developing where people’s physical activity, their sense of agency and their happiness all positively reinforce each other. In this way, we may together start to move more.

Nic Marks, Founder, Happiness Works