Physically active people tend to be happier, according to an innovative new study published to PLoS ONE.
Researchers from the University of Cambridge created a smartphone app which allowed users to track their mood and behaviors throughout the day, offering a data-driven tool for introspection. Over ten thousand people downloaded and used it.
The app prompted people to fill out self-reflective surveys at random intervals throughout the day, asking about mood, social interactions, and life satisfaction. Consistent use of the app unlocked additional features.
Along with allowing users to report and track their mood and activities, the app also quietly gathered physical activity data via the devices' accelerometers. An accelerometer measures the acceleration of of a device. The researchers determined the data to be a good proxy for physical activity based on users' self-reported physical activity.
The researchers collected happiness scores and physical activity information from 10,371 subjects between February 2013 and June 2014. Examining the bounty of data, they found a small (r = .03), but highly statistically significant (p = .002) correlation between sensed physical activity and happiness.
It can't be conclusively ascertained in which direction the association runs. Do happy people move more, or does movement make people happy? It's probably a little bit of both. Exercise boosts all sorts of physical health outcomes, which, taken together, undoubtedly contribute to good mental health.
If you're traditionally inactive, a single bout of exercise won't singlehandedly alter your demeanor for the better. With that said, a lifestyle filled with consistent physical activity does seem to contribute to a happier life.
"The frequency with which people physically move throughout the day, even if that movement is not rigorous exercise, is associated with both physical health and happiness. The current research reveals the important connection between physical and psychological processes, indicating that even slight changes in one has consequences for the other," the researchers conclude.