A New Theory on Why People Who Exercise Lots Are So Damn Happy All the Time

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Photo: Tyler Golden/NBC

Consider the preternaturally happy Parks and Recreation character Chris Traeger, the exercise lunatic played to manic perfection by Rob Lowe. Traeger is relentlessly positive, seeing the good in everything and everyone (“Way to be, duck”), while also managing to get in his daily ten-mile run. He’s the fictional realization of an article recently published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, which argues that exercise on one day appears to trigger a “cascade of positive events” that carries over to the next day, too.

For three weeks, college students completed daily online surveys, which asked them about their days. On the days they’d exercised, they also tended to report having more positive social interactions, like a good conversation with a friend; they were also more likely on those days to report an achievement like completing a project. The day after exercising, too, people reported more happy social stuff than usual (though their likelihood of achieving some kind of goal returned to normal).

This is based on self-reports, always a tricky way to gather information; people are often not as good at accurately recording information about themselves as they perhaps think they are. But the findings make sense — it’s not like the mood-lifting power of physical activity is some kind of little-known scientific secret. (Blink Fitness, a chain of low-cost gyms in New York and New Jersey, makes this connection literal, calling its employees “Mood Lifters.”) Maybe the brighter mood makes you more likely to seek out social situations; maybe it causes you to see mundane interactions in a more positive light.

It would be nice if this launched some kind of virtuous circle — exercise leading to happiness which leads back to more exercise — but one thing one day at the gym didn’t do for these study participants was make it more likely that they would go back the next day, too. For that, other mind games may be necessary.

Why People Who Exercise Lots Are So Damn Happy All the Time