Cultivating happiness: How to use circadian rhythms to be happy

Cultivating happiness…It seems like such an odd concept. Why aren’t we all just happy? Is happiness really something we have to work at to attain?

Furthermore, how do we attain something that is such an abstract concept? You’d figure it would come down to things that are measurable, but it doesn’t.

People with more things or more security aren’t always the happiest. Conversely, people with very few things and low levels of security can be perfectly happy.

So how does one go about cultivating happiness? While happiness is an abstract concept, it associates with markers of health. Most of the research looks at how being happy promotes health. In fact, a recent paper found that happiness improves health by reducing the number of sick days.

But does health promote happiness? It’s extraordinarily difficult to show a causal relationship between health and happiness. But it does seem like a no-brainer that healthier people would tend to be happier.

In fact, it may not be a logical approach to separate the 2. Rather than one causing the other, the relationship is likely bi-directional and driven by behaviors that affect both.

In other words, factors such as diet, physical activity, sleep, social interaction, and achievement promote both health and happiness.

Interestingly, 2 new papers posit that circadian rhythms are an important factor in cultivating happiness. Consequently, circadian misalignment increases the risk for depressive symptoms and a lower state of well-being.

Cultivating happiness

What is circadian misalignment?

Before we get into the role circadian rhythms play in mood, we have to go over some definitions. Circadian rhythms are 24 hour variations in physiological processes that occur even in the absence of time-setting cues. All of our cells and organs contain circadian clock genes, and these genes help these tissues “tell the time”.

We have a master clock in an area of the brain called the suprachiasmatic nucleus that responds mostly to light. It’s job is to tie our physiology to the day/night cycle.

However, we have other clocks in every organ and tissue throughout the body that can operate on their own time. While the master clock exerts some level of control over them, they can become de-synchronized from the master clock and one another.

Imagine an office where every individual is operating on their own time. Work wouldn’t get done efficiently. In the same way, circadian misalignment really messes up our physiology. We covered how this can jack up your gut in a blog you can read here.

But circadian rhythms regulate many processes in your body, so misalignment isn’t relegated solely to gut issues. Circadian misalignment also has negative effects on:

  • Cognition (Brain fog)
  • Metabolism (Type 2 diabetes and obesity)
  • Cardiovascular system (Blood pressure)
  • Immune function (Systemic inflammation)
  • Muscle function (Sarcopenia, sports performance)
  • Mood (Major depressive disorders)

It’s with this last condition in mind that we explore how circadian misalignment impacts mood.

Cultivating happiness: The role of circadian misalignment

A new paper published last year looked at how circadian misalignment impacts mood. They took 14 people who were not shift-workers as well as 9 shift-workers. All participants were randomly exposed to both 8 days of total alignment as well as an 8 day period with 4 days of alignment/4 days of misalignment(12 hour shift flip) and assessed for mood vulnerability.

They found that circadian misalignment decreased both mood and well-being in non-shift workers during the 4 days of misalignment.

Furthermore, shift-workers also experienced a decrease in mood and well-being during simulated shift-work.

This effect persisted even after adjusting for sleep efficiency in both groups. Therefore, circadian misalignment negatively impacts mood and well-being independently of sleep.

Is it the genes or the behavior?

A common misconception about circadian rhythms is that, genetically, you are either an early bird or a night owl. Consequently, early birds should go to bed early and wake up early, while night owls should do both later.

The problem is, there isn’t a single gene that predisposes to one or the other. In fact, based on current data, 351 genes dictate whether you are an early bird or night owl. The likelihood that you are a strict night owl based on genes is pretty slim.

Secondly, behavior drives your preference for your sleep and wake times. As a result of these 2 important factors, most people fall somewhere in the middle. And where you fall on the continuum of early bird to night owl is at least partially under your control.

A new paper suggests that behavior drives the effect of circadian misalignment on mood and well-being more than genes. Using Mendelian randomization, they found that people with a 2-fold increase in genetic drive towards being an early bird were 8% less likely to have depressive symptoms and 5% more likely to have higher well-being scores.

Conversely, those who had a morning preference, dictated by genes & behavior, had a 20% lower risk of depression and were 29% more likely to have a higher well-being score.

Finally, when looking at misalignment scores, those with greater circadian misalignment were 20% more likely to have depressive symptoms and 30% more likely to experience anxiety.

Those with a morning preference had lower misalignment. This is likely due to more consistency in sleeping behaviors.

Cultivating happiness: Aligning circadian and behavioral rhythms

So what exactly does this last paper show? An important concept within this circadian alignment paradigm is that circadian rhythms drive behavioral rhythms, and aligning both is how you build strong circadian rhythms. Maintaining consistency day in and day out builds even more robust rhythms.

Early birds are more likely to have alignment between the 2, and they are more likely to maintain alignment every single day of the week. Unfortunately, night owls are less likely to do both, and participate in behaviors that disrupt circadian rhythms as a result.

This includes changing up their schedule on the weekends, doing less physical activity, eating at times that promote misalignment, drinking alcohol, and being obese. Essentially, genes promote behaviors that disrupt circadian rhythms, and this negatively impacts mood and well-being.

As a result, you are less likely to do things such as eat well and exercise to help improve your circadian rhythms.

But who could blame you? Being in a near constant state of jet lag would suck.

Creating a circadian schedule

For cultivating happiness, it’s important to devise a circadian schedule that you can consistently maintain throughout the weeks, months, and years. This is certainly going to vary between individuals, both genetically and due to social and work schedules.

Most people pay not attention to this stuff. The first step is to identify if you have too much variation in your sleep schedule and identify the bed/wake times that fit with your work and social schedule. Once you pick your bed/wake times:

  • Go outside and get light earlier in the day and block blue light at night earlier if you want to shift earlier
  • Go outside and get light exposure later and block blue light later if you want to shift later
  • Shift your activity/feeding times in the same manner

Next, measure how your body responds to these changes and make tweaks to your schedule. It’s unlikely that the first go-round will be perfect, and you may find that you get better sleep and feel better on a different schedule. For many, the schedule they want may not necessarily the schedule that breeds the best sleep.

Fortunately, our goal is to bring awareness to the importance of circadian rhythms for health and happiness. We have videos coming out shortly that should help clarify circadian rhythms for you.

Also, our next course will help you create your own circadian schedule and build behaviors that reinforce robust circadian rhythms. Sign up for our email list below to stay up to date on the circadian research as well as when our new course drops. Who knows, maybe there’ll be a discount code or 2. 😉

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