It’s well-known that lifestyle affects brain health. Better diet, exercise, and sleep certainly have positive long-term physical effects on your brain, changing its connections and structure to boost your performance in many cognitive tasks. But consider a simpler explanation for the benefits of a healthy lifestyle, too: maybe your brain just works better when you feel better.
A positive mood has wide-ranging effects. One recent review of the science suggests that “the beneficial and protective role of positive emotions is ubiquitous and omnipotent.” Depression is a mood disorder at one extreme, and decreased cognitive performance is a common symptom. Executive function, memory, and attention are particularly impaired during episodes of low mood.
We can get down in the weeds of the chemical and anatomical changes that occur to enhance your brain when your mood is better, but we can’t ignore how subjective feelings and practical considerations play a role as well. If you’ve made positive changes to your life, you’re probably not thinking about the size of your hippocampus—you’re simply happier, and happier people are often less distracted and more motivated.
A lifestyle that results in a good mood—or at least lack of a bad mood—removes barriers between your brain’s raw power and the everyday tasks requiring that power. Been exercising more? Not only will your head be clearer, but practically speaking, you’ll be better at cognitive tasks if you’re not taken out of the moment by aches and pains. Eating better? The gut is sometimes called the “second brain”—it contains many of the same mood-regulating neurotransmitters that the brain does.
Science backs this up. A recent review of studies on exercise outlines abundant data that physical activity reduces the risk of neurological diseases long-term, but it’s also notable that exercise has immediate effects on mood and cognitive functioning.
When it comes to diet, eating healthy foods like fruits, whole grains, and fish—often included in a Mediterranean-style diet—consistently shows a positive relationship with good mental health and a reduced risk of depression.
There are many examples of this chain of events: a healthy lifestyle makes you happier, which makes your brain work better. It’s not completely clear why a positive mood can boost cognition, but some researchers believe that good mood directs attention to the outside world rather than internal problems, benefitting any cognitive tasks that require taking in broad details and maintaining attention.
What does this mean for your efforts to improve mental health?
First, it’s all the more reason to work on those lifestyle changes, because they are not just having a direct effect on your brain, but also affecting your mood, which also helps unfog your brain. Feeling better is its own reward, but better brain power is a nice bonus.
Second, it’s a self-perpetuating cycle: positive changes make you feel better, which gives you the motivation and cognitive ability to make more positive changes, which make you feel better, and so on. Start now, and it will get easier with time.
Third, research on the positive effects of mood implies that if a lifestyle changes puts you in a bad mood, it’s likely not as beneficial as it could be. For example, exercise with a fun twist is usually most effective. “Exergaming” (combining exercise with video games or virtual reality), adding a social component to workouts (like sports, martial arts, or yoga classes), or simply listening to music at the gym, have all been found to benefit cognition more than plain physical activity. It’s not all going to be fun and games, but if you can find ways to make workouts more engaging, it will be like putting rocket fuel in your efforts to achieve better brain health.
In sum, if your goal is to improve your brain, aim for a healthy lifestyle that also improves your mood.
Dr. Mike Battista is a staff scientist at Cambridge Brain Sciences, a platform for tracking and optimizing cognitive performance. He has performed research in multiple areas of psychology, including intelligence, creativity, intuition, and personality, and focuses on how human brains figure things out.