Most of us grew up with the belief that anything that was good for us had to be unpleasant. A boring diet containing plenty of unseasoned raw vegetables and grueling exercise routines. It almost seems as if long suffering can grant us long life.
What is happiness? Other than the absence of unhappiness, how does one define it? Peace,
enjoyment, fulfillment, health, pleasure, meeting and overcoming challenges: all of these and more are associated with the definition of happiness.
If You Are Happier, Will You Live Longer?
A study assessed 9,365 men and women in 2002, 2004 and 2006 for subjective well-being, including enjoyment of life.1 A high level of enjoyment was reported by 20%, 22% and 34% in one, two and three respective assessments. Twenty-four percent of the subjects reported no enjoyment on any assessment. Over follow-up, 1,310 deaths occurred.
After adjusting for health, depressive symptoms, and other factors upon enrollment, those who reported high enjoyment of life at two assessments had a 17% lower risk of mortality compared to the group with no enjoyment. Among those who reported enjoyment at all three assessments, the risk was 24% lower. “The results add a new dimension to understanding the significance of subjective well-being for health outcomes by documenting the importance of sustained well-being over time,” authors P. Zaninotto and colleagues conclude.
Genetics and Environment
A study involving 3,966 twins aged 70 years and older found that positive affect (experience of pleasurable emotions) and life satisfaction predicted lower mortality during a median follow-up period of nine years.2 Within-pair analyses of 400 nonidentical and 274 identical pairs of twins also uncovered a relationship between lower mortality and increased wellbeing, indicating that the association is independent of genes and shared environment.
Happiness Around The World
In a U.S. study that analyzed data from the General Social Survey-National Death Index for 31,481 men and women, those who rated themselves as “pretty happy” had a 6% higher adjusted risk of mortality over follow-up than those who were “very happy”.3 Subjects who were unhappy had a 14% higher risk. “Happy people live longer,” Elizabeth M. Lawrence and colleagues write. “Future research should seek to distinguish when and how happiness improves health and longevity.”
In Finland, a study of 22,461 adults found a linear increase in mortality over follow-up in association with dissatisfaction with life.4 Men who were categorized as dissatisfied had a 49% higher risk of mortality from any cause over the adjusted follow-up period.
In Thailand, a study of 60,569 adults followed for four years found that those who were happy little or none of the time were more than two and a half times as likely to die compared to those who were happy all the time.5 “Our study provides empirical evidence that the epidemiological effect of happiness is not confined to affluent Western countries, but it also increases the probability of staying alive in a middle-income Asian country,” the authors conclude.
In Japan, a study involving 88,175 men and women found that men who reported a low level of life enjoyment had a 75% higher risk of death from stroke, a 91% higher risk of dying from coronary heart disease and a 61% greater risk of total cardiovascular disease mortality over a median follow-up of 12 years in comparison with those with high enjoyment of life.6 Another Japanese study, involving 1,034 men and 1,413 women, found an association between subjective wellbeing and lower all-cause mortality in both men and women over a 7-year follow-up period.7
A Happy, Healthy Heart = Longer Life
A study that examined the effects of happiness among 862 men and 877 women found a 22% lower adjusted risk of coronary heart disease during 10 years of follow-up in association with positive affect.8 “Positive affect is defined as the experience of pleasurable emotions such as joy, happiness, excitement, enthusiasm, and contentment,” authors Karina W. Davidson and colleagues write. “Various mechanisms may explain the potential cardiovascular benefits of higher levels of positive affect. For example, positive affect, but not negative affect, has been shown to predict enhanced parasympathetic modulation of heart rate.Positive affect is associated with healthier blood pressure and cortisol levels in these same subjects.”
Mental Heath and Well-being
Some research suggests that regardless of one’s current financial status and age, happiness can still be a significant predictor of longevity. A study involving 400 low income, elderly residents of Connecticut found that happiness was significantly associated with a reduced risk of mortality over the course of a two-year follow-up, primarily among those who were not in good health.9
For those worried about growing older, a study involving 184 adults whose emotional states were reported five times daily for one week, repeated five and ten years later, found that overall emotional wellbeing and emotional stability improved over the years.10 After controlling for age, sex and ethnicity, subjects who experienced more positive than negative emotions were more likely to have survived over a 13-year period. “Evidence is growing that experiencing positive emotions may not only improve quality of life, it may add years to life,” L. L. Carstensen and colleagues conclude.
This information is not intended to minimize the importance of healthy habits and self-discipline in longevity. A sound diet, including the correction of nutritional deficiencies, regular physical activity, stimulation to the brain, and other factors are all of vital importance to one’s wellbeing. Happiness may be an important factor in living longer, but it’s not the only one.
“No matter what part of the world we come from, we are all basically the same human beings,” the Dalai Lama observed in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech. “We all seek happiness and try to avoid suffering.”
Could it be that simple happiness is worth as much in years gained as 100 crunches followed by a cold shower and a kale smoothie? We still suggest following a prevention protocol.
But, it may be worthwhile to take the advice of Joseph Campbell: “Follow your bliss.”
- Zaninotto P et al. BMJ. 2016 Dec 13;355:i6267.
- Sadler ME et al. Twin Res Hum Genet. 2011 Jun;14(3):249-56.
- Lawrence EM et al. Soc Sci Med. 2015 Nov;145:115-9.
- Koivumaa-Honkanen H et al. Am J Epidemiol. 2000 Nov 15;152(10):983-91.
- Yiengprugsawan V et al. Biopsychosoc Med. 2014 Aug 7;8:18.
- Shira K et al. Circulation. 2009 Sep 15;120(11):956-63.
- Iwasa H et al. Nihon Ronen Igakkai Zasshi. 2005 Nov;42(6):677-83.
- Davidson KW et al. Eur Heart J. 2010 May;31(9):1065-70.
- Zuckerman DM et al. Am J Epidemiol. 1984 Mar;119(3):410-23.
- Carstensen LL et al. Psychol Aging. 2011 Mar;26(1):21-33.