Happiness: apparently not the medicine for a longer life

You may think those who are healthier are happier, but is this a misconception we face in society? Instead of good health causing happiness, it may well be the reverse, poor health causing unhappiness. And does this happiness vs health hypothesis hold true for the correlation between happiness and mortality?

Image: Unsplash, CC0 Public Domain

Image: Unsplash, CC0 Public Domain

This may or may not come as a surprise but the Million Women Study gathered evidence on the link between mood and mortality, suggesting that happiness actually has no effect on death rates. The study involved recruiting UK women aged 50-69 between 1996 and 2001, to be followed electronically for cause-specific mortality. The study focused on women, which controlled any gender specific disparity in the risk for particular diseases. Therefore, the findings of study do not only apply to those who are female.

Three years after recruitment, they were given a questionnaire which asked them to self-rate their health, happiness, stress, feelings of control, and whether they felt relaxed. The women were asked, “How often do you feel happy?” with a choice of possible responses: “most of the time”, “usually”, “sometimes”, or “rarely/never”.  The women were also asked about any common health disorders they had and to self-rate their current state of health. The possible responses were “excellent”, “good”, “fair”, or “poor”. The researchers calculated mortality rate ratios comparing mortality in women who reported being unhappy (happy sometimes, rarely, or never) with those who reported being happy most of the time.

Although women may claim they are happy most of the time, this does not rule out any lifestyle factors that may be detrimental on their health. For instance, alcohol consumption and diet and partly because unhappiness is associated with lifestyle factors such as smoking. On the other hand, women who claim to be happy “most of the time” may feel they don’t require the previously mentioned factors that could be detrimental to their health. Happiness is defined differently person to person. The question also stands as to whether a participant would like to admit their unhappiness?

I think we hold an ideology that promotes optimism as a cure for disease. Gayle Sulik, who writes the “Pink Ribbon Blues” blog says, “Forcing optimism may have its own negative consequences”.  “The emotional work to display optimism when a person does not feel it may add to stress.” When it comes to ‘self- help’ remedies, some cancer bloggers think it is unhelpful when others tell them to ‘fight’ their illness by staying positive.

The journal, published in The Lancet, revealed of 719 671 women in the main analyses, 39% reported being happy most of the time, 44% usually happy, and 17% unhappy. During 10 years follow-up, 4% (31 531) of participants died. Self-rated poor health at the start was strongly associated with unhappiness. After allowing for any initial disparities in health, there turned out to be no difference in death rates between those who were unhappy and those who were happy.

“Obviously extreme stress can make people commit suicide or guzzle tons of chocolates,” says Richard Peto, Professor of Medical Statistics and Epidemiology at the University of Oxford. “But the stress or unhappiness itself doesn’t have a direct effect on health. We ought to be concentrating on real causes of illness, not imagined ones.”

So it’s not all doom and gloom; whether you see your glass half-full or half-empty, there’s apparently not much difference when it comes to your health.

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