Friday 4 March 2011

Don't worry, be happy. You'll be healthier and live longer.

Doesn't this seem self-evident? Researchers, however, have made it official by applying the scientific method to the study of this issue and turned up fairly conclusive evidence that yes indeed, happiness can have an important effect on our health and longevity.

The authors use the expression "subjective well-being (SWB)" to describe our impression of our lives. Are we happy? Are we satisfied with life? Are we optimistic? Do we have positive emotions and an absence of negative ones? The authors in this study reviewed various other research projects which delved into the relation between the health of a subject and the various factors which come into play in the subject's life.

Positive moods such as joy, happiness, and energy, as well as characteristics such as life satisfaction, hopefulness, optimism, and sense of humour were associated with reduced risk of mortality in healthy populations, and predicted longevity.

That's an interesting statement. Is this the "glass half full" approach to life? We can't always change the world around us but we can change our attitude towards it. There are those people who look at the glass half full and become depressed that it's not full. Then there are those people who look at the glass half full and are happy thinking that the glass could be empty.

The press release for the study stated while quoting the lead author Ed Diener, University of Illinois professor emeritus of psychology:

A review of more than 160 studies of human and animal subjects has found “clear and compelling evidence” that – all else being equal – happy people tend to live longer and experience better health than their unhappy peers.

"I was almost shocked and certainly surprised to see the consistency of the data," Diener said. "All of these different kinds of studies point to the same conclusion: that health and then longevity in turn are influenced by our mood states. "

While happiness might not by itself prevent or cure disease, the evidence that positive emotions and enjoyment of life contribute to better health and a longer lifespan is stronger than the data linking obesity to reduced longevity, Diener said.

"Happiness is no magic bullet," he said. "But the evidence is clear and compelling that it changes your odds of getting disease or dying young. "

As I go down "Table 1" which shows studies dealing with SWB and mortality, I find:

Photographs of 196 professional baseball players taken in 1952 were rated for smiling. Mortality occurring by 2009 was predicted by smiling. - Abel & Kruger 2010

1,250 coronary disease patients aged 46–58 were followed annually up to 19.4 years. Well-being and somatic symptoms significantly predicted survival. - Barefoot et al. 2000

180 Catholic nuns wrote autobiographies at an average age of 22. Relation between the emotional content and survival was assessed at age 75–94. Nuns writing more positive autobiographies when entering the convent in young adulthood lived longer than nuns writing less positive autobiographies. - Danner, Snowdon & Friesen 2001

Table 2 covers studies correlating SWB and illness:

50 Caucasian CHD patients aged 38–77 followed 8 months after surgery. Dispositional optimism predicted decreased angina, positive effect, and risk-factor reduction. - Fitzgerald et al. 2000

Cancer patients, N = 213, were assessed 3 years after baseline. High positive mood predicted survival of lung cancer. Low levels of negative mood predicted survival of breast cancer. - Hamilton 1996

9,981 adult Australians were followed over 3 years. Happy and high life satisfaction participants had better physical health at 2-year follow-up, as well as a relative absence of long-term limiting health conditions, controlling for baseline health and other covariates. - Siahpush et al. 2008

In going through the various sections of this study, I see the authors point out that pessimists have higher blood pressure levels. They mention that angry individuals had a weaker immune response to a vaccine, whereas those high in optimism had a stronger response. SWB even has an influence on reproduction as a recent study on fertility in women indicated that stress decreased the likelihood of pregnancy in those seeking to have children.

Short-term vs. Long-term Emotions
It appears that short-term emotions, both negative and positive, can produce adaptive bodily responses, whereas long-term negative states often produce deleterious patterns (Segerstrom & Miller, 2004). Short-term changes in mood and physiology might reflect adaptive responses to challenges, and are not necessarily indicative of pathology, whereas chronic stress and depression can create physiological responses that are harmful. In the short run, diverting resources in response to threats makes evolutionary sense because animals then have more resources to devote to emergency behaviors, thus potentially saving their lives. However, in the long run such diversion of bodily resources can lead to a failure to reproduce and repair bodily damage (Barnett & Hemsworth, 1990).

The paper ends with a "take-home message". The authors feel there are sufficient studies to assume that the influence of SWB (subject well-being) is "clear and compelling". While there are questions about how SWB affects certain diseases, there can be no doubt overall the happiness of an individual does have a marked effect on their health, their longevity and of course their quality of life. The authors go on to suggest that SWB should be added to the list of public health measures. How to raise SWB remains to be discovered but if it could be done, there would be benefits for society as a whole. After all, healthy, happy people would require less medical care. If insurance companies have known for a long time that a non smoker is less of a burden on the system, it would stand to reason they may very well be interested in improving a person's chances of living a good life and not one which requires insurance payouts.

Diener said, "The overwhelming majority of studies support the conclusion that happiness is associated with health and longevity. Current health recommendations focus on four things: avoid obesity, eat right, don’t smoke, and exercise. It may be time to add ‘be happy and avoid chronic anger and depression’ to the list."

Don't worry, be happy.


Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being - Volume 3, Issue 1, March 2011
Happy People Live Longer: Subjective Well-Being Contributes to Health and Longevity
by Ed Diener, Micaela Y. Chan - Jan 27/2011

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign - March 1, 2011
Press Release: Study: Happiness improves health and lengthens life

Uploaded on Feb 24, 2009 by emimusic
Bobby McFerrin - Don't Worry Be Happy

Wikipedia: Don't Worry, Be Happy
"Don't Worry, Be Happy" is a song by musician Bobby McFerrin. Released in September 1988, it became the first a cappella song to reach number one on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, a position it held for two weeks. On the UK Singles Chart, the song reached number 2 during its fifth week on the chart. At the 1989 Grammy Awards, "Don't Worry Be Happy" won the awards for Song of the Year, Record of the Year, and Best Male Pop Vocal Performance. The song's title is taken from a famous quote by Meher Baba. The original music video stars Robin Williams and Bill Irwin. The "instruments" in the a cappella song are entirely overdubbed voice parts and other sounds made by McFerrin, using no instruments at all. The music video for the song is considerably shorter than the album version.


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