Contact: Emily Willroth, PhD
For Release: Immediately
It’s well-documented that happier people tend to live healthier, longer lives than more miserable adults. Of course, our happiness levels can shift over time, and there’s little evidence for how these changes may affect health and the risk of dying.
Scientists include three separate qualities in measuring happiness: “positive affect,” which is being cheerful, in good spirits, peaceful, full of life; “negative affect,” feeling very sad, that everything is an effort, restless, nervous; and satisfaction with one’s life. But there’s also sparse research on whether all three qualities are driving the link to health and mortality or if just one or two might be the only key factors.
Now a large, long-term study finds that all three aspects, as well as how they change over time, independently predict how healthy people will be and may be linked to how likely they are to survive. The study, published ahead of print, will appear in a forthcoming issue of Psychosomatic Medicine, journal of the American Psychosomatic Society.
U.S. participants, part of the nationwide MIDUS study, were 24 to 74 years old at the outset. They were asked specific questions about their positive affect, negative affect and life satisfaction, as well as their health, every nine years in three waves starting in 1995-96. The 3,294 people still available for the last follow-up in 2013-15 were study participants. A Japanese sample also was studied using the same questions, starting in 2008, with 657 adults still present for the final follow-up at 2013-15. Then scientists tracked mortality reports for study participants in 2018.
The results were similar for Japanese and American adults. “Being happy and becoming happier over time predict better health. And each of the three components makes a unique contribution. It’s not just one of them driving this. The more you have of positive affect and life satisfaction, the less of negative affect, the better off you are. There’s an additive effect on health and mortality,” says study leader Emily Willroth, PhD, Post-Doctoral Research Fellow in Medical Social Sciences at the Feinberg School of Medicine, Northwestern University.
Scientists speculate that happiness confers benefits for physical health by promoting healthy behaviors—taking needed medication, eating a healthy diet, exercising. More cheerful, calm and satisfied adults also may be at lower risk for cardiovascular disease and enjoy stronger buffering from stress than those immersed in sadness or anxiety. Though it seems plausible that happiness leads to better health and longer survival, other unmeasured factors might explain the health improvements and lower risk of death, Willroth cautions.
Amid this sad and frightening era of COVID-19, “it’s important for individuals and policymakers to consider that people’s well-being can be just as important as physical health. In fact, our happiness also matters for physical health,” says Willroth. And even though many of us are physically separated from others who are dear to us, “maintaining relationships in whatever ways we can is very important for our health at this time.”
Study Link: https://doi.org/10.1097/PSY.0000000000000832
The American Psychosomatic Society (APS) (http://www.psychosomatic.org), founded in 1942, is an international multidisciplinary academic society that conducts an annual scientific meeting and educational programs. Psychosomatic Medicine is its scientific journal. The membership of over 700 is composed of academic scientists and clinicians in medicine, psychiatry, epidemiology, health psychology and allied health services. The mission of the APS is “to advance and integrate the scientific study of biological, psychological, behavioral and social factors in health and disease.”