Did you see these headlines last week? The New York Times said, “Happiness Doesn’t Bring Good Health, Study Finds” and similarly, the Atlantic stated, “Happiness Doesn’t Help You Live Longer.” These headlines came from a study published in the Lancet last week on happiness and mortality. It was a large prospective study, which lends validity to it’s findings, and showed no association between happiness and mortality. Say what? Happiness improving health outcomes is a fundamental part of my philosophy of care for both myself and my patients. How can this be?
I am a doctor. I believe in science. Our medical system uses scientific data as much as possible to guide our medical decision making and how we counsel patients. So, it’s troubling when well done scientific studies do not confirm what we want or believe to be true.
After seeing the headlines and listening to the coverage from NPR, I was concerned that I might have to change, or at least amend, how I approach my own health as well as that of my patients. My first inclination was to think, it’s wrong, I know happiness affects health.
Understanding the nuances of scientific data can be difficult for many people, myself included; and it’s easy to disregard data, as being flawed, when it does not confirm your current beliefs, as with the anti-vaccine controversy, for example.
Few things are more frustrating for the medical community than the vaccine controversy. Well-meaning parents who have stubbornly dug in their heels and refuse to accept the overwhelming amount of data supporting vaccines. Here I was, pretty much doing the same thing. So I decided I should read the paper to see for myself what it says. You can read it too, on the Lancet’s website.
As I mentioned, it is a well done, large study that asked more than 700,000 women in the UK about their health and happiness. Turns out, being unhappy was associated with increased mortality but not when the findings were adjusted for poor health.
Self-reported poor health had the largest impact on both unhappiness and mortality. Unhealthy people are less happy, but the unhappiness did not appear to cause the ill health. Unhappy people were more likely to engage in behaviors that are known to be less healthy: smoking, sedentary, single, social isolation and inadequate sleep.
So happiness is related to health and longevity, but not in a simple cause and effect way. As I wrote about before, we have some control over own happiness. To me, it is not important that happiness independently improves longevity. It still benefits your health to be happy, because, as shown in this study, you are more likely to maintain healthy habits.
I know I am happier when I feel good; and, I feel good when I am healthy. Being happy is a worthwhile goal, not because I will necessarily live longer, but because I will enjoy the time I have whether it is short or long. And, by sticking to my healthy habits, I should do both, live longer and be happier. Given the choice, which we more or less have, of being
happy or not, I’ll take the happy, even if it isn’t the reason I live longer.