November 3, 2011

Does Living Happy = Living Longer?

Happiness measured at one point in time was linked to lower mortality five years later. Cause or coincidence?

It’s no secret that social factors, like having a good support system in place around you, are linked to longevity. A related factor, being happier throughout life, has also been associated with reduced risk of death. The problem with the happiness-longevity relationship is that most studies have asked patients to rate their happiness looking back over their lives. This can lead to bias, since people’s memories can be unreliable: people may report greater happiness in retrospect than they actually experienced at the time, or the opposite could be true.

People who reported the highest happiness levels had a 35% reduced risk of dying, compared to the unhappiest people.

The team that headed a new study addressed this issue by asking people about their happiness and stress levels just four times throughout the course of a single day. Then, they kept track of the participants for the next five years, and found that the people who reported the highest happiness levels had a 35% reduced risk of dying, compared to the unhappiest people. This was true even after the researchers controlled for a range of other variables that could have affected the relationship, like depression, age, health behaviors, various diseases, and gender.

Brain studies have found that positive emotional states are linked to activation in areas of the brain that govern certain body processes, hormones, and inflammation, which could well play a role in death risk. But, as the authors point out, it's also possible that positive mood or happiness measured at one point in time could itself reflect "underlying biological processes, or unmeasured behavioral or temperamental factors that are responsible for the survival effects.”

In other words, the relationship is unclear. The researchers stress that causation was not shown, and should not be the take-home message of the study. Still, there’s no reason not to try to boost happiness for whatever reason, and they conclude that positive mood should be a particular priority in older people.

The study was carried out by a team at University College London, and published in the current online issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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