Being Happy Doesn't Make You Any Healthier, Says Depressing Study

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Being Happy Doesn't Make You Any Healthier

A new study asks the question: Does happiness itself directly affect mortality? The answer from the researchers was, "Happiness and related measures of well-being do not appear to have any direct effect on mortality."

This seems to go against everything we've been taught over the years — that a good mood will add years to your life, or that when you're happy you don't have stress damaging your heart. But sometimes thinking these kinds of thoughts places blame on the sick for bringing on their own illnesses and make the happy too complacent in regard to taking care of themselves. 

In an interview in The New York TimesSir Richard Peto, author of the study and a professor of medical statistics and epidemiology at the University of Oxford, said, "Believing things that aren't true isn't a good idea. There are enough scare stories about health."

Since there's a widespread belief that stress and unhappiness cause poor health, Peto and his colleagues decided to look into it. The Million Women Study is a prospective (watches for outcomes) study of United Kingdom women recruited between 1996 and 2001, who were followed electronically for cause-specific mortality.

Three years after recruitment, the baseline questionnaire for the present report asked women to self-rate their health, happiness, stress, feelings of control, and whether they felt relaxed. They also tracked the participants' mortality through official records of deaths and hospital admissions.

The main analyses were of mortality before January 1, 2012 and included all causes, like ischaemic heart disease and cancer in women who didn't have heart disease, stroke, chronic obstructive lung disease, or cancer at the time they answered the baseline questionnaire.

When the answers were looked at statistically, unhappiness and stress weren't associated with an increased risk of death. Since it was a Million Women study, they don't know how or if these findings relate to men.

A substantial minority of these healthy women said they were stressed or unhappy, but over the next decade, they were no more likely to die than the women who reported being happy and stress-free.

"This finding refutes the large effects of unhappiness and stress on mortality that others have claimed," Dr. Peto said.

This type of study, which is dependent on participants' self-assessments, isn't considered as indisputable as a more controlled experiment in which subjects are randomly picked and assigned to a treatment or control group. While there were a large number of participants, measuring emotions can be tricky, as not everybody is comfortable with reporting how unhappy or stressed they are. Happiness can be difficult to gauge.

Professor Peto said that he doubted that the new study would change many people's thinking. But I think we should all aim for both happiness and health.