Are Happier People Actually Healthier?

Are Happier People Actually Healthier?

October 7, 2019 37 By Ewald Bahringer


“Are Happier People Actually Healthier” More than 60 years ago, the World
Health Organization defined health as a “state of complete physical,
mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence
of disease or infirmity.” Just because you’re not depressed
doesn’t necessarily mean you’re happy. But if you look in the medical literature,
there are 20 times more studies published on health and depression
than there are on health and happiness. In recent years, though, research
on positive psychology has emerged — what we can do to increase our success,
functioning, and happiness, all inherently good in themselves, but
are happier people, healthier people? There is growing evidence that
positive psychological well-being is associated with reduced
risk of physical illness. But it’s not surprising that healthier
people are happier than sick people. The intriguing issue is whether
psychological well-being protects against future illness or inhibits
the progression of chronic disease. To figure out which came first, you’d have
to get more than just a snapshot in time. You’d need prospective studies,
meaning studies that go forward in time, to see if people start out happier
do indeed live longer. And, yes, a review of such studies
suggests that positive psychological well-being has a favorable effect on survival in both healthy
and diseased populations. But not so fast. Yes, positive states may be associated
with less stress and inflammation, and more resilience to infection,
but positive well-being may also be accompanied by a healthy lifestyle
that itself reduces the risk of disease. Happy people tend to smoke less,
exercise more, drink less, and sleep better. So maybe happiness leads
to health only indirectly. However, the apparent protective effect
of positive psychological well-being persisted even after controlling
for all these healthy behaviors, meaning effectively even at the
same level of smoking, drinking, exercise, and sleep, happier
people did seem to live longer. Ideally, to definitively establish
cause-and-effect we’d do an interventional trial in which
participants are assigned at random to different mood levels
and tracked for health outcomes. It’s rarely feasible or ethical to randomly
make some people’s lives miserable to see what happens, but
if you pay people enough you can do experiments like this.
It’s been thought that people who typically report experiencing
negative emotions are at greater risk for disease, and those who typically
report positive emotions are at less risk, so they decided to test this
using the common cold virus. Three hundred thirty-four healthy
volunteers were assessed for how happy, pleased,
and relaxed they were, or how anxious, hostile,
and depressed. Subsequently, they were given nasal
drops containing cold rhinoviruses to see who would be more
likely to come down with a cold. Who would let someone
drip viruses in their nose? Someone paid $800, that’s who. Now just because you get exposed
to a cold virus doesn’t mean you automatically get sick,
because you have an immune system that can fight it off, even if it’s
dripped right into your nose. The question is whose
immune system fights better? In a third of the bummed out folks
their immune systems failed to fight off the virus and
they came down with a cold, but only about one in five
got a cold in happy group. Maybe it’s because those
with positive emotions slept better, more exercise, lower stress?
No, it appears even after controlling for the healthy practices and
levels of stress hormones, happier people still appear to
have healthier immune systems, a greater resistance to
developing the common cold. Works with the flu, too. They repeated
the study with the flu virus, and like in the earlier study, increased
positive emotions was associated with decreased verified illness rates. These results indicate that
feeling vigorous, calm, and happy may play a more important role
in health than previously thought.