Studies show that happy people — or, at least, people who self-identify as happy — are likely to live longer. So, does that mean being happy is the key to living to a ripe old age?
Scientists now say . . . not so fast. They found that although the happy people in the studied population of a million women were less likely to die during the ten-year study period than people who described themselves as unhappy, when researchers looked into the health of those groups they found that happy people also tended to be objectively healthier than the sad contingent — and healthier people by definition are likely to live longer. In short, happiness might be correlated with longevity, but being happy, by itself, doesn’t cause long life. The study bluntly concluded: “Our large prospective study shows no robust evidence that happiness itself reduces cardiac, cancer, or overall mortality.”
No surprise there, really. Only the most ardent happiness advocate might think that the simple act of being happy could, say, prevent the formation and spread of cancerous cells in your body or allow you to escape a genetic predisposition to heart attack. But that obvious conclusion still begs a significant question — why does the correlation exist in the first place? Why do happy people tend to be healthier than unhappy people?
I think the answer is clear — and the key is not happiness, but the state of unhappiness. If you are in pain or feeling sick or otherwise are suffering from poor health, it’s difficult to maintain a happy attitude. On the flip side, if you’re down in the dumps, it’s harder to get motivated to do the things that help to keep you healthy, like getting a decent amount of exercise and watching your diet and your weight. How many unhappy people overeat to compensate for their depression, for example, and end up dealing with obesity, the health problems associated with it, and the poor self-image issues that tend to accompany it?
Happiness therefore might not be the cause of good health, but unhappiness and poor health seem to be part of a cycle, with one reinforcing and contributing to the other. Happiness therefore might not be the cause of a long life, strictly speaking, but if you can develop and keep a positive attitude it sure seems to help.