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A festive blog: Happiness and health

Blog on happiness

This is a season in which we all wish one another happiness for both Christmas and for the New Year. It is a time for happiness. However, research into happiness does not confine itself to seasons or birthdays but looks at overall happiness with life and, in some cases, attempts to relate that sense of happiness to our health. For this blog, I draw on a paper published in the Journal of Happiness Studies and no, this is not a joke, such a journal does exist published by the Springer[1]company and edited by Prof Antonella Dell Fave from Milan. Today’s blog centres on a paper from the Erasmus University of Rotterdam entitled:  “Healthy happiness: effects of happiness on physical health and the consequences for preventative care[2]”.

The author begins by accepting the view that physical health can be influenced by positive and negative mental states although this does not suggest any role for positive mental health in prevention of serious illness such as cancer. In this review the author focuses on longevity as a correlate with happiness and then asks how happiness can be exploited as a concept in the promotion of good health. In this context, happiness is defined as “overall appreciation of one’s own life-as-a-whole” or in other words “how much one likes the life one lives”. Such definitions of happiness allow for an objective and universal measure of how happy people are.

The author starts with the World Database of Happiness,[3]which shows that a positive and statistically significant correlation exists between measures of happiness and physical health. Those for self-reported health are greater than those correlations of happiness and health ratings based on medical opinion. However, correlations cannot tell us anything about cause and effect and so the author surveyed the literature in this area. Four studies were identified where some base line measure of happiness was taken and then health status (medically determined or self-reported) studied many years later. In general, those results were inconclusive, which led the author to look at measures of happiness and longevity, an objective measure of overall health. The author recorded a total of 30 such studies, eleven of which were among people who were in bad health. Happiness and longevity among this group was not at all clear-cut, reinforcing the earlier point that the biological evolution of chronic diseases, such as cancer, cannot be abated by happiness. Some 19 studies focused on health and happiness in healthy individuals. The follow up periods ranged from 1 to 60 years with 5 covering 20 years or more.  In total, some 24 effects of happiness and health were studied of which 16 (67%) were statistically positive while in the remaining 8 cases, a positive effect was observed which failed to reach statistical significance. The authors conclude that the evidence clearly points to the fact that happiness “protects” against falling ill.

This blogger would ask whether there are any overlaps between gene profiles for longevity and gene profiles for happiness. And, “surprise, surprise”, happiness is very highly heritable based on a large study of identical and non-identical twins in Minnesota[4]. A basic question on wellbeing was administered to 1380 twin pairs living together and was then re-administered to the same twins some 10 years later, leading to the conclusion that up to 80% of the stable aspect of wellbeing is heritable. So is it that happiness increases longevity or is it that to have the “happiness” genes is also to have the “longevity” genes. At this point in time we don’t know.

Happiness can influence health in many ways. Thus, it is well known that negative mental states promote poorer immune responses, higher blood pressure and other adverse physiological effects. In contrast, happiness is more likely to cope with threatening information and thus less fearful of preventative activities such as health screening. Happier people are more likely to engage in sports and are also less likely to be fatalistic as regards health.

Epidemiology deals with populations and tells us how our health trajectory is determined by our many lifestyle choices. But which is more important, health alone or happiness? Here in Ireland and I assume elsewhere, there is understandably a huge value put on being healthy. But happiness must over-ride health and so many individuals suffering from life-threatening conditions daily exhibit magnificent happiness. This is beyond the metrics of epidemiology for whom the bottom line is disease orientated. And if we move beneath life- threatening conditions and consider the risk factors for disease, the big paymaster of epidemiology, can we be happy and fat, or a happy smoker or a happy hypercholesterolaemic? Of course it would be best to be happy and healthy beyond imagination – Californian healthy even.

But that’s not life. Happiness must enter the lexicon of those concerned with life, lifestyle and wellbeing. It is the highest level of human achievement. And it can even be topped by also making someone else happy.

Happy Christmas to all my readers

[2]Veenhoven R, (2008) J Happiness Stud, 9, 449-469
 [4]Hamer DH (1996)  Nature Genetics 14, 125 - 126 (1996)


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