Give Thanks, Be Happy, and Live Longer

Dov Michaeli

Posted 11/24/11 on The Doctor Weighs In

Thanksgiving Day. I am sitting here amid the aromas wafting from the oven, the hustle and bustle in the kitchen, the family playing a card game and whooping it up –how can’t you be happy? Turns out, it’s also good for your health.

There are many studies showing a relationship between happiness and longevity, some of which are scientifically excellent. I’ll cover one that I really like, because of its rigor.

The latest paper was just published in the November issue of Proceedings of the national Academy of Sciences. Professor Steptoe and his coworkers of the University College, London asked 3,800 people aged 52 to 79 to rate their happiness. When I see studies based on people’s memories, my inner red flag starts waving. Not here: while previous studies have asked participants to rate their happiness over a specific time period – the past month, for example – the latest survey assessed people’s mood at four points on a particular day. This reduced the risk that people’s memories of how happy they had been would differ from reality and confound the results.

Happiness was measured using ecological momentary assessment (EMA), in which participants were asked to give themselves a mark from one to five in several categories. Positive affect – the measure used to designate how happy they were overall – was taken as a combination of people’s self-reported scores for happiness, excitement and contentment. Participants were also asked to assess their levels of worry, anxiety and fear.

Happiness has been shown before to be a strong factor in longevity. But the magnitude of the effect uncovered in this study is truly surprising. Here they are:

Five years on from their assessment, just 3.6 per cent of the happiest participants – those who had the highest positive affect – had died.
In contrast, some 4.6 per cent of those who were averagely happy and 7.3 per cent of the group with the lowest positive affect had died during the same time frame.

As any scientist would tell you –a relationship between dose and effect is music to the ear. It lends great credibility to the observation. In this case: a clear relationship between the “dose” of happiness and the effect on longevity. But scientists are never completely satisfied.

In epidemiological studies like this one, the obvious question is: what about confounding factors? For instance, what if somebody has a chronic disease? They are more likely to die earlier, and they are most likely to be less happy. Same for people suffering from chronic depression, who by definition are less happy. There is even the possibility that personal wealth plays a role in happiness. Yes, I know, it’s not quite PC to relate wealth with happiness, but as Betty Davis famously said “You can’t buy happiness with money, but it sure makes it easier”.

In any event, the researchers accounted in their analysis for confounding factors. After accounting for factors including depression, physical health and wealth, the researchers found that the happiest group had a 35 per cent lower risk of death than the least happy.

This is an astounding magnitude of an effect. What a wonderful and useful reason to give thanks for our good luck: we are alive, we are surrounded by love, and we are reading this post. What’s not to like?

To health! To happiness! To Life! L’Chaim.


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