The storyteller Hans Christian Andersen once wrote, “Enjoy life. There's plenty of time to be dead.” Now a new British study suggests that enjoying life can actually prevent illness and death.
A study of 10,000 Brits age 50 and older in the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA), found the unhappiest people -- those ranked in the bottom third for life enjoyment -- were three times more likely to die over a given period than those in the top third. Specifically, over a nine-year period, 20 percent of the people in the study group were expected to die. But nearly 29 percent of the grumpiest people died, compared with about 10 percent of the happiest.
In addition, unhappiness predicted poor health outcomes. By measuring psychological well-being in 2004–05, researchers could forecast which healthy middle-aged people would suffer from “disability, slower walking speed, impaired self-rated health and the incidence of coronary heart disease” by the time they visited again in 2010-2011. (Participants were interviewed three times between 2002 and 2011.)
“These remarkable findings became even more astonishing when it became clear that the link between psychological well-being and long-term health and survival was independent of other factors such as age, gender, ethnicity, wealth, education and baseline health,” noted Andrew Steptoe, professor of Epidemiology and Public Health at University College London and co-lead author of the ELSA report, in a statement. UCL collaborated with Manchester University, the Institute for Fiscal Studies and NatCen Social Research on the report.
Researchers don’t know which factors make happy people live longer. “They may relate to the biological correlates of psychological well-being or to more subtle aspects of lifestyle that are associated with greater levels of well-being,” they note. For example, separate research has found happy people -– independent of their wealth or weight -– have lower levels of stress, as measured by cortisol levels and blood pressure. Upbeat types also tend to exercise more.
Stronger social networks may be a third reason happy people live longer, healthier lives. A separate study of 6,500 Britons found that at age 50, having regular interactions with a wide circle of friends has a significant impact on psychological well-being. Researchers culled data from the British National Child Development Study (NCDS), a longitudinal study that has followed a group of people born in the same week in 1958, starting at age 7. The researchers examined participant surveys collected at age 42, 45 and 50 that included questions about their psychological health and the number of friends and relatives they met up with once a month or more.
Forty percent of men and roughly a third of women said they had more than six friends whom they saw regularly. Those people were significantly happier than their peers. “Having fewer than ﬁve friends at age 45 predicted signiﬁcantly poorer psychological well-being at age 50,” the researchers write.
This isn’t the first study stressing the importance of a midlife social network. Research published in 2010 that examined the results of nearly 150 previous studies determined that the friendship had as much impact on the risk of death as smoking, drinking, physical activity or obesity.
Health was "extremely important" to happiness for 73 percent of respondents. People in "good or excellent" health are three times more likely to report being "very" happy. Interestingly, what may matter most is how healthy you think you are: The AARP found that the percentage of people reporting good health is relatively stable over the 35-80 age range, varying only seven percentage points. That's despite the fact that objectively, older people are in fact not as healthy: The number of people who report they are suffering two or more medical conditions increased 400 percent over the 35-80 age range. (People may be comparing their health to their peers who are in worse shape.)
Some 68 percent of respondents called relationships "extremely important" to happiness. Some 72 percent of people who were married or in a relationship called themselves "very happy" or "pretty happy" -- compared to 60 percent of singles. AARP asked respondents to rank the importance of certain activities to happiness, and many of those scoring at the top were relationship-related: 72 percent said "kissing or hugging someone you love"; 72 percent said "watching your children, grandchildren or close relative succeed in what they want to do"; 69 percent said "spending time with your family and friends such as a meal or social gathering'; and 64 percent said "experiencing a special moment with a child." However, relationships did have to be real: "connecting with friends or family on a social media site like Facebook" came in 37th out of 38 activities in contributing to happiness.
Nearly half (47 percent) of respondents said pleasure was "extremely important" to happiness. Among the simple pleasures that were most important to the happiness of people 50 to 80: enjoying natural beauty like a sunset or ocean (64 percent); having someone do something nice for you unexpectedly (56 percent); practicing religious or spiritual faith (50 percent); making progress on personal goals (47%); and being absorbed in a favorite hobby or interest (42 percent).
Four in ten of those surveyed called accomplishment "extremely important" to happiness.
Meaning and engagement were considered "extremely important" to happiness among 38 and 37 percent of respondents, respectively.
Some 31 percent of respondents said money was "extremely important" to happiness. Money was slightly more important to people who earned $25,000 or less. As psychologist and Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman has noted, beyond a household income of $75,000, experienced well-being no longer increases, although people's judgment of how satisfied they are with their lives does continue to increase. At the same time, severe poverty amplifies life's misfortunes, such as illness or divorce. The AARP study found similar results: Income and happiness were positively correlated; when comparing the percentage of those "Very Happy" by income ranges, the slope increases up to the $75,000 mark, then continued to rise even more dramatically. Asked how they would spend $100 on something to increase happiness, most respondents said they would spend it on their family or going out to dinner. This correlates with findings that show buying experiences makes people happier than buying things.
People who feel they are in control of their happiness report that they are 2.5 times happier than those who believe happiness is out of their control. A sense of control is linked to higher income, higher education, good health and not experiencing a major life event in the past year. This finding also mirrors decades of research suggesting autonomy -- the feeling that your actions are self-chosen and self-endorsed -- is a core psychological need. Studies have found people who lack a sense of control -- prisoners, nursing home residents, people living under totalitarian governments -- suffer lower morale and poor health, according to David Myers, a professor at Hope College in Michigan and author of "The Pursuit of Happiness." Interestingly, a sense of control over one's happiness rises with age -- with 69 percent of people age 75 to 80 feeling they have control over their happiness, versus about half of people age 40 to 54. It may be that with the wisdom of the years, people recognize that happiness is a choice.
Spending time with a pet can be a substantial way to contribute to one's happiness, the survey found, especially for older women: 81 percent of women age 66 to 80 who own pets said spending time with them contributes "a lot" to personal happiness. It was also important to two-thirds of singles.