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Happiness: Study Suggests Well-Being, Or Lack Of It, Can Predict Illness and Death

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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.

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