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Is Feeling Bad a Luxury Problem?

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In Judith Viorst's classic children's book Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, Alexander wakes up with chewing gum in his hair -- and everything goes downhill from there. He trips on his skateboard and drops his sweater in the sink. He doesn't get a window seat in the car, and the dentist tells him he has a cavity. His mother makes him get white sneakers instead of the blue-and-red-striped ones he covets. He's forced to eat lima beans for dinner, and there's kissing on TV. To top it all, his nightlight burns out just as he's getting ready for bed.

Alexander's plight resonates not just with kids but with any adult who has ever whined about a luxury problem. Alexander is clearly a very fortunate child. He has food on the dinner table every day, a warm bed for sleep, dental care, a sweater, and sneakers, not to mention real luxuries like a TV and a skateboard. So when we read about the spoiled child's tantrums, we can't help but be reminded that most of the stresses in our adult lives -- the congested commuter traffic, the workplace conflict, the leaky roof -- are also luxury problems.

Health experts call these "first-world problems," meaning the accumulated stresses of daily life and the negative emotions they arouse. There's little doubt that worry and anger and sadness are linked to illness and mortality, right down to the cellular level, but isn't this just the downside of privilege? Those of us who live in modern, industrialized nations may indeed be sickened by negative emotions, but surely this phenomenon is eclipsed by more pressing and serious health risks in the developing world, by "real" problems like famine, poverty, and war.

Or is it? The fact is, we don't know. The question never been studied. That's why University of Kansas psychological scientist Sarah Pressman and her colleagues decided to examine the emotion-health link in 142 countries across the planet, including many with persistent, daily risks to health and well-being, like prolonged civil war and drought. The scientists surveyed more than 150,000 people, ranging in age from 15 to 99, a representative sample of the world population participating in the Gallup World Poll. They queried these people about the specific negative emotions they had experienced the previous day -- worry, sadness, boredom, depression, and so forth -- and about positive emotions, including happiness, laughter, and love.

In addition to these data on everyday feelings, the scientists took various measures of health: Do you have any health problems that prevent regular activity? How well rested do you feel? Are you experiencing pain? They asked, in general, how satisfied or dissatisfied these people were with their health. They also asked about their basic needs -- for money, shelter, food, and water -- and about crime, safety, and sense of security.

Emotions matter to health -- everywhere. That's the main finding from this first-ever worldwide analysis. As reported in a forthcoming issue of the journal Psychological Science, both positive and negative emotions were uniquely linked to health, and unexpectedly, emotions were actually better predictors of health and illness than were basic unmet needs, for food, safety, and shelter. What's more, emotions are not a first-world problem; indeed, the opposite appears to be true. The poorer the country (as indicated by GDP), the stronger the connection between emotions and health. Positive emotions (or their scarcity) appear especially important to individual health status in poorer countries.

Alexander's solution for all his cares and woes is to move to Australia. In the Australian version of this popular book, the solution is to move to Timbuktu. But as this study documents, there's no place on Earth to outrun the cascade of human emotions -- or the important health consequences of those everyday feelings.