Why Your Physician Should Get Serious About Your Happiness

03/18/2013 10:37 am ET Updated May 18, 2013

We all complain about health care costs, but when we're sick we want ready access to the best care available. So none of us would trade a short cab ride to see an impeccably trained physician at a modern hospital for the health care we would get from a minimally trained NGO worker in a small village clinic hundreds of miles away. But, our ready access to modern medicine may not be making the most of a powerful health promoting force, our positive emotions.

In our article published online recently, we considered the emotion-health link in a representative sample of the world's citizens surveyed via the Gallup World Poll. As hypothesized, we found that the recent experience of positive emotions such as happiness, love, and enjoyment was linked to health. So, the more positive your yesterday, the better your general physical wellbeing. But, we were surprised that the link between positive emotions and health was stronger in the least developed countries than in industrialized nations. Based on the World Poll data, people in Malawi have a strong connection between the joy and happiness they experienced yesterday and the health they report. Our positive emotion-health links in the United States are about half as strong despite Americans benefiting from a GDP per capita that is 130 times greater than that of Malawians.

We don't need to conduct a poll to find out that most people would take American health care over what is available in a poor nation. And our own research, and that of other top scholars, has shown that in the US happiness does matter to physical well-being. In fact, positive emotions have been tied to a reduced probability of catching a cold, improved outcomes following a disease, and years of extended life.

Unfortunately, modern medicine has little appreciation for this positive emotion-health connection. When is the last time that a doctor asked you if you were feeling happy and satisfied with your life? Our physicians have never asked us anything about our positive emotional experiences. Maybe they just don't know what to ask. They can start with questions similar to those that Gallup asks of people in over 160 countries every year.

Did you experience happiness yesterday?
Did you smile or laugh a lot yesterday?
Did you experience enjoyment yesterday?
Did you experience love yesterday?

Doctors might be slow to incorporate questions about laughter and joy into their brief appointments with patients because, well, unfortunately happiness doesn't have a drug rep. Decades of research on how negative emotions such as anger, sadness, and stress undermine health did not make it into the doctor's office until the representatives from the pharmaceutical industry made the case. The reps have been quite effective in reminding physicians to ask about depression and anxiety symptoms, specifically those that can be treated by their company's medications. Without reps, who's going to pass out the heavily logoed pens, clipboards, and stress balls that remind us to spend some time with a loved one? To smile and laugh while doing something we enjoy? Where do we get our checklists to mark off our symptoms of happiness?

Physicians and health care providers of all types need to know that emotions matter. Our emotions are not frivolous byproducts of a good or bad day. They are closely linked to our health across the entire planet. We should all do a better job of living our lives as if our health depends on our daily feelings. All of us in the developed world may need to psychologically reestablish the link between our emotional selves and our physical selves. And we must do it with our without the help of our doctors.

Shane J. Lopez, Gallup and University of Kansas
Sarah Pressman, University of California, Irvine
Matt Gallagher, Boston University

Please link to full article. http://pss.sagepub.com/content/early/2013/02/22/0956797612457382.full?keytype=ref&siteid=sppss&ijkey=Omy.5VmeZCYAQ