Happier people live longer. That’s what British researchers found when they asked nearly 4,000 people, aged 52 to 79, to spend a typical weekday recording their emotions and then checked back an average of five years later to find how many study participants were still alive. Those who had scored the highest “positive attitude” (PA) had a substantially longer survival rate.
Only 3.6 percent of the high-PA group had died, compared to 4.6 percent of the medium-PA and 7.3 percent of the low-PA. The group highest on happiness ended up with a 35 percent lower risk of dying.
“We were surprised that measures obtained over one single day might predict so strongly,” said Andrew Steptoe, a University College, London psychology professor who co-authored the study with Jane Wardle, a clinical psychologist who directs UCL’s Health Behavior Unit.
The study, published in November in the Washington, DC-based Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, is significant because emotions were recorded real-time rather than recalled weeks or months later. Life remembered is not always life as lived, Dr. Steptoe explained. Using a simple pen-and-paper diary and a four-point rating scale, participants paused four times during the day to assess how happy excited, content, worried, anxious and fearful they felt.
*The “happiest” people were slightly younger and more likely to be male and married.
*Positive emotions overall were lowest at 7 a.m. and highest at 7 p.m.
*Ethnicity, paid employment, education and presence of serious disease made no significant difference in PA.
*Smoking was less common and physical activity higher among those with higher PAs.
*Happier people had higher opinions of their own health.
The study joins a growing body of research which links being happy with living longer. “Happiness is no magic bullet, but the evidence is clear and compelling that it changes your odds of getting disease or dying young,” reports Ed Diener, University of Illinois psychology professor emeritus and lead author of a recent review of studies related to happiness. “The overwhelming majority of studies support the conclusion that happiness is associated with health and longevity.”
One way researchers account for the link is theorizing that happier people lead healthier lives, but Professors Steptoe and Wardle suspect biological processes are also at work. “In other research, we have found differences in stress hormones and in immunological defenses that may be relevant,” Professor Steptoe explained.