The happier you are, the longer you live. It seems to make sense, right? If you are happy and live with less stress, your health will be positively affected, and you will live a longer life. If you are unhappy and deal with a lot of stress, your health will be negatively affected, and you won’t live as long. So, for patients dealing with cancer or other illnesses, does being happy positively affect your health?
Previous studies, such as “Happy People Live Longer: Subjective Well-Being Contributes to Health and Longevity” by Dr. Ed Diener, Professor of Psychology at the University of Illinois, have even shown a correlation between happiness and longevity. However, a recent study by Dr. Bette Liu, an epidemiologist at the University of New South Wales, Australia, and other researchers published in The Lancet shows that the link between happiness and length of life may be unsupported.
The Research behind Happiness’s Link to Longevity
In order to reach this conclusion, Liu used research from The Million Women Study, a national study of women’s health conducted by The University of Oxford and supported by Cancer Research UK, the Medical Research Council, and the Health and Safety Executive. In this study, a group of almost 720,000 women in the U.K. were surveyed over a span of 10 years. At the beginning, the women were given a baseline questionnaire asking about their health, happiness, stress, feelings of control, and state of relaxation. Their answers were studied and out of these women, only 17% of them reported unhappiness.
At the time, there was a strong correlation with the women who self-rated they were unhappy and those who self-rated that they had poor health. However, after 10 years, 4% or almost 32,000 women died, and Liu and her team controlled a number of factors, such as health, in order to see if there was a correlation between longevity and happiness.
What Liu and her team discovered was that there was not a significant difference between the women who self-rated as happy and those who self-rated as unhappy in those who died. What this means is that being happier does not necessarily give you better health, nor does it give you a longer life. In actuality, as the study suggests, “in middle-aged women, poor health can cause unhappiness,” but, “happiness and related measures of wellbeing do not appear to have any direct effect on mortality.”
Why Happiness Doesn’t Hurt
What we must keep in mind is that there are limitations with a study such as this. Why? Such data is based on a self-rating of a subjective feeling – happiness – translated into a numeric scale (participants were asked to rate their happiness level on a 4-point scale). Happiness is a complex and a multidimensional concept that is influenced by a great number of factors.
Needless to say, this makes such a concept nearly unquantifiable. Or, in the case of the original “Million Women” study, tough to break down into easily digestible – and accurate – chunks of data.
Another factor to consider is that the study only included women, meaning a study with all men, or both men and women could – and almost certainly would – yield different results. Though Liu’s study had the largest population so far in studies concerning happiness, there is a lot more room for research in the field.
In a review in Cancer Nursing, researchers from Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences (USUHS), cited by the American Cancer Society (ACS), reveal there is no link between stress and the return of cancer. However, while there is a lack of clear evidence between the 2, the researchers emphasize that reducing stress can still improve the quality of life for cancer patients. In another article, ACS states that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) link higher levels of well-being, which they define as “judging life positively and feeling good,” to benefitting overall health.
So yes, perhaps the great takeaway is this: it’s okay to be both happy and unhappy.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), happiness is an essential part of quality of life and is an important part of the concept of health. Cancer is one of the leading causes of death worldwide and it takes a large psychological, emotional, mental, as well as physical, toll on an individual on a daily basis. The negative feelings that someone experiences when dealing with cancer are natural, but it does not mean that feeling this unhappiness will shorten your life. Likewise, though it may not necessarily lead to a longer life, happiness certainly couldn’t hurt.