Do happier people live longer?
Are you happy? It’s a question we have not only been asked regularly by others, but one we have surely asked ourselves on occasion. And we all know there is no easy answer here. That said, it’s been the main method researchers looking for the link between happiness and health and longevity have relied on – to simply straight out ask the subject to recall his or her happiness levels at particular periods in the past.
So, let me ask you: Are you happy? Ok, now I’ll ask again in ten minutes. Then again in an hour. Then this evening. Then tomorrow morning.
And that is why it is so complex. And it is also why researchers went back to the drawing board to devise better methods for studying the link between happiness (or unhappiness), and how that goes to work on our bodies.
Some of the recent findings are pretty neat. And they take us one step closer to answering that big question: Will I live longer if I am happier?
The happy-healthy connection
One such study that wrapped up in 2011 from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) out of the United States is worth taking a closer look at. Instead of simply asking how the person felt at a particular time in the past, the study used ‘ecological momentary assessment,’ which is collecting a series of appraisals of a person’s emotional state over a single day. In other words, asking people how they are feeling at regular intervals during the period of one day, then collating the results. Five years later, the team followed up with those involved in the study to assess their life situations.
What they found was pretty amazing: Essentially, the higher the level of happiness according to the rating scale used, the lower the death rate; the lower the level of happiness, the higher the death rate.
The study also adds weight to the theory that happiness provides a certain level of “protection.” Specifically, even though the NAS study made clear that there are other factors at play – including demographic influences and a person’s health behaviour and history – it found that when the results were adjusted to take these factors into account, there still remained a relationship between lifespan and happiness.
And should we be surprised here? I mean the negative effects of chronic stress on our health are well documented, so why shouldn’t a positive feeling of happiness have a reverse effect?
Can we control our happiness levels?
So given that there just might be a link between happiness and health and longevity, what naturally follows is the question of what we can do to be happier (or what we can do to limit unhappiness). First off, when it comes to discussions of our emotions, we cannot ignore the power of genetics. We are after all who we are. But do I think we can control our happiness levels to some extent?
The question becomes rather philosophical, and so there is no easy answer here. What is happiness after all? But I will say that without a doubt there are many things we do on a day-to-day basis – or on a longer-term basis – that affect our emotional state, and it can therefore be said we do have some control over our level of that “thing called happiness.”
And surely you know where I am going with this. Getting proper sleep, staying fit through exercise, keeping balanced hormone levels (if necessary through bioidentical hormone replacement therapy), avoiding excessive drinking or any mind-altering substances, not smoking, eating the right foods, and so on. All of that is in your control, and by living right in these ways you are helping strengthen your emotional foundation (or if we come at it from the other side, we can say that at least you are not weakening it).
We must accept how complex the human mind is. At times we go through tremendous mood changes in the course of hours – or even minutes. This means we can never only be happy for long, just like we can never only be sad or afraid or angry or jealous. We will be all those things and much more – very regularly. That is called being human.
The final word
Dr. Candace Pert, in her best selling book “Molecules of Emotion: The Scientific Basis Behind Mind-Body Medicine,” notes that what primarily separates us from apes is our frontal cortex (located behind the forehead). As you travel up from the back of the brain (where sight is first perceived) to the frontal cortex, you find as you progress forward and upward that there are more and more opiate receptors.
The frontal cortex is the place in the brain where we make choices and plan for the future. This means that pleasure and bliss increasingly influence our choice as incoming information climbs higher and higher up the sensory way stations – that is, we make moment-to-moment choices about what to pay attention to based on the pleasure we get from our choices. And because of this frontal cortex, loaded with opiate receptors and endorphins, we can experience the higher conscious states of bliss and love, what the mystics call “Unity with the Divine,” or “One Mind.” Our biology actually makes this possible.
So why are you unhappy? There is a Chinese proverb that answers this for us, and it goes something like this: “Because nearly everything that you say and do is for your “self” – and there isn’t one.
Most of us resist the concept of “One Mind” out of a desire to retain and protect our sense of individuality – our sense of self. Take away the self, they say, and they’ll be nobody. But how vital is the self? Even our friend Albert Einstein affirmed the value of breaking the bondage of the personal ego. He said “The true value of a human being is determined primarily by the measure and the sense in which he has attained liberation from the self.”
In my experience, those individuals who recognize the difference between one’s narrow ego self and what philosopher Paul Brunton called the “Overself” have an abiding sense of happiness and equanimity. These are folks that may bend when hit by life, but they bounce right back, always ready for what comes next.
Graham Simpson, MD is Chief Medical Officer and Founder of Intelligent Health, a preventive medical centre located in Jumeirah. Dubai. He graduated from the University of the Witwatersrand Medical School in Johannesburg, South Africa, and is board certified in Internal Medicine and Emergency Medicine. As a founding member of the American Holistic Medical Association (AHMA) Dr Simpson is also a licensed homeopath.