Dr. Kim Foster: Wicked Health


Does Happiness Improve Health?

new research on old wisdom

“Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence” –Aristotle

How many of you would say you’re happy? And how many of you think you could be a wee bit happier?

The study of happiness is fascinating for many of us—it certainly is for me. There's an amazing amount of research on the subject. One of the most intriguing lines of study is the interconnection between happiness and health. And I've got great news: there's a growing body of evidence to show that happy people are actually healthier. And they live longer.

One of the landmark studies connecting happiness and longevity was a study of catholic nuns. Now, studying nuns is a pretty clever idea, because nuns live much the same lifestyle, so it works well to compare them to one another.

Researchers pored over a collection of autobiographical essays written decades ago by young, novice nuns as they entered the convent. The essays included the nuns’ descriptions about themselves, and their hopes for the future. The researchers scored each nun’s happiness level using clues like the number of positive words she used.

And then they correlated that with how long each nun lived. Here’s what they found: nuns who exhibited more positive characteristics, early in life, tended to live longer. In fact, 90% of the happiest quarter of nuns were alive at the age of 85. In contrast, only 34% of the least happy quarter lived to 85.

Truth be told, there are more than 160 studies on the connection between happiness and health.

Research shows that:

  • happy people have lower rates of heart disease
  • when they do get heart disease, they have better survival rates.
  • they recover more quickly from coronary bypass surgery.
  • they have better survival rates from lung cancer, and breast cancer.
  • they have fewer health symptoms and fewer chronic conditions.
  • their wounds heal better.
  • they have improved pain tolerance—and this is acute pain and chronic pain.

So why might all this be? What’s the connection?

Well, research is beginning to look into this too. There are, of course, behavioural factors at play. Meaning, happy people tend to engage in protective behaviours, such as regular exercise, not smoking, healthier diet, wearing sunblock, less drug use.

But researchers are also starting to narrow in on some interesting bona-fide physiologic effects of happiness. Happy people have:

  • lower blood pressure.
  • slower heart rates.
  • less physiologic inflammation (which is at the root of many chronic & serious illnesses).
  • lower levels of cortisol (a key stress hormone).
  • better functioning immune systems and more robust responses to vaccines.

The answer may also lie in telomeres, which is a fascinating new field of research. Telomeres are the caps on the ends of our chromosomes—they protect our chromosomes from degradation. Over time, the caps get shorter. When they get too short, it’s time for that cell to die. So, the length of your telomeres influence a lot of aging and disease process in diverse body systems. We know that unhappy, stressed people have shorter telomeres. And this accelerates aging and increases susceptibility to many illnesses.

So...just how much of a benefit, in terms of life expectancy, does happiness confer?

In 2011, researchers analyzed all 160 studies. And they were able to put a number to it: they estimated that happiness has the potential to extend your life by 4-10 years.

That’s a lot of years! And, let’s bear in mind, these are happy years.

Current health recommendations for a healthy lifestyle are well known: maintain a healthy weight, eat right, don’t smoke, and exercise. Maybe we need to add another: “be happy.” It’s certainly a prescription I’d like to write.

Now all this is great if you happen to consider yourself a happy person. But...what if, like most of us, you've got a little work to do in this department? I've got good news: there's a lot you can do to become happier.

Next step is how, exactly, to improve your own personal level of happiness. In coming weeks, I’m going to be writing more about happiness (to be honest, it's become a bit of an obsession of mine, ever since my own personal health crisis), so watch this space...in the meantime, here are some places to start.