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Myth busted: Unhappy people DON'T die younger

A new study examines the commonly-held view that happy people live longer.

Image: Shutterstock/Benoit Daoust

HAPPINESS HAS NO direct effect on mortality, according to new research.

A study of one million women in the UK has found that “the widespread but mistaken belief that unhappiness and stress directly cause ill health came from studies that had simply confused cause and effect”.

The research, published in The Lancet medical journal, notes: “Life-threatening poor health can cause unhappiness, and for this reason unhappiness is associated with increased mortality.

“In addition, smokers tend to be unhappier than non-smokers. However, after taking account of previous ill health, smoking and other lifestyle and socio-economic factors, the investigators found that unhappiness itself was no longer associated with increased mortality.”

Lead author Dr Bette Liu, who now works at the University of New South Wales, said:

Illness makes you unhappy, but unhappiness itself doesn’t make you ill. We found no direct effect of unhappiness or stress on mortality, even in a ten-year study of a million women.

The investigation was conducted within the UK Million Women Study. Three years after joining the study, women were sent a questionnaire asking them to self-rate their health, happiness, stress, feelings of control and whether they felt relaxed.

happy Source: Shutterstock/Olesya Kuznetsova

Five out of six of the women said they were generally happy, but one in six said they were generally unhappy.

Smoking and lack of exercise

As in other studies, unhappiness was associated with deprivation, smoking, lack of exercise and not living with a partner. The strongest associations, however, were that the women who were already in poor health tended to say that they were unhappy, stressed, not in control and not relaxed.

The main analyses included almost 700,000 women with an average age of 59 years. These women were followed by electronic record linkage for mortality over 10 years, during which time 30,000 of the women died.

Some 685,464 women were surveyed, after those with cancer, heart disease, stroke or chronic obstructive airways disease were excluded.

lancet Source: The Lancet

After allowing for any differences already present in health and lifestyle, the overall death rate among those who were unhappy was the same as the death rate among those who were generally happy.

The Lancet notes that the study is so large it rules out unhappiness being a direct cause of any material increase in overall mortality in women. This was true for overall mortality, cancer mortality and heart disease mortality. It was true for stress as well as for unhappiness.

fingers Source: Shutterstock/gulserinak1955

Co-author Professor Sir Richard Peto, of the University of Oxford, said:

Many still believe that stress or unhappiness can directly cause disease, but they are simply confusing cause and effect. Of course people who are ill tend to be unhappier than those who are well, but the UK Million Women Study shows that happiness and unhappiness do not themselves have any direct effect on death rates.

The Lancet said previous reports of reduced mortality being associated with happiness, being in control, being relaxed or with related measures of wellbeing had “not allowed properly for the strong effect of ill health on unhappiness and on stress”.

Men and women

Commenting on the study, Dr Philipe de Souto Barreto and Professor Yves Rolland of the Institute of Ageing at the University Hospital of Toulouse in France said the study provides extremely valuable and robust information about happiness, health and mortality.

They called for randomised trials to investigate the issue further, stating: “Such studies should be powered to allow comparisons to be made across age ranges and between men and women. Cross-cultural studies could also shed light on the generalisability of interventions to promote happiness.”

Originally published: 6.03am

Read: ‘My family and I have had many conversations about my impending death’

Read: Why don’t men live as long as women?

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