It's a widely held belief that if you're happy, you'll live longer.
So, if you're unhappy, you worry about how your unhappiness is cutting your life short, therefore making you even more unhappy.
But perhaps a study published Wednesday in The Lancet could put an end to that vicious cycle. Following one million middle-aged women in Britain for 10 years, researchers found that happiness does not appear to have any direct effect on mortality.
Sir Richard Peto, an author of the study and a professor of medical statistics and epidemiology at the University of Oxford, told The New York Times that he and his fellow researchers decided to explore this topic because there is a pervasive belief that, somehow, stress and unhappiness cause illness. This can unfortunately lead us to blame the sick for getting themselves sick with their negativity. We also can feel extreme pressure to cheer up and get others to cheer up — or else.
But their results suggested that, even though being sick can make you unhappy, just being a grouch isn't enough to get you sick or shorten your life. Stress isn't going to give you a heart attack.
The findings are based on questionnaires from more than 715,000 British women aged 50 to 69 who were enrolled in a national breast cancer screening program in the late 1990s.
The women were asked things like how often they felt happy and how healthy they were. Almost 40% of the women said they were happy most of the time while 17% said they were unhappy. After a decade of tracking the women, 4% had died. The death rate among unhappy women was the same as those who were happy.
An commentary piece accompanying the study in The Lancet noted that it had “the largest population so far in happiness studies," but it also said more research was needed. How do people translate their complicated feelings into self-reported happiness or unhappiness? And even though unhappiness itself may not affect health directly, can't it lead to dangerous behaviors — like alcoholism, for example — that could shorten lives?
So, ask yourself: what defines a good life? If happiness comes to mind, then it's worth pursuing — regardless of whether or not it helps extend your life. In order to find it, Dr. Eva Selhub, a lecturer in medicine at Harvard Medical School, suggests making six straightforward choices: choose to develop flexibility and balance, choose to eat right, choose to develop your strength, choose to rest and relax, choose to trust in a positive outcome, and choose affirmations. You can read on here for more detail.