Past studies report that happiness, well-being and relaxation are all associated with a reduced chance of death. Conversely, similar studies find that unhappiness and stress directly cause poor health and early death.
But there’s one problem with those studies. They don’t account for the effect that poor health has on levels of stress and unhappiness.
In a new study of over a million women in the UK, researchers found that life-threatening health problems cause unhappiness. And for this reason, unhappiness was associated with increased mortality.
The lead author, Dr. Bette Liu, 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.”
Three years after joining the UK Million Women Study, women were sent a questionnaire asking them to self-rate their health, happiness, stress, feelings of control, and whether they felt relaxed.
One in six reported that they were generally unhappy. Some of the reasons included not living with a partner and feeling deprived. The strongest association, however, was the women who were already in poor health. They tended to say that they were unhappy, stressed, not in control and not relaxed.
Over the next 10 years, 70,000 of the women in the study were followed by electronic record linkage. During that time 30,000 of them died.
Which group was most likely to die?
The overall death rate among those who were unhappy was the same as the death rate among those who were generally happy. This was true when it came to death from all causes, including cancer, heart disease and stroke.
Co-author Professor Sir Richard Peto 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.”
This suggests that, to remain happy throughout life, the best thing you can do is take care of your health.
According to the CDC, poor diet and physical inactivity are major contributors to disabilities that result from diabetes, osteoporosis, obesity, and stroke. These same factors may account for up to 580,000 deaths per year.
This makes getting at least 30 minutes of exercise three or four days a week and eating a healthy diet priorities for a happy and disease-free life.