You eat filled-to-the-brim bowls of leafy green salads regularly. You take several long walks weekly. You try to log some serious zzzz time at night. But who knew that happiness could further influence how long you live? That’s a key conclusion coming out of a new study from University College London. The information, gathered from more than 3,800 participants in the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing shows that in essence, happier people live longer lives. Andrew Steptoe, a professor with UCL’s Epidemiology & Public Health and researcher with the study, shares more.
Q: What is the connection is between happiness and life longevity?
A: We found a relationship between happiness over the day and survival. Men and women aged 52 and over who were happier were more likely to be alive five years later. The first thing we thought about was whether the effect was due to underlying illness. People who were already ill at the beginning of the study might have felt less happy, and were in turn more likely to pass away. So we carefully measured their health at the start of the study, assessing whether they had been diagnosed with heart disease, respiratory illness, cancer, and so on. We found that these factors only accounted for a small amount of the protective effect of positive affect.
Q: Why did you choose to assess people’s moods at several different times per day?
A: Survey experts and psychologists have come to the view that in many ways, this is a better approach to understanding how people actually feel than asking them general questions about how happy they are, or how happy they have been over the past week. Responses to general questions are influenced strongly by personality, by what people think they “ought” to say, and by recollections that may not be quite accurate. Our method gets closer to measuring how people actually feel.
Q: Is it possible to “make” yourself happier to achieve the same effect?
A: There could be underlying, unmeasured factors that were responsible for the effect, or our measures of positive affect might be markers of other biological or behavioural processes that are important. So we would not advocate from this study that trying to be happier would have direct health benefits. But we do know from other research that good social relationships and active participation and engagement in life are important for the maintenance of well-being at older ages, and that the quality of life of senior citizens benefits from activities that sustain more positive moods.
Q: What can our readers take from this study and apply to their lives?
A: I would say that the study points to the importance of a holistic approach to the care of older people. So along with good quality health care and ensuring that older people have the resources to sustain their material needs, efforts should be made to improve positive moods as well.
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