Do happy people live longer lives?

Ronald Siegel
In a recent review of studies on happiness and longevity, Dutch sociologist Ruut Veenhoven found that happiness (feelings of contentment or joy; the overall experience of pleasure, well-being, and meaning in life) appears to protect against illness. In 19 research projects involving populations chosen independently of their health status, ratings of mood and life satisfaction at the beginning of a study had a large and positive impact on the chance a person was alive at the end of the follow-up period, with the most satisfied people gaining an extra 7.5 to 10 years of life (an impact as great as giving up cigarettes by age 35). The studies included 24 different measures of happiness, and 16 of the measures showed a significant positive correlation with longevity. The other eight were also positive, but not to a statistically significant degree, and no measures hinted at any negative physical consequences from being satisfied with one's life.

But late in life, happiness did not consistently increase life span in 11 research studies of people who lived in nursing homes or were already diagnosed with serious illnesses. In those studies, some results were positive, some negative, and some neutral, with happiness clearly not healing serious illness or prolonging life for people with incurable disease.

The longest-term evidence on happiness and longevity comes from the Nun Study, conducted by researchers at the University of Kentucky and published in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. When young women enter the American School Sisters of Notre Dame order, they write a one-page autobiography. Analyzing these writings years later, researchers looked at the emotional content in 180 essays, finding a very strong association between the expression of positive emotions (such as happiness, interest, love, hope, gratefulness, and contentment) and longevity. Women who scored in the upper 25% for positive emotional words lived 9.4 years longer than those in the lowest 25%, and women who expressed the most positive emotions lived 10.7 years longer than those expressing the fewest—findings that held up after controlling for linguistic ability.

It appears so. Scientists don't fully understand why, but people with a positive outlook tend to be protected from stress hormones that contribute to heart disease - and they're more likely to have good social networks and take care of themselves.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.