Do Happy People Live Longer Lives?
There have been a number of studies in recent years that suggest that happy people live longer lives. Self-reported happiness has been linked with lower risk from heart disease, strokes, reduced lung function, and even cancer. But should we take this science on face value, or is there more to the story? We’ll look at what the research says about happiness and longevity and find out if being happy can really help you live longer.
How do you measure happiness?
The first problem we have to consider is how to measure happiness. The results of studies on happiness always rely on people self-reporting how happy they are. But can happiness be put on a scale and weighed? Is one person’s happiness stronger than someone else’s?
Most people, when asked if they’re happy, will probably find something they think they should feel cheerful about. They’ve got a home, a job, a family, a pet that they love. But everybody has problems too. They want to earn more money, work fewer hours, travel more, find love, pick up a new hobby, or improve some other factor in their life. How do we weigh the positive against the negative and decide scientifically how happy we are?
Of course, we can’t. One person might say on Monday that they’re happy, but on Tuesday they’re feeling the pressure at work and they stepped in a puddle so, when asked if they’re happy, they think of their angry boss and their wet socks and say no. Nothing major has changed in their life from Monday to Tuesday, but their impression of life has changed.
We all do this, all the time. And even if we’re the sort of person to say we’re happy if we’re asked, are we really happy, or are we just coasting in neutral? Happiness is an emotion that must be actively felt, and most of the time when we say we’re happy we’d probably be better saying we were satisfied or optimistic instead.
The different causes of happiness
So if there’s no clear way to measure if someone is happy or not, how can we approach happiness in a scientific way? One solution is to explore different lifestyle factors that cause happiness. Friendships, romantic relationships, an enjoyable job, a good work-life balance, and having a variety of hobbies and interests, are all things that can make us happy.
Marriage as a cause of happiness
A major study of marriage and longevity found that married men live longer than unmarried, divorced, or widowed men. The same is not true of women, which suggests that women provide a life-lengthening influence on their spouses that men do not.
Researchers think that women are better at maintaining social relationships, and married men therefore enjoy from more friendships than single men do. In later life, unmarried men are at greater risk of becoming socially isolated and dying earlier as a result.
However women typically lose out to an unequal division of labor in marriages. Both partners might work, but women will often take on the majority of household tasks and the emotional labor of the partnership. It’s women who remember birthdays, keep track of the laundry, and know what groceries are running out.
Studies have shown that the division of emotional labor is strongly linked to marital satisfaction. However men report significantly less satisfaction in their marriage if they think their emotional labor is approaching or exceeding that of their wife. This could be another reason why married men enjoy longer lives, but married women don’t get the same benefit. Married women have lower levels of satisfaction and happiness in their marriages as a result of the additional burden they carry.
Work as a cause of happiness
Happiness isn’t just measured by romance and friendships. People who like their work are also more likely to live for longer. One study by the University College of London found that people aged 50+ who reported the greatest happiness at work were 35% less likely to die prematurely than their unhappy colleagues.
However we have to consider the types of work that people report feeling happiest doing. In general, occupations that report the highest levels of happiness include those people felt called to do — working in medical, religious, or educational fields, for example — or those that were low-stress and highly paid.
The least happy occupations tend to be low-paid, low-prestige positions that involve manual labor, high stress, or both. Examples of some of the happiest jobs include teachers, clergy, engineers, and careers in the arts. Some of the unhappiest include waiters, warehouse workers, cashiers, and shop assistants.
Happiness in work is often linked to quality of life, and that means earning a fair salary and having the time to enjoy it. Having a job that pays well but doesn't require you to work every waking hour, means eating a healthier diet, having more secure access to medical care, and being able to afford hobbies and other activities that can help you to live longer.
Understanding the cause and effect of happiness on longevity
What we can see from all this is there are different ways to measure happiness in our lives. A lot of the factors that we might think can help us live longer are actually just the means by which we access the factors that really help us live longer.
For example, it isn’t being happily married itself that makes men live longer. Plenty of people stay in unhappy marriages but still get the longevity benefit. Marriage gives men more downtime at home because women do the majority of housework and emotional labor. That’s important because lack of downtime leads to higher stress levels, and stress is hard on the body. It can suppress the immune system, raise blood pressure, and increase the risk of heart disease and strokes.
Marriage also stops men from becoming socially isolated in old age, and social isolation significantly increases the risk of premature death from all causes.
The same applies to work, because the right job can improve our quality of life. Our hobbies also play a part. Hobbies help us to relax, stay social, and keep fit. In a study of older people living in residential communities, those who didn’t have hobbies were more likely to die earlier, and experienced greater decline in their daily activity levels. Engaging in different hobbies not only helped seniors to live longer, but they also enjoyed a better quality of life.
What does happiness do to the body?
Now we know our longevity isn’t a direct result of our relationships, jobs, and hobbies. Instead it’s the underlying benefits we get from them that really matter. But that doesn’t mean happiness is a useless measure to use in longevity studies, or that being happy doesn’t help you to live longer.
Happiness is often looked at as a lack of negative effects. Being stressed has a lot of bad physical effects, like higher blood pressure and disrupted sleep. It can also cause negative psychological effects that manifest in a poor diet, being over- or underweight, headaches, digestive disruption and more. Being without these symptoms — not being stressed — is often taken as a sign of happiness. But actually being happy is about so much more than just being stress-free.
The feeling of happiness is the result of increases in certain chemicals in your brain. These are dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, and endorphins. Each has a slightly different effect on your body.
Helps you feel pleasure. Dopamine is produced by the hypothalamus and its role is to reward positive behaviors. We condition ourselves to repeat things that are good for us by making them feel good through dopamine. Activities that increase dopamine levels include exercising, getting enough sleep, listening to calming music, and getting a massage.
Serotonin is produced in the intestines and brain and is an important component in your central nervous system. It’s linked to feelings of satisfaction and importance and helps stabilize your mood. Exercise, meditation, eating a healthy diet, and exposure to bright light can all boost serotonin levels.
Known as the “cuddle hormone,” oxytocin is the chemical that triggers feelings of love and devotion. We release oxytocin during sex, after childbirth, while hugging, and whenever we’re around people we care for and feel close to. The best way to release oxytocin is to get intimate with others — share a meal, relax with friends, participate in a group activity, or snuggle up on the sofa with someone special. It’s harder to get oxytocin if you’re a loner, but not impossible. Yoga and meditation can boost oxytocin levels, as can bonding with a pet.
Endorphins are what give you the high of exercising or laughing, and are also responsible for the euphoric feeling that relieves pain if we hurt ourselves badly. The best ways to increase endorphins are to exercise or do something you really enjoy like hanging out with friends, watching a funny show, dancing, or creating music or art.
Happiness isn’t just a singular process, but the result of four different but interconnected chemical reactions. Each of these has positive effects on our bodies, beyond simply relieving stress and reducing the negative physical and psychological effects of being unhappy.
So does being happy help you live longer?
What can we conclude from this? First, it’s hard to define what being happy really is, or measure happiness in a scientific way. It’s also difficult to untangle the cause and effect behind how the things that make us happy could also help us live longer. What the research does show is that people who report feeling happy often do live longer lives. Probably not because of happiness itself, but because the things that make them happy are good for them.
Happiness might play a small role in longevity, because the chemicals released when we feel good are also good for our bodies. However it’s likely that whether or not we feel happy is a good indicator of if we’re living a life that promotes longevity. If you don’t feel happy about your life, it might be a good idea to consider making changes that will make you feel better, and ultimately live longer.