Will happiness help you to live a long and healthy life?

Emiliana Simon-Thomas is the GGSC's science director and co-instructor of the Science of Happiness MOOC.

Decades of studies have suggested the answer is yes, which makes the cultivation of subjective well-being  (a more technical term that researchers often use to talk about human happiness) seem like a matter of life and death. But a new analysis of data from the UK Million Women Study concludes that happiness has no bearing on mortality. The study examined whether electronically-collected survey data about health and happiness, from just under 720,000 women in their 50s and 60s, predicted them dying from any cause within the next 8 to 13 years.

The conclusions? If you have two people and one of them says they feel happy “most of the time” while the other says “rarely,” neither one is more or less likely to die sooner than the other. Further, the authors argue that lesser-happiness is the result, not a causal factor, in poorer health—and that health problems, regardless of happiness levels, are the real culprit driving differences in mortality. In other words, it doesn’t matter if you’re happy or not, it’s just the luck of the draw of whether you’ll get sick, which will probably make you unhappy, and also kill you sooner.

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These data promise to add some nuance to our understanding to how emotions affect our health. But a closer look at the questions the researchers asked—and the nature of their conclusions—reveals that we shouldn’t be so quick to accept that happiness makes no difference to longevity.

What exactly is happiness?

The problem starts with how loosely people in general use the word happiness, and how the authors of this study measured happiness. Indeed, this definitional problem vexes nearly all studies of human happiness.

In the Million Women Study, researchers asked women to rate how frequently they felt happy, from “rarely/never” to “most of the time.” There’s nothing inherently flawed about this question, but it does frame happiness in a particular way—as a finite, repeated experience that occurs day-in-and-day-out, at a different rate for different people. It also relies on peoples’ retrospective assessment of their experiences, which are shaped to prioritize emotional salience both good and bad. This rendering of happiness aligns with a contemporary western cultural notion that happiness is akin to how many times we experience highly arousing personal pleasure on a given day.

Or, to put it in the terms of emotion science, The Million Women Study version of happiness amounts to the sum of felt positive emotions like joy, pleasure, pride, and enthusiasm—emotions that are about gratifying personal desires. In neuroscience terms, these states are signaled principally by the mesolimbic dopaminergic reward system. These do feel good, but evolution has sculpted this system to keep us looking for the next good thing; they don’t last.

Why is that a problem? Because theirs is only one among several frameworks for understanding happiness—and it might not be the best one for evaluating its role in health and mortality. Most human languages reveal the origins of happiness as an involuntary state that emerges from luck or fortune. “Hap” is an old German word that means “chance”—think of the implications of other words that involve “hap,” like “hapless,” “perhaps,” or “happenstance.” This linguistic bias might prime us to think about happiness as passively received, lucky pleasure, rather than a product of intention and effort—a bias that’s embedded in the way the Million Woman researchers posed their question to participants, which can easily be read as “How often does happy happen to you?”

The emphasis on chance makes happiness seem rather random and arbitrary. But throughout recorded human history, thinkers have also rejected this way of thinking. According to Aristotle, for example, happiness is best expressed as a life lived with meaning and virtue—a conception that suggests true happiness might involve sacrifice or duty—and not always be a momentarily pleasurable or joyous affair. It also suggests that happiness is something you need to earn.

Recent scientific inquiry suggests that Aristotle may have had a point, as we more and more find that lifetime happiness is entwined with meaningful social connections and a sense of belonging. I recently heard Richard Davidson, Director of the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin, define the four pillars of well-being as: Optimism, Kindness, Resilience and Awareness. (OKRA, anyone? It’s supposed to be good for you.) He suggests that a lifetime of neuroplasticity enables us to deliberately cultivate and strengthen these characteristics within ourselves in order to be happier.

Davidson’s pillars, you’ll notice, are broader characteristics of a person’s way-of-being in the world, not a measure of how often a person can recall feeling something they’d call happy. Responses might have looked different if the Million Women Study researchers had asked questions like: “I am satisfied with my life” with the option to select “1=Strongly disagree” to “7=Strongly agree,” or “Some people are generally very happy. They enjoy life regardless of what is going on, getting the most out of everything. To what extent does this characterization describe you?”—from “1= not at all” to “7=a great deal.”

These are, in fact, questions selected from Ed Deiner’s Satisfaction With Life Scale, and happiness expert Sonja Lyubomirsky’s Subjective Happiness Scale; both of these research-validated scales have been shown to predict longevity in populations from all over the world in various states of illness and health.

There’s another issue with the questions that Diener, Lyubomirsky, and Sarah D. Pressman highlighted yesterday in an op-ed for the LA Times:

The happiness question was the 306th item in a 316-item survey. After answering so many questions about medications, diet and health history, a respondent might be a lot less happy than when she started, and a lot less cooperative. In fact, about 400,000 women in the Million Women Study apparently quit before reaching this question.

This fact considerably weakens the authority of the study’s conclusions about happiness!

Do positive emotions matter?

On that note: Another thing that’s missing from the Million Women Study involves the place of a particular class of positive emotions—like gratitude or awe— that differ from the high arousal, self-focused variety mentioned earlier, in the overall happiness equation.

A legacy of research from positive emotions researcher Barbara Fredrickson at the University of North Carolina sheds light on the role of positive emotions in happiness. According to Fredrickson’s “Broaden and Build” theory, positive emotions enable people to perceive a wider scope of information more creatively and flexibly, and these feelings motivate people to orient towards other people in friendly and cooperative ways. Moreover, studies find that different positive emotions affect happiness in different ways.

The easy-to-remember, dopamine-signaled gratifying-desire emotions are biologically short lived. We adapt to what was initially delicious; things that feel special at first come to seem drab next to something new or superior. Though these states are fun while they last, they’re not the whole recipe for sustainable happiness. In fact, research on pursuing happiness has shown that striving for, or expecting to frequently feel happiness in the form of frequent personal pleasure actually hinders happiness, even putting people at risk for manic disorders, as evidenced by the work of Iris Mauss at UC Berkeley and June Gruber at the University of Colorado.

There is another category of lesser-studied positive emotions called pro-social. These are states that turn people toward each other in trust and kindness, which might have a more sustained impact on happiness. Emerging research on pro-social emotions like gratitude, compassion, and love (which engage the Vagus nerve and oxytocin systems that facilitate lasting social bonds) suggests that they play a privileged role in our more general, overall sense of happiness.

Thinking of happiness as the sum of personal pleasure and gratified desires, it turns out, gets in the way of happiness—yet this is what the Million Women Study invited its subjects to do. Had they asked about how often people felt things like affection, gratitude, or collective joy, they might have observed a stronger connection to longevity. As it is, I was not surprised to read that people’s recalled personal pleasures did not predict longevity.

Happiness must be cultivated

I co-instruct an open online course called The Science of Happiness. A key aim of our work is to provide students with the knowledge and tools to become happier themselves. Are we shuttling the more than 300,000 students to date down a pointless path, as the Million Women Study implies? I don’t believe so, and it’s not because the study’s conclusions are wrong.

We simply define happiness in our course more systematically, in a way that science suggests might help us to live longer and more meaningful lives. Happiness, in our research-based view, hinges upon the meaning and joy that emerges from all things pro-social: a person’s authentic and meaningful social connections, their tendency towards generosity, and their sense of belonging within a community. This kind of happiness, as Davidson and others like Kristin Layous, whose work investigates how to custom tailor happiness-building exercises to individuals, can be strengthened through purposeful learning and practice, just like mathematics or music.

  • We start with evolution and Darwin, pointing out the ultra-social nature of humanity. We cover systems in the body dedicated to caregiving and compassion (the Vagus nerve, oxytocin, and medial preoptic hypothalamic circuitry), which intrinsically reinforce social affiliation and cooperation.
  • These systems, interestingly, are also anti-anxiolytic, meaning they inoculate and help us recover from stress and adversity—which is one way to think about why they might lengthen life.
  • We survey multiple studies reporting that 1) people rate feeling most happy when they are sharing the company of others and 2) people who fall into the category of “Very Happy” always report having close personal relationships.
  • Comforting social touch, according to brain imaging studies, is a pleasure to give, relieves anxious anticipation, and aids recovery from stress.
  • Developmental studies of social style report that having a trusting, cooperative orientation to relationships (i.e., being securely attached as a result of having enjoyed a safe, affectionately communicative caregiver in early childhood) makes people less vulnerable to most any risk to physical or psychological health one can think of, from alcohol dependency to seizures.
  • Pioneering epigenetics studies of loneliness by Steve Cole at UCLA show that people who feel lonely suffer maladaptive immune activity and increased cardiovascular risk (e.g., hyperinflammation).
  • We also highlight studies from Elizabeth Dunn and Micheal Norton that pit pro-social against self-interest, and show that all over the world, wherever they look, generous behaviors boost self-reported happiness more than serving oneself.

This research leads us to flip the sequence suggested by the Million Women Study—that having worse health (and thus a greater risk of death) creates unhappiness. Poor social function, we posit, is a root of unhappy feelings and behaviors that put people at risk for health problems, which in turn can exacerbate unhappiness.

Interestingly, the Million Women survey did ask two questions about social-life: 1) whether the person was co-habitating with a partner and 2) whether the person participated in some kind of group religious or spiritual activity. Whether or not the women said yes to these questions strongly predicted how happy they rated themselves.

However, in their analysis of how responses to their happiness question related to mortality, the authors controlled for the social-life responses, effectively washing out the only metrics that tapped into the quality of the women’s social interactions and relationships, albeit not very directly. When viewed in light of all the other research into human happiness—only some of which I’ve described here—this is a crucial mistake. We can’t be surprised that a person’s recollection of how many times they’d felt good, minus any contribution from the stable goodness of a strong pro-social profile, did not factor into their health and longevity. The study is probably correct that momentary, pleasure-oriented happiness doesn’t improve health and lengthen lives.

But what about the other kind of happiness, the one that arises from a life filled with meaning and togetherness? That’s what we need to develop if we want to reap the benefits of happiness.

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