Happiness may not cure what ails you, a recent study suggests, but it might keep you from getting sick in the first place.
Dutch researcher Ruut Veenhoven analyzed 30 previous studies on happiness, trying to identify the relationship between happiness and health. His results, published in the September issue of the Journal of Happiness Studies, suggest that happy people are less likely to get sick, but becoming happier won’t improve the health of someone who is already ill. Veenhoven also found that happiness seems to add several years to a person’s life—an effect comparable to the difference in lifespan between smokers and non-smokers. But again, this only pertains to healthy populations: If you’re already sick, becoming happier won’t help you live longer.
Veenhoven was not able to determine exactly how happiness might keep the body fit. He speculates that it might boost the functioning of the immune system, help people form social connections (a known factor in good health), or encourage healthy behaviors such as weight monitoring. However, all of these hypotheses have received only modest empirical support.
On the basis of his findings, Veenhoven argues that happiness is a public health concern. Though he says governments shouldn’t get too involved in people’s private lives, he believes policy makers should encourage institutions, such as schools and nursing homes, to pay greater attention to the happiness of their members.
“Governments should aim at greater happiness for a greater number of citizens,” says Veenhoven, “not only for the sake of better health, but also because of other benefits of happiness, such as better citizenship.”