Be happy. Enjoy life. It pays off in spades. Scientists even have an estimate as to how long it will take you to see a change in your physical health: about three years.1
In our instant-gratification society, that may seem like a slow-working medicine, but while you wait you get to be. . . well, happier. And that seems like an end in itself.
The resulting better health brings a longer, potentially more satisfying life. But what really interests researchers today is not so much the link between feeling happy, good health and life expectancy, but whether life happiness by itself adds years to your life, regardless of its outcome on physical health.
Is it really possible to smile your way to a longer life?
Lowers Risk of Death by Over a Third
Someone who specializes in this area of research is professor Andrew Steptoe, director of the English Longitudinal Study of Aging at University College London.
In one of his studies, positive affect (PA) (a term that encompasses happiness, joy, vigor, energy, positive mood and emotional well-being) was assessed four times during a single day in 3,853 people aged 52 to 79.
Five years later, those who ranked in the lowest one-third for PA had a death rate of 7.3%, compared to 4.6% in the medium PA group but only 3.6% in those with the highest PA. This translates into half the risk of death in the happiest group, compared to the least happy.
Even after health status and other demographic factors were taken into account, the risk of death was 35% lower among the happiest people compared to those who were the least happy.2,3
In another Steptoe study published in the British Medical Journal in 2016, 9,365 men and women with an average age of 63 had their enjoyment of life assessed on three occasions over four years. During that period, 1,310 people died.
The findings were adjusted to take into account demographic factors, health status at the beginning of the study, impaired mobility and symptoms of depression.
Compared to those displaying no life satisfaction on any occasion, those who reported it twice (out of the three times) enjoyed a 17% reduced risk of death, and those who were happy on all three occasions saw their risk go down by 24%.4
Professor Steptoe said: “The effect is sizable – trying to enjoy life seems to have real benefits. We need more focus on feeling positive.”
Happy People Live Longer
Other research groups agree with Prof. Steptoe’s findings.
In 2011, researchers from the Universities of Illinois and Texas found that optimism, positive emotions and life satisfaction predicted longevity in healthy populations. They entitled their study “Happy People Live Longer.”5
The latest study to look into this relationship was published in August in the journal Age and Ageing.
The researchers surveyed 4,478 people aged 60 or older living in Singapore. The aim was to measure how they felt during the past week on three occasions over six years. Participants were asked to agree or disagree with statements such as ‘I felt happy,’ ‘I enjoyed life’ and ‘I felt hope about the future’. Based on their answers they were assigned a score for happiness.
The researchers factored into their statistics a wide range of demographics, lifestyle choices, health and social factors.
Among those who were assessed as happy, 15% died, compared to 20% among those who were rated unhappy. Every one-point increase in the happiness score reduced the risk of death by 9% and was 19% lower for the happy versus the unhappy participants. The results were consistent for men and women and across the age range.
The authors, who called their study “Happy older people live longer”, concluded that “happiness is associated with reduced likelihood of all-cause mortality…” 6,7
So What Can You Do to Get Happier?
I realize that becoming happier can be a challenge for some people, but there are things we can do. It’s a big subject, but here are a couple of suggestions: prayer and meditation can be an enormous help. So can regular exercise, even mild exercise like a short daily walk – preferably in nature.
Gratitude is a powerful mood-improver. Merely making a list each day of the things we’re thankful for focuses our attention on those things, which are easy to take for granted. I can guarantee you’ll find many more good things in your life than you’re likely aware of, and merely reflecting on them makes life more worthwhile.