Be happy, live longer

This article was originally published in December 2008


We’ve heard about the power of positive thinking and few of us can sing the 1980s tune “Don’t worry, be happy!” without wincing, but new research shows there is wisdom in those words.

A Dutch professor reviewed 30 studies on happiness from around the world covering one to 60 years and found an amazing thing. Ruut Veenhoven of Rotterdam’s Erasmus University has determined that a flair for feeling happy prolongs the life of healthy people and appears to protect against falling ill.

There are plenty of reports about happy people living longer. But it hasn’t been clear whether happiness causes longevity, since good health can increase happiness and longevity.

Veenhoven’s work, published in the “Journal of Happiness Studies,” concludes that while happiness doesn’t extend the life of seriously ill people, it could lengthen the lives of healthy people by 7.5 to 10 years. The effects of happiness, in other words, are comparable to smoking or not.

The finding adds to studies worldwide on just what makes people happy — and why people with material wealth in developed countries seem less satisfied with their lives.

In a field being dubbed “hedonics,” some respected economists are finding that material wealth adds little to happiness after a certain point and that happiness can be bolstered by friendships, community and larger social factors such as freedom, democracy, effective government and rule of law.

Veenhoven found the strongest effect on longevity among a group of U.S. nuns followed through their adult lives — perhaps reflecting a feel-good factor from belonging to a close-knit, stress-free community with a sense of purpose.

Happy people reportedly are more inclined to watch their weight, more perceptive of symptoms of illness, and more moderate with smoking and drinking. They’re more active, more open to the world, more self-confident, make better choices, and build more social networks.

Veenhoven says, “We know that happiness fosters physical health, but not precisely how.”
Chronic unhappiness, however, prompts the fight-flight response, which is linked to harmful effects such as higher blood pressure and a lower immune response.

(Source: Agence France Presse)

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