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Does Being Happy Improve Our Health? You Might Be Surprised

Why are happy people healthier if their happiness is not affecting their health? I and my research collaborators have been looking at this issue for the past 20 years, as part of a detailed scientific study.
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"Cheer up, watch funny shows, laugh heartily and you'll stay healthy!" It's ever-present advice, but it's wrong, wrong, wrong. We hear it all the time. If you're ill, spend a few days glued to the screen watching the exuberance of "Glee" and the laugh-out-loud comedy of "Seinfeld" reruns and, so goes the common wisdom, you'll have a speedy recovery. Or even better, stay cheery and you won't get sick in the first place. Unfortunately, there's no good scientific evidence for this sort of progression. Worse, this misconception draws attention away from the real relationships between happiness, health and long life. What does science really say?

On the face of it, the idea that an Elizabeth Edwards or any other brave person riddled with cancerous tumors could laugh away the disease -- that they would get better if only they tried really hard to cheer up -- is a form of magical thinking that is terribly implausible. Of course, someone will always offer up an example -- an anecdote of a miraculous recovery -- and there are indeed rare cases of a seemingly miraculous healing. But for every miracle, millions of brave patients succumb. Was it because they did not laugh enough?

Could good cheer open clogged arteries, release insulin to a diabetic or repair a diseased kidney? Not based on any good scientific studies that I've ever read (and I've read thousands of studies). Well, how about helping us fight the common cold, which is self-limiting, and from which almost everyone soon recovers, whether they are watching "Seinfeld," "Glee," a vampire show or "PBS NewsHour"? OK, I'll grant that perhaps a TV diet of "Grey's Anatomy," "House," and "Private Practice" might improve your medical astuteness, but that's hardly a case of cheery self-healing.

The false idea that good cheer is the key to good health arises from the very common observation that contented people are often healthy people. This is undoubtedly true. It has been documented in many ways in many studies. Of course, it is also true that healthy people tend to be happier than people careening from one health problem to another. So, is happiness causing good health, or is good health causing happiness? Most of the time, neither is correct.

Because happiness is associated with good health, some scientists looked around for causal links in human biology; that is, they searched for the hormones and blood cells that might account for this correlation. There, in plain sight for happiness researchers, were striking discoveries made by neuroscientists in the 1970s and '80s, namely the findings that the immune system can be affected by hormones associated with emotions. In fact the hormones associated with stress are a key component of immune system responses. Voilà, a light bulb went on: Maybe good cheer revs up the immune system and knocks out those nasty cancer cells and cholesterol clots! Not so fast.

There's a problem. I hate to be the one to switch off the voilà light bulb, but the evidence is slim to nonexistent that people who cheer themselves up will boost their immunity, beat back their cancers and atherosclerosis, and thereby live long, healthy lives. It's true that pieces of this process have been documented in rats, and occasionally in primates like monkeys, but I always wonder how one measures the happiness of rats! And anyway, rats do not watch "Seinfeld," and even monkeys do not watch "Glee."

So why are happy people healthier if their happiness is not affecting their health? I and my research collaborators have been looking at this issue for the past twenty years, as part of a detailed scientific study we call The Longevity Project. Following over 1,500 Americans across many decades, we have found that the same behaviors, personalities, friendships and careers that make you happy are the ones that help you stay healthy.

Happiness did not emerge as the cause of good health and long life. Instead, happiness and health were both results of certain patterns of living. We found that there are many things that you can do to simultaneously promote your happiness and your health (perhaps joining a glee club?), but laughing at your TV screen is definitely not one of them. Just as the amount of news that happens in the world every day always exactly fits the newspaper, it is also true that the links between happiness and health are not what they first seem. If you are interested in seeing the details and mapping the contours of your own life's trajectory, we provide self-quizzes and plenty of real-life examples in our book on The Longevity Project.

The striking scientific findings in The Longevity Project upend the common advice from the lands of laugh therapy, self-esteem clinics and highly indulgent parents. In fact, worrying turned out to be a very good thing. Many of the boys, girls, men and women we studied for so many years were happy and healthy because of the meaningful lives they led -- that is, lives full of dedicated work, genuine friends and dependable lifestyles. And yes, the accompanying stressful challenges were part of the secret. Laughter and pleasure from the joys of accomplishment and involvement turned out to be an indicator of good health. But watching the funniest TV shows all evening while you sit and snack is definitely not the ticket to health. "Cheer up and live long" is a dead-end myth.

Copyright © 2011 Howard S. Friedman. For more information, see the website of The Longevity Project.