Health and Happiness: a Retro Message
A study published December 9 in The Lancet challenges the conventional wisdom that unhappiness causes illness and hastens death. Dr. Betty Liu, University of New South Wales, and colleagues at Oxford University analyzed data from the UK “Million Women Study” (in which women ages 50 to 69 provided baseline data between 1996 to 2001 and were then tracked with questionnaires).
About half the women studied were in good health initially and had no history of heart disease, cancer, stroke or emphysema. In this group, the women who considered themselves unhappy did not die sooner than the women who considered themselves happy.
Here’s the abstract:
Poor health can cause unhappiness and poor health increases mortality. Previous reports of reduced mortality associated with happiness could be due to the increased mortality of people who are unhappy because of their poor health. Also, unhappiness might be associated with lifestyle factors that can affect mortality. We aimed to establish whether, after allowing for the poor health and lifestyle of people who are unhappy, any robust evidence remains that happiness or related subjective measures of wellbeing directly reduce mortality.
The Million Women Study is a prospective study of UK women recruited between 1996 and 2001 and followed electronically for cause-specific mortality. 3 years after recruitment, the baseline questionnaire for the present report asked women to self-rate their health, happiness, stress, feelings of control, and whether they felt relaxed. The main analyses were of mortality before Jan 1, 2012, from all causes, from ischaemic heart disease, and from cancer in women who did not have heart disease, stroke, chronic obstructive lung disease, or cancer at the time they answered this baseline questionnaire. We used Cox regression, adjusted for baseline self-rated health and lifestyle factors, to calculate mortality rate ratios (RRs) comparing mortality in women who reported being unhappy (ie, happy sometimes, rarely, or never) with those who reported being happy most of the time.
Of 719 671 women in the main analyses (median age 59 years [IQR 55–63]), 39% (282 619) reported being happy most of the time, 44% (315 874) usually happy, and 17% (121 178) unhappy. During 10 years (SD 2) follow-up, 4% (31 531) of participants died. Self-rated poor health at baseline was strongly associated with unhappiness. But after adjustment for self-rated health, treatment for hypertension, diabetes, asthma, arthritis, depression, or anxiety, and several sociodemographic and lifestyle factors (including smoking, deprivation, and body-mass index), unhappiness was not associated with mortality from all causes (adjusted RR for unhappy vs happy most of the time 0·98, 95% CI 0·94–1·01), from ischaemic heart disease (0·97, 0·87–1·10), or from cancer (0·98, 0·93–1·02). Findings were similarly null for related measures such as stress or lack of control.
In middle-aged women, poor health can cause unhappiness. After allowing for this association and adjusting for potential confounders, happiness and related measures of wellbeing do not appear to have any direct effect on mortality.
The authors are delivering a real retrograde message. They contend that previous studies linking unhappiness and illness had cause and effect bass-ackwards. Their data show illness leading to unhappiness —which makes sense— but not vice versa.
The findings, we note unhappily, may not apply to men.