The Science Behind Happiness and Its Impact on Health

Janet Tiberian Author
By Janet Tiberian, MA, MPH, CHES
March 29, 2016
Happiness and Health

Years of studies suggest that happiness can improve quality of life because happy people tend to have better jobs they excel at and are more satisfied with marriages and friendships. But in recent years, scientists have begun focusing on how that happiness impacts people’s health and happiness. 

And the news is good if you’re happy. Happiness can positive affect your:

• Heart health;
• Longevity; 
• Risk for certain cancers.

Heart Health
A team of researchers from Columbia University Medical Center followed a group of healthy adults for a decade assessing their risk for heart disease through positive emotions like happiness, enthusiasm and contentment and negative feelings such as depression, hostility and anger. 

Researchers assigned participants to a five-point scale ranging based on their outlook. Each point represented a 22 percent higher or lower relative risk for heart disease. For example, participants with a negative outlook had a 22 percent higher risk of heart disease than those with a slightly positive outlook, who in turn, had a 22 percent higher risk than those with a moderately positive outlook. 

Researchers suggested that these findings may be due to the longer periods of rest or relaxation and quicker recovery from stressful events experienced by happier people.

Learn more about the connection between depression and heart disease here.

A Longer Life?
A number of studies have linked longer lifespan to happiness. A 2016 study which used a nationally representative sample of adults, for example, found that “very happy people” had a 6 percent lower risk of death than people who researchers categorized as “pretty happy.” Those who were classified as “not happy” had an even higher risk of death. 

Because happiness is associated with a lower risk of heart disease – the number one killer in America – the change in mortality risk makes sense. Being a little unhappy, however, is okay. In a large study of women, researchers found no correlation between unhappiness and a shorter lifespan. But they also controlled for depression and anxiety — in other studies, those conditions negatively impacted longevity.

Happiness And Breast Cancer
Happiness may also reduce the risk of developing breast cancer, according to Israeli researchers. Their study was based on questioning the life experiences of women between the ages of 25 and 45, some with breast cancer and some without. Although the study did not account for family history or weight, it did suggest that younger women with a history of negative life events had a higher risk of breast cancer. 

Other studies have shown that stress alone is not a cause of breast cancer; however, more research is needed to better understand the role of stress when primary risk factors exist.

What can interfere with happiness? Happiness can be influenced by personal experiences, emotional issues and lifestyle habits, particularly stress and poor sleep.

Stress, for example, triggers our hypothalamus to produce the hormones adrenaline and cortisol, which are responsible for the fight-or-flight response. This increases heart rate, blood pressure and respiration rates. Further, blood flow from the skin, gastrointestinal system and musculoskeletal system is reduced and diverted to the brain, heart and adrenal glands. 

If these hormones remain elevated, over time, the adrenal gland will become fatigued, leading to the overproduction of hormones while responding to stress. This can  lead to hormonal imbalance and symptoms such as fatigue, low energy and depression. Additionally, stress causes a decrease in neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine which have a calming effect and regulate processes like emotional expression, sex drive, appetite and sleep, ultimately impacting our happiness.

Which comes first: depression or insomnia? Insomnia is a common symptom of depression as worry, sadness and hopelessness often interfere with falling asleep. Since fatigue makes it difficult to enjoy life, it can lead to depression. In fact, many people report being in a bad mood after just one night of poor sleep. 

A University of Michigan study found that an extra hour of sleep each night had a greater impact on one's happiness than making an additional $60,000 a year. Further, nightly tossing and turning commonly sparks anxiety, which can trip the fight-or-flight response and contribute to depression.

The Toll of Unhappiness 
While some data suggests that happy people produce more antibodies that may protect them, there is a lot of well-documented evidence linking unhappiness, stress and anxiety with a weaker immune system and an increased risk of disease. So, it may not be happiness at all – but unhappiness, especially in the form of depression and anxiety, that causes our health problems. 

One study suggests that grief can exacerbate diabetes, while another study found that negative emotions can aggravate rheumatoid arthritis. Depression is also linked to a number of health issues including heart disease, stroke, asthma, digestive ailments, accidents, substance abuse, overeating, excessive gambling, chronic pain, adult attention deficit disorder and suicide. 

If you’re suffering from stress, anxiety, lack of sleep or depression, talk to your primary care doctor. They can help. Don’t have a primary care doctor? MDVIP-affiliated physicians have more time and can help you address issues like unhappiness. Find one near you today.

About the Author
Janet Tiberian Author
Janet Tiberian, MA, MPH, CHES

Janet Tiberian is MDVIP's health educator. She has more than 25 years experience in chronic disease prevention and therapeutic exercise.

View All Posts By Janet Tiberian, MA, MPH, CHES
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