Feeling happy or content with your life doesn’t necessarily mean that your health will increase or that you’ll live longer, according to new research.
A new study in The Lancet followed one million middle-aged women over the course of 10 years and found that happiness does not actually lead to better health, according to The New York Times.
In other words, researchers learned that happiness did not directly affect mortality rates in the study.
The study’s author, Professor Richard Peto, and his research team explored the subject due to widespread belief that stress and unhappiness can lead to a decline in health. Peto called the results “good news for the grumpy” and those with a not-so-positive outlook, who are often said to bring sickness on themselves.
“Believing things that aren’t true isn’t a good idea,” Dr. Peto said in an interview, according to The Times. “There are enough scare stories about health.”
The study followed one million women between the ages of 50 and 69 and asked them questions about control, relaxation, stress and happiness. They also asked for their levels of blood pressure, asthma, depression, diabetes or anxiety.
The researchers included some questions about happiness “because it’s something a lot of people were interested in,” Peto said.
The findings suggest that stress levels and unhappiness were not linked to an increased risk of death for women, according to CBS; it’s not clear if the results apply to men.
Peto said that particularly important data came from 500,000 women who reported on their baseline surveys that they were in good health (no history of cancer, heart disease, emphysema or stroke). A “substantial minority” of the healthy women said they were unhappy or stressed, but over the next 10 years, they were no more likely to die than the women who were generally happy.
“This finding refutes the large effects of unhappiness and stress on mortality that others have claimed,” Dr. Peto said to The Times.
However, experts still say that though unhappiness might not directly affect health, it can cause harm in other ways such as alcoholism, suicide and increase risk of dangerous behavior. Experts add that the statistics are based on self-assessments and that the data is hard to tackle since emotion is more difficult than fact.
“I would have liked to see more discussion of how people translate these complicated feelings into a self-report of happiness,” said Baruch Fischhoff, a psychologist at Carnegie Mellon University who studies decision-making. “Think about everything that’s going on in your life and tell me how happy you are. Happiness is a squishy measure.”
The results of previous studies haven’t been consistent, with some concluding that unhappiness causes illness and other showing zero connection, Fischoff said. “It looks to me like people have collected a lot of data without finding a clear signal,” he added. “So if there is some correlation out there, it’s not very big.”
Authors of the study hope that the findings will encourage people to rethink the common conceptions about unhappiness and adverse health, but they admit more research needs to be done.
An editorial that went along with the study in The Lancet noted that it contained “the largest population so far in happiness studies.”
Peto doesn’t think that the study will change very many minds because the beliefs about the connection between unhappiness and decreased health are so engrained.
“People are still going to believe that stress causes heart attacks,” he said.