Happiness and health (and wealth) are key pillars of a good life. Indeed, much research suggests that happiness gives people a psychological boost. Examples include reduced stress and better performance a work.
Likewise, some more recent studies of that age-old question “can money buy happiness?” have found that yes it can, at least more than it used to be able to.
But does happiness also have benefits for our physical health?
Happiness and health: concrete examples
In some respects, yes it does. Happier people live longer, for example. And the “positivity” levels of nuns at age 22 (as indicated by their self-penned memoirs) accurately predicted how long they would live. In other words, the more positive emotional content in the nun’s memoir, the longer her life expectancy.
Other research has found that happier people enjoy better cardiovascular health, and generally exhibit healthier behaviors. Happiness also has a positive effect on pain mitigation, and is associated with slower disease progression and faster recovery.
Lack of strong evidence
Yet as a new paper explains, most of these studies have focused on people with preexisting health conditions. And as such, the evidence for the health benefits of happiness lacks “long-term, externally valid experimental evidence in healthy samples.”
And that’s why a team of international researchers set out to fill this gap in knowledge.
Their new study in the journal Psychological Science used a three-month “positive psychology intervention” (PPI) to investigate how happiness and health related to each other. Would participants in the intervention group feel physically healthier than those in the control group?
They conducted a randomized controlled trial involving 155 adults, with an average age in the mid-40s. About a third of them, in British Columbia, received the intervention through in-person group sessions. The others, in Virginia, received the intervention online.
“Enduring Happiness and Continued Self-Enhancement”
The intervention the researchers used is called ENHANCE (which stands for Enduring Happiness and Continued Self-Enhancement) . It consists of a wide range of activities associated with increased happiness and well-being. These include self-affirmation, mindfulness, gratitude, positive social interactions, and prosocial behavior.
Afterwards, about 82% of the participants underwent a follow-up assessment three months after the intervention had ended.
Health wealth and happiness measured in sick days
The researchers found that their intervention worked. Compared to the control group, participants in the intervention group reported fewer days where they felt sick. They also reported that their health was less likely to get in the way of their normal activities.
These findings suggest that increasing psychological well-being can indeed make people feel healthier.
But the study did not find any evidence that the intervention had any effects on objective indicators of health, such as body mass index or blood pressure.
So in terms of whether happiness actually makes people healthier, we still need more research. As the study’s authors write, this paper “highlights the need for more prospective randomized trials employing the best practices in clinical science.”
Study: “Does Happiness Improve Health? Evidence From a Randomized Controlled Trial” (link)
Authors: Kostadin Kushlev, Samantha J. Heintzelman, Lesley D. Lutes, Derrick Wirtz, Jacqueline M. Kanippayoor, Damian Leitner, and Ed Diener
Published in: Psychological Science
Publication date: June 24, 2020
Photo: by Chevanon Photography from Pexels