By Emiliana R. Simon-Thomas | Greater Good
Will happiness help you to live a long and healthy life?
Decades of studies have suggested the answer is yes, which makes the cultivation of subjective well-being (a more technical term that researchers often use to talk about human happiness) seem like a matter of life and death. But a new analysis of data from the UK Million Women Study concludes that happiness has no bearing on mortality. The study examined whether electronically-collected survey data about health and happiness, from just under 720,000 women in their 50s and 60s, predicted them dying from any cause within the next 8 to 13 years.
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The conclusions? If you have two people and one of them says they feel happy “most of the time” while the other says “rarely,” neither one is more or less likely to die sooner than the other. Further, the authors argue that lesser-happiness is the result, not a causal factor, in poorer health—and that health problems, regardless of happiness levels, are the real culprit driving differences in mortality. In other words, it doesn’t matter if you’re happy or not, it’s just the luck of the draw of whether you’ll get sick, which will probably make you unhappy, and also kill you sooner.
These data promise to add some nuance to our understanding to how emotions affect our health. But a closer look at the questions the researchers asked—and the nature of their conclusions—reveals that we shouldn’t be so quick to accept that happiness makes no difference to longevity.
What exactly is happiness?
The problem starts with how loosely people in general use the word happiness, and how the authors of this study measured happiness. Indeed, this definitional problem vexes nearly all studies of human happiness.
In the Million Women Study, researchers asked women to rate how frequently they felt happy, from “rarely/never” to “most of the time.” There’s nothing inherently flawed about this question, but it does frame happiness in a particular way—as a finite, repeated experience that occurs day-in-and-day-out, at a different rate for different people. It also relies on peoples’ retrospective assessment of their experiences, which are shaped to prioritize emotional salience both good and bad. This rendering of happiness aligns with a contemporary western cultural notion that happiness is akin to how many times we experience highly arousing personal pleasure on a given day.
Or, to put it in the terms of emotion science, The Million Women Study version of happiness amounts to the sum of felt positive emotions like joy, pleasure, pride, and enthusiasm—emotions that are about gratifying personal desires. In neuroscience terms, these states are signaled principally by the mesolimbic dopaminergic reward system. These do feel good, but evolution has sculpted this system to keep us looking for the next good thing; they don’t last.
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Why is that a problem? Because theirs is only one among several frameworks for understanding happiness—and it might not be the best one for evaluating its role in health and mortality. Most human languages reveal the origins of happiness as an involuntary state that emerges from luck or fortune. “Hap” is an old German word that means “chance”—think of the implications of other words that involve “hap,” like “hapless,” “perhaps,” or “happenstance.” This linguistic bias might prime us to think about happiness as passively received, lucky pleasure, rather than a product of intention and effort—a bias that’s embedded in the way the Million Woman researchers posed their question to participants, which can easily be read as “How often does happy happen to you?”
The emphasis on chance makes happiness seem rather random and arbitrary. But throughout recorded human history, thinkers have also rejected this way of thinking. According to Aristotle, for example, happiness is best expressed as a life lived with meaning and virtue—a conception that suggests true happiness might involve sacrifice or duty—and not always be a momentarily pleasurable or joyous affair. It also suggests that happiness is something you need to earn.
Recent scientific inquiry suggests that Aristotle may have had a point, as we more and more find that lifetime happiness is entwined with meaningful social connections and a sense of belonging. I recently heard Richard Davidson, Director of the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin, define the four pillars of well-being as: Optimism, Kindness, Resilience and Awareness. (OKRA, anyone? It’s supposed to be good for you.) He suggests that a lifetime of neuroplasticity enables us to deliberately cultivate and strengthen these characteristics within ourselves in order to be happier.
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Davidson’s pillars, you’ll notice, are broader characteristics of a person’s way-of-being in the world, not a measure of how often a person can recall feeling something they’d call happy. Responses might have looked different if the Million Women Study researchers had asked questions like: “I am satisfied with my life” with the option to select “1=Strongly disagree” to “7=Strongly agree,” or “Some people are generally very happy. They enjoy life regardless of what is going on, getting the most out of everything. To what extent does this characterization describe you?”—from “1= not at all” to “7=a great deal.”
These are, in fact, questions selected from Ed Deiner’s Satisfaction With Life Scale, and happiness expert Sonja Lyubomirsky’s Subjective Happiness Scale; both of these research-validated scales have been shown to predict longevity in populations from all over the world in various states of illness and health.
There’s another issue with the questions that Diener, Lyubomirsky, and Sarah D. Pressman highlighted yesterday in an op-ed for the LA Times:
The happiness question was the 306th item in a 316-item survey. After answering so many questions about medications, diet and health history, a respondent might be a lot less happy than when she started, and a lot less cooperative. In fact, about 400,000 women in the Million Women Study apparently quit before reaching this question.
This fact considerably weakens the authority of the study’s conclusions about happiness!