Live Long and… Be Happy?

I was reading Ginger Sister’s great post about looking at yourself (and life) with a great attitude and it made me think of an update that I saw yesterday about a meta-analysis of over 160 different studies (many decades-long) that examined the correlation between a person’s outlook and long-term outcomes that was recently published in the journal Applied Psychology.


It may or may not surprise you that there is a fairly significant correlation that suggests that happier people live healthier, longer lives.  And this doesn’t just apply to people that are happy when their older.  For example, one study that followed ~5,000 college students for more than four decades found that those that were most pessimistic as students tended to die younger than their more optimistic peers. An even longer-term study that followed 180 nuns from early adulthood to old age found that those who wrote positive autobiographies in their early 20s tended to outlive those who wrote more negative ones. The data is supportive of the outcome across cultural, racial and socioeconomic backgrounds.

Philosophical or Biological Truth?

As someone that’s worked in the drug discovery business for a while, I’ve always preferred objective data (that is, things I can measure… e.g. glucose, testosterone, serotonin, etc.) over subjective analyses (“On a scale of 1-10, how do you feel” type questions), but it’s interesting to consider how our lifelong outlook might affect our lifelong outcome. Certainly, one of the most interesting things going on biology currently is the unraveling of the neurological and biochemical mechanisms that connect “subjective” conditions such as mood and anxiety to more “objective” ones like obesity and fertility.

That easy?

Of course, the data raises the interesting question of whether how we feel about life – optimistic or pessimistic – is something that we can control, or is it dictated by the neurochemistry of our brains?  Can we choose to be happy any more than we can choose to have blue eyes?

I’d like to think so, but maybe that’s just because I’m a glass-half-full sort of guy.

22 thoughts on “Live Long and… Be Happy?

  1. Interesting post Steve. I’m not sure on the choice part although I do think that people can learn strategies for enhancing their ability to think about that glass half full. I know I have read about how some studies (don’t have a reference at hand) have found that people may have a “happiness set point” that they return to regardless of the good or bad that befalls their lives.

    • I think like most other things, our “setpoints” might be dictated by genetic and neurochemical “base” levels — but I do think just like people with high familial cholesterol, there are still things you can do to push yourself in one direction or the other.

  2. I remember back when Prozac first came out, and Time Magazine declared that psychoanalysis and unhappiness in general were now passe: we could just take a pill, and we’d be happier, calmer, more energetic, etc. That was about 20 years ago, but surprise! Human beings appear to be just as miserable and even more in need of a therapist (if your health insurance will pay for it, lol). I think it proves that just because you alter your brain chemistry, it does not mean you are going to be happier in the long run. So much depends on your upbringing and social patterns that your family established, the sort of choices you made as a young adult and as you aged, and sometimes just fool luck. I’ve met people who had horrific childhoods but who emerged as happy, productive adults. I also know people who had every advantage available to a human being, but still blew it. (Charlie Sheen much?)

    I’d conclude, based on my own experience, that one’s happiness is based a lot on how well a person matures and adapts to life’s difficulties. The more rigid one is, or unforgiving or resentful, the harder it is to be happy.

    • Genetics. Family. Choices. Luck. That may well indeed cover it.

      Even though I work in the drug industry, it would be real hard for me to go on a psychoactive drug. To me that seems like trying to re-arranging your china cabinet with your eyes closed.

  3. I have anxiety and my brother has depression–our childhoods weren’t optimal (he often says, “Nobody can understand how shitty our childhoods were…well, and yours was shitty *and* fucked up.”).

    Nonetheless, I’ve always spun my wheels, trying to make others better (it took me to my mid 30s to realize you can only fix yourself, oops!), make myself better and go from one thing to another. People say, “You’re brave! Where do you get these ideas?” I say I’m too stoopid to “know better” and as for hopping from project to project…well, isn’t that the anxiety?

    Seriously: whatever is your downside can also be your upside. Right?

    I’ve got the immune deficiency and don’t have handicapped tags like people “better off” than I am. I may need them one day but that ain’t today! I don’t get the “settling” for something.

    Then again, I had somebody in my support group last night ask me WHY I have anything to do with my family…My answer is, “Guess cos I’m crazy, too.” I don’t know…

    It seems to me running away from things that are hard doesn’t “fix” them, either. I should just settle for disability insurance and sit at home hating what happened in my life? That would be boring! There’s so many things to do and see and learn…

    • I agree — I think “settling” into a crappy life and becoming depressed by it is an awful outcome. And it seems that people that end up there are abdicating the responsibility for their own lives — but that may be b/c I’ve never had to tolerate anything like that.

  4. It is an interesting concept to think about always. I’m of the fake it til you make it philosophy. A long time ago I was hating my job. So each time my boss asked me to do one more ridiculous thing, I said, “I’d be happy to do that” After about 1-2 weeks, I found myself smiling more and enjoying the same icky job more just by saying that.

    There was a study recently that said a positive attitude did not help with disease recovery….I totally disagree with this. While being cheerful will not cure anyone…it does make you more pleasant to be around, thus garnering you more help and assistance…etc.
    Have a super great day!

    • Miz — I do think that we can get ourselves into mindsets of being unhappy and complaining, or conversely into one of of tolerance and optimism — that’s actually why I like that top cartoon so much.

  5. I do think happiness is a choice. One I try to make every day. But I also have an entire mental health team backing me up on that. Maybe I’m just hedging my bets? ;-)

  6. I’ll be the lone pessimist in your comments. ;) No, I’m kidding. I generally try to keep a positive outlook on things, but sometimes I think (especially in America) we are expected to be happy all the time and don’t make allowances for when we’re not. Barbara Ehrenreich wrote a book about this and talks about her experiences when she was diagnosed with cancer. I agree with her that you should be allowed to be unhappy when something terrible happens. It doesn’t mean that you aren’t going to try your best to get better or change your circumstances, but why do we have to be cheery and pretend we’re happy when we’re not? How about, “I am really unhappy right now, and I need your support” rather than smiling and acting like nothing is wrong. It just seems like pretending to be happy and then not actually being happy is a recipe for isolation and suicidal tendencies (in the extreme case of course).

    • BF — I completely agree that people need time to be sad, or angry and let themselves experience negative emotions. I think that bottling those feelings up and denying them is truly dangerous. I think what this is pointing to is someone’s general outlook doing “normal” times — is it optimistic or pessimistic?

      • Yes, I definitely agree that it is better to have a generally optimistic outlook in life. I work with a few people who are very pessimistic, and it seems like a very difficult way to live and alienates everyone you encounter.

  7. As a person managing bipolar disorder, and recently weaning off all medications, my experience is that we can overcome our neurochemistry. It takes dedicated, hard work, but those of you who are scientists may have an upper hand. What’s required is observation. We have to develop the ability to observe our own thoughts and emotions from a non-judgmental, objective stance. Once we can do that, we can feel sad or angry without *being* those emotional states. There’s still a part of us that watches, identifies skewed thinking, proposes alternatives.

    Aside from being a Cognitive Behavioral Therapy strategy, developing the Observer is also part of every spiritual tradition that emphasizes consciousness. Which poses all sorts of interesting questions.

    • Sandy Sue — again, an interesting perspective. In some ways, detachment and observation is really important — I think the hard thing is that when you’re “in” an emotion, whether happy or angry or whatever, that’s probably the hardest time to be objective.

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