Tough question, isn’t it? But maybe…you don’t need to choose between the two. Maybe health and happiness are so intertwined that improving one means improving the other?
In fact, there’s a lot of new research demonstrating a connection between health and happiness. Studies are finding that happiness is associated with living longer, and a reduction in all-cause mortality. Happy people seem to have healthier hearts. They recover more quickly from surgery, are less likely to have a stroke , have a higher pain tolerance, lower blood pressure, and an immune system that more effectively fights off colds and the flu.
But which comes first? Is this a chicken and egg situation? Does being healthy make you a happier person? Or does being happy actually improve your health? Or maybe…it’s that our level of happiness influences our health behaviors. If we’re miserable, are we more likely to smoke, blow off our workouts, gobble Doritos by the family-size bagful?
Yet another theory concerns the trait of optimism. The idea here: positive, optimistic people tend to engage in healthier behaviors, because they believe they can influence thier own lives, that their own choices can actually make a difference (as contrasted by the more pessimistic point of view of Why bother?).
One of the landmark studies connecting happiness and longevity was a study of Catholic nuns. It showed that nuns who exhibited more positive characteristics in their early 20s (as demonstrated by positive emotional content in their handwritten autobiographies from the time) tended to live longer. The interesting thing about studying nuns is that so many of the lifestyle variables are already controlled. 90% of the happiest quarter of nuns was alive at the age of eighty-five, and only 34% of the least cheerful quarter lived to 85.
There’s a lot more research along these lines, and more being done all the time. Definitely, there’s an intimate connection between happiness and health. Although the issue of which causes which is not exactly resolved. Personally, I suspect it’s a little of column A, a little of column B. I think health and happiness are so interlinked it might be impossible to separate them out.
I also think it’s interesting to note that happiness is in your head. If you think you’re happy, you are. And you get to reap the benefits. I know this sounds like a one-hand clapping koan. But studies have shown that positive self-perceptions of aging lead to longer life. Self-fulfilling prophecy, no?
So, in the meantime…are there things you can do to improve your level of happiness?