Reports in the press have suggested that being unhappy raises your risk of an early death, and is particularly bad for the heart. A feature on the subject in The Atlantic, for example, was headlined ‘The Poison of Unhappiness’.
However, a new study suggests that being miserable or stressed has no effect on your risk of dying. The UK’s Million Women Study finds that previous studies had confused cause and effect. The researchers say that earlier analysis failed to take into account ‘reverse causality’ and the fact that people who are already ill tend to report lower levels of happiness.
The ten-year analysis, which was published in this week’s Lancet, does find that unhappiness in childhood can have a lasting impact on health.
Participants in the study were regularly assessed to check their health, happiness and stress levels.
The study of British women began in 2001, and asked women to rate their health, happiness, stress, feelings of control, and whether they felt relaxed. The researchers made a mortality rating score based on the results of the study, and found that when they compared mortality in women who reported being unhappy (ie, happy sometimes, rarely, or never) with those who reported being happy most of the time, there was no difference.
The researchers found that the odds of dying during the duration of the study remained exactly the same, regardless of reported happiness, once overall health was taken into account.
Of 719,671 women with an average age of 59, 39 per cent reported being happy most of the time, 44 per cent said they were usually happy and 17 per cent said they were unhappy. During the ten-year study, four per cent of participants had died. The researchers note that self-rated poor health was strongly associated with unhappiness.
But after adjustment for self-rated health, and the presence of conditions such as hypertension, diabetes, asthma, arthritis and depression, the researchers found that unhappiness was not associated with mortality.
The study found that regular smokers are three times more likely to die during the study period, but that happiness is ‘irrelevant’.