We tend to think that being happy keeps us healthy, and, if we get sick, that the path to getting better lies in our ability to think positively. But now a major new study from the U.K. overturns these tropes, demolishing the mood-health link. We may become unhappy because we get sick. But, according to the research, we don’t become sick because we’re unhappy.
The conclusion is based on the U.K. Million Women Study, which followed 700,000 women for ten years, starting in 1996. Researchers tracked the women’s health from hospital admission data, death records, and questionnaires that asked if they felt “in control,” “relaxed,” or “not unduly stressed,” and whether they suffered from conditions like asthma, arthritis, or high blood pressure. When scientists allowed for existing health and lifestyle differences (e.g. if people smoked), there was no difference in mortality rates if people were happy or not happy.
“Many still believe that stress or unhappiness can directly cause disease, but they are simply confusing cause and effect,” says co-author Sir Richard Peto, a professor of the University of Oxford, in a press release. “Of course people who are ill tend to be unhappier than those who are well, but the [study] shows that happiness and unhappiness do not themselves have any direct effect on death rates.”
The research is thought to be the largest and more statistically meaningful of its kind. But it focuses only on women, and things could be different with men. “The happiness–mortality association seems to be, to some extent, sex-specific, with higher positive effects reported in men than in women,” says a commentary in The Lancet, the journal that published the findings. We don’t know if unhappy men are more likely to get sick than women, though it’s possible.
Of course, as well as being a possible cause of ill-health, happiness is also a goal in itself. It’s not something we want just because it might keep us healthy. However, as Peto told the New York Times, the research is “good news for the grumpy.” From now on, us grumps can feel just as happy as we want to feel and not feel compelled to be positive for health reasons.