There are lots of good reasons to pursue happiness, but living longer is not one of them.
A study of a million UK women has found that happiness has no effect on mortality, and nor does unhappiness kill you.
Health and happiness in Australia
The annual HILDA study, released in July, surveyed nearly 20,000 Australians to find the secrets to happiness, good health and optimal wellbeing.
The findings are a poke in the eye to the positive psychology movement, which draws upon previous research that has found happy people live longer.
But lead author Bette Liu said those studies had confused cause and effect.
People in poor health were more likely to be unhappy, but it was the illness and not the unhappiness that was hastening death.
Her study, which was conducted within Oxford University’s Million Women Study and is published in The Lancet, used a questionnaire to divide the subjects into those who were generally happy and those who were unhappy.
Those who had a pre-existing life-threatening illness were removed from the study.
“We then compared the death rates in people who were happy and people who were less happy, and found that once you accounted for people’s poor health, being happy didn’t make any difference,” said Associate Professor Liu, an epidemiologist at UNSW.
“It’s not that being happy doesn’t matter. Everyone wants that.
“But it basically kills this basic belief that if you’re happier you’re going to live longer. That’s just not true.”
Apart from good health, happy people were more likely to be older, not smoke, have fewer educational qualifications, do strenuous exercise, live with a partner, do religious or group activities and sleep for eight hours a night.
These factors were consistent with other studies.
Ed Diener, an American psychologist who has been dubbed “Mr Happiness” for his contribution to positive psychology, has found that happy people are likely to live longer, but did not account for ill health in his study.
In his latest book, Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth, he posits that happiness should be the means to a meaningful existence, rather than a goal in its own right.
Associate Professor Liu’s research indicates that happiness is a worthwhile individual pursuit, but should not be a public health priority.
“It’s important that we’re trying to focus on things that we know improves people’s health, like stopping smoking,” Associate Professor Liu said.
“Then people are going to be healthier and they’re probably going to be happier as well.”