It may sound simplistic, but research has indeed shown that happiness does increase longevity! The field of antiaging, or life extension, has in recent years moved into the realm of mind-body medicine, in order to find interventions more accessible than often expensive supplements and to improve quality of life to the best of our abilities. As leaving no stone unturned is essential, a new study has aimed to find out what effect happiness may have on lifespan.
What Does the Research Say?
In this study, 4,478 Singaporean adults aged 60 years and over were tracked for six years to measure mortality rates. Happiness was measured in 2009 using three items from the Centre for Epidemiological Studies Depression Scale, in both binary (score of 6/6 = “happy”) and continuous ways (a happiness score of 0-6). By the end of 2015, 20% of the “unhappy” participants had died, compared to 15% of those categorised as “happy”. Each one-unit increase in happiness scores was linked with a 9% lower risk of dying over the six-year period, and risk was 19% lower for happy participants compared to unhappy ones. These results remained constant whether they were male or female, aged 60-75 or were over 75. However, it must be remembered that Singapore is a wealthy (but expensive!) nation, with a life expectancy of 82.9 as of 2016.
A study from the USA paints a similar picture. Compared to those who rate themselves as “very happy”, people who described themselves as pretty or rarely happy had a 7% and 21% higher risk of death, respectively. Controlling for marital status, socioeconomic status, geographical area and religious attendance had only small effects on mortality reduction rates, with the socioeconomic variables (education, employment and income) having the largest effect.
What is Happiness?
The reason why I previously described studying happiness as seemingly simplistic is that it can be hard to pin down. There are countless works from literature to internet memes aimed at telling people what they must do to be happy. Do we have to fit each and every checklist, or be doomed to misery? No! Everyone is different. For example, many think we must accept the world as it is, problems and all, in order to be happy, while I and others cannot bring ourselves to do so and need opportunities to make a difference. Some people love raising families and the domestic life, I prioritise my personal freedom – including freedom to travel! – and career.
Martin Seligman is a pioneer of Positive Psychology, which he developed by using the scientific method after realising that traditional psychology only focused on alleviating the negatives, not enhancing the positives. With exhaustive questionnaires, he found that happy people were most likely to be those who discovered and use their own unique combination of “signature strengths”. He states that there are three dimensions of happiness that must be cultivated: The Pleasant Life, The Good Life, and The Meaningful Life. The Pleasant Life is all about experiencing fun and pleasure; The Good Life is about discovering our own strengths and using them to enhance our lives; The Meaningful Life is about using these gifts for a purpose greater than ourselves. Seligman’s theory shows that we can indeed reconcile the two domains of individualism and altruism; we don’t have to choose just one, instead we must balance them.
Another model which supports our individual natures is Self-Determination Theory (SDT), which I studied in the first year of my degree, and was more popular than the other psychological theories we covered. All human beings have three basic psychological needs: autonomy, competency, and relatedness. Autonomy means being the master of your life and destiny; competency concerns our skills, knowledge and achievements; and relatedness means strong connections with others. SDT also differentiates between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, which respectively mean motivation by internal drives (e.g. personal values) and motivation by rewards (e.g. money or approval). However, you can be autonomously motivated by both intrinsic and extrinsic factors, if the extrinsic rewards are aligned with your sense of self. For example, I value my independence and therefore want to earn my own money, and would prefer to be well-known rather than obscure in order to help others. Motivation is also described as a six-point continuum, where, between no motivation and internal motivation, there are four levels of external motivations with increasing degrees of autonomy.
In conclusion, happiness is essential for our health and longevity, but you won’t achieve it by fulfilling someone else’s checklist of what you must do and think. You have to look at your own gifts and values, and take your life into your own hands. Self-mastery, which I will soon help teach as a Diamond Matrix Masters coach, is the starting point of everything.
Bonus: Room to Read’s Global Book Collection includes an adorable take on happiness, brought to us from Jordan.