happiness and unhappiness
Mental & Emotional Health

Happiness and Unhappiness Have No Direct Effect on Mortality

As we head into the holidays and the new year, many people find themselves feeling less than merry because of life events or loneliness. The good news, however, is that being unhappy is not a threat to health and longevity. A study of 700 000 women with an average age of 59, published on December 9th 2015 in The Lancet, showed that happiness has no direct effect on mortality, and that the widespread but mistaken belief that unhappiness and stress directly cause ill health came from studies that had simply confused cause and effect.

A release from the publisher notes that life-threatening poor health can cause unhappiness, and for this reason unhappiness is associated with increased mortality. In addition, smokers tend to be unhappier than non-smokers. However, after taking account of previous ill health, smoking, and other lifestyle and socio-economic factors, the investigators found that unhappiness itself was no longer associated with increased mortality.

The release quotes lead author, Dr Bette Liu, now at the University of New South Wales, Australia, as saying, “Illness makes you unhappy, but unhappiness itself doesn’t make you ill. We found no direct effect of unhappiness or stress on mortality, even in a ten-year study of a million women.”

The investigation was conducted within the UK Million Women Study. Three years after joining the study, women were sent a questionnaire asking them to self-rate their health, happiness, stress, feelings of control, and whether they felt relaxed. Five out of six of the women said they were generally happy, but one in six said they were generally unhappy. The women were followed for ten years by electronic record linkage for mortality, during which time 30 000 of the 700,000 women died.

As in other studies, unhappiness was associated with deprivation, smoking, lack of exercise, and not living with a partner. The strongest associations, however, were that the women who were already in poor health tended to say that they were unhappy, stressed, not in control, and not relaxed.

After allowing for any differences already present in health and lifestyle, the overall death rate among those who were unhappy was the same as the death rate among those who were generally happy. The study is so large that it rules out unhappiness being a direct cause of any material increase in overall mortality, in women.

This was true for overall mortality, for cancer mortality, and for heart disease mortality, and it was true for stress as well as for unhappiness.

Co-author Professor Sir Richard Peto, of the University of Oxford, Oxford, UK said, “Many still believe that stress or unhappiness can directly cause disease, but they are simply confusing cause and effect. Of course people who are ill tend to be unhappier than those who are well, but the UK Million Women Study shows that happiness and unhappiness do not themselves have any direct effect on death rates.”


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