We hear it all the time. "Cheer up, seek fun, laugh heartily, and you’ll stay healthy and live long!" If you’re ill, spend a few days glued to the screen laughing at Seinfeld reruns. Feel a head cold coming on? Watch the exuberance of Glee and, so goes the common wisdom, you’ll have a speedier recovery. It's ever-present advice but it's mistaken. There’s no good scientific evidence for this sort of progression. Worse, this misconception draws attention away from the real relations among happiness, health, and long life. What does psychological science really say?
On the face of it, the idea that an Elizabeth Edwards or other brave person riddled with cancerous tumors could laugh away the disease—that they would get better if only they tried really hard to cheer up—is terribly implausible. Of course, someone will always offer up an anecdote of a miraculous recovery, and there are indeed rare cases of unexpected healing. But for every such miracle, millions of brave patients succumb. Was it because they did not laugh enough?
Could good cheer open clogged arteries, release insulin to a diabetic, or repair a diseased kidney? Not based on any scientific studies that I’ve ever read (and I’ve read thousands of studies). Well, how about helping us fight the common cold, which is self-limiting, and from which almost everyone soon recovers, whether they are watching Seinfeld, Glee, a vampire show or PBS NewsHour? OK, I’ll grant that perhaps a TV diet of Grey's Anatomy, House, and Private Practice might improve your medical astuteness. But that’s hardly a case of cheery self-healing.
The false idea that good cheer is the key to good health arises from the very common observation that happy people are often healthy people. This is undoubtedly true. It has been documented in many ways in many studies. Of course, it is also true that healthy people tend to be happy people, and that laughter can kick you out of a funk. So, is happiness causing good health or is good health causing happiness? Most of the time, neither is correct.
Because happiness is associated with good health, some scientists looked around for causal links in psychophysiology; that is, they searched for the hormones and blood cells that might account for this correlation. There in plain sight for happiness researchers were striking discoveries made by neuroscientists in the 1970’s and 1980’s, namely the findings that the immune system can be affected by hormones associated with emotions. In fact the hormones associated with stress and emotions are a key component of immune system responses. Voilà, a light bulb went on! Maybe good cheer revs up the immune system and knocks out those nasty cancer cells and cholesterol clots.
There’s only one problem. I hate to be the one to switch off the voilà light bulb, but the evidence is slim to nonexistent that people who cheer themselves up will boost their immunity, beat back their cancers and atherosclerosis, and thereby live long healthy lives. It’s true that pieces of this process have documented in rats and occasionally in monkeys, but I always wonder how one measures the happiness of rats! And anyway, rats do not watch Seinfeld and even monkeys do not watch Glee.
So why are happy people healthy if their happiness is not affecting their health? I and my research collaborators have been looking at this issue for the past twenty years, as part of a detailed scientific study we call The Longevity Project. Following over 1,500 Americans across many decades, we have found that often the same behaviors, personalities, friendships, and careers that make you happy are the ones that help you stay healthy.
Happiness did not emerge as the cause of good health and long life. Instead, happiness and health were both results of certain patterns of living. We found that there are many things that you can do to simultaneously promote your happiness and your health (perhaps joining a glee club?), but laughing at your TV screen is definitely not one of them. Just as the amount of news that happens in the world every day always exactly fits the newspaper, it is also true that the links between happiness and health are not what they first seem.
Because The Longevity Project is the first and only scientific study to follow a large number of Americans intensively for their whole lives, from childhood through death, we can do a step by step analysis, to see what leads to what. (The book has lots of examples of this, including self-quizzes for readers to chart their own paths.) So it is much more than correlation. It uncovers guideposts to a healthier and more fulfilling life. It matters (a lot!), because the findings reveal what we can do to increase our chances (and those of our family members) for health and fulfillment.
Our striking findings in The Longevity Project upend the common advice from the lands of laugh therapy, self-esteem clinics, and indulgent parents. In fact, sometimes worrying turned out to be a very good thing. Many of the boys, girls, men and women we studied for so many years were happy and healthy because of the meaningful lives they led—that is, lives full of dedicated work, genuine friends, and dependable lifestyles. Laughter from the joys of accomplishment and involvement turned out to be an indicator of thriving, but watching the funniest TV shows all evening while you sit alone and eat is definitely not the ticket to health. "Cheer up and live long" is a dead-end myth. Why is this so important? Because there are much more valid and productive things we can do to increase the chances of a happy and healthy life.
Copyright © 2011 Howard S. Friedman, all rights reserved. For more information on The Longevity Project see http://www.howardsfriedman.com/longevityproject/
There is also a Facebook page for discussion of The Longevity Project.
Photo credit: Actor Matthew Morrison at premiere party of TV series Glee, Santa Monica, California. Source=[http://www.flickr.com/photos/watchwithkristin/3524038047/ Matthew Morrison