My colleagues and I have enthusiastically argued that unadulterated happiness and avoiding stressful challenge is NOT the royal road to good health and long life. So many gurus say take it easy, avoid stress, shun work, don't worry, and retire early, but the evidence for such advice has always been faulty. Now, a million women have proved our point.
The Million Women Study is a long-term study of women in Britain, started about 20 years ago. Upon entering the study, these middle-aged women filled out questionnaires asking about their happiness, their stress, their feelings of control, and so on. Many felt happy and relaxed, but many did not. (Women who already had heart disease, stroke, chronic obstructive lung disease, or cancer were excluded.) Then the researchers did something simple but powerful. They followed the women for more than a dozen years. The results were just reported in the prestigious medical journal, The Lancet (December 2015).
This excellent study did something that most weaker, flawed studies on happiness and health do not do: they looked to see which women died. Studying who lives and who dies is much superior to asking people how healthy they feel. Many flawed studies simply wind up showing that people who say they are stressed or unhappy also say that they do not feel well. It is well known that neurotic or depressed or hassled people complain more and have more aches and pains, but that does not mean that unhappiness causes poor health. The real test is to see if these hassled people are especially likely to develop heart disease and cancer, and to die prematurely. The verdict from the Million Women: They do not.
This finding confirms, in a huge sample, what we have been finding in The Longevity Project and our related work. In The Longevity Project, a 9-decade study of over 1500 men and women who have been tracked since they were children in the 1920s, we have discovered core pathways to health, happiness, and a long life. Taking it easy, avoiding worry, and having a boring low-stress career were not the answer. Rather, those who thrived were the conscientious, dependable sort, with good friends, meaningful work and a responsible marriage or close relationship. The thoughtful planning and perseverance that such people invest in their lives and careers promote thriving, even when challenges arise. These healthy pathways brought health and happiness and long life. Happiness itself was not causing long life.
Why did the researchers of this new, just-published study spend so much time and money (on hundreds of thousands of women) studying happiness and relaxation and health? Because too many gurus proclaim and too many people believe something that is folklore, not fact. In other words, this is all so important because it bears on what we should do to maximize our chances for good health.
In a previous column, I laid out the magic seven. These are the core elements that contribute to a healthy, happy, long life: The first is most important because it helps with the others—develop good social ties with a healthy community. The second is to stay physically active in whatever way works for you. Anything that does not involve lots of sitting! No, you do not have to do yoga or run marathons if those things bore or bother you. Third, of course, forget tobacco and substance abuse. Fourth, be responsibly prudent, with the things that your mother and your teacher and your nurse advised—from wearing seatbelts, to protecting against sexually transmitted diseases, and keeping medical visits. Fifth, avoid obesity—eat proper amounts of nutritious food. You know what is possible for you. Sixth, have a best friend or two. And seventh, have something worthwhile or meaningful that you do in your life, even if it brings new challenges.
That's it. Although not necessarily easy to accomplish, those are the keys. Everything else follows. Sometimes you just have bad luck, that's true. But most of the time, thriving need not be complicated and unbearably burdensome. If you are a responsible worrier, or like hard work, are moving up in your career, and sometimes feel stressed, it will not kill you. This analysis does not mean that suffering in miserable marriages or exploitative jobs or trauma-induced sleepless nights are good for you; quite the contrary. But there are now a million reasons (719,671 to be exact) to believe that a sense of well-being and blissful relaxation is not the secret to longevity.
If you are interested, The Longevity Project, which explains the long-term pathways to thriving, was published in paperback edition by Plume and is also available on Kindle and Nook. The book also contains self-assessment quizzes to help you figure your current trajectory.