Researchers who study longevity predict that the first person to live to be 150 years old is already born. Though we don’t know who that person is, we can make an important prediction about what that person is like — he or she is probably happy.
Current research points to a noteworthy conclusion: People who are happier live longer.
The evidence to support this conclusion comes from many studies using a wide range of methods. A review of 160 studies by Diener and Chan (2011) suggests that happiness adds about seven to eight years to our lives. And these aren’t just any additional years; these are additional years marked by good health and high subjective well-being.
Let’s examine just four of the hundreds of studies that lead researchers to conclude that happiness results in longer lives.
1) Brummett, Helms, Dahlstrom and Siegler (2006) assessed almost 5,000 people over a 40-year span. At the beginning of the study, all the people were university students. The results showed that those students who were least happy (that is, most pessimistic) tended to die sooner than their more optimistic peers.
2) In a study of 180 Catholic nuns, Danner, Snowdon and Friesen (2001) evaluated the autobiographies written by the nuns when they were in their early 20s. Nuns who described more positive emotions in their autobiographies tended to live longer than nuns who described more negative emotions.
3) Abel and Kruger (2009) found a surprising relationship between baseball cards and smile width. They examined the smiles of baseball players from the 1950s and separated them into three groups: no smiles, slight smiles and big smiles. They found that the span of the players’ smiles predicted the players’ life span. Players who did not show a smile in their photo lived an average of 72.9 years, those with a slight smile lived an average of 75 years, and those with a big smile lived an average of 79.9 years.
4) In a study of almost 7,000 young adults, those with higher levels of life satisfaction and positive emotions were less likely to die from natural causes and unnatural ones like suicide, drug dependency and alcohol-related diseases (Xu, 2005). These results were apparent even after controlling for demographic variables, initial health and obesity, and health practices.
The findings of these four studies, and many others, point to a remarkable conclusion: Indications of happiness when we are young (for example, optimism, positive emotions, smiles and life satisfaction) can predict our survival decades later.
The research does not show that happiness has any sort of reparative function. For example, there is no convincing evidence that happiness can cure existing challenges such as arthritis, cancer or cardiovascular problems. But the research does suggest that happiness may have a preventative function.
Both reduced mortality (Chida & Steptoe, 2008) and exceptional longevity (Liu et al., 2014) are linked to our own assessment of our happiness and life satisfaction.
So how can you live longer? Increase your well-being including your happiness and life satisfaction. How do you do this? Well as a start, check out “The Happiness Doctor” — a series I created of videos to help you understand and increase your happiness. Please click on this link.
Diener, E., and Chan, M. Y. (2011). Happy people life longer: Subjective well-being contributes to health and longevity. Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being, 3, 1-43.