When you think about the features of your life that make you happy, you’re likely to count off such factors as how well your relationships are going, whether you have enough money to pay your bills, how you feel about your work, and whether you’re having a good day so far. How often, in this listing of contributors to your happiness, do you include how healthy you’re feeling? From the opposite perspective, if you’ve got a headache, a cold, or a sore toe, you’re probably not feeling all that happy. However, as soon as you’re better, you forget how much your body’s status affected that of your mind’s. What if your happiness was affected more by your overall health than you realize?
According to Southern Methodist University psychologist Nathan Hudson and colleagues (2019), there is plenty of evidence to suggest that people’s overall sense of life satisfaction and typical levels of happiness are linked to physical health. Going back to Hippocrates, the authors note, the perplexing question of whether health promotes happiness or vice versa remains a matter of scientific debate.
Even if you haven’t thought much about how your health relates to your overall well-being, researchers have tackled this relationship from a variety of perspectives. Some findings suggest that people who are healthier just feel better about life; others that some third factor such as personality or genetics causes health and happiness to be related; and still others suggest that people who are happier are healthier because they take better care of themselves.
This third possibility, which the authors note as being somewhat controversial, would be due to the tendency for happier people to sleep better, socialize more, consume healthier diets, and engage in more exercise. Their higher happiness would also relate to lower levels of worry and pressure, reducing levels of the stress hormone cortisol, known to interfere with immune functioning and even the workings of the cardiovascular system. As sensible as this suggestion might seem, Nelson et al. note that the jury is still out on empirical findings that would offer support.
Adding more complexity to the equation, Hudson et al. note that there’s a difference between feeling generally high in well-being in an abstract sense and feeling happy right now, in the moment. Even if you tend to have a pretty strong streak of optimism and feel your life is going in the right direction, some little annoyance could bring you temporarily down. If a researcher asked you to rate your immediate happiness on a 1-7 scale, it might be a "5" instead of the usual "7" you tend to feel. This complication means that “it is possible for an individual to experience predominantly negative emotions in vivo yet nevertheless globally appraise his or her life positively (e.g., performing demanding albeit meaningful work)." A fleeting sense of unhappiness doesn't mean that you've got a chronic case of the blahs.
Because global and experiential levels of happiness tap into different features of well-being, the authors proposed that clarity on the health-happiness relationship could be achieved by measuring both. Furthermore, to get out of the correlation-causation trap, Nelson et al. used a longitudinal design to try to trace the direction of this relationship over time. In this way, if health at Time 1 predicts happiness at Time 2 more than happiness at Time 1 predicts health at Time 2, the results would support the idea that better health does lead to higher levels of happiness.
Taking this approach, the research team analyzed three years of data from the German Socioeconomic Panel (GSOEP) across the years 2012-2015, following 1,952 participants ranging in age from 17 to 95 (with a mean age of 52) at the first time of testing. At each measurement occasion, participants rated three episodes from their day, such as commuting, preparing food, or watching TV, according to the emotions of happy, angry, enthusiastic, satisfied, frustrated, sad, worried, and stressed.
From these ratings, the authors computed a “daily happiness” composite for each participant which was the average of positive emotions relative to negative emotions during those three episodes. At the same time, participants rated how often they experienced happiness, anger, sadness and worry over the previous four weeks. They also provided a general rating of their overall life satisfaction. To assess health, the authors used data on self-ratings of health but also obtained objective information that included number of visits to the doctor, hospitalizations, sick days, and typical number of hours slept.
The findings showed that, despite the elegance of the study's design, it was impossible to separate the dynamic interplay between happiness and health. As the authors concluded, “when people felt healthier, were more satisfied with their health, or were sleeping more, they also reported experiencing higher well-being, universally across all measures." Furthermore, both experiential and global happiness measures were related to objective and subjective measures of health, with global happiness ratings slightly outweighing the effects daily fluctuations in mood.
From a theoretical point of view, these suggest why the health-happiness link remains a puzzle that may never be solved. From a practical point of view, though, the findings translate into some steps you can take to stay both happy and healthy. If you’re feeling stressed or angry, take stock of whether you’ve been sleeping enough or whether that sore toe hurts every time you take a step. Try making the internal connection between these components of your satisfaction and the problems you’re experiencing with your physical well-being.
By the same token, the findings suggest that keeping yourself healthy by taking time to exercise could help reduce the negative emotions associated with having to take a sick day or worse, having to go the hospital. Furthermore, you can remind yourself that even though you're not in the best mood at the moment, if you're working toward long-term goals, some immediate discomfort shouldn't prevent you from achieving overall happiness.
To sum up, think about the health and happiness relationship as one that perpetuates itself over time. Your overall feelings of fulfillment can come from many sources, but as the Nelson et al. study shows, health may be one of the most important.
Hudson, N. W., Lucas, R. E., & Donnellan, M. B. (2019). Healthier and happier? A 3-year longitudinal investigation of the prospective associations and concurrent changes in health and experiential well-being. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 45(12), 1635–1650. doi:10.1177/0146167219838547.