Does Being "Happy" Contribute to a Longer Lifespan?

New research looks at a possible link between "happiness" and your longevity.

Posted Dec 20, 2018

Now here’s some news about a positive side of your growing older, in contrast to thinking of aging as just inevitable decline and coping with "loss" – as our culture tends to portray it.  A new study finds that increasing your happiness as you age is directly related to a longer life.  However, it's not so simple, as I explain below: the research contains a glaring omission.

But first, let's look at the research. It was based on 4,478 participants in a nationally representative survey in Singapore that examined the association between happiness and the subsequent likelihood of dying – due to any cause – between 2009 and 2015.

As described in this summary from Duke Medical School, the researchers found that among happy older people, 15% died prior to the end of 2015. But it was 20% among unhappy older people. Every increase of one point on the happiness score lowered the chance of dying due to any cause among participants by an additional nine percent. The likelihood of dying due to any cause was 19 percent lower for happy older people. This inverse association of happiness with the prospect of dying was consistently present among men and women, among the young-old (aged 60-79 years), and the old-old (aged 75 years or older). 

“The findings indicate that even small increments in happiness may be beneficial to older people’s longevity,” explained explained senior author Rahul Malhotra. “Therefore individual-level activities as well as government policies and programs that maintain or improve happiness or psychological well-being may contribute to a longer life among older people.”  June May-Ling Lee, a co-author, added that the consistency of the data about the association of happiness with mortality across age groups and gender shows that all men and women – the young-old and the old-old – all are likely to benefit from an increase in happiness. 

And those statements highlight the problem contained in the research: What defines "happiness" during the course of your life, and how is it shaped by cultural and social norms? Is it acquiring "things" in your external life – money, possessions, status, power over others? Is it growing your inner life capacities – for love, generosity, empathy, letting go of impermanent attachments?  In my view, a healthy personality – and subsequent "happiness" at any age – grows from cultivating inner life well-being, not from intoxication with external "achievements," which are impermanent and fade or dissolve over time.  The challenges for individuals and societies are to embrace what activates happiness in today’s world – and then promote it through public policies that enhance rather than undermine it.

The research was focused on individuals 60 years and older living in Singapore. It was conducted by Duke-NUS Medical School and published in the journal Age and Ageing,  It was notable in that it differed from previous studies that had linked happiness or positive emotions with a range of better health outcomes. However, In those studies the evidence on the effect of happiness on living longer was not conclusive. Nor did they account for key differences in demographic, lifestyle and health factors between those less and more happy.