Brad Sinkaus


Alan O’Rourke, Flickr

With the start of the New Year, many people adopted resolutions such as eating healthier, working out regularly, and managing stress. At the heart of these positive changes is a desire to be happier and healthier – there’s a reason people often wish others “a happy and healthy New Year.” As it turns out, there is growing evidence that happiness is linked to more aspects of individual and public health than previously thought.  Here are a few notable studies that are building the evidence behind the relationship between happiness and health:

  • This year, the Canadian Medical Association Journal published a study that concluded the “enjoyment of life is relevant to the future disability and mobility of older people.” The researchers examined thousands of people over eight years to reach their findings.
  • In a study released in 2011, lead author and University of Illinois professor Ed Diener concluded that “your subjective well-being – that is, feeling positive about your life, not stressed out, not depressed – contributes to both longevity and better health among healthy populations.”
  • Research conducted in 2007 found that emotional vitality, optimism, and support from family and friends can reduce the risk of heart disease, depression, diabetes, and stroke. To reach these conclusions, Harvard School of Public Health professor Laura Kubzansky examined as many as 6,000 people with ages ranging from 25 to 74 years old over a period of 20 years, and leveraged data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, the Veterans Administration Normative Aging Study, and the National Collaborative Perinatal Project.

The recent influx of research on health and happiness has also begun a discussion on the value of measuring national happiness in the form of a “gross national happiness” index, as a more representative alternative to gross domestic product. A national happiness scale could help target and improve ineffective policies while bolstering national well-being.

Some countries have adopted measures of well-being as an alternative to GDP, such as the UK’s National Well-Being Index and Canada’s Index of Wellbeing. Similar guidelines were also issued last year by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, which could help other countries implement additional measures. These indexes examine a wide range of categories, such as personal well-being, relationships, governance, and health, in order to “go beyond GDP” and present a more complete picture of national well-being.

However, these measures have drawn some criticism, due to the subjectivity of happiness and the investment involved. While adopting a similar index could be controversial in the U.S., a national well-being policy could provide insight into the role happiness plays in affecting the health, aging, and overall quality of life of U.S. citizens.

While not all researchers and policymakers agree that measuring national happiness is a worthwhile investment, experts do agree that more research is needed to determine the exact relationship between psychological and public health and how understanding this relationship could improve policymaking. As Harvard School of Public Health professor Jack P. Shonkoff stated, “Imagine if we could enact a policy that would reduce heart disease by just 1 percent. How many billions of dollars and how many lives would that save?”