Sunday, April 3, 2011

good mood = good health?

“Anxiety in a man's heart weighs it down” (Proverbs 12:25)
“A joyful heart is good medicine, but a broken spirit dries up the bones.” (Proverbs 17:22)
“Rejoice always” (1 Thessalonians 5:16)

Happiness is related to health and longevity, according to Ed Diener, University of Illinois professor emeritus of psychology and senior scientist for the Gallup Organization, as reported in the journal Applied Psychology. Diener teamed with Micaela Chan, University of Texas at Dallas, to review studies of subjective well-being (SWB), which refers to an individual’s life satisfaction, absence of negative emotions, optimism, and positive emotions. They analyzed experimental trials and long-term studies to evaluate the health status of people who were stressed by natural events. The researchers conducted a meta-analysis of eight different types of studies and reached the conclusion from each type that a person’s SWB contributes both to longevity and better health among healthy populations.

People experience sad moods or joyful emotions because they attach an evaluation to events in their lives as to whether theyse are going well or badly. The researchers found that SWB is a broad category that includes a diversity of phenomena ranging from general optimism to low anger to work satisfaction. Positive moods, joy, happiness, life satisfaction, hopefulness, optimism, and sense of humor predicted longevity and were associated with reduced risk of mortality in healthy populations. Diener and Chan controlled the analyses for socioeconomic status and health at baseline and they cautioned that causality could not be definitively established because initial unmeasured states of health could not be measured exactly. However, they did control for many of the plausible variables. Furthermore, the large populations, coupled with the longevity of some of the studies, lend credibility to the results.

The data appear to be statistically significant because quite a few studies have large sample sizes and subjects have been followed for several decades in some cases. A small sampling of the many studies are listed briefly here:
• One study followed nearly 5,000 individuals for more than 40 years. Those who were most pessimistic as young students age tended to die earlier than their peers.
• An even longer study, which followed 180 nuns from early adulthood to old age, found that those who wrote positive autobiographies in their 20s tended to outlive those who wrote more negative accounts.
• Optimism and positive affect were positively correlated with improved immune response.
• Higher levels of depression and anxiety predicted coronary heart disease in healthy subjects in 11 of 11 studies analyzed.
• Many studies found that stress, anxiety, and depression are associated with deleterious changes in the cardiovascular system.
• A review of physiological pathways indicated that negative emotions enhance production of proinflamatory cytokines, which may be associated with Alzheimer’s disease, arthritis, osteoporosis, and cardiovascular disease.
• Low SWB was found to be related to telomere shortening, which resulted in physical ailments due to errors during cell replication, and were most often associated with major depression and old age.

Diener and Chan’s meta-analysis found: “In sum, moods and emotions are consistently found to be associated with biological measures such as blood pressure, cortisol (stress hormone), and inflammation, as well as indicators of disease such as artery wall thickening. The researchers found that "the overwhelming majority of studies support the conclusion that happiness is associated with health and longevity."

Does this mean we should all strive to become Pollyanna-like, smiling as the world crumbles around us and ignoring anything negative in life? Maybe the subjects in these studies were simply too naive to recognize all the evil in the world? That is hardly the case due to the very large sample populations and sheer number of studies analyzed. Recognizing the bad, but choosing to see the good in life, is biblical. For example, the Apostle Paul, writing from a harsh prison cell in Rome, stated, “even if I am being poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrifice and service of your faith, I rejoice and share my joy with you all” (2:17) and “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice!” (4:4) Biblical advice seems to be corroborated – at least for physiological benefits - by empirical data.

[1] Ed Diener and Micaela Y. Chan, Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being, 2011, 3 (1), 1–43 doi:10.1111/j.1758-0854.2010.01045.
[2] Diana Yates, “Study: Happiness improves health and lengthens life”, University of Illinois News Bureau, 1 Mar 2011,

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