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Happiness: Helpful for health? Succor for success?
22 DECEMBER 2005

It's old news that people who are happy seem to succeed at life. They make more money. They have more friends and better jobs. And they even live longer than the miserable masses.

But this old news proves a simple correlation between happiness and these positive factors: If X is often found with Y, we can't assume why they go together. Maybe X causes Y. Maybe Y causes X . Maybe something else causes them both. Maybe they only seem to go together, due to some statistical fluke.

Still, social scientists have long assumed that success causes happiness. Health causes happiness. Having family, friends and money makes us happy. It does make common sense, but correlational data cannot prove a cause-and-effect relationship.woman in blue and man in red smile at camera

Now come a group of researchers who say that happiness -- defined as the "frequent experience of positive emotions" -- is instrumental to success, health and personal relationships. According to study co-author Ed Diener, who is editor of the Journal of Happiness Studies, "Almost always it has been assumed that things that correlate with happiness are the causes of happiness, but it could be just the opposite - that those things tend to be caused by happiness."

X marks the correlation
The research looked at studies that correlate happiness and other positive factors, wrote Diener, a professor of psychology at the University of Illinois. But the new study, he wrote, also "extended our reach to include longitudinal and experimental studies that can shed some light on causality, and whether happiness might actually cause some good things."

The condition in question, "chronic happiness," is no concern here at The Why Files, where we have been trying to scare up the three researchers listed on the American Psychological Association press release; one said she'd be available -- for a scanty 15 minutes -- but did not answer her phone; a second did not answer voice mail; and a third did not answer the phone but did send some written comments, which we've quoted.

Even worse than non-responsive sources is the unhappy prospect of winnowing decades of psychology literature for articles on happiness. For one thing, psych has tended to focus on mental disease and abnormality rather than happiness and health. Nonetheless, the researchers sifted out 225 studies, covering about 275,000 people, on the connection between happiness, health and success.

Man in glasses and green sweater lectures while smiling in front of chalkboard
Here at the Why Files we whistle and smile while we work everyday. What do you think Bill Gates, the most successful person we can think of, whistles while he works? Photo: UW-Madison/Jeff Miller

The "cross-sectional" studies looked at people at one moment in time, and found the expected: happiness is strongly associated with many other positive factors. It's well-known, for example, that people who rate their own well-being highly get more job interviews, better evaluations from bosses, and are more productive on the job. Studies in Malaysia, Germany and Russia have related well-being to higher income. And, the researchers wrote, "one of the most robust findings" is that happy people have better and stronger social relationships than the miserable.

Taking the longitudinal view
Longitudinal studies, which look at subjects over a long span, are more helpful in testing whether happiness -- defined for the new study as "feeling pleasant ('positive') emotions most of the time" -- sets the stage for success, health and strong relationships. After all, just knowing that happiness and success go hand in hand does not say which comes first, the smile or the smiling paycheck.

The researchers found evidence that happy people do do better down the road. Studies in Australia and Russia have shown that people who are happy today have more income, and/or less unemployment, years later. Students who are more cheerful during the first year of college had higher income 16 years later, even accounting for differences in parental income.

Correlational studies show that marriage is a powerful asset to happiness, but the Psychological Bulletin researchers also found studies showing that happy people are more likely to get married. For example, Diener and colleagues mentioned a 16-year study in Germany that found that "men and women who were highly satisfied with their lives were more likely to get married 4 or more years later."

family of 3 smile into sun, sitting on a boatNone of this defies common sense: Happy people are more marriageable. Parents and caregivers bond better to smiling infants, and adults interpret smiles and laughter as an invitation to make social contact. But happiness does more than improve mental health and social bonds. A 37-nation study found a negative relationship between well-being and auto deaths. A 19-year Scandinavian study showed that dissatisfaction about one's life raised the odds of deadly accidents. And positive emotional traits are associated with longer survival, even among people with deadly cancer or kidney disease.

Overall, we are pleased to report that the link between happiness and health or success seems like a two-way street. As Diener wrote: "Our conclusion was surprising -- happiness appears to be linked with better health, higher income, a better and more long-lasting marriage, and a host of other good outcomes -- and the causal influence may go from happiness to those factors, or in both directions."

So don't be scared of "chronic happiness" or "dispositional positive affect." They may sound like psychological disorders, but according to this research, these are more welcome than a phone call from a reporter!

-- David Tenenbaum

The Benefits of Frequent Positive Affect: Does Happiness Lead to Success? Sonja Lyubomirsky et al, Psychological Bulletin, Vol. 131, No. 6.

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