The effect of happiness on physical health

The effects of mental well-being on physical health have long been studied, and the results are something we should all pay attention to.

According to a 2007 study by Ruut Veenhoven, a Dutch sociologist known as the pioneer of the study of happiness, the effect of happiness on longevity in healthy populations is "remarkably strong". The study showed that happiness does not affect longevity in sick populations but protects against becoming ill. The effect of happiness on longevity is so strong that it's comparable to the impact of smoking or not smoking in healthy populations. It is impossible to generalize all of Veenhoven's findings due to the technical difficulties in collecting data: lots of the statistics are incomparable, and it isn't easy to quantify the degree of happiness in an individual or population.

"How can mental distress affect physical health?" you may ask. Well, the effect of this has long been documented in scientific literature. The most prevalent direct impact is that chronic unhappiness activates the body's "fight or flight" response, which over a long period can prove to be detrimental to the body, leading to increased blood pressure and a weaker immune system. Mental distress such as depression, anxiety, and hostility leads to similar effects on the body.

So how exactly does happiness protect against illness? Although we know that happiness plays a positive role in the body's physical health, the precise reasons are still unknown, but scientists have offered potential explanations. One well-known mechanism is known as better health behaviour. This phenomenon suggests that happy people are more inclined to monitor their health (i.e. watching their weight, being perceptive of symptoms of illness, engaging in more sports and moderate in drinking or smoking). Another documented impact of happiness on physical health is that happy people make better choices in life as they are "more open to the world and more self-confident'. So while there is evidence for the above-described mechanisms, their relative importance is yet to be determined.

We have previously posted on our blog about the importance of preventive healthcare. Veenhoven's study explores the implications of his findings on that very topic: "we can make people healthier by making them happier". The methods of happiness can lead to better physical health in populations that he describes in his study have significant implications on broader social policies, not just physical health. The promotion of physical exercise, a balanced diet and discouragement of high levels of alcohol and smoking are all points Veenhoven touches upon, which may lead to the increased overall happiness of a population and improved physical health. We have seen some of these methods employed in recent times, particularly in the UAE, where the prevalence of diabetes and obesity is at an all-time high. We have previously published an article on our LinkedIn page exploring this very issue. To read about what the UAE government is doing to improve the health of its population, click here!

The effects of mental well-being on health are paramount and can be compared to a population that smokes and one that doesn't. While the precise mechanisms behind this phenomenon are unclear, future studies will provide us with a better understanding of why looking after your mental health is just as important as managing your physical health.

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