The health benefits of happiness

Published by rudy Date posted on April 18, 2009

Happiness could benefit your health more than giving up smoking. In the Scottish Borders they are trying out a new and quite unusual kind of medicine – happiness.

Now it is claimed that happiness could be more important than smoking in determining your health.

Dr Derek Cox, Director of Public Health at Dumfries and Galloway NHS, suspects that for decades health professionals have been missing a big trick in improving the health of the nation.

“We’ve spent years saying that giving up smoking could be the single most important thing that we could do for the health of the nation.

“And yet there is mounting evidence that happiness might be at least as powerful a predictor, if not a more powerful predictor than some of the other lifestyle factors that we talk about in terms of cigarette smoking, diet, physical activity and those kind of things.”

  If you are happy you are likely in the future to have less in the way of physical illness than those who are unhappy

Dr Derek Cox, Director of Public Health

Like everyone else, for years he tried to prevent ill-health by anti-smoking and healthy lifestyle campaigns.

But there was little change. People were dying at roughly the same rates.

So he started looking into the health benefits of happiness.

“It’s not just that if you’re physically well you’re likely to be happy but actually the opposite way round,” said Dr Cox.

“If you are happy you are likely in the future to have less in the way of physical illness than those who are unhappy”.

Dr Cox now has an ambition to make Dumfries and Galloway happier and healthier.

“I’d love to make the people of Dumfries and Galloway the happiest and healthiest people in Scotland,” he said.

He argues people are happier if they are given more control at work, live in a safe neighbourhood and participate in community projects.

Long life

The science of happiness is increasingly suggesting a link between happiness and health.

Andrew Steptoe, the British Heart Foundation Professor of Psychology at University College London, has found that happier people also have greater protection against things like heart disease and stroke.

“We know that stress which has bad effects on biology, leads to those bad changes as far as health is concerned,” said Mr Steptoe.

“What we think is happening is that happiness has the opposite effect and has a protective effect on these same biological pathways”.

Workers in low-status jobs have a higher risk of cardiovascular disease

Research in the United States has suggested a possible link between happiness and long life.

A study of nuns in Milwaukee examined the diaries of the sisters of Notre Dame when they joined back in the 1930s and counted the number of times they used positive and negative words.

Some were brimming with joyful thoughts. Others were a bit gloomy.

Enough for modern-day researchers to divide the intake into “happy nuns” and “not so happy nuns”.

After joining the order their lives were almost exactly the same – same food, same work, same routine. But not the same life expectancy.

Among the less positive nuns, two thirds died before their 85th birthday. Among the happy nuns, 90% were still alive.

On average the happiest nuns lived about nine years longer than the least happy nuns.

It is a huge effect when you think that on average smoking one packet of cigarettes a day takes three years off your life.

And in the UK, there is a highly acclaimed long-running study into the links between your status at work and how healthy you are.

You might expect that people in the lower ranks in a work place would have lower stress levels and therefore better health.

Surely someone who sorts the post would not be as stressed as the high-flying exec?

Not necessarily true according to Professor Sir Michael Marmot and colleagues at University College London.

Since the 1960s, they have been studying thousands of civil servants for an ongoing research project called The Whitehall Study.

They found that if you have a low status job with little control over what you do, you have a higher risk of cardiovascular disease.

Happy talk

One of the ways in which Dr Cox has tried to increase happiness is by the use of a new kind of therapy.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) has been called a common sense approach to therapy.

Richard Layard says the NHS should provide free psychological therapy

Instead of a therapist lying you down on a couch and asking you what your relationship with your father or mother was like, a CBT therapist aims to help you to avoid dwelling on negative thoughts and to find ways to overcome them.

Because Dr Cox cannot afford the thousands of CBT therapists he would need in his area, he has started training local volunteers to do the counselling for him.

So far he claims that it has worked quite well: time with an amateur CBT therapist has had positive effects on the patients.

It is a vision which inspires Labour peer and happiness evangelist Richard Layard. He is lobbying government to employ another 10,000 therapists.

“We’re talking about £1500 for a course of CBT. That can change somebody’s life.”

Professor Paul Salovskis, clinical psychologist at King’s College London, is determined to get the government to put more money into CBT.

“It’s a scandal actually that people cannot receive treatments which we know to be effective and indeed the health service knows to be effective.

“Potentially it’s got colossal implications. We could see a future where people did not suffer from severe anxiety and depression.

“I don’t think that’s putting it too strongly. I also think that in terms of everyday worries we are in a position to give people the tools to deal with those that would then allow them to go forward and achieve the things which they want to achieve.”

Mark Easton presents The Happiness Formula series which is broadcast on BBC Two on Wednesdays at 1900BST. –BBC News Home Editor

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