That staying physically and mentally fit is important for healthy aging is old news. But how our attitudes can also influence how long we live is not as well understood. Now, a new study from England concluded that being happy, enjoying life, or at least having a sense of contentment may play a much larger role in the way we age than previously thought.
For the study, researchers from the University College London monitored physical and mental functions and also the emotional states of 3,200 male and female participants, all over the age of 60.
Those who reported having fun, doing things that gave them pleasure, maintaining an active social life, etc. were found to develop fewer impairments and showed slower declines compared to those who were less upbeat.
In fact, differences in attitude seemed to produce remarkable results. People with a lower sense of well-being were three times as likely to end up with health problems as they got older than those whose outlook remained positive.
Not surprisingly, those suffering from chronic illnesses like heart disease, diabetes, arthritis and depression tended to enjoy life the least, which obviously did not help improve their condition either.
The study also found that the happier people were not necessarily younger, richer, or even free from illness. The influence of their state of mind on their aging process persisted independent of these other factors, although financial security did apparently play a role, but only to a certain extent, according to Dr. Andrew Steptoe, director of the Institute of Epidemiology and Health Care in the Faculty of Population Health Sciences, and British Heart Foundation professor for psychology in London, England, and author of the study.
These latest findings confirm those of another study he published in 2011. Back then, researchers found that participants who considered themselves the happiest could reduce their mortality risk by an astounding 35 percent compared to their least happy counterparts.
Five years into the study, the differences in terms of health status and mortality rates already showed. The happier people were overall healthier and aged better, even when taking other factors into account like gender, education, marital status, and financial situation.
What was methodically different in these two studies compared to others on the subject is that the researchers asked participants to rate their happiness level several times on one particular day, instead of having them answer general questions about their usual state of mind. By focusing on concrete situations and events and by observing specific responses, the researchers say they were able to discern attitudinal differences much better than they would have been by conducting surveys on a wider range of issues and relying on recollections of participants over longer periods of time.
While it remains undetermined whether positive emotions play a key role for longevity or are just one factor among others, there seem to be clear indications that how people feel about their lives at any given moment can have a significant impact.
Of course, what constitutes happiness is not easily defined. Some may say that people who seem outwardly grumpy or melancholic may not necessarily be devoid of pleasure or satisfaction. It could be just a matter of individual personality or how they behave socially. How emotions are expressed can also depend on cultural particularities.
One study from Austria found that more than momentarily occurring feelings, a deeper and lasting sense of contentment and gratitude that comes with growing maturity may produce the greatest benefits, including in terms of health and longevity.
The least we can take away from these findings is that people should take their moods more seriously, said Dr. Laura Kubzansky, a professor for social and behavioral sciences at Harvard University.
"I think people sort of undervalue emotional life anyway. This highlights the idea that if you are going through a period where you're constantly distressed, it's probably worth paying attention to how you feel - it matters for both psychological and physical health," she said.