November 1, 2014
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Mental Health

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Study: Smile - happiness is good for you

Happiness is good for the heart - and new evidence shows that may be true in the literal sense and not just the figurative.

A study in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences looked at the link between happiness and a number of health markers for more than 200 adults. All of the men and women who participated in the study were government employees living in London, England, and were white, between the ages of 45 and 59, had never been diagnosed with heart disease or high blood pressure, and had several years to go before retirement. All the women involved in the study had gone through menopause or were going through it.

The researchers assessed each participant on a work day and on a weekend day. Participants were measured both at work and at play on a number of criteria, including blood pressure and heart rate, levels of the stress hormone cortisol, and blood fibrinogen levels, a marker for inflammation that can be a predictor of heart disease.

Measurements were taken both under normal conditions and following a mental stress test. Under each condition, participants rated their happiness on a scale of 1 (low) to 5 (high).

There were no differences in happiness between people who were married or single, male or female, or of varying levels of socioeconomic status. But across the board, the happiest participants had the best results for the various health markers.

For example, the happier participants had lower heart rates than those who were less joyous, even after accounting for such factors as age, BMI, and lifestyle differences such as physical activity levels, smoking habits, and status at work.

Happier people also had, on average, 32% lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which can have an effect on everything from blood pressure to blood sugar levels. And while most people had an increase in blood fibrinogen during the stress test, the least happy people were almost four times more likely to see a rise in their levels of this marker for inflammation. But apart from the stress test, there was no difference in blood fibrinogen levels among participants who reported varying degrees of happiness.

"Our findings indicate that positive affective states are related to favourable profiles of functioning in several biological systems and may thereby be relevant to risk of development of physical illness," conclude the researchers.

But the study doesn't show that happiness actually causes these chemical changes - merely that there is a connection between the two. As well, because the results were collected over such a short period, more research needs to be done on the long-term health differences between happy and unhappy people.

This isn't the first study to associate your mental well-being with your physical health. Studies have linked stress to weight gain and diabetes, while depression has been linked to everything from an increased risk of osteoporosis to dementia to heart disease.

So when it comes to your health, while we can't say it's a case of "Don't worry, be happy," a cheerful outlook on life may keep you feeling better both physically and mentally.


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