The pursuit of it was written into the Declaration of Independence, but finding the causes and effects of that elusive “it” — happiness — has been notoriously difficult.

Whatever brings you happiness, be it large breasts, lots of money, respect from your peers, a large bar of chocolate or even semen, it’s hardly controversial to say that happy people are generally healthier than unhappy ones. That conclusion might be intuitively obvious, but just why are happy people healthier?



That’s what researchers at University College London’s Department of Epidemiology and Public Health are interested in. They have found that the functioning of certain key biological processes is improved by happiness.



“Psychosocial factors are vital to health,” said Michael Marmot, professor of epidemiology and public health at the university and director of the International Centre for Health and Society. “In people who have their basic needs met — clean water, sufficient food and shelter — a crucial determinant of health is how circumstances affect the mind. That is, psychosocial factors.”



Other studies have shown a connection between happiness and longevity. In 2001, Deborah Danner, at the University of Kentucky’s Center for Gerontology, analyzed the handwritten autobiographies of 180 nuns of mean age 22, and compared the positive emotional content of the writings with the nuns’ health six decades later. It turns out that sisters who used words like “joy” and “thankful” lived up to 10 years longer than did those who expressed negative emotions.



But Steptoe and colleagues wanted to know what causes such differences. What is the mechanism that helps happy people live longer?



“Marmot and colleagues, including health psychologist Andrew Steptoe, wanted to know what causes such differences. What is the mechanism that helps happy people live longer? To find out, they studied the emotions and health of more than 200 middle-aged Londoners in their daily lives…”
Marmot and colleagues, including health psychologist Andrew Steptoe, wanted to know what causes these differences. What is the mechanism that helps happy people live longer?



To find out, they studied the emotions and health of more than 200 middle-aged Londoners in their daily lives. They found that people who reported that they were pretty much happy every day were verifiably healthier. Happiness is associated with reduced neuroendocrine, inflammatory and cardiovascular activity. Their work is published this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.



To investigate the psychobiological connection, the UCL scientists put their volunteers — men and women of white European origin aged 45-59 — through laboratory stress tests and monitored their blood pressure and heart rate over a working day. Saliva samples were taken to measure the volunteers’ cortisol content. Cortisol is a stress hormone related to conditions such as type II diabetes and hypertension.



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