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Sorry, Pollyanna, Happiness Doesn’t Make You Live Longer

Second Nexus

If you pay attention to the preachings of self-help gurus and panacea-promising magazine articles, you might think that a sunny disposition is the key to a long life. But a study published in the Lancet in December casts serious doubt on this received wisdom, finding that, while happiness may influence healthy behaviors, it has no apparent direct effect on the risk of death.

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Not surprisingly, academics who examine the relationship between psychological well-being and health have been hostile to the study; in recent years, many researchers have thrown their weight behind the presumption that emotional well-being benefits health. A number of these academics’ studies have suggested that positive emotions can directly influence bodily changes that may ultimately prolong life.

Martin Seligman, the godfather of the positive psychology movement and former president of the American Psychological Association, dismissed the Lancet paper as a “defective study” worthy of “major criticisms.”

Reflecting on the chorus of peer disapproval, Sir Richard Peto, one of the new paper’s authors, quipped, “People can believe whatever they like as long as it makes them happy.”

According to Peto, a professor of medical statistics and epidemiology at Oxford, several researchers who have examined the interplay between psychological harmony and health have confused cause and effect, concluding that unhappiness is associated with poor 

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  • Benjamin Ryan, an editor at large at POZ magazine, where he covers the science of HIV and hepatitis C. His work has also appeared in The New York Times, New York magazine, The New York Observer, The Nation, The Atlantic, The Marshall Project, Out and The Advocate. You can find links to his writing on www.benryan.net.

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