Can A Million Women Be Wrong?

Author: Matt Bloom

A recent study published in the very prestigious British medical journal, The Lancet, purports to show that happiness (or unhappiness) is not related to health or mortality. In an article printed in the Independent, one of the co-authors asserts that the study shows that: “Illness makes you unhappy, but unhappiness itself doesn’t make you ill. We found no direct effect of unhappiness or stress on mortality, even in a ten-year study of a million women.”

This is an amazing sample of women—there were actually over 1.3 million participants—but could these results be wrong? The researchers measured happiness, stress, feelings of control in life, and amount of relaxation these women experienced once—on a single day in the third year of the study—during the entire 10 years of the study. Think back to seven years ago and pick any day that year (if you can remember one): would the amount of happiness and stress you experienced on that single day be representative of the happiness and stress you experienced on most days throughout the remaining seven years? Perhaps it would if your life did not change, but most of us experience ups and downs in life that do effect our happiness and stress. Happiness on any one day would not be very representative of happiness over seven years.

We are studying happiness, and many other aspects of wellbeing, over many years. Our research will include studies of daily life, tracking changes in wellbeing over a single day, and over many days, weeks, months, and years. We want to learn, for example, how the effects a series of happy (or unhappy) days might accumulate. And, we want to learn what helps us experience a long series of happier days. 

It is important to emphasize that we also think that happiness may not be what matters most over the course of our lives. This is why we are exploring wellbeing from a much more comprehensive perspective. For example, we study the extent to which people experience their lives as meaningful and purposeful, the amount of love they give and receive, and the depth of their spiritual lives that matter most.

It is important to remember the results of any one scientific study should not be viewed as the final word. Science knowledge builds over time and over many research studies. And so we encourage you to stay tuned for more on what research will tell us about how happiness, stress and other important dimensions of wellbeing might be related to our health.

In the mean time, we hope you experience mostly happy and stress-free days.