Happier people live longer, according to a study conducted by Emory Associate Professor and Sociologist Corey Keyes.
In a study that followed a representative sample of more than 3000 adults in the United States over 10 years, Keyes found that people who are “flourishing” are 60 percent less likely to die of premature causes.
He defined people who are “flourishing” as those who both exhibit happiness and function well in their daily lives.
These qualities were measured by the presence of 14 different characteristics in individuals. The study was divided into two components. In the first component, participants in the study were asked how often they felt happy, satisfied and/or interested throughout the day. In order to be classified as exhibiting happiness, individuals had to report feeling at least one of those three emotions almost every day.
The second component of the study measured how well people functioned in their daily lives. This was based on 11 qualities, including personal growth, autonomy and social coherence. Autonomy entails confident expression of ideas and opinions, while social coherence refers to understanding society and the world’s surroundings.
To measure these qualities, participants were asked questions such as how much they challenged themselves to become better people, whether they thought their lives had meaning and whether they believed they were making valuable contributions to the world. If the participant reported exhibiting at least six of these attributes, he or she was said to be “functioning well.”
Keyes said his study opens up a “new chapter” in understanding the overall health of the country’s population. Understanding this, Keyes said, requires further study of how one’s wellbeing relates to one’s physical health.
“Illness and health belong to two separate dimensions of population health. The things that we do to lower the bad [illness] don’t necessarily help promote the good [wellbeing],” said Keyes.
This study, Keyes said, has several applications to the health care system in the United States. Keyes said that the country’s current health care model presents challenges, saying that is more focused on treating illnesses instead of preventing them.
“It’s tough in this country because we’re a very medically-driven society,” said Keyes. “Treatments for mental illness allow you to treat symptoms so you can function in life, but there’s no cure [for these illnesses].”
Through his research, Keyes said he found a connection between happiness and longevity. He stressed the importance of positive mental wellbeing as a potential solution to these challenges, saying that positive mental health leads to a lower risk of premature mortality.
“We tend not to pay a lot of attention to this need for wellbeing because it doesn’t support the current model of health care that we have,” said Keyes. “We need to complement the health care system, using not only the best treatments for illness but also new techniques that promote our wellbeing. In doing that, we can prevent a lot of the problems we can’t solve now.”
Although primarily a sociologist, Keyes said his work extends to fields such as public health and psychology. Keyes is one of the pioneers in a new movement called “positive psychology.” Introduced by the American Psychological Association (APA) in 1998, positive psychology is a recent branch of psychology that aims to promote happiness in individuals and communities. By identifying connections between positive mental and physical health, positive psychology hopes to prevent illnesses and improve the quality of life in individuals.
Along with a team of 18 other researchers, Keyes was elected to participate in a group that formulated much of the ideas and groundwork for the positive psychology movement.
Keyes’ 10-year study spanned from 1995-2005. He recently published his findings in the American Journal of Public Health.
Keyes said he would like to follow up on the mental health and wellbeing of the adults sampled in his study in 2015, should he and his research team obtain more funding.
— By Harmeet Kaur