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Here's a Reason to Smile: Happy People Live Longer

New research finds happier people live longer, on average, while angry ones are more likely to die early.
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Happy cat, healthy cat. (Photo: Masyle/Shutterstock)

Happy cat, healthy cat. (Photo: Masyle/Shutterstock)

Are you one of those people who regularly flies into a rage? If so, you might want to seriously consider taking up meditation, or trying some type of therapy to get a better handle on your temper.

Otherwise, you might pay the ultimate price: an early death.

That's the conclusion of new research published in the journal Social Science and Medicine. The study followed a large sample of American men over time, and found one particular trait—a propensity to get angry—was an excellent predictor of whether they'd still be alive 35 years later.

Meanwhile, a separate study published in the same journal finds a strong relationship between happiness and longevity. It suggests that, the happier you are, the better your chances of living a long life.

So Lewis Black is hastening his own death, but lengthening the lives of his delighted fans. Who knew he was such a selfless guy?

Let's start with the good news. A research team led by Elizabeth Lawrence of the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill, examined data on 31,481 Americans, which was collected as part of the General Social Survey between 1978 and 2002. The researchers noted whether each was still alive in 2008, and then looked at their answers to various survey questions decades earlier.

The primary question they looked at was: "Taken all together, how would you say things are these days—would you say that you are very happy, pretty happy, or not too happy?" The research team also noted various factors that have been shown to influence well-being, including marital status, education, income, and religiosity.

They report that 31.4 percent of adult Americans described themselves as "very happy," while 56.9 percent called themselves "pretty happy," and only 11.6 percent "not too happy." More to the point, they found "the level of happiness reported at the time of the interview is related to the risk of death years later."

"Compared to very happy people, the risk of death over the follow-up period is 6 percent higher among those who are pretty happy, and 14 percent higher who are not happy, even after controlling for an array of demographic, socioeconomic, and lifestyle-related factors," they write.

In hindsight, this isn't too surprising. As the researchers point out, "Happiness appears to be inversely related to perceived stress, and may protect against illness through better immune response."

The anger study was conducted by a research team led by Iowa State University's Amelia Karraker. These researchers looked at "35 years (1972-2007) of data from men ages 20 to 40 in the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, a nationally representative sample in the U.S."

The 1,307 male heads of households were asked a series of questions annually from 1968 through 1972, including whether they "get angry fairly easily" or, conversely, if it takes "a lot to get them angry." Their answers for each of the five yearly surveys were averaged.

The researchers report that, being among the angriest 25 percent (that is, men who reported that they angered fairly easily on at least two of the five surveys), "is associated with a 1.57 fold increase in the risk of dying at follow-up, compared with those in the bottom quartile."

What's more, the relationship between self-described anger and mortality remained robust after taking into account such factors as income, marital status, and whether they smoked cigarettes.

Again, the reasons for this are not really a mystery. "Prior work has linked anger with a variety of negative physiological processes, including atherosclerosis and endothelial dysfunction," they note, "which can lead to serious and potentially fatal health events such as heart attack."

Now, it's important to remember that repressing anger has also been linked with poor health. So the remedy is not to stuff the rage down, but rather to get at the deeper emotions it's likely covering up, such as fear, hurt, and even guilt.

Feeling those emotions—and admitting them to others—can be awfully painful, especially for men taught it's wrong and unmanly to be vulnerable. But aren't a few minutes of pain a decent trade-off for a few extra years of life?

Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.