Michael J. Fox, right, and wife Tracy Pollan arrive at the 61st Primetime Emmy Awards on Sunday, Sept. 20, 2009, in Los Angeles. Fox has Parkinson's disease. (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello)
Salynn Boyles, Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD
WebMD Medical News
Nov. 15, 2012
Think good health is a major predictor of happiness? A study says yes, but there's a catch.
The new study adds to the evidence examining the impact of health status on happiness in older adults.
Several previous studies suggest that people in poor health -- including those with life-threatening diseases, such as cancer, or life-altering disabilities -- are often just as happy as those in good health.
The new research also finds this to be the case, with the exception of those whose daily lives are disrupted by their conditions, such as people with chronic severe pain or urinary incontinence.
How Health Affects Happiness
Researcher Erik Angner, PhD, says his study is the first to directly measure the degree to which different health conditions disrupt daily activity.
Angner, who is a professor of philosophy, economics, and public policy at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., conducted the research along with colleagues from the University of Chicago, the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and the University of Massachusetts Medical School.
The investigators developed a measure designed to assess limitations in physical activities due to health conditions.
When they surveyed 383 older adults recruited from the practices of primary care doctors in Alabama, they found that health status was an important predictor of happiness.
But after taking into consideration other factors associated with happiness, such as economic status, poor health was closely linked to unhappiness only in people who reported that their health status interfered with their daily lives.
The study appears in the latest issue of the Journal of Happiness Studies.
Most People Adapt to Health Declines
In the absence of health-related disruptions in daily activity, most people adapt over time to even the most severe health problems or disabilities, Angner says.
He recalls a story told in the late 1700s by the Scottish philosopher Adam Smith about a man who loses his leg and thinks his life is over. But over time he learns to live with the loss of his limb and ends up about as happy as he was when he had two legs.
“How many people have thought to themselves, ‘I couldn’t stand it if I went blind or got a life-threatening cancer,’” he says. “But all the evidence suggests that most of us are highly adaptable as far as happiness is concerned.”
Psychiatrist Bryan Bruno, MD, who is acting chairman in the department of psychiatry at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York, says many people adapt remarkably well to changes in their health status as long as the decline is not too rapid.
He adds that this is not as likely to be the case among people with a history of depression or anxiety.
The finding that people do adapt to health impairments has implications for people who worry excessively about the inevitable declines that accompany aging, he says.
“These changes are generally gradual and most people do tend to cope reasonably well,” he says.
SOURCES: Angner, E. Journal of Happiness Studies, November 2012.Erik Angner, PhD, associate professor of philosophy, economics and public policy, George Mason University, Fairfax, Va.Bryan Bruno, MD, Department of Psychiatry, Lenox Hill Hospital, New York.News release, George Mason University.