Happiness, health linked in new study

Positive people found less affected by stress

April 20, 2005|By Jamie Talan | Jamie Talan,NEWSDAY

If you're looking for a good reason to be happy, consider this: Happier people might be healthier.

Scientists have known for years that depressed people are at higher risk for all sorts of illnesses. Andrew Steptoe, an endowed professor of psychology at University College London and lead author of the study, wanted to test "the other side of the coin" - whether people who are more positive about their world had less risk of illness.

Steptoe and colleagues asked 200 middle-age men and women to keep daily journals, conducted "brain teaser" type tests to induce a bit of mental stress in the laboratory and then took blood samples to see whether they could identify biological markers that correlated with their daily moods. They found that the happiest of the lot had reduced stress hormones, a stronger immune system and a more robust cardiovascular system.

"Happy people may have better prospects for good health," said Steptoe, whose study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

People in the study were asked to fill out mood diaries 30 times a day over two days, one during the workweek and the other on the weekend. In the blood, researchers looked for levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, and another blood substance called fibrinogen, a marker of heart health.

People who rated themselves happier had 20 percent to 30 percent lower levels of cortisol compared with those who didn't find much good to record during the study. This level stayed consistent on both days. Fibrinogen is a clotting factor that is also a part of the stress response, and scientists found that the levels were significantly smaller in happier people.

"We wanted to see what happens in a normal everyday life," said Steptoe. "The differences are not very large but if this pattern persists for days, months or years, it could have a heavy toll on the body."

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