Does good health make you happy?

“A good laugh and a long sleep are the best cures in the doctor’s book”- Irish Proverb

“It is health that is real wealth and not pieces of gold and silver.”- Gandhi

It’s quite a curious topic, health. I notice that some people want it, while some people aren’t bothered. Or at least, there are other things they would rather have instead of it. It’s quite interesting to find out where people put health in their list of priorities.

Most people put it below taste; that’s common. They eat for pleasure first and function second.

Comfort is another common priority over health. It’s much easier to sleep in for an extra hour than get up and do some exercise. I would know, I’ve done it a million times. I’m sure your familiar with the process; at the relevant time, your alarm goes off, screeching it’s awful, high-pitched message into your sensitive morning ears. Reluctantly, you wake up. Then, all of a sudden, your bed becomes 100x more comfortable, and you can’t seem to leave. Strange, how that happens isn’t it? I have found that this is a universal feature, built into all mattresses.

But, after a while, you learn to get past it. However, doing so takes effort. Health often requires that you give up certain pleasures and comforts right now, in exchange for another pleasure that only comes to you further down the line.

It’s this ‘further down the line’ part that’s the problem. It’s against human nature to defer gratification, because we’re programmed to conserve energy. Our bodies are evolved for use in an African Savannah; if you manage to find the same amount of comfort there as you do in a centrally-heated house with a double bed, duvet and a magical mattress that gets more comfortable between 6-7 every morning, then you’re on to something good!

Simply put, if you find a warm, safe place, your body will tell you to stay there. It doesn’t know that you’re not an active hunter-gatherer, that you can be in this safe, comfortable place whenever you want. It doesn’t know that if you don’t get up now, the only possibility of physical effort will be if the lifts are still jammed at the office.

It takes a while to subvert this instinct, especially when the payoff isn’t really defined to us. We have a vague, wispy concept of something called ‘health’, but what does that really mean to us? Maybe being ‘fitter’, more able to run around. Maybe less chance of some disease coming further down the line (and we can change later, plenty of time for that). The benefits that come right now are harder to figure out.

I won’t bother listing the benefits of a healthy lifestyle. But all of these things should directly or indirectly lead to happiness, surely. And to a point, they do; people who suffer illnesses or disabilities report that they are less happy than people who don’t. No surprise there, but what is surprising is the adaptation to chronic disability. Over time, people gradually become more accustomed to it, and happiness starts to move to its previous level; although it does not quite return to where it was previously. That finding was based on serious disability (where people had to stop working).

And the relationship works both ways; being happy is good for your health. Happy people have stronger immune systems, resist the flu more easily, and take less time to recover from surgery. Part of the reason for this is probably lowered stress. The “stress hormone” cortisol increases blood pressure, and reduces the immune response. But when happy, you get the opposite effect; blood pressure and heart rate fall.

Amazingly, self-reports of happiness can also be used to predict how long a person will live. In 1932, new nuns coming into the American School Sisters of Notre Dame were asked to write an autobiographical portrait of themselves. These were stored away, until some psychologists came along and decided to rate them for how much positive feeling they revealed. In 1991 the psychologists caught up with the nuns, and over the next nine years, 21% of the happier nuns died, while 55% of the least happy died. Remarkably, how happy a person is in their 20s is a powerful predictor not only of general health, but of how long they will live.

This doesn’t mean you can lie in your bed instead of exercising! It just means that maybe there’s some truth to that Irish proverb after all.??


Rosenkranz, M et al (2003). Affective style and in vivo immune response: Neurobehavioural mechanisms. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 100, 11148-52.

Ryff, C & Singer, B. (2003). The role of emotion on pathways to positive health. In Davidson et al Handbook of Affective Science. NY: Oxford.

Danner, D., Snowden, D. & Friesen, W. (2001). Positive emotions in early life and longevity: Findings from the nun study. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 80, 804-13.

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