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Can you increase your life expectancy by being happy?

Not very long ago, I had posed a question in a previous blog: Can aging be overcome? In this blog I discussed the opinions of three different experts who shared their insight on the subject on TED. While some of the focus had been on lifestyle choices and the effect of potential medical advances on aging, how our happiness affects lifespan was not specifically addressed.

In a recent paper published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences this question was investigated and showed that having a higher Positive Affect (PA; a measure of happiness) using ecological momentary assessment (EMA) was associated with longer survival in both genders. But what is ecological momentary assessment? As would be expected, evaluating happiness can be quiet challenging and when this is done retrospectively even more challenges arise such as errors in recollection and recall biases. Thus, researchers utilize ecological momentary assessment as a measure of happiness which "involves repeated sampling of subjects' current behaviors and experiences in real time, in subjects' natural environments."

Those who reported higher PA's "were slightly younger and more likely to be male and married. There were no differences in ethnicity, paid employment, or education, but a marginal difference in wealth. Higher PA was associated with less negative affect over the same day, lower depression scores, and less diagnosed depression in the previous two years." 

The authors state that respondents in "the lowest third of PA had a death rate of 7.3 percent, compared with 4.6 percent in the medium-PA group and 3.6 percent in the high-PA group" and that their analysis "indicate that the intensity of positive mood states assessed over a single day predicts mortality over the following 5 years in a graded fashion, with high PA being associated with substantially longer survival."

If valid, these findings shed an interesting light on the psychological factors which play a role in life expectancy. Unlike medical or therapeutic means of prolonging life however, translating this knowledge into practice will be challenging. Enduring happiness is not generally something one can be given, but one must experience and therefore the application is significantly limited by individual ambition and individual characterization of what constitutes pleasure and felicity.

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