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Health & Balance

Health and Happiness Are Not Always Linked

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WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

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.

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