is it contagious, even toxic?
Wallace is an author, pilot and entrepreneur who has written
several books for NASA. She won a 2006 Telly Award for her work
on the documentary, Breaking the Chain. She is also
the founder and editor of No
Map. No Guide. No Limits. This essay was
first published by The
idea that unhappiness leads to bad consequences is not a new
one. But several recent studies have added a bit of nuance to
the long-standing general beliefs of "Think Well, Be Well"
and the impact of positive thinking on a person's recovery and
the longitudinal, 70-year Grant Study of Harvard undergraduates
that formed the basis of the June 2009 "What Makes Us Happy"
cover story in The Atlantic, researcher George Valliant
found a clear link between depression and health problems. Of
the men in the study who reported signs of depression at age
50, 70 percent had died or were chronically ill by age 65.
correlation is not the same thing as causation. Did the depression
cause the illness or early death? Or did the two simply go hand
in hand? Both Valliant and the authors of a new book, The
Longevity Project, came to the same conclusion: sadness
does not make you sick any more than happiness makes you well.
Longevity Project is based on the results of a longitudinal
study instigated by psychologist Lewis Terman (and therefore
known as the "Terman Study"). The Terman study followed
a group of 1,500 Californians over eight decades, starting in
1921. All of the children selected for the Terman study were
judged to be of high IQ and, therefore -- at least in theory
-- people who had high potential for living long, happy, successful
and productive lives. The Grant Study participants, all of whom
were students at Harvard, were considered to have the same potential.
Valliant focused on what factors led to a happy and productive
life, and Howard S. Friedman and Leslie R. Martin, the authors
of The Longevity Project, looked primarily at what
factors led to a long life, both investigative teams found that
being bright didn't guarantee anything. They also came to the
same conclusions about health and happiness: namely, that there
were certain lifestyle patterns that seemed to lead to both
happiness and health, just as there were other lifestyle paths
and patterns that seemed to lead to both sadness and sickness.
But being sad and being sick were both separate, resultant outcomes
of those lifestyles, rather than a cause-and-effect pair.
three researchers concluded that one of the biggest factors
in both a happy life and a long life was having strong and healthy
social connections. Beyond that, the people who tended to have
‘happy-well’ outcomes were conscientious, emotionally
healthy individuals who set and actively pursued goals; who
incorporated strong social networks, exercise and healthy eating/drinking
habits organically into their everyday lives; who were optimistic
but not to the point of being careless or reckless; social enough
to form strong networks, but not so social as to pursue unhealthy
habits for peer approval; and who felt engaged and satisfied
in their careers, marriages and friendships.
to Friedman and Martin, however, there's one area where unhappiness
does seem to play a causal role. It may not directly sicken
or shorten the life of the person experiencing the unhappiness.
But it apparently can be toxic for people who have to live with
that unhappy person. Unlike the Grant Study, which interviewed
only the Harvard men, the Terman study also interviewed the
spouses of the people in the study, to gauge their impact on
study participants' lives. And in the Terman study, women married
to unhappy men tended to be unhealthier, and live shorter lives,
than women married to happy men. Oddly, the reverse was not
true. The happiness of the woman had very little effect on the
lifespan or happiness of her husband.
explanation Friedman and Martin came up with for this initially
puzzling result was that -- especially for the Terman subjects,
who were all born around 1910 -- a man married to an unhappy
wife could get away from her influence through work and outside
activities. But a woman in that era, married to an unhappy man,
was more likely to be trapped in a world poisoned by that unhappiness.
may not directly sicken or shorten the life of the person experiencing
it. But it apparently can be toxic for people who have to live
with that unhappy person. Those results are echoed in the first-wave
findings of a new longitudinal study just getting underway in
Britain. In 2009, the U.K.'s state-funded Economic and Social
Research Council commissioned a longitudinal research study
called "Understanding Society" to follow 100,000 people
in 40,000 households over the next few decades to try to determine
what factors lead to improved family lives.
first-wave (first-year) findings of that study have just been
published. And one of the data points the study reported was
that the happiness of children in a household (aged 10 to 21,
living at home) is significantly affected by the happiness of
their mother --- or, at least her happiness in terms of her
marriage. Only 55 percent of children whose mothers reported
that they were unhappy in their marriages said they were completely
happy at home, versus 73 percent of those whose mothers reported
being very happy in their marriages. The happiness of the fathers
was less significant.
are a lot of caveats that need to be applied to the U.K. study,
of course. First, the results represent a single, self-reported
data point, not a long view over time. So it's a bit early to
give too much weight to the British results. The Grant and Terman
studies also included quantifiable health and death data as
well as the interviewer's interpretation of each individual's
responses as a check to people's self-reports. What's more,
the U.K. study report didn't note what percentage of the study
group's mothers worked or stayed at home all day, or who did
the primary caregiving for the children involved, so the data
is lacking a bit of context.
speaking, however, women still tend to spend more time with
children than their husbands do, and provide a greater share
of the childcare. And if Friedman and Martin's conclusion is
correct, that unhappiness poisons those who are, for whatever
reason, trapped in its company and under its influence . . .
then the Understanding Society results make sense.
Understanding Society study is only in its first year, of course,
and it's not clear how much detail will be collected from each
subject over time, given that the study size is so large. In
any event, it will be years before the researchers can determine
the long-term impact of the parents' unhappiness is on the children
in the study.
the Terman study and the first-wave survey results of the Understanding
Society study both make it clear that while unhappiness itself
may not what makes unhappy people sick, it might very well be
toxic to the people around them. And that's regardless of what
other healthy personality, lifestyle habits, or other factors
those people may have going for them. Unhappiness, in other
words, may be a bit like second-hand smoke. And while it may
not be quite as directly lethal, it's a whole lot harder to