Do we really need studies to tell us that there’s a strong relationship between health and happiness? Naturally, being ill causes unhappiness. In fact, research shows that health tends to influence happiness more than wealth does. In turn, happiness can enhance health.
Still, the illness/unhappiness connection isn’t so simple. This was discussed in a recent study in the Journal of Happiness Studies. (Yes, there is a science of the study of happiness, involving not only psychologists and sociologists but also economists and policy makers.)
The study involved 383 people over age 50 in Alabama, most of them women, who were questioned about various aspects of their health and their degree of happiness. What reduced happiness most, it turned out, was not how ill people were (based on objective measures of health/disease, as opposed to self-reported health status), but rather how much their infirmities disrupted their daily functioning.
Some previous studies have found that many serious medical conditions have a surprisingly small effect on happiness, as long as they don’t affect daily functioning greatly. Meanwhile, other less-threatening conditions that do disrupt daily life, such as urinary incontinence or rheumatoid arthritis, tend to have a big impact. That helps explain why, overall, research has uncovered only weak links between objective measures of health—such as doctors’ records—and happiness, life satisfaction or sense of well-being.
As the researchers pointed out, many people, not long after their diagnosis with a serious illness or the onset of symptoms, start to adapt and/or compensate by deriving pleasure from other parts of their lives. This phenomenon has been called “well-being with illness” or resilience. Unfortunately, a disease that continually disrupts daily life can interfere with this process of adaptation or compensation.