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Want to live longer? Get happy, study says

If you’re happy and you know it, maybe you really should clap your hands. That’s because being happy might make you live longer.

In a study published today in the online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers from University College, London found that happy people reduced their risk of premature death by as much 35 percent.

Unlike other “happiness” studies that rely on a participant’s long-term recall of emotional states, the researchers used a technique called Ecological Momentary Assessment, which gives a quick picture of what a person is feeling in real time.

In this study, the nearly 4,000 participants, ages 52 to 79, were asked to rate their feelings of happiness or anxiety on a sliding scale four times over the course of one day, beginning when they woke up in the morning. The scientists then followed them for five years, recording the number of deaths during that time.

After controlling for age, gender, depression, certain diseases like cancer or diabetes, and health-related behaviors like smoking, study results showed that those folks who rated their feelings of happiness higher lived longer than those with lower scores.

“I was a bit surprised that the happiness effect was so strong, even among people who had chronic diseases,” says lead author Andrew Steptoe, professor of epidemiology and psychology.

The authors are quick to point out although the study was designed to look at correlations, not cause-and-effect relationships, it highlights the importance of a positive outlook on life.  “Older people have needs that we in society try to supply like good healthcare and ensuring they have enough money to live on,” says Steptoe. “But maybe we should pay attention to their well being in terms of happiness, too.”

Other researchers who study that sometimes elusive state of well being known as happiness say the study is significant. “I hope they continue to follow this group out to 10 years and 15 years,” says Stephen Post, professor of preventive medicine at Stony Brook University, since he believes the mortality gap between the happy and the sad may become even bigger.