Happiness might sound like just a feel-good topic for research. But it’s a serious subject with multiple implications for health and longevity. Julia Boehm, Ph.D., assistant professor in Chapman University’s Department of Psychology, is funded by the National Institutes of Health to examine how happiness and optimism may impact cardiovascular well-being. We asked Boehm about her research.
How did you get interested in studying happiness?
It goes back to when I was working on my senior thesis in college, which was about rumination – when people think repetitively about negative events in their lives and they can’t get out of it. In my thesis research, I came across the field of positive psychology. Its focus is on people’s strengths or the things that people are doing right in their lives. After graduate school, I was able to expand my interests to the relationship between happiness and health as a postdoctoral research fellow at Harvard School of Public Health. My research suggests that happy, optimistic people tend to have reduced risk of cardiovascular disease.
What do we know about that?
A growing body of evidence suggests that happier people are healthier, but we don’t have a firm understanding of why. Two of the most widely proposed explanations are that happiness impacts health through health behaviors or some direct effect on physiology. However, the research to support such explanations is still in the beginning stages. For example, we don’t know whether happiness and related constructs such as optimism promote healthy behaviors, or whether engaging in healthy behaviors fosters happiness. It is the old chicken-and-egg question. Some of my most recent work is trying to disentangle these questions.
What are you learning?
We are discovering that happiness often precedes healthier behaviors
and healthier physiological profiles. For example, my research has found that as people age, those who are happy tend to eat healthier diets and engage in more physical activity than their less happy peers. Happier people also tend to have healthier levels of high-density lipoprotein cholesterol and triglycerides.
What data sets do you use?
We try to get data from large, epidemiological cohorts that are longitudinal in nature. In other words, we want to be able to follow many people across years or even decades. With baseline measures of happiness or other psychological strengths, we can predict who develops poor health behaviors or a poor biological profile. Not many datasets fit these criteria, but I’ve done a lot of work with the Whitehall II Cohort and the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing from the U.K. From the U.S., I’ve used the Midlife in the United States Study. Most recently, I received a grant to work with the 1958 National Child Development Study from the U.K. It follows more than 10,000 children born in 1958 through midlife. That data measures psychological characteristics in early childhood. Our patterns of thinking and behavior are pretty well ingrained by the time we are adults. Yet children who are still developing have the potential to improve their psychological health. If we know that 10-year-old David tends to get a little sad or think pessimistically, interventions could be developed to foster his happiness and optimism, with the potential to improve cardiovascular health down the road.
How much of our happiness is within our control?
There’s debate about this in the literature. Some people estimate as much as 50 percent is genetically determined, with life circumstances making up another 10 percent. This leaves a substantial part of happiness that is under a person’s control. So there is room for targeted interventions. They’re not easy, though. It’s something that people have to exert effort to do. It’s kind of like losing weight. Nonetheless, evidence suggests that strategies such as expressing gratitude or doing kind acts for others can boost a person’s sense of happiness