Happiness: A New Health Indicator?

By Dennis Archambault

Few would argue that happiness factors into well-being. It may be spiritual or strictly secular, but the degree to which one feels good about themselves and their environment is a factor in their health — and how they define their health.

A survey conducted by Jasmine Page, the Health Authority’s summer administrative intern, found that Detroit Nurse-Family Partnership clients responded “fair” or “good” when asked to assess their health status, not “great.” While their perception may factor in physical and mental infirmities that compromise their health status, their attitude regarding their environment and personal psychology is likely to influence their sense of well-being. They may be unhappy about their situation, so how could their health status be “great?”

The correlation between health and happiness is interrelated. Happiness positively influences health and health contributes to happiness. The wellness site, Sharecare, covers this topic extensively http://www.sharecare.com/health/stress-reduction/article/happiness-and-your-health. Happy people tend to have better physiology — stronger hearts, quicker recovery from surgery, higher pain tolerance — and have stronger immune systems. At the same time, happy people are more inclined to assume healthy behaviors, thereby promoting their health status. The article notes that up to 50 percent of a person’s genetic make-up predetermines the capacity for happiness. It also notes that “economists have jumped on the happiness bandwagon, too, hoping to calculate the value of happiness within a sociopolitical context.”

An Aug. 7 New York Times article http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/07/health/pleasure-factor-may-override-new-tobacco-rules.html?_r=0 posed a dilemma for public health officials: “Rarely has the concept of happiness caused so much consternation in public health circles.” The article headline summarized the dilemma: “It’s health gained vs. pleasure lost.” Specifically, the reporter noted a cost-benefit calculation that is being considered in the federal government’s new tobacco regulations: “the happiness quotient.” According to the article, the health benefits of smoking cessation — reduced lung and heart disease — have to be discounted by 70 percent to  account for the loss of “pleasure” smokers surrender in abandoning the habit. It’s referred to as the “welfare gain ratio.” That’s a hard pill to swallow, especially for health advocates that have been involved in the protracted war on smoking over the past half-century.

The Times takes more of a business slant, than a discourse on health philosophy. If success in reducing smoking behaviors is discounted by the relative unhappiness of former smokers in coping with their withdrawl and loss of pleasure that came with smoking, the economic benefit equation would be lessened. That gives the tobacco lobbyists an opportunity to question regulation that limits tobacco consumption.

“The idea of lost happiness is new for health regulation,” the article notes. It policy stems from a ruling that first occurred under President Clinton, requiring federal regulations with more than a $100 million effect on the economy needs an analysis to assure that the regulations don’t create unintended costs and reduced social benefit. The requirement has implications for a proposal to extend the Food and Drug Administration’s authority to regulate electronic cigarettes and other tobacco products such as cigars and pipe tobacco.

As Americans are prone to endlessly debate and analyze what it means to have the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” the latter ideal offers plenty of fodder for public health discourse.

Dennis Archambault is director of Public Affairs for the Detroit Wayne County Health Authority.