Study: Live happy and healthy and die soon anyway

December 16, 2015 Originally published on SFGate

Good news! All that stress and unhappiness so many millions of humans feel pretty much all the time, because existence? It probably won’t affect health or longevity much, after all.

Is it not a bit ironic? Are you surprised to hear that one of our most beloved, common-sense maxims might be a myth after all?

Here’s the new revelation: Unhappiness won’t make you sick. Stress will not necessarily shorten your lifespan. Translation: All those wretched nihilists you know will, apparently, be sticking around for a while. All the miserable and frazzled among us get to be that way their entire long, joyless lives. And if you’re happy and healthy? That might not matter much, either, as far as lifespan and potential illness are concerned. Delightful.

But is it true? Sort of, at least according to a rather loose and debatable, but still fascinating study, published in The Lancet, wherein researchers tracked a million middle-aged women in Britain for 10 years, asking them all sorts of questions about the quality and happiness quotients of their lives and checking their medical records and making sure they weren’t cheating, more or less, throughout.

Upshot: We might have had it largely wrong about the stress/unhappiness/health connection – particularly if you’re a middle-aged British female. (Middle-aged white American male? Sorry, you’re already dead).

Kidding! But seriously – while the study isn’t the most rigorous imaginable (self-reported, no men, narrow age demographic) it’s still telling: Happiness won’t help you live longer. Unhappiness probably doesn’t trigger sickness, it’s “the other way around.”

Unhappy-looking wealthy white yuppies! Looks like they – and their oh my gosh so terrible problems – will be sticking around awhile. Sorry.

Unhappy-looking wealthy white yuppies! Looks like they – and their oh my gosh so terrible problems – will be sticking around awhile. Sorry.

And while stress might not shorten your life, surely how you handle it does, yes? The choices you make, tormenting your body and drinking too much, eating terribly and being a monster to other people, voting Republican and owning a pile of guns and angrily, even violently mistrusting everyone and everything you don’t understand, as you sneer at sunshine and spit on trees and refuse, at your deepest core, to quit whining and try to appreciate the shocking nanosecond of your luminous existence?

I might be exaggerating. But as you can surely see, the good news might not be all that good after all.

For the apocalyptically religious, for the devoutly nihilistic, for those convinced life is a hellhole sinbucket merely to be “survived”? This is surely terrible news indeed.

After all, millions of us are taught and trained to be addicted to stress and unhappiness. It’s the norm. It’s just what modern humans do. How many people do you know who, every single day, actively (and masochistically) seek out things to make them more bitter, scared and resentful? How many among us love seeing the world as an relentlessly offensive riot of debauchery, suffering and corruption? How many are convinced if they’re not working to exhaustion and sleeping horribly and never getting enough “done,” they’re just not trying hard enough? How many feel, deep down, morbidly reassured that at least they’ll die soon anyway, so who cares?

Alas, their sour antipathy will linger, on and on, like a rash. Fun!

But what about the alternative? What of the elusive “happiness” thing? Is there really no proven health benefit if you flip it all around and try to do as the wise ones suggest, and practice, say, releasing your death-grip on your made-up convictions, chill out on the relentless striving and maybe dissolve, just a little, your ego’s furious insistence that you have some sort of clue as to what’s really going on?

Put another way: What happens when you forgo your poisonous insistence that something, somewhere is always wrong, broken, flawed and goddammit why can’t life be the way it’s supposed to be, and why won’t someone fix it for me?

As the marvelous spiritual teacher Adyashanti put it, “There is a very simple secret to being happy. Just let go of your demand on the present moment.” What might happen if you do? Have you ever tried it?

Science shrugs. You probably won’t live longer. You might not prevent illness, though a billion years of empirical evidence – not to mention common sense – seems to suggest otherwise.

But you might, just might, uncover a life of surreptitious, messy, imperfect bliss, shocking and weird, still full of pain and loss, but no longer tormented by it all, no longer endlessly, numbly disappointed for reasons that have no true basis in reality.

The panic might subside. The veil might lift. You might just become, as they say, more fully awake to the moments of your life, free of the toxic overlay, the karmically lethal undercurrent of bogus dissatisfaction telling you, every moment of every day, that something is always wrong and that things should, somehow, be different. In short: You won’t live longer, you’ll simply live much, much better. Can you imagine?

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Mark Morford

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