Many unhealthy people remain happy because they adapt to their medical conditions

Research Activities, February 2010, No. 354

Medical conditions that disrupt daily life, notably debilitating pain and urinary incontinence, are linked to unhappiness. However, less disruptive conditions do not necessarily sow discontent, according to a new study. Kenneth G. Saag, M.D., M.Sc., and colleagues at the University of Alabama at Birmingham delved into the relationship between health and happiness by surveying 383 adults aged 50 and older from primary care practices in Alabama.

Surprisingly, of the patients who rated themselves as unhealthy, many still considered themselves to be happy. The authors suggest that unhealthy but happy patients may have adapted to their illnesses or may have offset unhappiness by gaining more enjoyment from family and work. However, because debilitating pain and urinary incontinence are constant reminders of unhealthiness, patients may not be able to adapt or find substitute outlets for happiness.

Understanding which conditions are associated with unhappiness may assist researchers in targeting interventions to improve patient happiness, the authors note. They also found that asking patients to subjectively assess their health, rather than using objective measures like counts of coexisting illnesses, served as a better predictor of patient happiness. The exception was conditions that disrupt daily functioning or are associated with social stigma, like incontinence. This finding may prove useful for researchers exploring what factors promote happiness, which has been proposed by some as one factor in evaluating medical outcomes.

This study was funded in part by a grant from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (HS10389) to the University of Alabama at Birmingham Center for Education and Research on Therapeutics (CERT). For more information on the CERTs program, visit the Centers for Education & Research on Therapeutics (CERTs) Web site.

See "Health and happiness among older adults: A community-based study," by Erik Angner, Ph.D., Midge N. Ray, M.S.N., M.Ed., R.N., Dr. Saag, and Jeroan J. Allison, M.D., M.S., in the May 2009 Journal of Health Psychology 14(4), pp. 503-512.

Current as of February 2010
Internet Citation: Many unhealthy people remain happy because they adapt to their medical conditions: Research Activities, February 2010, No. 354. February 2010. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, Rockville, MD. http://www.ahrq.gov/news/newsletters/research-activities/feb10/0210RA14.html