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Emotions Linked to Health Globally, Especially in Low-GDP Countries

Emotions Linked to Health Globally, Especially in Low-GDP Countries

by Shane J. Lopez, Ph.D., and Sarah Pressman, Ph.D.

In an article published last week in Psychological Science: A Journal of the Association for Psychological Science, we examined, along with Matt Gallagher, the link between emotions and health in representative samples from 142 countries collected in 2009 through the Gallup World Poll. Gallup surveyed respondents asking whether they experienced positive emotions -- such as happiness, enjoyment, and love -- and negative emotions -- such as sadness, stress, and worry -- a lot of the day "yesterday." Gallup also asked respondents about their health and their basic access to safety, shelter, and food.

Each of our three major findings was somewhat surprising:

  • Positive and negative emotions explain good health. Emotions accounted for nearly half (46.1%) of the variance in self-reported health.
  • The links between self-reported emotions and heath were stronger than the relative impact of hunger, homelessness, and threats to safety on health.
  • The link between positive emotion and health was stronger in low-GDP countries than in high-GDP countries.

Taken together, these results suggest that emotions are an important component of health everywhere. Being sad is not just an inconvenience, but is an important component of physical health that warrants attention from public health officials, the medical community, and social support systems. And being happy is not a frivolous byproduct of a good day. It is an indicator of good health that should be taken seriously.

The relationship between emotions and health around the world cannot simply be explained by a country's gross domestic product (GDP). In fact, the association between positive emotions and health is even stronger in low-GDP countries than in high-GDP countries.

If we take a look at a graphical representation of the data on positive emotions, health, and GDP, it seems that people in many poor countries are healthier than their country's wealth might suggest they would be. This is attributable to the role of positive emotions in their lives. Malawians, for example, have a strong connection between the enjoyment and happiness they experienced yesterday and their health. In the United States, the positive relationship between emotions and health is about half as strong as it is in Malawi. The GDP per capita in the U.S. is more than 130 times higher than it is in Malawi, but the strength of the link between positive emotions and health for Malawians washes out most of the health advantage for Americans.

GDP and basic access to food, shelter, and safety matter less to health than people's day-to-day feelings. Policymakers and health professionals around the world should consider emotions as indicators of physical well-being. This emotion-health link may prove to be a reason to measure gross national happiness. Pursuit of high GNH could elevate the health of the world's citizens.


Shane J. Lopez, Ph.D., is the author of Making Hope Happen.
Sarah Pressman, Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology at University of California, Irvine.

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