Emotions and Health: Not Just a “First-World Problem”

French writer and philosopher Voltaire said something along the lines of “I have decided to be happy because it is good for my health.” Is this just a vague philosophical aphorism or does it have any basis in science? In fact, decades of research point to the idea that emotions are indeed related to health in many ways. Negative emotions, such as feeling depressed, are related to numerous negative health outcomes (e.g., pain, disease, mortality). On the flip side, positive emotions such as happiness are related to positive health outcomes (e.g., better disease outcomes, longer life).

But, is there a catch to these findings? Most of this research has been done in industrialized, Western countries, typically using samples of middle- and upper-class adults. In other countries and other contexts where problems such as poverty, starvation, and homelessness may be more pressing problems than thinking about one’s daily levels of happiness, do the links between emotions and health outcomes disappear?

Sarah Pressman, a psychology professor at UC Irvine, and her colleagues sought to answer this question by looking at the connection between emotions and health in people from 142 different countries.

Using data from the Gallup World Poll, this study had a sample that was representative of 95% of the world’s population. Participants in the study were asked to report on their positive emotions (e.g., feeling love or happiness on the previous day), negative emotions (e.g., feeling worry, sadness, depression, or anger on the previous day), and self-reported health (e.g., experiencing pain, satisfaction with health). The researchers also measured whether participants’ basic needs (i.e., food, shelter, safety) were being met.

Refuting the idea that the relationship between emotions and health is just a “first-world problem,” both positive and negative emotions were uniquely related to self-reported health outcomes in this global sample.

Surprisingly, the effects of emotions on health outcomes were actually stronger than the effects of hunger, homelessness, and threats to safety. Moreover, the relationships between emotion and health seemed to be stronger in poorer countries compared to wealthier countries.

Together, these findings not only suggest that the relationship between our emotions and our health is not a “first-world problem,” but they also point to the idea that the connection may be even more important in less-developed countries.

In other words, as the authors put it, “emotions matter to health everywhere.” How we feel today may have an influence on our health whether we live in Southern California or Sierra Leone.