Can Happiness Reverse the Negative Effects of Loneliness?

Older adults are especially vulnerable to feelings of loneliness. Many older individuals experience the death of friends, family members, and spouses. As physical health declines in older age, individuals may not be able to participate in social activities that they once enjoyed. These factors all contribute to loneliness. Feelings of loneliness have been shown to have negative health consequences, including high blood pressure and cardiovascular problems. Psychological issues such as depression and anxiety have been linked to loneliness in older individuals as well. It is well known that physical activity can improve both physical and psychological health. But for individuals who struggle with loneliness, the perception of pursuing physically fortifying activities may be daunting. Nancy E. G. Newall of the Centre on Aging and the Department of Community Health Sciences at the University of Manitoba in Canada wanted to explore the theory that positive emotions can counteract the negative consequences of loneliness.

To address this question, Newall tested the Broaden and Build Theory that suggests that positive feelings can reverse negative feelings associated with loneliness. Newall followed 228 older adults and assessed their levels of physical health, physical activity, and affect over 1 year. Seven years later, Newall compared the initial data to mortality rates in the participants. She found that loneliness strongly predicted lower physical activity but not daily activity. Specifically, the individuals with high levels of loneliness still completed activities of daily living but were less inclined to be involved in deliberate exercise than those without loneliness. Additionally, the loneliest participants also had the highest mortality rates. In contrast, Newall found a direct link between positive feelings of happiness and physical health and psychological well-being. This finding was sustained even in participants with symptoms of depression, which suggests that depression and loneliness are independent and unique emotional states. Newall hopes that clinicians and elderly individuals can benefit from the evidence provided in this study. She added, “To conclude, results from this study suggest that if you are lonely, having moments of happiness can be especially crucial.”

Newall, N. E. G., Chipperfield, J. G., Bailis, D. S., Stewart, T. L. (2012). Consequences of loneliness on physical activity and mortality in older adults and the power of positive emotions. Health Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0029413

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The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Gunther

    August 27th, 2012 at 3:55 PM

    loneliness leads to depression, no?
    so maybe that’s why you see the lower levels of deliberate activity among this group that has the higher rates of loneliness.
    and how can you be lonely but happy at the same time?
    for me if I am lonely then I am less inclined to be happy

  • lawson scoggins

    August 27th, 2012 at 5:10 PM

    One of the greatest things that my parents ever did was to get involved in our local senior center in town. It gives them immediate friends, activities to participate in that they are interested in, and a way to stay active that appeals to their sense of what they can still do physically. I strongly encourage any adult children of older parents to try to find a way for them to get involved in something like this that could be so meaningful for them.

  • Fleming

    August 28th, 2012 at 1:02 AM

    While happiness is always a welcome thing, it depends on what you define happiness as. A momentary fragment of happiness will not do much to extinguish walls of loneliness in my belief. And the people you share the happiness with also matters.

  • Charlotte

    August 28th, 2012 at 4:08 AM

    You can go through the rituals of living life daily but that doesn’t mean you are fully engaged if you are experiencing severe forms of loneliness and depression. It is hard to fully engage when you are having these depressed feelings because they are not allowing you to fully and freely enjoy life as it is meant to be.

  • s.Nichols

    August 28th, 2012 at 2:00 PM

    loneliness and sadness go hand in hand if you ask me.its not like one cannot be happy when alone but there is far more chance of being happy when things are shared and connections made.this cannot be stressed enough when considering the older folk.they are always looking for someone to interact with and talk to and loneliness can certainly cause a dent in their feelings of happiness.

  • Bowen d

    August 30th, 2012 at 4:37 AM

    When you feel strong physically then you feel strong mentally.

    I work in a group home setting for aging adults and I see those who have given up on life retreat into themselves while those who choose to remain active are always the most upbeat and positive about life. The hardest thing that I encounter is encouraging those who are having a difficult time with the aging process is to try to find something positive to believe about aging, that it is not all bad, and that there are ways to remain vital and engaging up until the time that you will die. But that if they go arund all doom and gloom that is what the rest of their lives will feel like.

  • Johnk603

    May 24th, 2014 at 8:04 PM

    I do agree with all the ideas you have introduced for your post. They are really convincing and can certainly work. Still, the posts are very brief for newbies. May you please extend them a bit from subsequent time? Thank you for the post.

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