The Happiness Pill: Prescription for Patients Beyond Medications

During the recent holidays, the cardio-oncology clinic at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, where I am a cardiologist with specialty in cardio-oncology, was busy as usual, filled with cancer patients living with the complications of heart disease.

Some patients arrived with visiting relatives. There was laughter, with many discussing menus, who is cooking, whose home they planned to visit for the holiday, and what relatives were in town.

Those usual multiple complaints from these same patients were less frequent. The usual anxiety associated with cancer and cancer therapy seemed less at the forefront overall.

Indeed, the list of patients admitted and expected to stay in the hospital into the New Year week was much smaller than on usual days. This means that mostly the sickest were staying in the hospital.

Is it the happy factor that makes the difference?

A 2017 psychology study showed that subjective well-being — as a measure of happiness — influenced most determinants of health. These health determinants include chest pains and cardiovascular health including hypertension, mental health including depression, anxiety and stress, longevity and survival, pain perception, allergies, the immune system and risk of infection and obesity.

These same determinants are the most common health problems plaguing the United States. According to a 2013 Mayo Clinic study, pain, anxiety/depression and infection are among the top-10 reasons for doctor’s visits on that list. Necessary medications are therefore prescribed to help combat many of these health problems.

This unfortunately comes at a price, sometimes steep.

The price of a long list of medications is a long list of possible side effects, which in turn leads to more medications to combat the adverse effects of the initially administered medications — eventually leading to a cycle of one health issue possibly creating another.

As a physician who prescribes medications to help treat heart disease and illness in patients who are sometimes terminally ill, I am aware of the health benefits of medications. And I most assuredly know that most of these medications are important and often vital to treatment of disease and survival. However, I also understand the enormous benefits of attitude, happiness and non-medical support on a patient’s overall health.

Medicine Net reports that the top-10 prescription medications in the United States treat pain, cardiovascular disease including hypertension, and infection — again, diseases on that top-10 list of health determinants influenced by subjective well-being as a happiness measure. Additional medications on that list treat mostly inflammatory diseases such as thyroid disease and diabetes, which can also be caused by obesity. Inflammatory diseases and obesity are also on that top-10 list.

This same connection between happiness and health is well-noted in some recent surveys.  Some of the top-10 happiest countries such as Iceland, Switzerland, Sweden and Norway, track closely with the top-10 healthiest countries as ranked by the 2019 Bloomberg Healthiest Country Index. Unfortunately, the United States is not top 10 on either of these lists.

The importance of happiness was further emphasized in a 2015 National Institutes of Health study of the General Social Survey-National Death Index dataset, which revealed that unhappy people were more likely to die than happy people. This is independent of marital status, socioeconomic status, census division and religious attendance.

No doubt, happiness is not the cure-all for illness and disease, and there is more to prevention and treatment of illness and disease than just being happy. Nonetheless, existing data make a compelling argument for happiness as a major factor in preventing and even treating illness.

As we all know it, most folks would buy happiness if it could be packaged in a pill. The long-term effects would be much improved overall health, leading to overall liberation from the burden of taking some drugs and medications.

But because it is not possible, the best advice is to try and replicate the happiness many feel surrounded by family and friends in celebration. Repeat this practice every day for life, and maybe we can all live longer.


Dr. Tochukwu (Tochi) Okwuosa is a cardiologist and an associate professor of medicine at Rush University Medical Center, and she is the director of the Cardio-Oncology Program at Rush, the vice chair of the cardio-oncology committee for the American Heart Association, and a Rush Public Voice fellow.

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