Study finds happier teens are healthier

A study by researchers at USF has discovered that the healthiest teenagers are also the happiest – becoming one of the first of its kind.

The results concluded that positive mental health contributes more to physical health than a negative mental state.

“There is only a small amount of positive psychology research compared to the rest of the field,” said conductor of the study Emily Shaffer-Hudkins from the pediatrics department, “And even fewer studies that focus on youth. The study was the first to examine the extent to which both wellness-focused and illness-focused indicators of mental health relate to physical heath perceptions among teens.”

The team of researchers, including Shaffer-Hudkins,School Psychology Program professor Shannon Suldoand USF doctoral candidates Troy Loker and Amanda March, examined questionnaires that were given to 401 teenagers, ranging from the 6th to 8th grades, rating their perceived mental health, levels of happiness and overall perception of physical health.

“The most salient findings from the study were that subjective well-being accounted for almost 10 percent more of the variance in physical health than accounted for by measures of mental problems, such as depression and anxiety,” Shaffer-Hudkins said. “Basically, knowing how happy a teen is with their life gives us a stronger link to their physical health than knowing how unhappy they are. In this sample, happier youth are healthier youth.”

The study, which was published this month in the scientific journal Applied Research in Quality of Life, is quite different than that of most psychological studies since the focal point is positive emotions.

“Typically, psychology focuses on helping people get rid of mental health problems such as depression and thus,
making them mentally healthy again,” she said. “However, positive psychology researchers focus on the idea that the absence of mental health problems is not enough. We can go beyond that by helping individuals be happy with their life and experience positive emotions, and, in turn, they may be healthier, physically and emotionally, too.”

Shaffer-Hudkins said that many of the methods used by adults to improve their mental health are just as effective for children and teenagers. Some such methods that are proven to increase subjective well-being include keeping a “gratitude journal of three things you are most grateful for each day,” thanking someone the subject has never properly thanked before and writing a story that reflects a time when they were at their best, she said.

The team will continue to develop their research, she said, by measuring mental wellbeing before and after such methods are introduced, developing additional methods and applying their findings to other areas.

“Our positive psychology research team is continuing to assess levels of mental wellbeing in youth and how these relate to various outcomes, including academic achievement, physical health, social skills, etc,” she said.

Just as a positive perceived mental wellbeing contributes greatly to good physical health, Shaffer-Hudkins said a negative perception on wellbeing showed to have negative effects on physical health. The study has brought attention to psychological research at USF and has created a new need for increased physical wellness promotion among adolescents.

This could include an increased emphasis on school-wide and community programming that encourages health-promoting behaviors like regular physical activity, keeping a balanced diet and refraining from substance abuse, she said.

“In terms of future research needs, our findings must be considered a preliminary investigation that utilized convenience sampling and cross-sectional design,” she said. “Replications with other samples of youth, using more rigorous designs, are needed. In terms of policy implications, a comprehensive wellness model includes a focus on both mind and body.”