The height of happiness

Behind the Headlines

Wednesday September 9 2009

New research claims that taller people are happier people

“Tall people ‘lead better lives’,” according to BBC news, which has reported on a phone survey of 454,000 people that asked what their height was and what they thought of their lives.

This phone poll found that people who are of above average height generally report greater happiness in their lives and better emotions than people of below average height. However, although this is a very large survey, its limitations must be considered when interpreting the results. For example, each participant’s feelings and emotions were assessed on a single day and may be related to numerous unmeasured personal, social, professional or health-related reasons.

It is not possible for the roles of all these factors to be taken into account when assessing the relationship between happiness and the single factor of height. Also, with the use of only one day’s assessment, the survey taken is unlikely to give an indication of participants’ overall emotional wellbeing and contentment with their life, which is likely to show some variation between days and throughout life. Overall, this study does not prove that a person’s height has caused their current state of happiness or lack of it.

 

Where did the story come from?

Angus Deaton and Raksha Arora of Princeton University in the US, carried out this research. The study was supported by the National Institute on Aging and published in the journal Economics & Human Biology.

 

What kind of scientific study was this?

This is a cross-sectional study reporting on findings from a telephone poll conducted in the US called the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index. Polling began in January 2008, collecting data through a phone survey of around 1,000 people a day. By April 2009, the study authors had data from 454,065 adults aged 18 or over.

In addition to reporting their height, people evaluated their lives using the Cantril Self-Anchoring Striving Scale, a scale where step 0 of a ladder represents the worst possible life and step 10 the best possible life. The participants provided details of their household income and were asked if they had experienced particular emotions during the day prior to their interview.

 

What were the results of the study?

The survey found that men of above average height (177.8cm or 5' 10") were just over 1/7th of a step higher on the ladder than men of below average height (average ladder step 6.55 compared with 6.41). Women of above average height (162.6cm or 5'4") were just under 1/10th of a step above women below average height (ladder step 6.64 compared with 6.55).

Men who reported that their lives were the worst possible were more than 2cm shorter than the average man. Women who reported this were 1.3cm below average. However, those people who reported that their lives were the best possible were also shorter than average.

Overall, men and women of above average height rated their lives as better and were more likely to report positive emotions such as happiness and enjoyment in the previous day. Taller men were also less likely to report negative experiences such as sadness, physical pain and worry. However, taller people also reported stress and anger more frequently.

When the researchers performed their analysis, controlling for ethnicity and marital status, it did not seem to affect the relationship between height and happiness. However, when income and education were also taken into account, height had minimal effect on life happiness. Income had a parallel effect to height in its effects upon life happiness. The researchers calculated that the effect of moving from below- to above-average height would be equivalent to the effect of an 18% rise in income for women and a 24% rise for men.

 

What interpretations did the researchers draw from these results?

The researchers say that their associations between height and overall emotional happiness with their life cannot be attributed to demographic or ethnic differences but were almost entirely explained by the positive association between height and both income and education.

 

What does the NHS Knowledge Service make of this study?

This telephone poll has demonstrated that people who are above average height generally report more happiness in their lives and more positive emotions than people of below average height. However, although this is a very large survey, its findings should be taken in context, as there are numerous limitations to this sort of study. The participants’ feelings and emotions were assessed during a single telephone interview and may be related to numerous personal, social, professional or health-related reasons. It is not possible to take all of these things into account and adjust for them when assessing the relationship with the single factor of height.

Also, one day’s assessment, is unlikely to give an indication of the person’s overall emotional wellbeing and contentment with their life, which is likely to show some variation throughout life depending on circumstances.

Overall, this study does not prove that a person’s height has caused their current state of happiness, or lack of it.

Analysis by Bazian

Edited by NHS Choices

Links to the headlines

Tall people 'lead better lives'. BBC news, September 09 2009

Taller people make happier people. Daily Express, September 09 2009

On top of the world... taller people are happier with their lives, say scientists. Daily Mail, September 09 2009

Happiness a tall order. Daily Mirror, September 09 2009

Tall people 'lead happier lives'. The Daily Telegraph, September 09 2009

Links to the science

Deaton A and Arora R. Life at the top: The benefits of height. Economics & Human Biology, July 2009; Volume 7, Issue 2: 133-136

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