Happy Youths are Healthy Youths

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Emily Shaffer-Hudkins and her team from the University of South Florida have found that happy youths are healthy youths. Thus far the majority of the research looking at the relationship between mental health and physical health in young people has focused on how symptoms of poor mental health, or psychopathology, such as anxiety and depression, relate to physical functioning.

Shaffer-Hudkins believes this approach does not take into account the potential influence of positive indicators of mental health, such as positive emotions and mood states and life satisfaction, known as subjective well-being.

Shaffer-Hudkins’ study is the first to look at both positive and negative indicators of mental health in relation to physical health. She sampled 400 students in grades 6 through 8 from southeastern middle schools. In the survey, the school kids rated their satisfaction with life, whether they had recently felt excited, strong and proud (positive affect) as well as lonely, guilty and sad (negative affect).

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These teens were asked about feeling withdrawn, anxious and depressed and about delinquent and aggressive behavior (all indicators of psychopathology). The final questions were about their physical health.

What the researchers founds was that good physical health was soundly linked to life satisfaction and feeling excited, strong and proud. The teens who said they felt lonelier, guiltier, more anxious and depressed and who were more likely to display undesirable behaviors reported being less healthy physically.

Mental health indicators explained 30 percent of the difference in physical health ratings and four out of the five mental health indicators were unique predictors of physical health. Positive affect in particular had the greatest effect.

The authors suggested that both positive and negative indicators of mental health need to be explored when developing a complete model of mental health. Wellness models need to be holistic with a combined mind and body approach.

Shaffer-Hudkins’ conclude: “Findings from the current study underscore the importance of attending to positive wellness-focused indicators of mental health among youth. Subjective well-being is a significant, unique, and primary predictor of important physical health outcomes in youth and is more strongly associated with physical functioning than is psychopathology. Examining only psychopathology may lead to an underestimation of the relationship between mental health and physical health in young people.”

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