Chronic Pain Linked to Depression But Not Happiness Levels

If previous research has shown a correlation between chronic pain and depression, it's only natural that the same can be said about chronic pain and happiness – right? A new study shows that's not the case.

If previous research has shown a correlation between chronic pain and depression, it’s only natural that the same can be said about chronic pain and happiness — right? A new study shows that’s not the case.

Presented at the 34th Annual American Pain Society Scientific Meeting in Palm Springs, CA, a team from Stanford University worked to determine the relationship between the 2 factors.

“Our first objective was to explore differences in self-reported happiness in individuals with chronic pain versus individuals without,” the authors explained. “Our second objective was to understand the relationship between pain and happiness, taking into account various factors.”

The team used several measures including the 4-item Subjective Happiness Scale (only using the first 3-items due to participant confusion with the last) as well as self-reported demographics, pain ratings, experience of life, somatic domains, and affective domains. Also, subjects underwent a fMRI imagery task in order to analyze “catastrophic pain” and “relaxing peacefully” states.

The participant pool consisted of 148 individuals, 77 male and 71 female, between the ages of 18 and 65. Their pain diagnoses and medication use varied:

  • 43 with low back pain and no opioids
  • 36 healthy controls
  • 32 patients on methadone maintenance therapy at abuse clinics
  • 23 recovering from acute low back pain
  • 14 with low back pain and taking opioids

Interestingly enough, the researchers did not find any correlation between pain and happiness. Even though both pain and emotions are processed in the brain, the results showed that one doesn’t have an effect on the other.

“When patients performed imagery of “relaxing peacefully”, we found more activation of insula, prefrontal cortex, and primary sensory cortex that was correlated with greater self-reported happiness,” the team explained.

It was noted that anxiety and pain catastrophizing may link pain and happiness, however, the report failed to show a direct parallel between them.