The news is full of reports about the "obesity epidemic" in the U.S., and, in fact, the prevalence of obesity increased by 61% between 1991 and 2000. As of 2010 approximately 36% of both adult women and men were classified as obese. The link between obesity and poor physical health conditions has long been established, but more recently researchers have shown a negative relationship between obesity and happiness, or subjective well-being (SWB), even to the point of it causing depression. Although obesity may cause lower levels of SWB, it can be argued that the opposite can also be true, that a low level of SWB can contribute to obesity, but researchers have shown that the influence of obesity on emotional well being holds true even when controlling for this.
Although the harmful health effects of obesity can negatively affect a person's emotional state, it is also possible that the social stigma associated with obesity can produce a lower level of happiness. Researchers at the University of Colorado, Boulder wanted to look into this idea further and see if the impact of obesity on SWB was influenced by the prevalence of obesity in a given population. The results of their study were published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior in a paper entitled Obesity (Sometimes) Matters: The Importance of Context in the Relationship between Obesity and Life Satisfaction.
The researchers used data from the Centers for Disease Control's (CDC) Behavior Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS) to explore if the relationship between obesity and life satisfaction was affected by the level of obesity rates at the county level. Conducted since 1984, the BRFSS is the largest telephone survey in the U.S. used to track health conditions. All BRFSS surveys collect data on respondents' height and weights, so the BMI of participants could be calculated, but the 2005 and 2008 surveys asked about overall life satisfaction, too.
The results show that obese people are happier when they live in a community where obesity is more common. The results varied for men and woman. Before controlling for where people live, severely obese men had a 29% lower chance than normal-sized people of reporting that they were "very satisfied" with their lives, but the same figure for severely obese women was 43%. In counties were obesity is common, 79% of this gap is eliminated for men and about 60% is eliminated for women. Why does obesity take a greater emotional toll on women? One of the authors of the study, Philip Pendergast explains, "Think about the advertising we see on television or in magazines-we are bombarded by images of thin women, and we are told that is the ideal."
The study also provides insight into the growing rates of obesity. Says Pendergast, "Our findings demonstrate that where obesity is most prevalent, the difference in life satisfaction between the obese and non-obese is smaller for women and almost non-existent for men," he said. "The same relationship is likely to exist over time and, as such, the emotional cost and advantage of obesity and non-obesity, respectively, may be decreasing as the prevalence of obesity increases. If this is the case, then some of the motivation for remaining thin is lessening over time, perhaps offering further insight into why obesity prevalence has increased so dramatically in recent years."
So, it seems we've gotten ourselves into a vicious circle, where as the emotional cost of obesity declines, it leads to more obese people, leading to fewer emotional costs. Although the findings of this study may seem obvious, their documentation demonstrates how important it is to break this cycle as part of the continuing fight against obesity.