If you are overweight, you are not necessarily destined to be sad, says a new study from the University of Colorado–Boulder. The paper comes out today in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, and it tracks the three-way relationship between obesity, life satisfaction, and where you live. It finds, perhaps unsurprisingly, that obese men and women who live in U.S. counties with high levels of obesity are much happier than obese men and women who live in slenderer areas. Nor do people of “normal weight” enjoy much of an affective advantage in neighborhoods with more flesh per capita. “This illustrates the importance of looking like the people around you when it comes to satisfaction with life,” explains co-author Philip Pendergast. Truer words were never spoken, even by Leon Festinger, who first pioneered social comparison theory in 1954.
Researchers drew on a sample of 1.3 million adults across the country. The participants rated their happiness levels, which were then splayed across the obeso-meter by county. Might zaftig men and women in zaftig neighborhoods escape some of the stigma and unhappiness we assume comes with their body size? Might it be true that fatness is not an ineluctable prescription for suffering? Yep. “Where obesity is more common, there is less difference among obese, severely obese, and non-obese individuals’ life satisfaction,” the researchers write, “but where obesity is less common, the difference in life satisfaction between the obese (including the severely obese) and non-obese is greater. In that light, obesity in and of itself does not appear to be the main reason obese individuals tend to be less satisfied with their lives than their non-obese peers. Instead, it appears to be society’s response to or stigmatization of those that are different from what is seen as ‘normal’ that drives this relationship.”
To translate this finding into layperson-speak: The fat cells are not releasing George Saunders-esque depression chemicals into your bloodstream. If you are both heavyset and heavyhearted, it is more likely due to your neighbors being jerks (possibly because their blood sugar is low from living off celery like baleful rabbits). Or it is due to you comparing yourself to the Joneses and feeling inadequate. In fact, before controlling for location, severely obese men were 29 percent sadder than their normal weight counterparts, and severely obese women were 43 percent sadder. But when researchers moved from a county in the fifth percentile for obesity to one in the 95th percentile, that gap diminished by 79 percent for men and 60 percent for women.
Note the gender differential—women still pay a higher psychological price for extra poundage than men. “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,” says Pendergast, by way of unnecessary explanation. But the blade cuts both ways: As obesity rates rise, the emotional cost of fatness shrinks, which could create an unhealthy cycle if it reduces motivation to treat your body well.