Is Height a Factor in Our Health and Happiness?


Many factors come into play when determining human health and happiness. Is height one of them? Biddiboo/Getty Images
Many factors come into play when determining human health and happiness. Is height one of them? Biddiboo/Getty Images

Whether you're short, tall or somewhere in the middle, you're part of an ongoing debate about the impact of height on health and happiness.

As Stuff to Blow Your Mind hosts Robert Lamb and Christian Sager discover in the podcast episode "Height, Health and Human Happiness," there have been plenty of scientific studies exploring the nuances of human height. So, armed with this information, and considering both mental and physical health — is it better to be tall or short?

The Long and Short of It

The average height of people in industrialized countries has increased over the last 150 years by more than 4 inches (10.1 centimeters). The average height for women is now 5 feet 2 inches (157 centimeters) and for men, it is 5 feet 7.5 inches (174 centimeters).

This height increase lines up with what we know about height and its relationship to health, genetic potential and nutrition, especially during childhood. While genetics determines about 80 percent of a person's height, environment and upbringing dictate the rest. A child raised with nutrition-rich food and clean water, and who remains free of disease, can be as much as 3 to 4 inches (7.6 to 10.1 centimeters) taller than a child who lacks these basic advantages.

It's also easier to track height over time from a meta perspective. Historically, height was one of the only things consistently recorded about people because it was associated with health and income, so we have a consistent track on growth over the decades. There's also some evidence that as height increases, so do health and survival (and vice versa).

This circa-1926 photo illustrates the broad range of human height potential; the woman on the right is the average height of the time.
This circa-1926 photo illustrates the broad range of human height potential; the woman on the right is the average height of the time.
General Photographic Agency/Getty Images

So, looking through a wide lens, does height change the way a person experiences the world? Does being taller or shorter translate into increased health or happiness?

Is There a 'Healthy' Height?

Height appears to impact a number of health conditions, but locating consistency in the scientific findings is challenging, as Robert and Christian delve into. Being tall may lead to more instances of cancer. While women who are 5 feet 10 inches (178 centimeters) or taller are more likely to develop cancer than women who are 5 feet 2 inches (157 centimeters) or shorter, tall men are less at risk. But they're nearly three times as likely to develop blood clots, if they're also obese, that can lead to potentially deadly pulmonary embolisms.

On the upside, tall people appear less likely to get heart disease. For every 2.5 inches (6.35 centimeters) taller you are than someone of the same gender, your risk of heart disease diminishes by 14 percent, according to genetic determinants.

Measuring the Happiness of Height

And what about happiness? While there's no conclusive study to determine whether shorter or taller people are happier overall, a number of studies have examined the effect of height on specific human conditions.

For instance, a 2013 study in the journal Genome Biology examined 13,000 heterosexual couples, finding that people tend to gravitate toward mates of a similar height. And then there's the large-scale analysis in a 2004 issue of the Journal of Applied Psychology that concluded tall people experience a lifetime of advantages; people who are 6 feet tall (182 centimeters) or taller earn $100,000 more on average over a lifetime.

Despite this compelling data, there are too many variables to accurately predict whether being at either spectrum of the height range will make you happy or miserable. People are, above all else, individuals, and personalities and predilections will throw a monkey wrench in big data every time.