Can Quitting Smoking Improve Your Mood?

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Quitting smoking is certainly healthy for the body, but doctors and scientists haven’t been sure whether quitting makes people happier, especially since conventional wisdom says many smokers use cigarettes to ease anxiety and depression.

In a new study, researchers tracked the symptoms of depression in people who were trying to quit and found that they were never happier than when they were being successful, for however long that was.

Based on their results, the authors of the article published in the online journal Nicotine & Tobacco Research recommend that smokers embrace quitting as a step toward improving mental as well as physical health, said Christopher Kahler, corresponding author and research professor of community health at the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University.

Quitting is not, as some smokers may fear, a grim psychological sacrifice to be made for the sake of longevity.

“The assumption has often been that people might smoke because it has antidepressant properties and that if they quit it might unmask a depressive episode,” said Kahler. “What’s surprising is that at the time when you measure smokers’ mood, even if they’ve only succeeded for a little while, they are already reporting less symptoms of depression.”

The most illustrative — and somewhat tragic — subjects were the ones who only quit temporarily. Their moods were clearly brightest at the checkups when they were abstinent. After going back to smoking, their mood darkened, in some cases to higher levels of sadness than before. The strong correlation in time between increased happiness and abstinence is a tell-tale sign that the two go hand-in-hand, said Kahler, who is based at Brown’s Center for Alcohol and Addiction Studies (CAAS).

Subjects who never quit remained the unhappiest of all throughout the study. The ones who quit and stuck with abstinence were the happiest to begin with and remained at the same strong level of happiness throughout.

Looking at the data, Kahler said, it is difficult to believe that smoking serves as an effective way to medicate negative feelings and depression, even if some people report using tobacco for that reason. In fact, he said, the opposite seems more likely — that quitting smoking eases depressive symptoms.

“If they quit smoking their depressive symptoms go down and if they relapse, their mood goes back to where they were,” he said. “An effective antidepressant should look like that.”

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