It’s not hard to see how being physically unwell is apt to make a person feel mentally bad, as well. In fact, it seems almost common sense.
Harder to grasp is the fact that positive feelings can bolster physical health in any way. That seems almost magical thinking. It’s sure easy to twist and simplify the idea into as much.
But just because “positive thinking” alone won’t cure this disease or that doesn’t mean it can’t do anything. Our attitudes can do quite a lot for our health, as a couple of recent studies on inflammation remind us.
The first, published this past June in Health Psychology, looked at nearly 900 participants’ emotional responses to normal daily stressors over the course of 8 days. Blood samples were taken to check for markers of inflammation. Those who were able to maintain a positive mood in the face of daily stressors showed lower levels of inflammation than those who reacted negatively.
Nancy Sin, postdoctoral fellow in the Center for Healthy Aging and Department of Biobehavioral Health at Penn State and her colleagues showed that the frequency of daily stressors, in and of itself, was less consequential for inflammation than how an individual reacted to those stressors.
“A person’s frequency of stress may be less related to inflammation than responses to stress,” says Sin. “It is how a person reacts to stress that is important.”
Similarly, a small but compelling study in the psychological journal Emotion found that while all manner of positive emotions seem to lower inflammation, awe – a sense of wonder or amazement that takes us outside ourselves – seems to pack an even stronger punch. Participants who experienced awe more frequently had the lowest inflammation levels of all. More, only the degree of awe was actually predictive of the interleukin-6 levels they measured – a standard marker for inflammation.
Why should this be? Plenty of hypotheses have been given to explain why positive emotions may be so beneficial to our health. A good summary – worth quoting at length – was provided by Sheldon Cohen and Sarah D. Pressman in their 2006 article for Current Directions in Psychological Science:
Higher trait PA [positive affect] has been associated with better health practices such as improved sleep quality, more exercise, and more intake of dietary zinc, as well as with lower levels of the stress hormones epinephrine, norepinephrine, and cortisol (Pressman & Cohen, 2005). PA has also been hypothesized to be associated with other health-relevant hormones, including increases in oxytocin and growth hormone and secretion of endogenous opioids. Induced PA in the laboratory has been shown to alter various aspects of immune function, although the direction of changes are not entirely consistent and seem to be dependent on details of the manipulation and the degree of arousal produced via the induction (see Pressman & Cohen, 2005). PA may also influence health by altering social interactions. Persons who report more PA socialize more often and maintain more and higher-quality social ties. PA may result in more and closer social contacts because it facilitates approach behavior and because others are drawn to form attachments with pleasant individuals. More diverse and closer social ties have been associated with lower risk for both morbidity and premature mortality. Finally, health care providers may be more attentive to persons with more pleasant affect.
As an alternative to the arguments above, which assume that PA directly affects health, PA may influence health primarily through its ability to ameliorate the potentially pathogenic influences of stressful life events. For example, Fredrickson (1998) suggests that positive emotions encourage exploration and creativity and result in the building of social, intellectual, and physical re- sources. Similarly, Salovey, Rothman, Detweiler, and Steward (2000) suggest that positive emotions generate psychological resources by promoting resilience, endurance, and optimism. [emphasis added]
Considering the benefits, we might all do well to work on cultivating a positive frame of mind, regardless of our current health status. Granted this can seem a tall order. Turn on the news or browse your Twitter Facebook feed, and you’ll likely find no shortage of reasons for anger, fear, sorrow, anxiety, disgust. “Outrage fatigue” seems an increasingly common complaint.
But you can just as well look for things to stir hope, to motivate and inspire.
Shouldn’t we be at least as concerned with what we put into our minds as with what we put into our bodies?
That’s not to say we should choose to be ignorant or that all negative emotions are inherently bad. There’s a time and place for anger, for sorrow – for every activity under the heavens, as the Bible puts it. The goal is balance. From there, we may become more empowered to face the bad with equanimity, to channel anger into positive action – action to make things better, to transform fear into courage to forge ahead.
Here are some of our favorite sources for dropping a daily measure of goodness into your brain:
What are some of yours?