Good Vibes For Better Health: The emerging science of positive emotional state of mind and health
By David Muehsam, Ph.D.
Reproduced from: https://www.chi.is/resource/positive-emotions
The idea that emotions are linked with physical health is nothing new. 2400 years ago, Hippocrates posited that good health is due to the balance of four bodily humors, which also contribute to one’s temperament (Sternberg 1997). And throughout the history of medicine, the dominant belief has been that mental, emotional and spiritual factors are the primary causes of both health and disease, until this viewpoint was surpassed by advances in modern biology that promoted a chemistry-based view (Kiecolt-Glaser 2002).
Over the last two decades, the idea that emotions and the mind play important roles in health has reemerged in biology. While modern biochemistry has focused on the molecules that make up our bodies, the emerging field of psychoneuroimmunology has provided new insights into the connections between these molecules and our mental and emotional selves.
For example, fifteen years ago, a review by Janice Kiecolt-Glaser at Ohio State University concluded that negative emotions such as depression and anxiety are associated with higher risks of mortality, heart disease and cancer, and can contribute to prolonged infection and delayed wound healing (Kiecolt-Glaser 2002).
Kiecolt-Glaser also reviewed the biochemical correlates of stress and negative emotions, and showed that negative emotions are associated with increased pro-inflammatory activity and compromised immune and endocrine system responses, all of which can contribute to poorer health (Kiecolt-Glaser 2002).
Similarly, a series of studies from the group of Steve Cole at UCLA showed that stress due to social isolation and loneliness is associated with increased pro-inflammatory signaling and reduced immune system responses, and that this psychosocial stress is actually reflected in DNA activity through the expression of the particular genes that regulate these health-critical activities (Cole 2014).
Well, these studies showed that stress and negative emotional states are linked with negative health outcomes. But what about positive emotional states? Could these have positive impacts on health? Could cultivating better emotional health be a path to better physical health?
We’re beginning to have better answers to these questions. Data from a long-term study on aging by the US Veterans Administration showed that overall psychological distress (measured by anxiety) and well-being (measured by happiness and life satisfaction) had opposite effects on DNA activity for genes that regulate the inflammation associated with coronary heart disease (Kim 2015).
And another answer may lie in a recent study from Jennifer Stellar of the University of Toronto which linked seven positive emotions – amusement, awe, compassion, contentment, joy, love and pride – with levels of the pro-inflammatory signaling molecule Interleukin-6 (IL-6) in samples taken from freshman undergraduates (Stellar 2015).
Participants answered questionnaires that assessed how much they generally experience particular emotions, measured by how strongly they agreed/disagreed with statements such as “I feel wonder almost every day” (awe), or “I am an intensely cheerful person” (joy).
Stellar found that awe, joy, contentment, and pride were each correlated with lower pro-inflammatory IL-6 levels, and interestingly, when all of these emotions were pooled together in a group analysis, one of them was found to be the strongest predictor of low IL-6: awe.
I already find it quite awe-inspiring that awe was the emotion most highly correlated with lower IL-6 pro-inflammatory signaling, but Stellar went one step further: she also asked the participants how much awe, wonder, and amazement they felt on the day of the test, and found that the daily values for these three emotions were also correlated with lower levels of IL-6, with awe again being the strongest predictor.
We need more long-term studies to better understand to what degree putting out the good vibes every day could lead to better health, make one live longer, and perhaps treat particular diseases. What we do know today is that our emotional and social wellbeing is indeed linked with our health, and science is beginning to better understand how our inner world of feelings is as real as the atoms and molecules that make up the cells in our bodies.
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