Always look on the bright side of life

How a positive sầu outlook may buffer us from găng and ward off health problems 


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A sunny disposition isn’t just good for your mental health. It’s good for your toàn thân, too. It can even add years to your life. Sarah Pressman, a health psychologist at the University of California, Irvine, has spent her career investigating the links between positive sầu emotions and physical health.

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In the 2019 Annual đánh giá of Psychology, she & her colleagues explore why a positive sầu outlook generates physical health benefits. Knowable asked her about some of the high points, và how doctors & their patients can make use of the knowledge. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.


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CREDIT: JAMES PROVOST (CC BY-ND)

Psychologist Sarah Pressman

University of California, Irvine


How did you get interested in studying this?

For decades, researchers have sầu been studying all the detrimental ways that căng thẳng can make us siông xã & lead khổng lồ pain, and minor và major illness. As a graduate student, I got interested in the opposite: What can protect our bodies against the harmful effects of stress? At that time, in the early 2000s, the field of positive psychology was really just starting. I saw a natural synergy there — there are these positive sầu factors, & maybe they could be protective against căng thẳng & have health benefits, or at least protect us against health harm.

And does a positive outlook make a measurable difference?

The negative sầu effect on your health of being socially isolated is stronger than the effect of being overweight, a regular smoker or a heavy drinker. That kind of comparison hasn’t been done yet in positive emotion retìm kiếm. But there’s a host of studies — probably in the dozens now — that show that people who are more positive tend lớn live usually five sầu to lớn 10 years longer than those individuals who are less positive. That’s a pretty large effect.

What causes this effect?

We have a lot of hypotheses. Positive emotion changes our bít tất tay perception so stressors don’t seem as bad. It changes how we react lớn stressors, và it helps us recover. Both our bít tất tay reaction and our căng thẳng recovery have sầu been shown to lớn predict important outcomes. Piông chồng a disease — heart disease, for example. If you feel calmer, your blood pressure is lower, your heart rate is lower. And we know one of the things that predicts heart disease is arteries blocked up with plaques. And where vì chưng those plaques come from? Partially, from damage from high-speed, high-pressure blood. If your blood pressure is lower, & your heart rate is lower, you have sầu less of that turbulent blood flow, và therefore over time you might have sầu less damage lớn arteries and less plaque.

Positive sầu emotions also change how our immune system works. We don’t know exactly how, but we vày know that if I make you feel positive sầu, if I make you feel calm, we change the numbers of your immune cells, & we tend to lớn drop your inflammation cấp độ. For example, there’s a marker of inflammation called interleukin 6, or IL-6. People who are generally more positive sầu, or who are induced to feel more positive sầu, have lower levels of IL-6.

But even aside from that, when we are feeling positive, we’re much more likely khổng lồ engage in healthier behavior. We take better care of ourselves, we’re more likely lớn sleep better và exercise, we have sầu a better diet. People who are more positive tend khổng lồ have sầu more relationships, better-unique relationships. They’re more likely lớn be married và stay married for longer. If you have good relationships, those people will encourage you to lớn take care of yourself.

That gives us some really compelling pathways for how this can happen, both on the behavioral end and by directly altering cardiovascular function, hormonal function, immune function. If I’m happy today, that doesn’t mean I’m going lớn live longer. But if I’m happy for a few years, that might make a difference.

How bởi we know that positive emotion causes better health, rather than the other way around?

To vị the perfect study would require that we experimentally assign people to an intervention that makes them happier, or less happy, và see if that affects longevity. That has not been done. But we have a lot of studies of groups of people where we know the health and the emotional state of each person at the start. We control for sociodemographic factors, we control for medications và immune function. So we know that those people who were less happy at the beginning weren’t less happy because they were already more sichồng.

Then we can look over time. If you control for smoking & health at the start và you still see the effect of positive emotion five or 10 years later, it’s more suggestive sầu than a study looking at people at just one point in time and just saying, “Oh, happy people feel healthier.”


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Have sầu you also done experiments?

We measured people’s naturally occurring positive sầu emotions. Then they were experimentally wounded. It was kind of a nasty study, actually. We damaged their skin by putting tape on it over & over and ripping the tape off. We monitored lớn see how quickly water was being lost from the skin surface. As that water loss decreases, we know the skin cells are healing. This is really an immune-system function test, because the more quickly your immune system is able lớn traffic Trắng blood cells lớn the injury, the faster you will heal. We saw about a 20 percent shorter healing time for those individuals who were more positive sầu versus those who were less positive sầu.

There is another study, not yet published, where we manipulated positive emotion. There’s something called the facial feedbachồng hypothesis, where if you nhái an emotion, it sends a message lớn your brain that you’re feeling that emotion. If we trick people inkhổng lồ smiling by holding things in their mouth, it can trigger a positive emotion.

So we had people smile while getting a fake flu shot. Some people were smiling and others were not. Those who were smiling had about 40 percent less pain from that needle, và their heart rate recovered faster from the găng of it.

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Do we know that positive emotions — and not just the absence of negative sầu ones — are causing the benefit?

That we actually know really, really well. Through the last 20 years of research, almost every study does a good job of accounting for that by controlling for negative emotions.

Time & time again, you see that it really does seem to lớn be the presence of positivity, independent of negativity, that’s driving health effects. It’s the presence of positive emotions, not the absence of negative ones, that can help unvì stress. If I have sầu to lớn give a talk và I’m feeling neutral, that isn’t helping me — but if I can say, “Actually, I’m really excited about giving this talk,” that can change my căng thẳng trajectory. That’s very different than the absence of a negative emotion.

Are there health conditions where a positive sầu attitude doesn’t help?

For individuals who have sầu a serious chronic illness that’s far gone — stage 4 cancer, end-stage kidney disease — the data are inconsistent. Some studies show benefit, some show harm, some show no effect. If we’re talking about a minute immunological change from laughing, that’s not going to kill millions of cancer cells.


On the other h&, if you are feeling hopeful & positive, và able khổng lồ adhere to lớn your doctor’s recommendations, & take the medications that you’re supposed to lớn, and exercise when you’re supposed to lớn, & quit smoking, those things are helped by positive sầu emotions, & can have sầu an important role in helping at earlier stages.

This is something we have sầu lớn work on, because if people want to lớn design positive interventions for these severe illnesses, we have sầu khổng lồ really underst& when it will be helpful. That’s a really important next step for the field.

Isn’t there a risk that people with serious diseases will be stigmatized into lớn thinking it’s their own fault for not being more positive?

We certainly don’t want khổng lồ say that. There’s absolutely no evidence in health psychology that being unhappy causes cancer, or causes disease khổng lồ happen. If someone gets diagnosed with cancer, you don’t want khổng lồ tell them to be happy all the time. There’s good evidence that keeping negative sầu feelings locked up inside is harmful lớn our health. They have khổng lồ go somewhere. You have lớn let it out — express your negativity và process it. Once you’ve sầu accomplished that, we can try khổng lồ teach you how lớn find benefit.

It is very important for people to deeply understvà the power of mind over body, because if you are depressed and you are stressed it can be hurting you, & we want to lớn help you cope with that. There is value in pursuing happiness. It’s not a selfish, silly, soft thing that you don’t have sầu to lớn vị. This is actually an important piece of being a healthy human. And at a time when your health is compromised it can be especially important.

Are there ways to lớn change people’s happiness level? Aren’t some people innately Eeyores và others Poohs?

Some work suggests that as much as 40 percent lớn 50 percent of happiness is based on genetics — you just luông chồng into lớn being born a more positive person. But that leaves a lot of room khổng lồ manipulate.


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A good amount of our day-to-day wellbeing — maybe 30 percent to 40 percent — is due lớn how we choose to spkết thúc our time. We can choose to spkết thúc our time on things we know improve sầu positive sầu emotion, like spending time with the people we love, having good relationships, getting enough sleep, exercising.

But on top of that, there are some specific, well-researched interventions — little tweaks that can help you focus on positive things. We can train our brains khổng lồ hang onlớn positive sầu emotions, which should help promote that positive emotion in our daily lives. Some of the more popular activities are gratitude exercises, where before you go khổng lồ bed you write down three things you’re grateful for, và meditation.

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The nice thing about happiness is you don’t have khổng lồ buy some expensive medicine. Much of this is miễn phí. Happiness is not just a luxury that rich people should be pursuing — it’s something that absolutely everyone should be investing time in every day.