November 9 2016

How being positive improves your health

Associate Professor Dianne Vella-Brodrick MAPS
By Associate Professor and Deputy Director at the Centre for Positive Psychology at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education at the University of Melbourne

A growing body of evidence reveals feeling happy is linked with better physical and psychological health.

In 2003 a landmark study revealed what psychologists had long suspected: that people who experience positive emotions are at a reduced risk of disease. Researchers assessed a group of 334 people aged 18 to 54 for their tendency to experience positive emotions like happiness, pleasure and relaxation along with negative emotions like anxiety, hostility and depression. Participants were then injected with nasal drops containing the common cold.

People who expressed more positive emotions were less likely to develop the common cold, and the relationship was so strong that it held across age, gender, education, race, body mass and even season.

Since then, psychologists have continued to probe the link between feeling good and being well in a new field of research called ‘positive psychology’. Importantly, this new discipline extends beyond disease models of health such as whether we have a cold and seeks to define what it means to be healthy in positive terms.

Positive psychology and health

Positive psychology encompasses a variety of techniques that encourage us to identify and develop positive emotions, experiences and character traits. According to a study in the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine, “Positive psychology urges attention to what is taking place on the other side of the zero point of being problem-free.

“It calls for as much focus on strength as on weakness, as much interest in building the best things in life as in repairing the worst, and as much attention to fulfilling the lives of healthy people as to healing the wounds of the distressed. Research findings from positive psychology are intended to contribute to a more complete and balanced scientific understanding of human experiences and ways to foster thriving in individuals, communities and societies.”

When it comes to health, positive psychology goes beyond the idea that wellness is simply the absence of illness and instead looks at the body as a complete system. Along with being disease-free – indeed, research shows that being optimistic is linked to improved heart health, – positive health is defined by less frequent and briefer ailments, greater recuperative ability and rapid wound healing. What’s more, people who experience positive emotions are more likely to live longer than people who are less happy (but not depressed).

In addition to how long a person lives, there is also emphasis on how well a person has lived and this is often referred to as ‘quality adjusted life years’. Here the emphasis is on quality of life rather than on quantity of life alone.

How do feelings impact on health?

So what’s going on in the brain when we experience positive emotions? When we develop strong and meaningful connections with other people a hormone called oxytocin is released, which makes us feel good. This happens in the brain’s dopamine reward system which manages how we perceive pleasure – and problems with this system can lead to depression and other mental health problems. Research has found that warm touch such as hugging, particularly among loved ones, releases oxytocin and improves physiological health.

When oxytocin flows through the body it lowers stress hormones, which reduces blood pressure, improves mood and increases tolerance for pain. The result? Improved mental and physical health. The moral of this story, as told by positive psychology advocate Chris Peterson, is that other people matter.

There’s also evidence to suggest that people who are resilient and adaptable (read: positive) have lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol and higher levels of heart rate variability, which is associated with a reduced risk of heart disease.

For example, a recent study by my colleagues and I found the ‘cortisol awakening response’ (CAR) – a rush of the hormone that we experience when we wake up – is associated with negative feelings and inversely related with feeling good, life satisfaction and feeling supported by family and friends.

Further research has found that loving-kindness meditation – the practice of directing well-wishes towards other people – increases vagal tone (a central part of our social engagement system) as measured by heart rate variability. In other words, practising a contemplative practice that promotes care and goodwill towards others can increase social connectedness, demonstrating that the mind and body are connected.

Boost your mood

If you’re keen to improve your health with positivity, try these mood-boosting strategies.

  • Fight the negativity bias. Thanks to an evolutionary hangover, when positive and negative things happen we’re more likely to pay attention to the negative things so it’s important to make a deliberate effort to balance that out by devoting attention to positive things. Try counting acts of kindness or savouring a beautiful sunset.
  • Express gratitude. Keep a journal or talk to friends and family about how grateful you are for the things in your life that make you feel happy.
  • Practice a loving-kindness meditation. Direct good vibes towards other people, including people you like, people you neither like nor dislike and people you don’t like.
  • Develop good quality relationships. And remember to hug those special people in your life.