Positive emotions could mean less chance of illness

Seeing a glass of water as half-empty or half-full has become somewhat of a cliched piece of folklore today.

Regardless of how much of it you drink each day, the way you look at a glass of water could say a lot about how healthy you are, or will be later on in life.

But even with the lack of a “correct” answer, the science behind positive thinking is beginning to show that there may be a “healthy” answer to the drinking-glass test.

Happy people can live healthier lives than their moody counterparts. Happiness, or positive emotion, can actually “medicate” people against certain ailments. But aside from depression medication — which is obviously intended for use only by those who truly need it — there are no real “happy pills” being marketed by pharmaceutical companies.

Instead, research has shown that positive emotion, inherent in some individuals, could actually be providing a pick-me-up when it comes to making people feel better.

The idea that positive emotion can have a positive impact is not a new idea. In a 1998 article in APA Monitor, then American Psychological Association President Martin Seligman stated, “Psychology should turn toward understanding and building the human strengths to complement our emphasis on healing damage.”

Seligman’s solution was to start a class on positive psychology, the study of the virtues that allow individuals and communities to thrive.

In his class, Seligman observed how positive actions affect people’s emotions.

“We were to do one pleasurable activity and one philanthropic activity,” he stated. “When the philanthropic act was spontaneous and called upon skill, the rest of the day went better.”

But a recent study conducted by Carnegie Mellon psychology professor Sheldon Cohen shows that good acts aren’t only good for your emotional health, they benefit you physically as well.

The study, recently published in Psychosomatic Medicine, backs up Cohen’s claims in a 2004 paper that people who exhibit positive emotions are less likely to get sick when exposed to a virus than people who did not appear happy.

The study was done in collaboration with researchers at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry, and the University of Virginia Health Sciences Center.

Participants in the study were first monitored on the phone over several weeks to assess their moods and emotional styles. They were then placed in a hotel and were given nose drops that contained the influenza virus.

The researchers quarantined and monitored the participants for a week to see if they showed signs of a common cold. The result of the study showed that those people who exhibited positive emotional styles were less susceptible to catching a cold.

Though Cohen was unavailable for comment, he stated in a press release, “We need to take more seriously the possibility that positive emotional style is a major player in disease risk.”

The study shows that the old cliched saying “Don’t worry, be happy” could have some merit. Those who live a pleasant life could find themselves rewarded with good health.
“Dr. Cohen’s work has shown that individuals who have higher positive emotionality are less likely to develop a cold when they are exposed to a virus,” researcher Sarah Pressman said.

Pressman received her Ph.D. in psychology after working with Cohen in the Laboratory for the Study of Stress, Immunity, and Disease. Part of Pressman’s research was to see how positive emotions affect health.

“This included a wide array of health outcomes such as longevity, your probability of getting a disease, and even how long you survive a disease once you have it,” Pressman said.

Survival rate could be significantly affected by mood. In previous research, Pressman found that people who write more positive words in their autobiographies live about six years longer than those who do not use positive words.

Positive emotions can also affect susceptibility and response to major medical conditions like having a stroke and recovering from heart surgery.

Though not as serious as a heart condition, perhaps some will also keep in mind that, with the onset of cold weather, a positive mind could mean clear sinuses or a sniffle-free holiday season.