Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Do Positive Emotions Shape Our Health?

This post continues our tradition of guest blogs on Psych-Your-Mind! Here, Elizabeth Hopper-- graduate student at the University of California, Santa Barbara-- discusses the possibility that positive emotions might matter a lot for your health. Read on!

You may have heard that negative emotions can have an impact on your health: for example, you may have been told that people who are prone to becoming stressed or hostile have a higher risk of cardiovascular disease.  But what about positive emotions?  Are positive emotions simply a nice experience to have, or can they actually serve to protect your health?  In today's post, I'll discuss some of the recent findings on positive emotions and health, and discuss how positive emotions might help to lower your risk of heart disease.

What's the evidence for positive emotions affecting health?
In the past, psychologists have paid much more attention to the role of negative emotions in health than the role of positive emotions.  However, the research that has been done on positive emotions suggests that they may also be important for health.  In one article, (Pressman & Cohen, 2005), researchers reviewed many of the existing studies on positive emotion and health, and found that positive emotions are often associated with increased  longevity and better health.  They identified fifteen studies that examined whether positive emotions lead to increased longevity and found that, in ten of the fifteen studies, positive emotions were indeed associated with increased longevity (three studies found that positive emotions were associated with decreased longevity, and two studies failed to find an effect).  The researchers also looked at studies assessing the link between positive emotions and morbidity (a term referring to disease, disability, and poor health).  In all six studies looking at positive emotions and health, they found that positive emotions were associated with lower morbidity.

In another recent study, researchers assessed the relationship between positive emotions and heart disease (Kubzansky & Thurston 2007).  The researchers assessed emotional vitality (a measurement of energy, satisfaction with life, and emotional stability) in over six thousand adults, none of whom had coronary heart disease at the start of the study.  The participants were then followed over time, and it was found that emotional vitality at the beginning of the study was associated with a lower risk of developing coronary heart disease.

How do positive emotions promote health?
At this point you might be wondering: why is it that people who experience positive emotions tend to have better health?  Do happier people tend to behave in ways that promote health, such as exercising more?  Or do positive emotions have a more direct way of affecting health?

One way that this can be measured in research is by assessing people's health behaviors, such as exercise and smoking, and then using statistical techniques to determine whether the relationship between positive emotions and health still holds after accounting for these other variables.  For example, in the study on emotional vitality and heart disease, it could be that happy people are more likely to be nonsmokers or to engage in physical activity, both of which reduce the risk of heart disease.  In order to address this possibility, the researchers measured whether or not participants smoked and how often they engaged in physical exercise.  They found that these health behaviors could account for some of the link between emotions and heart disease, but not all of it.

So if being happy doesn't just protect people's health by causing them to adopt certain healthy behaviors, how else might it affect health?  One intriguing possibility is that positive emotions might directly make you healthier by affecting your hormones and cardiovascular system.

In the case of heart disease, one key candidate for explaining the link between positive emotions and health is cortisol.  Cortisol is a hormone released in response to certain types of stress, and prolonged high levels of cortisol can lead to high blood pressure and higher levels of abdominal fat, both of which are risk factors for heart disease.  In one study (Steptoe, Wardle, & Marmot, 2005), researchers asked people to report on how happy they were and to provide cortisol samples at several times on two different days.  They found that participants who rated themselves as happier had lower total levels of cortisol: the happiest fifth of participants had cortisol levels that were 32% lower than the cortisol levels in least happy fifth of the participants.

Another factor that may increase risk for heart disease is having high levels of cardiovascular reactivity in response to stress.  While it's normal for your body to temporarily increase its heart rate in response to a stressful situation, frequent activation of the cardiovascular system or activation that lasts a long time can increase your risk for heart disease.  However, one recent study suggests that positive emotions may actually reduce the effect of stressful experiences on your cardiovascular system.  In this study (Frederickson & Levenson, 1998), researchers had all participants watch a fear-inducing video, which, not surprisingly, increased their heart rate and several other measures of cardiovascular activation.  Then participants were randomly assigned to watch one of four videos: an amusing video, a video designed to induce contentment, a neutral video, and a sad video.  Compared to people who watched the neutral or sad videos, the people who watched the amusement or contentment videos recovered from watching the fearful video more quickly.  The authors suggest that positive emotions may have an “undoing” effect, where they serve to reverse the activation of the cardiovascular system caused by negative emotions.

Our society often encourages people to protect their health by reducing the amount of negative emotions and stress that they experience.  But, although there is much less research on positive emotions, the emerging research on positive emotions and health suggests that negative emotions aren't the only emotions that can affect your well-being—if you want to protect your health, you might end up benefiting from doing something that makes you happy.

Elizabeth Hopper is a graduate student in Social Psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara.  Her research interests include (1) the effects of emotions and relationships on health and (2) the role of rejection sensitivity in close relationships.

Recommended Reading:
Fredrickson BL, & Levenson RW (1998). Positive Emotions Speed Recovery from the Cardiovascular Sequelae of Negative Emotions. Cognition & emotion, 12 (2), 191-220 PMID: 21852890

Pressman, S., & Cohen, S. (2005). Does Positive Affect Influence Health? Psychological Bulletin, 131 (6), 925-971 DOI: 10.1037/0033-2909.131.6.925


  1. That's true negative emotions effect our health psychological and emotional. To make us better individual we should absorb positive vibes.

  2. Wow! This post is really interesting! Who would have thought that positive emotions would determine your risk for heart disease!
    I’m curious, though, if serotonin levels were measured in this study as well.
    Thanks for sharing!!!

  3. The list could go on forever. It is natural to become disillusioned, depressed and hostile in light of such bad news.

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