The biology of emotion... and what it may teach us about helping people to live longer.Could a sunny outlook mean fewer colds and less heart disease?
Can happiness and a hopeful disposition protect against hypertension, diabetes, and respiratory tract infections?
These are the kinds of questions that researchers are asking as they explore a new—and sometimes controversial—avenue of health: understanding the link between positive emotions and good health.
A vast collection of scientific literature has detailed how negative emotions harm the body. Serious, sustained stress or fear can alter biological systems in a way that, over time, adds up to “wear and tear” and, eventually, illnesses such as heart disease, stroke, and diabetes.
Chronic anger and anxiety can disrupt cardiac function by changing the heart’s electrical stability, hastening atherosclerosis, and increasing systemic inflammation.
Focusing on the positive
“But negative emotions are only one-half of the equation,” says Laura Kubzansky, associate professor of human development, and health at Harvard. “It looks like there is a benefit of positive mental health that goes beyond the fact that you’re not depressed. What that is is still a mystery. But when we understand the set of processes involved, we will have much more insight into how health works.”
Kubzansky is at the forefront of such research. In a 2007 study that followed more than 6,000 men and women (aged 25 to 74) for 20 years, she found that a sense of enthusiasm, of hopefulness, of engagement in life, and the ability to face life’s stresses with emotional balance—appears to reduce the risk of coronary heart disease. The protective effect was distinct and measurable, even when taking into account such wholesome behaviors as not smoking and regular exercise.
The study concludes that mood and outlook (being generally anxious vs. a person who is generally optimistic) are forged by both nature and nurture.
These traits are 40–50 percent heritable, which means you may be born with the genetic predisposition. But this also suggests there is a lot of room to change and grow. Th dream prevention for the research team was to instill emotional and social cunderstanding in children—with the help of parents, teachers, pediatricians, sports coaches, counselors —who would help confer not only good mental health but also physical resilience for a lifetime.
For adults, the first step is to become aware that mood affects health, and to begin to adapt your lifestyle to lower stress and include more activities which you enjoy or find rewarding. Balance work and family time, and always include exercise or meditation into the daily or weekly plans.
To read the full article from the Harvard medical Review, please click here
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Excerpt of "Happiness & Health" from the Harvard School of Public Health
Sara Rimer is a Boston-based journalist and author.
Madeline Drexler is editor of the Harvard Review.