Do you tend to look on the sunny side, or do you see a future filled with dark, stormy skies? A growing body of research suggests that having a positive outlook can benefit your physical health. NIH-funded scientists are working to better understand the links between your attitude and your body. They're finding some evidence that emotional wellness can be improved by developing certain skills.
Having a positive outlook doesn't mean you never feel negative emotions, such as sadness or anger, says Dr. Barbara L. Fredrickson, a psychologist and expert on emotional wellness at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. "All emotions-whether positive or negative-are adaptive in the right circumstances. The key seems to be finding a balance between the two," she says.
"Positive emotions expand our awareness and open us up to new ideas, so we can grow and add to our toolkit for survival," Fredrickson explains. "But people need negative emotions to move through difficult situations and respond to them appropriately in the short term. Negative emotions can get us into trouble, though, if they're based on too much rumination about the past or excessive worry about the future, and they're not really related to what's happening in the here and now."
People who are emotionally well, experts say, have fewer negative emotions and are able to bounce back from difficulties faster. This quality is called resilience. Another sign of emotional wellness is being able to hold onto positive emotions longer and appreciate the good times. Developing a sense of meaning and purpose in life-and focusing on what's important to you-also contributes to emotional wellness.
Research has found a link between an upbeat mental state and improved health, including lower blood pressure, reduced risk for heart disease, healthier weight, better blood sugar levels, and longer life. But many studies can't determine whether positive emotions lead to better health, if being healthy causes positive emotions, or if other factors are involved.
"While earlier research suggests an association between positive emotions and health, it doesn't reveal the underlying mechanisms," says Dr. Richard J. Davidson, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "To understand the mechanisms, I think it will be crucial to understand the underlying brain circuits."
By using brain imaging, Davidson and others have found that positive emotions can trigger "reward" pathways located deep within the brain, including in an area known as the ventral striatum.
"Individuals who are able to savor positive emotions have lasting activation in the ventral striatum," Davidson says. "The longer the activation lasts, the greater his or her feelings of well-being." Continued activation of this part of the brain has been linked to healthful changes in the body, including lower levels of a stress hormone.
Negative emotions, in contrast, can activate a brain region known as the amygdala, which plays a role in fear and anxiety. "We've shown that there are big differences among people in how rapidly or slowly the amygdala recovers following a threat," Davidson says. "Those who recover more slowly may be more at risk for a variety of health conditions compared to those who recover more quickly."
Among those who appear more resilient and better able to hold on to positive emotions are people who've practiced various forms of meditation. In fact, growing evidence suggests that several techniques-including meditation, cognitive therapy (a type of psychotherapy), and self-reflection (thinking about the things you find important)-can help people develop the skills needed to make po