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The Biology of Emotion: What It's Teaching Us About Living Longer


New research out of Harvard helping us further understand the link between positive emotions and good health. It's shedding more light on often-asked questions like: Can a more optimistic outlook mean less heart disease? Can hope protect against hypertension? Do happier people live longer?

There is already a vast amount of data that's detailing how negative emotions can harm the body. Sustained stress or fear can alter biological systems over time, eventually leading to illnesses such as heart disease and diabetes. Chronic anger and anxiety disrupt cardiac function leading to things like atherosclerosis and increasing inflammation. "But negative emotions are only one-half of the equation," says Harvard School Of Medicine Professor Dr. Laura Kubzansky. "It looks like there is a benefit of positive mental health that goes beyond the fact that you're not depressed. The mystery is what's happening in the positive mind? As we come to understand better the set of processes involved, we will have much more insight into how health works."

In a study about emotional vitality and coronary heart disease that followed more than 6,000 men and women aged 25 to 74 for 20 years, for example, Dr. Kubzansky's team found that emotional vitality, one's enthusiasm, and sense of hopefulness, of engagement in life, and battling stress with emotional balance, all, appear to decrease the risk of heart disease. The protective effect was distinct and measurable, even when considering such healthy behavior patterns as not smoking and regular exercise.

Those findings corroborate similar studies, including a significant study by Johns Hopkins expert Lisa R. Yanek, and her colleagues for the American Journal of Cardiology. They found that people with a family history of heart disease who also had a positive outlook were one-third less likely to have a heart attack or other cardiovascular event within five to 25 years than those with a more pessimistic view.

Yanek's team determined a "positive" versus "negative" outlook using a survey tool that assesses a person's cheerfulness, energy level, anxiety levels, and satisfaction with health and overall life. "You don't need a survey to evaluate your own positivity," says Yanek. "I think people tend to know how they are."

Keys to a happier, healthier life

Research suggests that specific attributes can help people more healthfully manage their lives. These include:

  • Emotional vitality: a sense of enthusiasm, hopefulness, engagement

  • Optimism: the perspective that good things will happen and that one's actions account for the good things that occur in life

  • Building and maintaining supportive networks of family and friends

  • Being good at "self-regulation," i.e., bouncing back from stressful challenges and knowing that things will eventually look up again; choosing healthy behaviors such as physical activity and eating well, and avoiding risky behaviors such as unsafe sex, drinking alcohol to excess, and regular overeating

  • Smiling more - A University of Kansas study found that smiling—even fake smiling—reduces heart rate and blood pressure during stressful situations.

  • Practice reframing - For example, tune out the traffic jam and appreciate your sound system. Obstacles can lead to discoveries; stay in the moment.

  • Building resiliency - Resiliency is the ability to adapt to stressful or negative situations and losses. Maintain good relationships with family and friends. Accept that change is a part of life. Take action on problems rather than just hoping they disappear or waiting for them to resolve themselves.

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