The Benefits of Positive Emotions

(Compiled by Patrice Joy Masterson, MA)

Emotions play an important role in modulating bodily systems that influence our health. We turned to the brain to understand the mechanisms by which the mind influences the body. Emotions seem to play a crucial part in the genesis and treatment of serious disease such as cancer and other illness. Any kind of unexpected shock can have a devastating effect on health and the immune system. Living in fear and panic can create biochemical effects that are detrimental to healthy living. One of the first tasks at hand in a successful journey of restoring and maintaining good health is to reestablish the greatest possible measure of inner peace and confidence. The core of this peace comes from focusing on positive emotions.

Many of us are carrying repressed memories of unhealed emotional wounds or traumas from childhood. Having negative thoughts really could make you more illness-prone, say scientists. A study in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences links “negative” brain activity with a weakened immune system. Researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison studied people with high levels of brain activity in a region linked to negative thoughts. Those with the highest activity levels responded worse to a flu vaccine. Scientists already knew that pessimists – people rated as more sensitive to negative events – show more activity in a part of the brain called the right pre-frontal cortex. More activity in the left pre-frontal cortex is linked to positive emotional responses.

Another approach to creating happiness is the “positive psychology” researched by Dr. Martin Seligman. He writes in “Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment”: “Relieving the states that make life miserable… has made building the states that make life worth living less of a priority. The time has finally arrived for a science that seeks to understand positive emotion, build strength and virtue, and provide guideposts for finding what Aristotle called the ‘good life’”. He advises to achieve emotional fulfillment and increase one’s “happiness quotient” through pursuing one’s innate strengths and incorporating strengths such as humor, originality and generosity into everyday interactions, rather than picking apart the past, trying to solve decades-old problems and to fix weaknesses.
Several studies have shown that a positive attitude or emotional state can boost your chances of surviving cancer. In one study, among patients with metastatic (spreading) cancers, those who expressed greater hope at the time of their diagnosis survived longer. In another study, over 400 reports of spontaneous remission of cancer were reviewed and analyzed. The patients themselves attributed their cure to a broad range of causes, but only one factor was common to all the cases–a shift toward greater hope and a positive attitude.
The late Norman Cousins described a national survey of oncologists (completed during his stay at the UCLA Medical School) in his last book, Head First: The Biology of Hope. Of the 649 who offered their opinions on the importance of various psychological factors in fighting cancer, “More than 90% of the physicians said they attached the highest value to the attitudes of hope and optimism.”

All of this research is consistent with the findings of a recent study showing that method actors asked to generate the emotion of joy within themselves showed an increase in the number of natural killer cells circulating in the blood stream within 20 minutes. (Remember, a key role of natural killer cells is to seek out and destroy tumor cells throughout your body.) Once they got themselves out of this positive state, their levels of natural killer cells quickly dropped again.

Joy, of course, is the emotion we experience during humor and laughter. So these findings are also consistent with the findings discussed in an earlier Humor Your Tumor article (see the April, 1998 column) showing that watching a humorous video increases the number of, and activity of, natural killer cells. Make it your goal to learn to find something to laugh at every day, and to take yourself a little less seriously, as you continue to take your illness and your treatments very seriously.

Davidson, R., MD, (2003). BBC News 22, Negative Thoughts Make You Ill. www.laughteryoga.us/laughter-research.php
McGhee, P., MD, (1991). Health, Healing and the Amuse System: Humor as Survival Training. Randolph, New Jersey
Pratt, G & Lambrou, P. (2006). Instant Emotional Healing: Acupressure for ht Emotions,
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