Could experiencing a range of positive emotions actually improve your health and reduce disease risk?
According to a recent study, yes, certain emotions lower inflammation … and therefore, disease levels as well.
C’mon, Get Happy: The Link Between Your Emotions and Inflammation
Previous research has proven a link between positive emotions, happiness levels and levels of inflammation in the body. But this small study, published in the journal Emotion, found that people who experience a diverse range of positive emotions might reduce systemic inflammation in their bodies, which could reduce their risk of chronic diseases. (1)
Since inflammation is at the root of most diseases, this could have far-reaching effects, particularly as we age. (2)
Here’s how the study worked. The researchers asked 175 participants aged 40 to 65 to keep a log of their emotions for 30 days. The people recording how often and how strongly they experienced 32 different emotions: 16 positive, like being excited, proud or cheerful and 16 negative, like feeling irritable, sluggish or upset. Six months later, each participant was tested for markers of inflammation and had blood samples taken.
The results surprised the researchers. The folks who experienced a greater variety of the 16 positive emotions on a day-to-day basis — enthusiastic, interested, determined, excited, amused, inspired, alert, active, strong, proud, attentive, happy, relaxed, cheerful, at ease, calm — had lower inflammation than the rest of the group, even after accounting for body mass index, demographic characteristics, medical conditions and other factors.
And the lower levels of inflammation held true even when compared to people who had experienced positive emotions for a similar amount of days, but had a smaller range of them. When it came to lowering inflammation, positive emotional diversity mattered more than simply feeling happy.
You might expect that the opposite would hold true for negative emotions then — that people who experienced a wider range of negative emotions might have increasingly higher levels of inflammation. Interestingly, that wasn’t the case. Diversity in emotions mattered only when they were positive.
So what is it about the range of emotions that might reduce inflammation and contribute to a reduced risk of chronic disease? According to the study’s researchers, experiencing a variety of feelings — not just positive, but also ones like calm or relaxed — might have a beneficial effect on our health, both physical and mental, by “preventing an overabundance or prolonging of any one emotion from dominating an individuals’ emotional life.” In other words, not fixating on just one feeling, even if it is positive, keeps us healthier.
And while this is the first study that’s looked at the independent role of positive and negative emotions on inflammation, other studies have found that experiencing multiple types of positive emotions are essential for fueling psychological resilience and improving social connections with others, which could slow disease progression or improve physical health. (2)
Why Inflammation Matters
Lower levels of inflammation are critical in reducing the risk of chronic diseases. It’s believed that an overactive immune system is what causes inflammation. See, certain foods and environmental toxins build up in the body, stimulating your immune system. In turn, it unleashes defense cells and hormones on the body.
But because you’re not fighting the common cold, the immune system remains on high alert and in high activity, damaging tissues in the process.
Chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, arthritis, asthma and Crohn’s disease are all linked to inflammation in the body. By reducing inflammation, we lower the risk of getting these diseases. And if emotions lower inflammation, then even better, as it’s a natural way of tackling this issue.
Certain Emotions Lower Inflammation — How to Develop Them
Most of us know when we’re in a bad mood or if we’re feeling particularly pleased with life. But how do we get more of those 16 emotions — enthusiastic, interested, determined, excited, amused, inspired, alert, active, strong, proud, attentive, happy, relaxed, cheerful, at ease and calm — into our lives?
1. Add anti-inflammatory foods to your diet.
Though feeling different types of positive feelings helps lower inflammation, certain foods can do that as well. And I have a sneaky suspicion that once you have to spend less time suffering through inflammation-related diseases like irritable bowel disease and diabetes, you’ll have more energy to be active and inspired.
What are the best anti-inflammatory foods? Leafy green veggies, celery, broccoli, blueberries, pineapple, salmon, coconut oil, chia seeds and turmeric all top my list. These foods are rich in antioxidants, minerals and essential fatty acids. They help regulate our immune systems and keep us healing our best.
2. Say a little prayer (or meditation).
Healing prayer or meditation is a powerful tool and embracing spirituality, in whatever form that means to you, can diversify the range of positive emotions you’re feeling, and put you on the path to reduced chronic disease risk and lowered inflammation.
When we’re stressed, our body’s natural response is to become inflamed. Carving time out each day to meditate or pray can help you reduce stress and put things in perspective, ushering in feelings of calm, ease and relaxation.
Meditating or praying also allows us to tune into our sense of purpose, or those things we feel strongly about achieving, whether it’s watching your kids walk at their graduation or authoring a paper in your field. In turn, you might find yourself feeling more inspired for what’s to come, proud of what you’ve already achieved or determined to set a goal and reach it.
If you’re unsure about how to get started, this 5-step approach to guided meditation can help.
3. Hit the mat.
It’s time to start practicing those asanas. If you’re looking to broaden your positive emotions, yoga should be high on your list. Yoga changes your brain. It releases the body’s “chill out” neurotransmitter, also known as gamma-aminobutryic acid (GABA). When you’re practicing yoga, the brain releases more GABA, which in turn reduces anxiety and brings on feelings of calm.
Yoga also increases gray matter in the brain, which is a good thing. As we age and gray matter decreases, we’re at higher risk of memory impairment, emotional problems and decreased cognitive function. And in mild cases of depression, yoga can even act as a natural antidepressant. (3)
Best of all, there are all types of yoga to suit your needs or interests, from pumping vinyasa flow classes to more chilled out yin classes. No matter which one you choose, you’ll reap the benefits of feeling active, alert and less stressed.
4. Set goals to reach your dreams.
Setting goals and getting them down on paper is an underrated way of transforming your mental health. You can go as small or as big as you’d like when setting goals, like running a 10k or opening up your own business.
The most important part of goal setting is deciding what it is you’re going to achieve and how you’re going to get there. You don’t want a goal that’s completely unattainable, like walking the moon, or is going to cause you tons of extra stress. Instead, you want a goal that will require some stretching and growing, but that can also be broken down into smaller action items, so you celebrate your hard work as you reach milestones throughout the journey.
5. Choose happiness.
It sounds so simple, doesn’t it? But you can actively make small choices to boost your range of positive emotions. For example, taking five minutes each evening to jot down three things you’re grateful for can help you feel inspired and enthusiastic about life, while giving someone a compliment at work or raising your hand to take on a tough project can make you feel proud.
Being happy and positive doesn’t always come naturally but, like with most things, the more we practice cultivating those feelings, the easier to feel they’ll become.
- For the first time, researchers have identified that there’s a link between not just positive feelings, but a range of them, and reduced inflammation. Yes, emotions lower emotion. (Reducing inflammation leads to a lower risk of chronic disease.)
- Researchers looked at 16 different positive emotions: enthusiastic, interested, determined, excited, amused, inspired, alert, active, strong, proud, attentive, happy, relaxed, cheerful, at ease, calm.
- Experiencing a wide range of these emotions lead to less inflammation than groups that had a smaller range of emotions, negative or positive.
- Negative emotions didn’t elicit the same response; that is, feeling a range of negative emotions won’t lead to more inflammation.
- Through activities like adding more anti-inflammatory foods to your diet, engaging in prayer or meditation and practicing yoga can help you cultivate a variety of positive emotions naturally.
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