Positive Mind States and Good Health
Positive psychology is a social science that aims to create an empirical body of knowledge of optimal human functioning. The two basic goals of the positive psychology movement are to increase the understanding of human strengths through the development of classification systems and methods to measure those strengths, and to infuse this knowledge into effective programs designed to build strengths. Likewise, the field of positive health is being developed, which increases the understanding of human strengths through the study of positive health assets. Health assets are quantifiable variables used to predict health targets such as longevity, health costs, morbidity, prognosis, and wellbeing. Health assets fall into three categories, including Subjective (such as hope, zest, optimism), Functional (such as positive relationships, rich friendships), and Biological (such as high heart rate variability, high oxytocin).
Optimists are healthy
Through the study of health assets in optimistic populations, the association between positive mind states and lower vulnerability to disease has become clear. Here are just a few of the general observations noted:
- Optimists take action when there is a problem and have healthier lifestyles. They readily act on medical advice. Happy people also sleep better.
- The blood of optimists has a more robust response to threat, in the form of more T-lymphocytes mobilized to fight infection.
- Fewer episodes of stress causes less release of cortisol and catecholamines in optimists, which leads to decreased damage to walls of blood vessels and decreased risk of atherosclerosis.
- Happier people secrete less interleukin-6, an inflammatory marker that is seen in people more prone to developing infection.
- Optimism leads to decreased stress, decreased production of fibrinogen by the liver, which leads to fewer blood clots.
Biological assets improve with positive health
These examples show us that the creation of positive mind states, including optimism and positive affect, has a direct and measurable effect on biological and other health assets, which, themselves, are directly measurable through serum assays and other laboratory tests (Seligman, 2011).
Multiple studies in the literature affirm that the above effects of positive well-being, engagement, positive affect, positive relationships, self-efficacy and sense of purpose, have a positive effect on overall health and disease outcomes. A meta-analysis of both healthy and diseased populations demonstrated that positive psychological wellbeing has a favorable effect on survival in both populations. In the disease population, wellbeing may be related to increased adherence to medical regimens. In both populations, positive psychological wellbeing can alter disease susceptibility via attenuation of the sympathetic nervous system and enhancement of the parasympathetic nervous system, leading to increased heart rate variability, decreased blood pressure, decreased levels of stress induced inflammatory markers ( IL-6) and coagulation factors (fibrinogen).
Health outcomes improve
Positive affect has been shown in multiple studies to be associated with favorable health outcomes. In addition, positive affectivity provides a protective function for physical health whereas negative affectivity failed to predict changes in health symptoms or status. Possible biological processes that mediate these effects include positive affect leads to decrease in serum cortisol levels, which, in turn, leads to increased heart rate variability, decreased blood pressure, and better immune system function. This response is independent of negative affect.
Positive health and improved social contact
In addition to positive affect and optimism, the health effects of social contact are also documented (Brown, et. al, 2009). In this study, an activity that was cooperative, engaging, and led to increased closeness between a dyad of strangers, caused increased levels of serum progesterone in both members of the dyad. (This, in turn, resulted in increased altruistic motivation). These results are similar to findings with the hormone oxytocin, in that cues for closeness and interdependence trigger oxytocin release, as well. This result may illuminate a mechanism by which engagement or helping behavior promotes health. Progesterone, like oxytocin, leads to decreased anxiety by their direct action on GABA receptors (the primary inhibitory neurotransmitter). Therefore, progesterone has similar efficacy to benzodiazepines at GABA receptors. This may well represent one of the several mechanisms explaining the positive health effects of social contact that are well documented. Both social contact and increased serum progesterone cause decreased anxiety and a sense of calmness through stimulation of the GABA receptors.