Benefits of Happiness & Positive Thinking
Health and happiness often go hand-in-hand, but it may not be good health that’s keeping people happy. In fact, many studies are now suggesting that this long-standing thought is reversed; it is actually happiness that keeps people in good health. Happiness and health are often benefits of positive thinking, rather than resulting from positive outcomes.1 One reason for this relationship between health and happiness is that optimistic individuals are more likely to take proactive health measures.2 Negative emotions tend to diminish cognition and physiology and narrow attention toward responding to an immediate problem, while positive emotions tend to aid in building lasting resources and coping mechanisms.3 Happiness is defined by one psychologist as “the preponderance of positive affect over negative affect with a focus on overall affective appraisal of life in general”4/sup>, or, more simply, happiness is an overall positive outlook on and appreciation for life.
Optimism & Your Health
The relationship between happiness and mental health is linear, but not without some ambiguity. People can be diagnosed with major depression or acute anxiety while maintaining a positive outlook. However, there are some personality traits strongly associated with anxiety and depression. People diagnosed with anxiety or depression tend to list neuroticism as one of their top personality traits, and conscientiousness a minor trait or not a trait at all.5 Having depression along with another chronic illness greatly diminishes the quality of life of an individual.6 Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, so much of the research on positive thinking and health is aimed at developing preventative measures in cardiovascular disease. Optimists have greater success in heart conditions and are less likely to be re-admitted to the hospital after a stay.7 Patients with coronary heart disease along with depression are more likely to have recurrent cardiac events and premature mortality.8 Positivity is also associated with reduced inflammation, fewer viral infections, vagal nerve health, and parasympathetic balance.9 Growing old is a major fear and stressor for many individuals. Depression in elderly people is increasingly common, but depression is not necessarily age-related. The perception of aging as a negative event is associated with the onset of depression, rather than aging itself.10 Personality traits and the disposition of one’s outlook can result in an unhealthy mind, which can then result in an unhealthy body. Chronic illness often causes functional impairment and pain, which then further decrease the quality of life and happiness of patients.11 While many illnesses cannot be cured by changing one’s outlook on life, it is safe to say that one of the benefits of positive thinking is alleviating some discomfort. It is also incredibly important for healthy individuals to preserve and practice their happiness to reduce the likelihood of health problems in the future.
Encouraging Positive Thinking
What do happy people have in common and how can you become one of them? There are several factors and personality traits that play into subjective happiness. Many studies point to extraversion as the key personality trait shared among happy people.12 Don’t fret if you are not a people-person, though, as emotional stability has been shown to be equally important in manifesting happiness.13 It is completely normal to have bouts of emotional instability. Happy people still get depressed, anxious, irritable, and angry. Being self-aware, autonomous, and in control of these emotions (for the most part) contributes to a greater quality of life and ability to stay positive.14 Optimists tend to believe that positive events are caused by global, permanent, and internal circumstances, while pessimists assume that when good comes to them it is fleeting and due to external factors.15 So, if something pleasant happens to you or around you, give yourself credit for it and allow yourself to fully immerse in the experience. Having a diverse and rewarding social life has been shown to affect health outcomes with the same magnitude as risk factors such as smoking, drinking alcohol, and obesity.16 This is not to say that you can partake in known risk factors as long as you’re with your friends, but it should be noted that having fun and manifesting meaningful relationships can be just as important to your health as exercising and getting enough sleep. Positivity is an amazingly powerful tool in creating a happy life, and in turn a healthy mind and body.
- Spinhoven, P., Elzinga, B. M., Giltay, E., & Penninx, B. W. (2015). Anxious or Depressed and Still Happy? Plos One,10(10). doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0139912
- Schiavon, C. C., Marchetti, E., Gurgel, L. G., Busnello, F. M., & Reppold, C. T. (2016). Optimism and Hope in Chronic Disease: A Systematic Review. Frontiers in Psychology, 7, 2022. http://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2016.02022
- Cohn, M. A., Fredrickson, B. L., Brown, S. L., Mikels, J. A., & Conway, A. M. (2009). Happiness Unpacked: Positive Emotions Increase Life Satisfaction by Building Resilience. Emotion (Washington, D.C.), 9(3), 361–368. http://doi.org/10.1037/a0015952
- Spinhoven, op. cit.
- Spinhoven, Ibid.
- Wikman A, Wardle J, Steptoe A (2011) Quality of Life and Affective Well-Being in Middle-Aged and Older People with Chronic Medical Illnesses: A Cross-Sectional Population-Based Study. PLOS ONE 6(4): e18952. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0018952
- Schiavon, op. cit.
- Wilkman, op. cit.
- Kok, B. E., Coffey, K. A., Cohn, M. A., Catalino, L. I., Vacharkulksemsuk, T., Algoe, S. B., . . . Fredrickson, B. L. (2013). How Positive Emotions Build Physical Health: Perceived Positive Social Connections Account for the Upward Spiral Between Positive Emotions and Vagal Tone. Psychological Science,24(7), 1123-1132. doi:10.1177/0956797612470827
- Tumminello M, Miccichè S, Dominguez LJ, Lamura G, Melchiorre MG, et al. (2011) Happy Aged People Are All Alike, While Every Unhappy Aged Person Is Unhappy in Its Own Way. PLOS ONE 6(9): e23377. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0023377
- Wilkman, op. cit.
- Spinhoven, op. cit.
- Lauriola, M., & Iani, L. (2015). Does Positivity Mediate the Relation of Extraversion and Neuroticism with Subjective Happiness? Plos One,10(3). doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0121991
- Wilkman, op. cit.
- Lauriola, op. cit.
- Kok, op. cit.