- Do happier people live longer—and, if so, why?These are the kinds of questions that researchers are asking as they explore a new—and sometimes controversial—avenue of public health: documenting and understanding the link between positive emotions and good health.A vast scientific literature has detailed how negative emotions harm the body. Serious, sustained stress or fear can alter biological systems in a way that, over time, adds up to “wear and tear” and, eventually, illnesses such as heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. Chronic anger and anxiety can disrupt cardiac function by changing the heart’s electrical stability, hastening atherosclerosis, and increasing systemic inflammation.Jack P. Shonkoff, Julius B. Richmond FAMRI Professor of Child Health and Development at HSPH and at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and Professor of Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, explains that early childhood “toxic stress”—the sustained activation of the body’s stress response system resulting from such early life experiences as chronic neglect, exposure to violence, or living alone with a parent suffering severe mental illness—has harmful effects on the brain and other organ systems. Among these effects is a hair-trigger physiological response to stress, which can lead to a faster heart rate, higher blood pressure, and a jump in stress hormones.Focusing on the positive
“But negative emotions are only one-half of the equation,” says Laura Kubzansky, HSPH associate professor of society, human development, and health. “It looks like there is a benefit of positive mental health that goes beyond the fact that you’re not depressed. What that is is still a mystery. But when we understand the set of processes involved, we will have much more insight into how health works.”
Keys to a happier, healthier life
Research suggests that certain personal attributes—whether inborn or shaped by positive life circumstances—help some people avoid or healthfully manage diseases such as heart attacks, strokes, diabetes, and depression. 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
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
Drawing on recently compiled data from a nationally representative study of older adults, Kubzansky is beginning to map what she calls “the social distribution of well-being.” She is working with information collected on participants’ sense of meaning and purpose, life satisfaction, and positive mood. By tracking how these measures and health fall out across traditional demographic categories such as race and ethnicity, education, income, gender, and other categories, she hopes to understand in a fine-grained way what it is about certain social environments that confers better frame of mind and better physical health.
The last thing she wants, Kubzansky says, is for her research to be used to blame people for not simply being happier—and therefore healthier. Referring to one of her first major studies, which found a link between worry and heart disease, she said: “My biggest fear was that journalists would pick it up and the headlines would be, ‘Don’t worry, be happy.’ That’s useless. Not everyone lives in an environment where you can turn off worry. When you take this research out of the social context, it has the potential to be a slippery slope for victim blaming.”
Being in the moment
Kubzansky, who is married and has two young children, says her work has made her think a lot more about finding balance in her own life. To that end, she says, she recently signed up for a yoga class. She also plays classical piano—both chamber music with friends and solo hours at the keyboard for her own enjoyment.
“When I’m playing piano,” she explains, “I’m in the moment. I’m not worrying or thinking or trying to work out a problem. I’m just doing this thing that takes all my attention.”
That insight is also at the center of her research. “Everyone needs to find a way to be in the moment,” she says, “to find a restorative state that allows them to put down their burdens.”