Day 25 of 31-Day Series “Your Last Health Resolution”
How do you change your mind to optimize your health? Your mental state can have a direct affect on your risk for disease. This Harvard School of Public Health report shows just one affect:
“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.”
Kubzansky is at the forefront of such research. In a 2007 study that followed more than 6,000 men and women aged 25 to 74 for 20 years, for example, she found that emotional vitality—a sense of enthusiasm, of hopefulness, of engagement in life, and the ability to face life’s stresses with emotional balance—appears to reduce the risk of coronary heart disease. The protective effect was distinct and measurable, even when taking into account such wholesome behaviors as not smoking and regular exercise.
Among dozens of published papers, Kubzansky has shown that children who are able to stay focused on a task and have a more positive outlook at age 7 report better general health and fewer illnesses 30 years later. She has found that optimism cuts the risk of coronary heart disease by half.
Researchers look at the prefrontal cortex as the happiness center of the brain. Richard Davidson, happiness guru and professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin, notes that prefrontal activity in the brain is preprogrammed. Some babies have higher levels of activity which causes a greater degree of happiness. But, as neuroscientists have discovered, the brain is highly plastic. We now know the brain creates new neurons all the time.
Neurotransmitters wash the brain in dopamine, serotonin, glutamate, and GABA among others. Creating a dopamine release repeatedly can actually alter the chemistry of the brain. The associated positive emotions, like happiness and euphoria, psychologists term “positive affect”.
So how does this affect us? If we know what boosts our mood, we can create more positive affect using those triggers. That may mean listening to music during the day, or talking to a close friend, or spending consistent time in prayer, or reading a good novel. Investing some time in a few simple activities can pay dividends for our health down the road.
And beyond reducing risk for disease, we can improve our quality of life today. Knowing how to enhance your mood will benefit you and everyone around you. Remember how your happiness affects your friends? Your happiness will increase their odds of being happy by 15%. So think about how to positively affect your own mood. You just might change another person’s life along with your own.