It’s interesting that this is supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year when everyone should be jolly, but people often struggle with unhealthy—even negative—emotions or thinking during this season. Those negative emotions can take their toll on health, too—not only during the holidays, but at other times.
Dr. Candace Pert, a stress research pioneer, gives some insight on the connection between emotions and their effects on the entire body. She says, "In the beginning of my work, I matter-of-factly presumed that emotions were in the head or the brain. Now I would say they are really in the body." Pert explains that no one experiences emotions just in the heart or mind. It’s more systemic and far-reaching than that. People experience emotions in the form of chemical reactions in the body and the brain. What’s more is that those chemical reactions occur at the organ level—in the stomach, heart, large muscles and so forth—and also at the cellular level.
Fear, for example, triggers more than 1,400 known physical and chemical stress reactions and activates more than 30 different hormones and transmitters. When a person is stressed, the brain triggers hormone releases, including adrenaline and cortisol. Unfortunately, prolonged and elevated levels of adrenaline can increase heart rate, blood pressure, triglyceride and cholesterol levels as well as blood sugar levels.
Likewise, elevated levels of cortisol can impair immune function, reduce glucose utilization, increase bone loss, reduce muscle mass and skin growth/regeneration, increase fat accumulation and impair memory and learning, while destroying brain cells.
The good news, however, is that emotions can also benefit our health. The field of positive psychology explores what contributes to emotional resilience, happiness and health. Martin Seligman, who pioneered positive psychology, says, “Experiences that induce positive emotion cause negative emotion to dissipate rapidly.” He believes happiness and health really are connected and that the level of one’s happiness impacts the level of one’s health—as well as their resilience.
Among studies on happiness and overall health, happiness has been linked to longevity, strong immunity, as well as personal and marital satisfaction—to name just a few benefits. Another positive outlook—optimism—is a trait that adds to resiliency and buoyancy. Optimists tend to see the good in life, to follow more health-promoting behaviors and to live longer. One study, in fact, found that optimists had a 19% longer life span on average.
Another positive outlook involves something called “mature defenses,” which are not possessed by everyone and may ebb and flow over one’s lifetime. These traits include altruism (looking out for and caring for others—as opposed to just looking out for your own interests), looking towards the future and having a good sense of humor. In one study, those who had mature defenses had more joy in living, higher income and enjoyed a long, healthy life.
Happiness and a positive outlook are so important that happiness researcher Robert Holden surveyed people and found that 65 out of 100 them would choose happiness over health—but that both were highly valued.
Lucky for us, we don’t have to choose because happiness and health can go hand-in-hand. Perhaps Robert Holden put it best when he observed, “There is no true health without happiness.”