SPECIAL OFFER: - Limited Time Only!
(The ad below will not display on your printed page)
If there were a Dr. Happiness, would you rush to get in line to see him, especially if his prescriptions were for things like joy, inner peace, and contentment (no side effects identified)? Of course you would! And the really jolly news is that he's not fictitious. Dr. Happiness is a nickname given to Ed Diener, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Okay, he doesn't dole out joy, but he has studied it, plus other positive emotional states we're all capable of. And research shows that their benefits include boosting our immune system and defenses against illnesses ranging from colds and flu to cancer and heart disease. Here's a look at the emotions that can actually help your body perform its best -- and why.
Have a chuckle -- and your arteries will thank you. A March 2005 study at the University of Maryland Medical Center, in Baltimore, showed for the first time that mirth may promote heart health by making blood vessels work more efficiently. Twenty healthy, nonsmoking male and female volunteers watched clips from two movies selected to provoke opposite emotional extremes -- the disturbingly violent opening scene of 1998's Saving Private Ryan and a hilarious sequence from Kingpin, a 1996 comedy. The effect on an artery in the arm was measured before and after by ultrasound.
The two films produced dramatically different effects. Viewing the Private Ryan scene caused the volunteers' blood vessels to constrict, reducing flow by an average of 35 percent. Chortling over the comedy, however, increased the subjects' blood flow by 22 percent -- an improvement similar to that induced by aerobic exercise, without the aches and pains, as researchers noted. Although they aren't sure why laughter has such a powerfully positive effect, the experts speculate that either the movements of the diaphragm as we chuckle, or possibly the release of such feel-good chemicals as endorphins, may be the explanation.
Adoring your spouse can also help keep your heart healthy, according to a September 2003 study. The study found that women who rated their romantic relationship as highly satisfactory had fewer cardiovascular risk factors, says Linda C. Gallo, PhD, assistant professor of psychology at San Diego State University and lead author of the study. "Not only did the happily married women have a higher level of good cholesterol and a lower one of bad cholesterol, but their blood pressure was also lower, compared to single or unhappily married women, who tended to show a blood pressure increase after menopause."
Why would the state of your union have any effect on your cholesterol levels? First, a loving relationship means less stress, which means that fewer hormones such as cortisol -- one of the chief culprits in weight gain -- are released. Less weight gain, in turn, helps decrease the threat of heart disease, the number one killer of American women. Indeed, the study, which tracked about 500 women ages 42 to 50 over a 13-year period, found that happy wives typically avoided weight gain, even during middle age, a time when women often pack on extra pounds, while those who were single or unhappily married usually got heavier over the years. That's dangerous, because being overweight ups the risk for diabetes, cancer, and heart disease.
Support from your spouse can also boost your motivation to ditch heart-harming habits, such as smoking or a high-fat diet. Consider Glynis Buschmann, of Yuba City, California. Until her marriage, in 2002, she was a confirmed couch potato whose only exercise was an occasional walk. "Just before Clark and I married, he added me to his gym membership and since then, I've started working out three to five times a week, with exercise machines, weights, and the treadmill," says the 42-year-old secretary. "I was already slender, but my husband has commented on how much healthier I look. My posture is better, I feel more confident, and I sleep better knowing that I'm beside someone who loves me."
We've all heard the expression "when the going gets tough, the tough get going." It turns out those tough types -- a group known as "thrivers" -- may boast better health than those who shrink from adversity. Researchers are looking for a link between a hardy spirit and a healthy body. A 1998 study conducted by UCLA followed 40 people who had suffered a bereavement. Those most determined to find meaning in their loss also showed improved immunity to illness.
"Literature is full of stories about people who make transcendent life changes after a tragedy, but nobody has really looked at this medically," says Julienne Bower, PhD, assistant professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at UCLA. Dr. Bower tracked women who had lost a relative -- usually their mother -- to breast cancer and evaluated their immune functions.
Those who placed the greatest importance on setting and achieving emotionally significant goals, such as improving relationships, had the highest level of activity in their "natural killer" cells, the immune-system soldiers that attack viruses and certain kinds of tumors. "The next step is to uncover exactly how pursuing meaning gets under the skin and influences the immune system," says Dr. Bower, who is currently studying the impact of a breast cancer diagnosis on women's life goals.
There's already some evidence, but no hard proof, that determination may make a difference for breast cancer patients, according to a 2002 Arizona State University and University of Vermont review. Drawing on past studies, researchers report that "active coping," attacking the problem through direct action instead of wishful thinking, denial, or emotional withdrawal, is linked to better immune-system function and hormonal balance, factors that play a role in combating the spread of the disease. This suggests that coping style may influence the patient's outcome.
Women who stifle their feelings are making a potentially fatal mistake, found a February 2005 Boston University study of about 4,000 people. Although the study was originally designed to probe the role marital happiness plays in heart-disease risk, the doctors were amazed to discover that venting emotions during arguments actually helps wives -- but not husbands -- live longer. Married women who usually engaged in "self-silencing," defined as bottling up their feelings to avoid conflict with their mate, were more than four times more likely to die of all causes during the 10-year study than those who let their feelings fly during fights.
"Ironically, clamming up may have helped preserve the women's relationships, but it definitely didn't preserve their lives" says Elaine D. Eaker, ScD, lead investigator of the study and president of Eaker Epidemiology Enterprises, in Chili, Wisconsin. Although men were actually more prone than women to keep quiet during disputes, doing so had no impact on their health or life span. The reasons for this gender gap are currently a mystery, says Dr. Eaker. "But what we do know is that men and women are physiologically stressed by different aspects of marriage, so we need to dig deeper to find out why."
Forty-nine-year-old Susanne M. Alexander, a wife and mother in Cleveland, Ohio, says her husband's insistence on knowing how she really feels about things has helped her health. "I'm prone to bottling up my feelings, which has often caused a flare-up of my arthritis pain," she says. "I also become anxious and tend toward depression, which only makes the problem worse. But my husband, Craig, is a great listener and encourages me to empty whatever negative emotions are coming up for me. Sometimes he asks, 'Is there anything else you need to say?' and other times, he just lets me know that he understands."
That's soothing to both her spirit and her achy joints, she says. "Because I feel the freedom to share what's on my heart and mind without worrying that my husband might be upset or angry, I've become so much more relaxed. And then I feel much less pain and swelling. I know there is a connection. I ask for what I need from my husband, whether it's a whole-body massage or an opportunity to vent. Having such a great marriage has made a huge difference in how happy -- and healthy -- I feel."
Enjoyable experiences pump up your immune system, confirms Carl Charnetski, PhD, a professor of psychology at Wilkes University, in Pennsylvania, and author of Feeling Good Is Good for You. And the most pleasurable way to protect yourself from colds and the flu is by having regular sex, he found in a recent study. Men and women who made love once or twice a week had 30 percent higher levels of immunoglobulin A (IgA, a mucous membrane antibody that fights respiratory viruses and bacteria) than those who abstained and -- to everyone's surprise -- those who had sex more than three times a week. "Aristotle was right: All things in moderation -- including sex," says Dr. Charnetski. "While it's unclear why too much is harmful, it may be that these people are in obsessive or poor relationships that cause them stress and anxiety, which in turn suppresses IgA." If more sex isn't on your agenda, try listening to relaxing music, playing with pets, or even cultivating an optimistic attitude. Research shows these things increase the antibody, too.
"We've known for a long time that stress is hard on the immune system, but what's new is finding out that pleasure makes it work much better," he says. "Anything enjoyable, from eating chocolate -- or just smelling it -- to making love has the potential to raise IgA. Even anticipating something nice that's going to happen later in the week stimulates your body's defenses against illness. It looks as though pleasure has the opposite cumulative effect that chronic tension does: Over time, injecting frequent small jolts of joy in your life starts you on an upward spiral to better health."
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal magazine, December 2005.