It’s More Important Than You Might Think! 

It’s a scary time at the moment. We’re all in lockdown uncertain about how long that will last whilst the infection and death rates continue to climb. This sort of situation can trigger all sorts of negative emotions: fear, worry, anxiety, depression, loneliness...


How can we cope with all these difficult feelings?

A young woman looks through her window, thoughtful

As you no doubt already know, the main things that help are getting plenty of sleep, taking regular exercise, eating healthily, and connecting with others.

But there’s one other thing we can do that will have more impact than you might think: plan and make time to do things that make you feel really good. The more you can feel intense positive emotions like joy, laughter, happiness, love, passion, inspiration and awe, the more you will not only feel good, but also positively impact your mental and physical health.

Over the past 20 years or so, multiple scientific studies have shown that experiencing lots of positive emotions helps us to improve many different aspects of our mental health (1-6). Not only that, these emotions help us to strengthen our resilience and enhance wellbeing. In turn this helps us feel more connected to others, reduces stress, buffers against depressive symptoms and develops healthier coping skills.


Building a Strong Immune System

A young woman leaping into the air with an umbrella

Even more importantly, experiencing positive emotions has been shown to impact our physical health (7-12). More positive emotions are associated with a variety of good physical health measures, such as:

  • lower blood pressure,
  • reduced risk for heart disease,
  • healthier weight,
  • better blood sugar levels,
  • longer life.

The most interesting result is that increased positive emotions are associated with stronger immune system functioning. Two studies have even shown that positive emotions may reduce your likelihood of catching a virus (13-14).

The studies recruited over 400 healthy men and women between the ages of 18 and 54, in order to test whether people’s emotional experience impacted how likely they were to catch a cold or flu virus. The volunteers went through medical screening to make sure they were healthy and had no underlying medical conditions. Those who passed were assessed for their level of positive emotions amongst other things. They were then put into quarantine and deliberately exposed to a virus (cold or flu) via nasal drops.

The subjects were held in quarantine for a week and monitored to see if they caught the virus via physical measurements such as weighing the amount of mucus they produced. A month later their blood was tested for antibodies. The results were unequivocal: participants who had higher levels of positive emotions were less likely to develop a cold or flu. This association occurred for all 3 viruses used across the 2 studies—2 rhinoviruses and an influenza virus.

Now this isn’t a miracle preventative. Some of the people with more positive emotions did develop symptoms. But fewer of them caught the virus than were expected to, compared to those with fewer or less intense positive emotions.


So What Can You Do?

A young boy having fun by running through water sprinklers

What all this tells us is that having fun isn’t just ‘nice to have’ at this time - it’s an essential part of looking after your health, both mental and physical. Plan some simple actions so you experience intense positive emotions more often. They don’t have to be major things. For example:

  • choose to watch a comedy that makes you laugh out loud, rather than a horror movie
  • listen to music that makes you want to sing and dance (and do some singing and dancing too, if you feel like it!)
  • try an uplifting biography or a humorous easy read, rather than a murder mystery or something too intense
  • pay attention in situations and events that fill you with joy: savour them while they’re happening, anticipate them with delight, and reminisce about them (ideally with others) to wring out every positive emotion you can
  • look for, read and share jokes and the positive stories in the news and social media
  • get outside and appreciate the beauty of nature
  • play silly games with your children, partner, friends or pet(s)
  • talk to friends and family who cheer you up – including those you’ve been meaning to get in touch with for a while. Don’t worry about how long it’s been since you spoke. Someone I know called a friend the other day without thinking about time zones – and woke them up VERY early. Rather than being upset, their friend was grateful and uplifted by the contact, saying it set them up for a really positive day.

The bottom line is: plan as many ways as you can think of to have as much fun as you can – it feels great AND it just might lower your chances of catching Covid-19.


About the Author

Rosie Hancock has been working and teaching in the field of positive psychology since 2006. She coaches individuals to build resilience and well-being while developing their careers and leadership skills. She also develops and teaches workshops on resilience, career development and positive leadership to executives in organisations of all sizes.

Before focusing on positive psychology, executive and career coaching, Rosie had a wide-ranging international career as a management consultant. She has worked with individuals and companies large and small in many different industries in the UK, the US and New Zealand. She has taught in the Master of Applied Positive Psychology and Coaching Psychology programme at the University of East London, and on the Master of Applied Positive Psychology program at the University of Pennsylvania under Martin Seligman.

Rosie has studied positive psychology, career theory and counselling theory to Master’s level, and uses research-based methods that have been scientifically shown to be effective. She also has personal experience of the effectiveness of the skills and techniques she teaches. She enjoys helping others work out their values and what success means to them, clarify and build on their strengths, and identify positive ways to move forward with their lives and careers.

Rosie holds a Master’s degree in Applied Positive Psychology from the University of Pennsylvania; a Master’s degree in Education with Certificate in Counselling from the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, NZ; a Graduate Certificate in Career Development from AUT University in NZ; and a Master’s degree in Mathematics from the University of Cambridge.



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References to other websites herein are done so with sincerity and an open appreciation for their content.

References:

  1. Tugade, M. M. & Fredrickson, B. L. Resilient Individuals Use Positive Emotions to Bounce Back From Negative Emotional Experiences. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 86, 320–333 (2004).
  2. Dolphin, K. E., Steinhardt, M. A. & Cance, J. D. The role of positive emotions in reducing depressive symptoms among Army wives. Mil. Psychol. 27, 22–35 (2015).
  3. Peng, L. et al. Application of the Pennsylvania resilience training program on medical students. Pers. Individ. Dif. 61–62, 47–51 (2014).
  4. Ong, A. D., Bergeman, C. S., Bisconti, T. L. & Wallace, K. A. Psychological resilience, positive emotions, and successful adaptation to stress in later life. J. Pers. Soc. Psychol. 91, 730–749 (2006).
  5. Tugade, M. M., Fredrickson, B. L. & Barrett, L. F. Psychological resilience and positive emotional granularity: Examining the benefits of positive emotions on coping and health. Journal of Personality 72, 1161–1190 (2004).
  6. Cohn, M. A., Fredrickson, B. L., Brown, S. L., Mikels, J. A. & Conway, A. M. Happiness Unpacked: Positive Emotions Increase Life Satisfaction by Building Resilience. Emotion 9, 361–368 (2009).
  7. Burton, C. M. & King, L. A. The health benefits of writing about intensely positive experiences. J. Res. Pers. 38, 150–163 (2004).
  8. Burton, C. M. & King, L. A. The health benefits of writing about positive experiences: the role of broadened cognition. Psychol. Health 24, 867–879 (2009).
  9. Kok, B. E. & Fredrickson, B. L. Upward spirals of the heart: Autonomic flexibility, as indexed by vagal tone, reciprocally and prospectively predicts positive emotions and social connectedness. Biol. Psychol. 85, 432–436 (2010).
  10. Howell, R. T., Kern, M. L., & Lyubomirsky, S. Health benefits: Meta-analytically determining the impact of well-being on objective health outcomes. Health Psychol. Rev. 1, 83–136 (2007).
  11. MacKenzie, G., Powell, T. F. & Donaldson, D. I. Positive emotion can protect against source memory impairment. Cogn. Emot. 29, 236–250 (2015).
  12. Yegiyan, N. S. & Yonelinas, A. P. Encoding details: Positive emotion leads to memory broadening. Cogn. Emot. 25, 1255–1262 (2011).
  13. Cohen, S., Doyle, W. J., Turner, R. B., Alper, C. M. & Skoner, D. P. Emotional style and susceptibility to the common cold. Psychosom. Med. 65, 652–657 (2003).
  14. Cohen, S., Alper, C. M., Doyle, W. J., Treanor, J. J. & Turner, R. B. Positive emotional style predicts resistance to illness after experimental exposure to rhinovirus or influenza A virus. Psychosom. Med. 68, 809–815 (2006).

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