Positive Emotions and Your Health

The National Institute of Health asks, “Do you tend to look on the sunny side, or do you see a future filled with dark, stormy skies?” A growing body of research suggests that having a positive outlook can benefit your physical health. NIH-funded scientists are working to better understand the links between your attitude and your body. They’re finding some evidence that emotional wellness can be improved by developing certain skills.

Having a positive outlook doesn’t mean you never feel negative emotions, such as sadness or anger, says Dr. Barbara L. Fredrickson, a psychologist, and expert on emotional wellness at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. “All emotions—whether positive or negative—are adaptive in the right circumstances. The key seems to be finding a balance between the two,” she says.

“Positive emotions expand our awareness and open us up to new ideas, so we can grow and add to our toolkit for survival,” Fredrickson explains. “But people need negative emotions to move through difficult situations and respond to them appropriately in the short term. Negative emotions can get us into trouble, though, if they’re based on too much rumination about the past or excessive worry about the future, and they’re not really related to what’s happening in the here and now.”

People who are emotionally well, experts say, have fewer negative emotions and are able to bounce back from difficulties faster. This quality is called resilience. Another sign of emotional wellness is being able to hold onto positive emotions longer and appreciate the good times. Developing a sense of meaning and purpose in life—and focusing on what’s important to you—also contributes to emotional wellness.

Research has found a link between an upbeat mental state and improved health, including lower blood pressure, reduced risk for heart disease, healthier weight, better blood sugar levels, and longer life. But many studies can’t determine whether positive emotions lead to better health, if being healthy causes positive emotions, or if other factors are involved.

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