It pays to be a happy, optimistic person -- at least when it comes to your health, according to a small new study in the journal Psychological Science.
"People tend to liken their emotions to the weather, viewing them as uncontrollable," study researcher Barbara Fredrickson, of the University of North Carolina, said in a statement. "This research shows not only that our emotions are controllable, but also that we can take the reins of our daily emotions and steer ourselves toward better physical health."
Researchers also found that social connections are a big part of why it's possible to "will" yourself to have more positive emotions.
"The daily moments of connection that people feel with others emerge as the tiny engines that drive the upward spiral between positivity and health," Fredrickson said in the statement.
The study included 65 study participants with an average age of 37. Half of the study participants did a 61-day loving-kindness meditation course, which involved meditating at home and learning how to cultivate positive feelings and goodwill. They also reported their emotional experiences and social interactions every day of the course, and their vagal tone was measured at the beginning and end of the course. Vagal tone is measured to determine the functionality of the vagus nerve, which is known to play a part in heart rate regulation, as well as social engagement.
Meanwhile, the other half of the study participants were told they were on a waiting list for this meditation course.
Researchers found that those who already had a high vagal tone before undergoing the study and completed the meditation course had bigger rises in their positive emotions after going through the course, and these increases in positive emotions were linked with more social connections. And, just like a feedback loop, these increases in social connections were linked with increases in vagal tone.
However, the participants who didn't undergo the course didn't experience any such increases.
Recently, a study in the same journal showed a similar link between positive emotions and good health, and that this link actually seems to be particularly strong in developing countries.
Research presented in 2012 found that something you might expect more from your mother -- nagging -- can actually work when it's coming from a pal who's pushing you to move more. In fact, the least active interviewees in this particular survey said they needed and even appreciated a nudge now and then from friends. And working out with a friend has the added benefit of keeping you committed to your workout plan. There's no rolling over to hit the snooze button on that a.m. run if someone is waiting for you to show up! Flickr photo by geishaboy500
There's some truth behind friendship clichés like "a shoulder to cry on." In the face of great stress, talking with and leaning on friends really can help you get through troublesome times. A 2011 study found that among students, friendships helped reduce some of the stress of being bullied or excluded at school. Women in particular may be predisposed to the calming benefits of friendship. Researchers found that females release the hormone oxytocin when stressed, which encourages "tend and befriend" behavior, rather than the "fight or flight" reaction often observed in men, the San Francisco Chronicle reported. This encourages women to chat with their friends when stressed, and the chatting itself spurs the release of more oxytocin, which can have a calming effect. Flickr photo by epSos.de
It's not quite as simple as connecting with friends and, poof, you're guaranteed to live to 100. But there is a significant body of research linking strong social ties to a longer lifespan. Australian research found that older adults with more friends were 22 percent less likely to die during a 10-year study than their peers with fewer friends. And in a recent analysis of 148 studies, researchers found that people with stronger relationships had a 50 percent greater chance of survival. Flickr photo by egor.gribanov
While friendships may help you live longer in any situation, social ties have also been linked specifically to overcoming cancer. A small 2005 study observed 61 women with advanced ovarian cancer. Higher levels of interleukin 6, a protein marker for a more aggressive form of the disease, were found in the women with the weakest social bonds. An older study followed 86 women with metastatic breast cancer for a year and found that the women who participated in a weekly support group lived twice as long.
Perhaps because of their relaxation powers, friends are also good for the heart. A 2005 analysis of social support theories found that weak social ties could double heart disease risk. The link between social support and a healthy heart is even stronger for men who make one very special social tie official. Married men seem to experience a particular boost in heart health, WebMD reported. Stronger social ties in general seem to lower blood pressure, which helps the heart. Flickr photo by Brent Gambrell