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Optimism Fueled By Social Connections Could Boost Physical Health: Study

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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.

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