5 Ways Positive Thinking Can Transform Your Health

03/16/2015 08:03 am ET | Updated Mar 16, 2015
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Our emotional world has a remarkable power to determine not only our mental health, but also how our physical well-being.

"Positive characteristics, such as optimism, vitality, meaning, and subjective life satisfaction are immensely important in their own right," psychologist Dr. Scott Barry Kaufman wrote in a recent Scientific American blog on optimism and heart health. "The related fields of positive psychology and health psychology focus on rigorous scientific investigations of how people adapt to life’s inevitable challenges, and how that is related (or even leads to) a better quality of life."

And a growing body of research in psychology, medicine and public health is demonstrating the health benefit of positive emotions and their effect on physical health. When past studies have looked at the effect of emotions on physical health, it has tended to focus on the deleterious effect of negative emotions like anger and mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression.

Here are five positive emotions that have been shown to improve physical health and prevent disease.

Optimism may protect the heart.

While we usually define optimism as a sunny outlook towards the future, it also encompasses much more than that. The hopeful emotion acts as a coping mechanism that can help individuals to prevail through life's challenges by maintaining a conviction that things will work out in life.

A growing body of research has suggested that cultivating this quality can have a protective effect on the heart. According to a 2012 review of literature , a number of studies have shown that people with optimistic personalities are at a reduced risk of cardiovascular events. More recently, a fascinating study found that language used on Twitter could predict mortality from heart disease -- specifically, language related to optimism and resiliency ("overcome," "stronger," "faith") was associated with a lower risk of mortality within a particular community.

Optimism's benefits for physical health also extend beyond heart health. Here are a few other ways that a sunny disposition may improve health outcomes, including improved immune system function and increased longevity.

Experiencing awe reduces inflammatory markers associated with autoimmune disease.

Hiking through a beautiful natural landscape, listening to moving classical music, or participating in a religious or spiritual ritual are some of the experiences in life that make us feel most joyful and alive. Research has shown that experiences of art, religion and philosophy are the most common experiences that evoke a sense of awe -- that sense of wonder and connection to something larger than ourselves.

According to new research from the University of California at Berkeley, awe is not only pleasurable but also enormously beneficial for one's physical and mental health. The Berkeley study found that those who had recently experienced awe had lower levels of cytokines, inflammatory markers that, in chronically high levels, have been implicated in the development of autoimmune diseases, as well as other health problems including including heart disease, Alzheimer's and depression. This suggests that awe promotes healthier levels of cytokines and may prevent disease.

"Rather than seeing a walk through the park or a trip to the museum as an indulgence, we hope people will view these kind of experiences as important ways to promote a healthy body in addition to a healthy mind," one of the study's authors, Dr. Jennifer Stellar, told the Huffington Post. "Folding these kinds of positive experiences into your daily routine may be more important for health than we previously realized.

Compassion and care for others can improve vagus nerve function.

Compassion -- a loving concern for the well-being of others -- can make us feel positively towards both ourselves and other people, and may improve our physical health in at least one important way.

Positive psychologist Barbara Frederickson has conducted research on the effects of lovingkindness meditation (LKM), a traditional Buddhist practice that involves meditating on love and extending compassion to oneself and a progressively large group of others. Frederickson found just six weeks of LKM training to have a positive impact on the vagus nerve, which extends from the brain stem to the heart, helping to regulate emotions as well as bodily systems including the cardiovascular and digestive systems.

In boosting feelings of compassion, the meditation led to improvements in resting vagal tone (which can be used to assess the degree of activity in the automatic nervous system). In an interview with Emory University, Frederickson explained that the vagus nerve plays an important role in both a person's physical health and their feeling of love and connection to others.

“In a way, our bodies are designed for love, because the more we love, the more healthy we become,” she said.

Gratitude may also benefit heart health and immune system function.

Like optimism, an "attitude of gratitude" -- an appreciation and feeling of thankfulness for the blessings one has in life -- carries significant mental and physical health benefits. Gratefulness, like optimism, has been linked with improved immune health, and has also been shown to improve sleep quality.

Gratitude may also improve health and well-being in a variety of ways insofar as it lowers stress levels -- stress being one of the main contributing factors to many chronic diseases. Research has shown that among older adults, feeling a sense of gratitude towards God acts as a buffer against the negative health effects of stress.

Self-compassion improves health-related behaviors.

People who cultivate kindness towards themselves are also kinder to their bodies, potentially helping them to prevent or manage a range of negative physical and mental health outcomes.

A 2013 study published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin examined the relationship between self-compassion, reactions to illness, and a range of health-related behaviors, finding that self-compassionate people sought medical attention sooner for symptoms that they were experiencing than people who were lacking in self-compassion. Self-compassionate people also tended to be less depressed about health problems they were experiencing, and also to take a more proactive approach towards their own health.

"It is fine to experience the pain of a negative event," cognitive scientist Dr. Art Markman wrote in Psychology Today. "But, after acknowledging the pain, it is also important to get up and try again -- to remember that failures and illnesses and bad relationships are not a verdict on your worth as a person, but just another hurdle to be overcome."

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