Positive outlook and friends may be as good for you as diet and exercise, claims study

Shereen Dindar
Contributing Writer
Shine On

The idea that our emotional well-being is tied to our physical health is something many of us likely take for granted.

But now a new study, published in the journal Psychological Science, claims to pinpoint the specific physical function that is affected by positive emotions, namely vagal tone.

The researchers suggest that positive emotions can increase our vagal tone -- the degree of activity occurring in the nervous system which affects our heart rate and other organs.

A higher vagal tone, which many athletes have, corresponds to a lower resting heart rate and a lower risk of cardiovascular disease. Vagal tone may also play a role in regulating glucose levels and immune responses.

“Positive emotion, positive social connections, and physical health influence one another in a self-sustaining, upward-spiral dynamic,” writes lead researcher and psychologist Bethany Kok of the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences.

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“The biggest news is that we’re able to change something physical about people’s health by increasing their daily diet of positive emotion, and that helps us get at a long-standing mystery of how our emotional and social experience affects our physical health,” study researcher and psychologist Barbara Fredrickson from the University of North Carolina tells TIME.

The researchers conducted a nine-week longitudinal field experiment using 65 participants with a median age of 37 and a half. All were faculty or staff members at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, and two-thirds were women.

Half of the study participants were randomly assigned to attend a six-week loving-kindness meditation course in which they learned how to nurture positive feelings of love, compassion and goodwill toward themselves and others.

The other half of participants were put on a waiting list for the course.

All the participants filled out a daily report for nine-weeks intended to assess the range of their emotions and the closeness of their social interactions. As well, their vagal tone was assessed at the beginning and end of the study.

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The results showed that participants in the course had an increase in positive emotions, which increased their social connections, in turn leading to an increase in vagal tone.

However, participants on the waiting list showed virtually no increase in positive emotions and vagal tone over the course of the study.

“People tend to liken their emotions to the weather, viewing them as uncontrollable,” says Fredrickson. “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.”

What are your thoughts on the findings of the study? Do you notice a connection between your emotional and physical health?