Are you a paragon of blissful serenity or a negative Nancy, fretting your way through life? Rest easy with our top tips…
Scientific research is providing conclusive evidence to support the fact that positive thoughts and feelings help build a strong and healthy immune system. And if we want to remain in blooming health, we should all be changing our attitude.
To give your immune system a healthy boost, here are six emotional areas that research studies have now recognised as key factors.
Don’t be a loner – positive contact with others keeps us healthy and happy. Just being able to talk over everyday problems with a friend can be beneficial in warding off more serious problems like depression on insomnia.
Scientists at University of Adelaide found that a strong network of friends significantly improves chances of survival.
Monitoring 1,500 over-70s about their level of contact with children, relatives and friends over a ten-year period, close family contact had little effect on longevity compared to friendship.
Dr Lorna Layward, research manager for Help the Aged, says: “As we get older we may lose friends, so it’s essential to constantly build and maintain new relationships. We know that the quality of social life for many women actually improves with age, so it goes to show that we really do benefit from chatting and feeling valued among friends.”
If you’re happy on the outside, the chances are you’ll be happier on the inside. Happy people have stronger immune systems, healthier hearts, and are less prone to catching colds and flu. Researchers at University College London have made positive links between everyday happiness and levels of important body chemicals, such as the stress hormone cortisol.
The team studied 216 middle-aged men and women who were asked to rate how they had been feeling in the last five minutes at a number of points during the day.
Heart rate and blood pressure was measured, and saliva samples taken to test levels of cortisol.
“This study showed that whether people are happy or less happy in their everyday lives appears to have important effects on the markers of biological function known to be associated with disease. The happier you were, the lower your cortisol levels during the day,” says clinical psychologist Jane Wardle of University College.
Dr Derek Cox, Director of Public Health at Dumfries and Galloway NHS, believes that while giving up smoking, exercise and leading a generally healthy lifestyle are important, “there is mounting evidence that happiness might be at least as powerful a predictor, if not a more powerful one, than some of the other lifestyle factors.
"It’s not just that if you’re physically well you’re likely to be happy, but actually the opposite. If you are happy you are likely in the future to have less in the way of physical illness than those who are unhappy.”
Do you see the cup as half-empty or half-full? Being a happy optimist or doubting pessimist is more than just a state of mine. While the former can help keep you fit and well, the latter, says, Adam Khan, personal growth motivator and author of Self-Help Stuff That Works (published by YouMe Works; available from Amazon.co.uk, £12.38), can do the opposite.
“Pessimism leads to depression and depression changes certain brain hormones. That creates a chain of biochemical events that makes your immune system less active and less effective.”
And, he adds, you don’t even need to be depressed.
“In the absence of depression, pessimism can still weaken your immune system. Pessimists’ T-cells don’t multiply as quickly as optimists’, and their NK cells – which circulate in the blood and kill whatever they identify as foreign, like cancer cells – don’t destroy invaders as well as the optimists’ NK cells.”
Dr. James Godwin, professor of geriatrics at the Seely Centre of Ageing at the University of Texas, believes that happiness is critically important.
“Most studies treated depression as a thing and good health was then maybe the absence of depression. But that is wrong. Having a positive feeling is almost independent from the negative. And that’s very powerful,” he states.
Imagine visiting your doctor and being given a “prescription” to say two “Hail Marys” (or another prayer appropriate to tour beliefs).
Well, that is not as bizarre as it sounds.
Research indicates that people with high levels of religious beliefs or spirituality have lower cortisol responses, and those who regularly attend organised religious activities may live longer that those who don’t: regular participation appears to lower mortality rate by about 12 per cent a year.
“There is a critical mass of research that we can no longer ignore,” says Dr. Harold Koenig, associate professor of psychiatry and medicine at Duke University, after reviewing over 1,200 studies that examined the relationship between faith and healing.
In almost all, he found, involvement in a religious community is associated with almost a seven-year difference in survival.
“That makes having religious faith the equivalent of not smoking cigarettes,” he adds.
Forgiving is one of the hardest things that people find to do. While terrible hurts can take only minutes to inflict, forgiving them often requires more time and for some it is something they might carry around for months, or even years, after the act.
Dr Robert Enright, professor of educational psychology, has consistently found in research that those who are able to forgive experience a decrease in anxiety, depression and hostility.
“We’ve been surprised at how strong forgiveness can be as a healing agent for people,” he reports. “You can actually change a person’s wellbeing and their emotions by helping them to forgive.”
Psychologist Loren Toussaint, author of a study published in the Journal of Adult Development, found that the older you are, the easier it seems to be to forgive, with better reported mental and physical health.
“I suspect that forgiveness may prove to be a sort of psychological antidote to anger which has already been shown to have a host of negative physical and mental effects.”
Love, they say, makes the world go round. It’s also one of the best immune boosters you can find. Happily married couples statistically live longer than their single counterparts, have lower rates of heart failure, cancer and other diseases.
According to one Harvard University study, married women are 20 per cent less likely to die of a variety of causes, including heart disease, suicide and cirrhosis of the liver. Married men enjoy an even greater benefit, being two to three times less likely to die of such causes than their bachelor friends.
Researchers at the HeartMath Institute in California, confirm the life-affirming effects of love.
“Our heart rate changes with every heartbeat. When we get stressed, mad or worried, the heart’s rhythmic pattern becomes very incoherent, and that has the effect of inhibiting the brain’s cortex,” explains Institute research director Rollin McCraty.
“When we are in a loving state, our hearts go into coherent rhythms. That is because the two halves of the nervous system are in sync and operating much more efficiently together. That allows the body to go through its natural regenerative process. If we feel live and compassion that boosts our immune system.”