Today, chronic inflammation is one of the leading causes of stroke, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. These conditions are typically treated with invasive interventions—such as surgery, radiation and harsh pharmaceutical drugs— only after they become quite serious. What if you could prevent inflammation? Even better—what if something as simple as a cup of tea with a good friend could help quell inflammation and restore your health?
Good news! New research shows that simple, positive experiences, such as having a heart-warming conversation with a friend, can help reduce chronic inflammation.
Most of us are familiar with acute inflammation, which manifests in the form of swelling or redness when we sustain a wound or have an accident, for example a broken wrist. Acute inflammation is actually a helpful mechanism. Because of it, we know to watch a wound for infection and to baby our wrist until it has had time to heal. On the other hand, chronic inflammation is its more sinister cousin. It slowly and silently breaks down the body at the cellular level and negatively affects systems through the body.
Factors like depression and stress are consistently linked with inflammation. In contrast, indicators of well-being—such as positive emotions, purpose in life, and an active social life—are associated with lower inflammation. Until now, little was known about how the small joys of everyday life—such as winning a tennis match or the satisfaction felt from helping those in need at a local charity—impact our health.
Connection Between Health and Happiness
Researchers at Pennsylvania State University, led by Nancy Sin, set out to find how daily doses of happiness affect inflammation. They questioned approximately 1,000 individuals about their daily experiences for eight consecutive days. During the study, blood samples from participants were examined for three markers of inflammation: cytokine interleukin-6, C-reactive protein, and fibrinogen.
The researchers found that daily positive events were associated with lower levels of two of the markers, cytokine interleukin-6 and C-reactive protein. Fibrinogen was considerably lower in women who reported positive experiences. “People who had more frequent positive events in their daily lives tended to have lower inflammation, compared to people who had fewer positive events,” said Sin.
The authors asserted in their July 28, 2014 paper in Brain, Behavior and Immunity[i] that this was the first study to find such an association, and advocated more research in the area. However, Sin’s study builds on an existing body of research that shows how psychological wellbeing is beneficial for physical health. For example, a 2011 study in Health Psychology showed that upbeat personality traits such as optimism can protect against coronary heart disease.
Experts contend it’s possible to take conscious steps on a daily basis to ensure long-term health. Here are a few ways you can incorporate more happiness, joy and positivity into your life.
- “Plug in” to yourself: In this age, we are inseparable from technology. But it’s important to set boundaries. “To live the purposeful, meaningful life of our dreams with the best health possible for our bodies, we must spend time ‘plugged into ourselves’,” said Barb Schmidt, author of The Practice: Simple Tools for Managing Stress, Finding Inner Peace and Uncovering Happiness (HCI Books). Schmidt recommends practicing meditation every day. “With a daily practice of meditation, little by little, each day we are listening to our inner voice and no longer succumbing to the voice in our head that’s negative and harmful to our mental and physical health,” Schmidt said.
- Create a support community: Being social pays dividends for our health. “When we feel connected and loved, it is much easier to maintain a positive outlook on life despite challenges,” said psychotherapist Ana Moreno, MS, LMHC. And don’t just restrict yourself to small talk. “Talk about the important things. We all have challenges and struggles. When we are able to talk about those issues with someone we trust, we validate we are not alone and can get through it,” said Moreno.
- Savor small joys: Being able to discover joy in the smallest of things may be key to being healthy. “People who are able to recognize and interpret an experience—even a mundane one—as positive generally have higher well-being, compared to people who are less likely to notice or interpret experiences as positive,” said Sin. In short: Take time to smell the roses—and appreciate them.
- Don’t bottle ’em up: Don’t stifle negative emotions in order to be positive. “Bottling up those emotions makes it very difficult to appreciate, enjoy and gain the benefit of positive emotions,” said San Diego-based psychiatrist David M. Reiss. Find safe outlets to vent your frustrations or negative emotions. “Even turning to simple enjoyments—music, reading, being with friends—can help to release the negative feelings and maintain an appropriate balance and an overall sense of feeling positive about yourself,” Reiss added.
[i] Sin, N., Graham-Engeland, J., Almeida, D. M3. Daily positive events and inflammation: Findings from the National Study of Daily Experiences, Brain Behav Immun, 2014 Aug 4. pii: S0889-1591(14)00407-3. doi: 10.1016/j.bbi.2014.07.015. [Epub ahead of print]