How Positive Emotions Build Physical Health: Perceived Positive Social Connections Account for the Upward Positive Spiral

This breaking bit of positive psychology news just in from Ken Pope…

*Psychological Science* has scheduled an article for publication in a future issue of the journal: How Positive Emotions Build Physical Health: Perceived Positive Social Connections Account for the Upward Spiral Between Positive Emotions and Vagal Tone.

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The authors are Bethany E. Kok, Kimberly A. Coffey, Michael A. Cohn, Lahnna I. Catalino, Tanya Vacharkulksemsuk, Sara B. Algoe, Mary Brantley, and Barbara L. Fredrickson.

Here’s how the article begins:

[begin excerpt]

People who experience warmer, more upbeat emotions live longer and healthier lives. Indeed, prospective evidence connecting positive emotions to physical health and longevity has steadily grown for a decade (for a meta-analysis linking positive emotions to objective health outcomes, see Howell, Kern, & Lyubomirsky, 2007; for a meta-analysis linking positive emotions to mortality, see Chida & Steptoe, 2008).

 

Experiencing positive emotions more frequently, for instance, forecasts having fewer colds (Cohen, Alper, Doyle, Treanor, & Turner, 2006), reduced inflammation (Steptoe, O’Donnell, Badrick, Kumari, & Marmot, 2007), and lower likelihood of cardiovascular disease (Boehm & Kubzansky, 2012).

 

Complementing this prospective correlational evidence, a recent longitudinal field experiment designed to test Fredrickson’s (1998, in press) broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions found that individuals randomly assigned to self-generate positive emotions reported experiencing fewer headaches and less chest pain, congestion, and weakness compared with a control group (Fredrickson, Cohn, Coffey, Pek, & Finkel, 2008).

 

These first causal data lend support to the conclusion suggested by prospective correlations: Positive emotions build physical health. Stronger evidence still would be to find that an experimental manipulation of positive emotions influenced an objective marker of physical health.

Providing such evidence was one aim of the work reported here.

Cardiac vagal tone provided our objective proxy for physical health. Indexed at rest as variability in heart rate associated with respiratory patterns, vagal tone reflects the functioning of the vagus nerve, which is the 10th cranial nerve and a core component of the parasympathetic nervous system, which regulates heart rate in response to signals of safety and interest (Porges, 2007).

 

Low vagal tone has been linked to high inflammation (Thayer & Sternberg, 2006), and lower vagal tone forecasts greater risk for myocardial infarction and lower odds of survival after heart failure (Bibevski & Dunlap, 2011).

 

Intriguingly, recent prospective evidence suggests that the causal link between positive emotions and physical health may run in the opposite direction as well: Physical health appears to promote positive emotions.

 

Building on findings that high vagal tone has been associated with superior abilities to regulate one’s own emotions (Fabes & Eisenberg, 1997; Thayer, Hansen, Saus-Rose, & Johnsen, 2009) and with positive emotionality (Oveis et al., 2009), we found that people with higher vagal tone show greater gains over time in their positive emotions (Kok & Fredrickson, 2010).

 

More strikingly, these same data also revealed that people who show greater gains in positive emotions show greater improvements over time in their vagal tone; in short, positive emotions and vagal tone show the reciprocal influence indicative of an upward-spiral dynamic (Kok & Fredrickson, 2010).

 

This prospective evidence not only challenges the view that vagal tone in adulthood is a largely stable, traitlike attribute (Bornstein & Suess, 2000), but also raises the possibility that changes in habitual emotions drive changes in vagal tone, and thereby constitute one pathway through which emotional health influences physical health.

 

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Here’s how the Discussion section starts:

 

[begin excerpt]

These findings document not only that positive emotions build physical health, as indexed objectively by cardiac vagal tone, but also how they do so: We found that people’s perceptions of their positive social connections with others accounted for the causal link between positive emotions and improved vagal tone.

 

Supporting the conceptual model depicted in Figure 1, the data suggest that positive emotions, positive social connections, and physical health forge an upward-spiral dynamic.

 

Baseline vagal tone interacted with experimental condition to predict the degree of success people had in self-generating positive emotions.

 

Greater positive emotions in turn prompted individuals to see themselves as more socially connected.

 

Over time, as moments of positive emotions and positive social connections increased and accrued, vagal tone also improved, building a biological resource that has been linked to numerous health benefits.

 

This upward-spiral dynamic has the potential to set individuals on self-sustaining pathways toward growth that can explain the strong empirical associations between positive social and emotional experiences and physical health. Indeed, these findings suggest that habitually experienced positive emotions may be an essential psychological nutrient for autonomic health.

 

[end excerpt]

 

Here’s how the article concludes:

 

[begin excerpt]

 

Most dispensed advice about how people might improve their physical health calls for increased physical activity, improved nutritional intake, and reductions in tobacco and alcohol use.

 

This good advice can now be expanded to include self-generating positive emotions.

 

Recurrent momentary experiences of positive emotions appear to serve as nutrients for the human body, increasing feelings of social belonging and giving a needed boost to parasympathetic health, which in turn opens people up to more and more rewarding positive emotional and social experiences.

 

Over time, this self-sustaining upward spiral of growth appears to improve physical health.

 

[end excerpt]

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Reprint request contact info: Barbara L. Fredrickson, Department of Psychology, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Davie Hall CB 3270, Chapel Hill, NC 27599-3270 E-mail: <blf@unc.edu> Bethany E. Kok, Department of Social Neuroscience, Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, Stephanstrasse 1A, 04103 Leipzig, Germany E-mail:

<bethkok@cbs.mpg.de>