Feel a cold coming on? Don’t worry, be happy!

Will there soon be a day when health care providers prescribe a good laugh and a walk on the beach instead of pills and potions to treat common illnesses? While it seems fanciful, there’s a mounting body of evidence that suggests the state of our physical health may have more to do with our attitude and sense of well-being than with bodily foreign invaders or cells gone rogue. Could something as simple as changing your disposition be just as effective at warding off maladies as modern medical remedies?

Let’s look at the evidence.

Positivity and the flu

In an experiment conducted by researchers from the Carnegie Mellon University in the U.S, 193 volunteers aged between 21 to 55 years took part in an experiment to gauge what effect our emotional and psychological condition plays on our physical health.

At the beginning of the experiment participants were assessed for their level of positive emotional style (PES). A person who displayed happy, lively and calm characteristics was assigned a number on a positive PES score range, while a person who displayed anxious, hostile and depressed characteristics was assigned a number on a negative PES score range.

The participants were then exposed to the rotavirus (influenza) though a nasal spray (we hope they were paid well) and put in quarantine for a number of days. At the end of the experiment those participants with a positive PES score where less likely to have contracted the rotavirus than those with a negative PES score.

Immune to negativity

The above findings echo a similar experiment in 2006 where 84 study participants were given the Hepatitis B vaccination for a study on what role disposition plays in vulnerability to upper respiratory infections.

The participants were tested five months later for levels of an antibody that reacts to the Hepatitis B vaccine – the higher the level of antibodies, the healthier the immune system. At the same time participants were asked to complete a psychological questionnaire designed to gauge their level of ‘happiness’.

The researchers found that those participants who scored higher on the questionnaire-based ‘happiness scale’ also recorded much higher levels of the Hepatitis B-resisting antibodies – meaning they enjoyed a healthier immune system.

The researchers concluded that, “…individual differences in dispositional positive affect (happiness) may be of health significance, being related to an in vivo immune response relevant for protection against infection.”

Think positive for a happy heart

And it’s not just the immune system that benefits from a sunny disposition – similar results come from studies into cardiovascular health. In a large population-based study in Nova Scotia, 1,739 healthy study participants, will no evidence of cardiovascular illness were followed up 10 years after undergoing an exhaustive range of tests to assess levels of ‘positivity’ or ‘negativity’ in their attitude and disposition.

Those participants recording a higher level of ‘positivity’ in the tests 10 years earlier were far less likely to have poor cardiovascular health than those who scored in the ‘negativity’ range. The effect was so pronounced that the risk of heart disease was calculated to have decreased by 22 percent for every one point increase in ‘positivity’.

The researchers concluded that, “…increased positive affect (happiness) was protective against 10-year incident CHD (cardiovascular disease), suggesting that preventive strategies may be enhanced not only by reducing depressive symptoms but also by increasing positive affect.”

More research needs to be conducted before any clear health directives can be made on the correlation between disposition and physical health, but while we’re waiting for this to happen it won’t hurt to put a smile on our dial and always look on the bright side of life.

In fact it just might help.