By Mary Marczak
“I decided I am going to be a prostitute!”
This declaration never failed to evoke a big belly laugh from my parents because it’s part of my very devout Catholic mom’s favorite joke: A daughter is telling her parents that she wants to be a prostitute. Her parents mishear and almost have a heart attack. After clarifying that she did indeed say “prostitute,” the punch line goes, “Oh, thank goodness — we thought you said ‘Protestant’!”
Humor and positive thinking has never been more important to your health than now. No matter who you are, collectively we are bruised from this brutal, negative election year.
Barbara Fredrickson, principal investigator of the Positive Emotions and Psychophysiology Lab at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has developed a “broaden-and-build” theory of positive emotions. Her research has shown that a person’s body reacts to negative emotions by heightening activity in the sympathetic nervous system (that is, the system that activates our fight or flight response), which has the result of narrowing our behavior options to, basically, attack or escape.
Positive emotions, on the other hand, quell autonomic arousal and “broaden one’s attention, thinking, and behavioral repertoires.” This theory suggests that positive emotions lead to actions that are novel, expansive, or exploratory, i.e. broadening, and that, over time, these actions build meaningful, long-term resources such as social relationships.
In 2005, the National Institute of Health (NIH) re-published an article by Fredrickson and her colleagues on the connections between positive emotions, positive thinking, resilience, and health: Psychological Resilience and Positive Emotional Granularity: Examining the Benefits of Positive Emotions on Coping and Health. In this article, she and her colleagues lay out the accumulating evidence of benefits of staying positive:
- Laughter and humor increases positive emotion, which in turn positively influence our immune system. Those who cope using humor show increases in levels of a vital immune system protein, body’s first line of defense against illnesses.
- Interventions that promote positive emotions are beneficial to health. One study had participants assigned to three groups: 1) count your blessings, 2) list daily hassles, or 3) control. After 10 weeks, people who “counted their blessings” reported broad-range of positive health outcomes including fewer physical complains, more time exercising, more hours of sleep, and better sleep quality.
- Laughter and positive emotions have been shown to benefit individuals who are already sick. For example, a study following people who were admitted to a hospital for cardiovascular-related disease showed that those who report positive emotions 90 days after hospital release had lower readmission rates. Positive emotions predicted readmission rates over above other factors like health status at release.
- The benefits of positive emotion may last a lifetime. Research that followed people who used positive writing and humorously positioning their earlier life trauma (which the authors call positive emotional disclosure) showed greater longevity.
- Positive emotions help coping and adjustments to acute and chronic stress and help to buffer against stress and depressed mood.
So let’s find humor in our everyday life, share our laughter, and be positive. It’s good for our health!
Mary Marczak, works at the University of Minnesota Extension, as the Director of Urban Family Development and Evaluation.