Researcher discusses link between positive emotions and physical health

October 20, 2016 by Blake Eligh, University of Toronto

Can having good feelings be good for your health? A new study by U of T Mississauga researcher Jennifer Stellar is investigating the effects that positive emotions might have on our physical well-being.

Stellar joined UTM's Department of Psychology as an assistant professor in September 2016. She studies , such as compassion, happiness, awe and gratitude, and how those feelings elicit reliable physiological changes. Her findings shed light on the link between emotions and immunity, stress, and overall physical and mental health.

While much research in the field has focused on , such as embarrassment, disgust or shame, Stellar is interested in the flip-side of those feelings. "Gratitude, compassion and awe may be the most important of the positive emotions," she says. "Those feelings bind us to other people, strengthen our relationships and help us behave in prosocial ways. These emotions can also have some of the most powerful effects on health and well-being."

"When we're stressed, injured or ill, the body releases proinflammatory cytokines, which regulate our immune systems," she says. "I'm curious about how we might reduce this effect, and how positive emotions could minimize the inflammation response and potentially the cortisol response," she says.

To prove that point, Stellar is putting hard data behind the ephemeral feeling of awe. "Awe is a grand emotion with powerful outcomes. Art, nature, people and music are just some of the things that can elicit that feeling," she says. "People who feel a lot of awe seem to have lower levels of proinflammatory cytokines, but we need to measure that in a controlled way."

In a study launching this fall, Stellar's Health, Emotions, & Altruism Laboratory (HEALTH Lab) will study the biological and emotional responses of 300 people recruited to view a Toronto art exhibit. The team will collect data on heart and respiration rates, along with cortisol levels and proinflammatory cytokines in saliva samples. Stellar hopes the information will shed light on how positive emotions affect us physically and their potential impacts on immunity, stress, and overall physical and mental health.

"My research examines whether feeling these positive emotions has positive measurable outcomes for markers of health," she says. "The hope is that we will see that feeling awe leads to lower levels of inflammation and cortisol, and that we will see the body calm down, too."

"These outcomes will help us to understand or legitimize these emotions and show that positive emotions have a relationship with physical health," Stellar says. "They are doing a lot of heavy lifting in ways we don't realize."

The results could impact how we approach physical and mental health. "We could prioritize cultivating positive emotions like awe and gratitude," Stellar says. "Go walk in the woods. Go to a symphony. See some art. Devote time to these emotions because they aren't luxuries. It could be good for your own health."

Explore further: Add nature, art and religion to life's best anti-inflammatories

Related Stories

Add nature, art and religion to life's best anti-inflammatories

February 3, 2015
Taking in such spine-tingling wonders as the Grand Canyon, Sistine Chapel ceiling or Schubert's "Ave Maria" may give a boost to the body's defense system, according to new research from UC Berkeley.

A simple antidote for shame

October 3, 2016
Have you ever felt embarrassed or guilty? A new study suggests that drinking a cup of cold water or iced tea could reduce these types of uncomfortable emotions.

New study shows emotional cost for parents who put on a happy face for their children

February 23, 2016
How do parents feel when they regulate their emotional expressions in ways that do not match their genuine feelings? Recent research suggests that parents' attempts to suppress negative and amplify positive emotions during ...

Happy head, happy heart: Positive emotions may promote heart-healthy behaviors

October 5, 2015
People with heart disease may benefit from maintaining positive emotions, according to health researchers.

Can feeling too good be bad? Positive emotions in bipolar disorder

July 22, 2011
(Medical Xpress) -- Positive emotions like joy and compassion are good for your mental and physical health, and help foster creativity and friendship. But people with bipolar disorder seem to have too much of a good thing. ...

Recommended for you

College students choose smartphones over food

November 16, 2018
University at Buffalo researchers have found that college students prefer food deprivation over smartphone deprivation, according to results from a paper in Addictive Behaviors.

Study finds mindfulness apps can improve mental health

November 15, 2018
A University of Otago study has found that using mindfulness meditation applications (apps) on phones is associated with improvements in people's mental health.

Social media is affecting the way we view our bodies—and not in a good way

November 15, 2018
Young women who actively engage with social media images of friends who they think are more attractive than themselves report feeling worse about their own appearance afterward, a York University study shows.

New research has revealed we are actually better at remembering names than faces

November 14, 2018
With the Christmas party season fast approaching, there will be plenty of opportunity to re-live the familiar, and excruciatingly-awkward, social situation of not being able to remember an acquaintance's name.

Older adults' abstract reasoning ability predicts depressive symptoms over time

November 14, 2018
Age-related declines in abstract reasoning ability predict increasing depressive symptoms in subsequent years, according to data from a longitudinal study of older adults in Scotland. The research is published in Psychological ...

The illusion of multitasking boosts performance

November 13, 2018
Our ability to do things well suffers when we try to complete several tasks at once, but a series of experiments suggests that merely believing that we're multitasking may boost our performance by making us more engaged in ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.