Positive Emotions for Health

Positive emotional states are good for your health and your heart

Positive emotions such as joy, optimism and happiness make life worth living. But positive emotions do not only feel good mentally – new research is showing that positive emotional states are good for your health, especially your heart.

Positive emotions are thought to exert their helpful effect on the body both directly and indirectly. One direct path of influence is through heart rate variability (HRV). HRV is a measure of the brain’s capacity to regulate the heart rate, in response to changing mental and physical demands in the environment. Good HRV is a sign of a healthy heart, predicting reduced risk of cardiac events, and higher cognitive function and less frailty in older adults.

New research in younger adults has found that positive emotional training can improve HRV. A current research collaboration between The University of Melbourne and Healthscope Hospitals (funded by The Hallmark Ageing Research Initiative) is now considering if midlife and older adults can likewise benefit from a positive emotion training course.

In this study, hospital outpatients will attend a four-week training course where they will learn skills to cultivate mindfulness, loving-kindness, self-compassion and gratitude. They will also practice these skills in their daily life between classes. HRV and self-reported well-being will be measured before and after the course, enabling us to quantify the benefits of positive emotion training for midlife and older adults (a group who especially need to take care of their health to help offset risks of chronic disease).

Australian older adults are the fastest growing demographic in Australia. Designing new strategies to promote happiness and health in midlife and older adults is a key policy objective, to improve the health of our communities. Positive emotional training shows promise to help achieve this goal, whilst also sharing the fascinating science of positive health with midlife and older Australians.

[Source: Dr Lydia Brown is a psychologist and academic in the School of Psychological Sciences at the University of Melbourne]