5 Ways that Positivity and Happiness can Protect you from Illness and even help you Live Longer

image: iStock photo

Stress can have many causes but one that applies to many of us is in how we look at and deal with life situations. Positive coping strategies help keep stress low but having a negative outlook or expectation about things can cause us no end of stress.

Given that stress is linked with illness, it might be no real surprise to learn that a positive outlook can have health-giving effects. At the very least, positivity spares us some stress but it seems to also have immune-boosting effects, as you can see below.

I’ve collected together 5 of my favourite pieces of research that link attitude and happiness with health and even lifespan. Here they are:

1) A Positive Outlook is good for the heart
Optimists are less likely to get heart disease than pessimists. A study of 999 people over the age of 65 found that optimists had a 77% lower risk of heart disease than pessimists.

Much of this is because of the way in which we mentally and emotionally process daily events in life. People with a more positive attitude generally get less irritated and stressed with the challenges of life. Due to the impact of stress on the cardiovascular and immune systems, learning to cultivate a sense of optimism can add years to a person’s life.

2) Happiness helps us get over the cold
People who are happy, lively and calm have better immune systems. One study saw nasal drops of the cold and flu virus given to 193 people between the ages of 21 and 55 and discovered that those who were happier and more positive (defined as a positive emotional style) got less sick and recovered faster.

How we feel affects the immune system and therefore our ability to fight off a cold or even our risk of catching one in the first place.

3) Counting blessings improves happiness
If you wanted a simple tool to increase your happiness then look no further than counting blessings. People who count their blessings tend to be happier than those who don’t. A study compared people keeping a list of blessings with people listing their hassles and found that the blessings group were 25% happier than the hassles group.

A simple exercise that I use is to catch yourself a few times a day and ask, ‘what am I grateful for right now?’ It helps to create a habit of counting blessings. Happiness is a side-effect.

4) A Positive outlook about ageing helps us live longer
A positive attitude can add years to our lives. One study examined 660 people and found that those who felt positive about getting older lived seven and a half years longer than those with a negative outlook about ageing.

Whether we can think of ageing in a positive way or a negative way matters. Even how we act – whether we act younger or older than our real age – also plays a part in how quickly we age. Mindset gives us far more control over the ageing process than most people realise.

f) Smiling helps us live longer
Research shows that people who genuinely smile (who use the muscles beside their eyes – known as the orbicularis oculi) are more likely to live past the age of 80 than people who don’t genuinely smile.

Despite what many people think, you can train yourself to smile more. One ‘laughter yoga’ exercise is to take a deep breath in and then laugh on the exhale. Of course, you will be faking it at first but in time you will start to properly laugh. Doing this a few times a day exercises the orbicularis oculi muscle, training ourselves to smile more easily and genuinely.

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  1. Vicky on January 25, 2013 at 11:43 am

    I am considering the aging process at the moment and wonder can you recommend any resources to help me think about it in a more positive way? Society and the media seem to focus so much on youth and looks that I’m finding it hard not to feel loss as I get older. The only thoughts I seem to come up with about getting older is that “it’s got to be done” and “it’s better than the alternative” Still smiling ‘though!
    Thanks Vicky

    • David R. Hamilton PhD on January 25, 2013 at 2:50 pm

      Hi Vicky, Glad you’re still smiling. 🙂 I agree with you that there is so much focus on youth that you can feel loss as you age. There’s a book called, ‘Growing older without growing old: The art of ageing’ that I’d heard about. I haven’t read it myself but it might be worth checking it out as it presumably helps you to view ageing in a positive way. Perhaps, as a little exercise, you could make a list of all the positive things you can think of about ageing. Take your time with it….like over a week….every time you think of another reason, pop it on your list. You might be quite surprised at how many things you come up with. And the secret is to read over your list from time to time.

  2. Vida Green on January 25, 2013 at 11:55 am

    so true i have changed my minds thinking over the months( as i’m a born worrier), i am learning to think positively… i have a small problem at the moment and i’m awaiting a specialist appointment, but i’m, thinking positive thoughts , and i’m really getting on well. so thank you for re-affirming what i’m doing will help.

    • David R. Hamilton PhD on January 25, 2013 at 2:40 pm

      Good for you Vida in changing the way you think. 🙂 I’m thinking positively for you too!!

  3. Callie on January 25, 2013 at 5:03 pm

    I am a huge fan of counting our blessings : one of my favourite things to do is create a Blessings Jar (or Gratitude Jar) and fill it up with all my blessings over the year – and then on New Years Eve, spend time reading through the slips and filling myself up-to-the-brim with joyfull gratitude for so many blessings present in my life *hurrah*

    Thank you so much for these great tips, David – 5 is a doable number!

    • David R. Hamilton PhD on January 28, 2013 at 11:48 am

      Hi Callie…..I love the blessings jar idea! Brilliant. I think I’ll try that one myself. I can imagine it will be a terrific experience at the end of the year to review all the year’s blessings. 🙂

  4. Sharon McClung on January 25, 2013 at 6:11 pm

    David, My mood becomes low and i feel negative thoughts creeping in when I see and hear other people’s negativity or about their health problems for instance. I live otherwise a very positive lifestyle and encourage others to do so to!
    How can I learn to let them not affect me and my mood without locking myself away!
    Thank you!

    • David R. Hamilton PhD on January 28, 2013 at 12:00 pm

      Hi Sharon, one of the ways that we absorb other people’s moods is that we unconsciously mirror their facial expressions, body language, and breathing. It’s called, ‘Emotional Contagion’. To stop feeling that way around negative people, a simple trick is to first massage the area between your eyes. This is where the ‘corrugator supercilli’ muscle is….the frown muscle, which is active around negative people. At this point you’re interrupting the incoming ‘signal’, so to speak, of their state. Then take a deep breath, pull your shoulders back, and breathe slowly and comfortably. Now your state is different from theirs and you are no longer catching their emotion….remember, you catch their state because your facial muscles, body language, and breathing mirror theirs. So what you’re really doing now is NOT mirroring them. I hope that helps. 🙂 I have a book that covers emotional contagion, if you’re interested. It’s called, ‘The Contagious Power of Thinking’.

  5. Krishna on January 25, 2013 at 7:07 pm

    The laughter yoga is the best.Love it :)I think it’s a great exercise for young kids too !

  6. Carol Ann on January 25, 2013 at 7:22 pm

    I find all those thoughts and positive suggestions are wonderful they are exact and easy to follow and live on a daily basis. Over the last year I have tried to change the way I view aging (as I turned 50) and I feel better and more alive and than I have in years. Attitude makes for great gratitude in my life. Thanks for the wisdom it great advise. ~^~

    Carol Ann 🙂

    • David R. Hamilton PhD on January 28, 2013 at 12:00 pm

      Thanks for your comment Carol Ann. 🙂

  7. Marion Parry on January 27, 2013 at 1:31 pm

    Great tips as always, thank you David. I always focus on growing younger & gently remind others that they too can choose different thoughts. Also I agree the media does focus on youth however we have a choice not to read or listen to it. Instead spending our time listening to & reading the abundance of positive & informative information out there. Also may I congratulate Vida on working on positivity. I too was brought up to ‘worry of there was nothing to worry about’ & have chosen to let that unnurturing way of thinking go. It was a challenge but its a challenge anyway & by working on positivity miracles happen. May your ‘small problem’ dissolve back to where it came from. Namaste Marion

    • David R. Hamilton PhD on January 28, 2013 at 11:46 am

      Thanks Marion. I love how you’ve chosen to look at things positively and overturn some of your early programming. 🙂

  8. Cindy on January 27, 2013 at 4:57 pm

    Hi Vicky, hope this helps, an email that puts aging in a more appreciative perspective…

    Be well,

    As I’ve aged, I’ve become kinder to, and less critical of, myself. I’ve become my own friend.

    I have seen too many dear friends leave this world, too soon; before they understood the great freedom that comes with aging.

    Whose business is it, if I choose to read, or play on the computer, until 4 AM, or sleep until noon? I will dance with myself to those wonderful tunes of the 50s, 60s & 70s, and if I, at the same time, wish to weep over a lost love, I will.

    I will walk the beach, in a swim suit that is stretched over a bulging body, and will dive into the waves, with abandon, if I choose to, despite the pitying glances from the jet set. They, too, will get old.

    I know I am sometimes forgetful. But there again, some of life is just as well forgotten. And, eventually, I remember the important things.

    Sure, over the years, my heart has been broken. How can your heart not break, when you lose a loved one, or when a child suffers, or even when somebody’s beloved pet gets hit by a car? But broken hearts are what give us strength, and understanding, and compassion. A heart never broken, is pristine, and sterile, and will never know the joy of being imperfect.

    I am so blessed to have lived long enough to have my hair turning gray, and to have my youthful laughs be forever etched into deep grooves on my face. So many have never laughed, and so many have died before their hair could turn silver.

    As you get older, it is easier to be positive. You care less about what other people think. I don’t question myself anymore. I’ve even earned the right to be wrong.

    So, to answer your question, I like being old. It has set me free. I like the person I have become. I am not going to live forever, but while I am still here, I will not waste time lamenting what could have been, or worrying about what will be. And I shall eat dessert every single day (if I feel like it).

  9. Jenny Rolfe on January 28, 2013 at 11:30 am

    It’s all so true. And how often do we remember to…smile, count our blessings etc. Thanks for the reminder. I’m working on it!!! 🙂 Note to self: stop feeling sad that the snow brought down a big bough of my lovely beech tree which will have to be cut down 🙁 BUT my friend who doesn’t have a great deal of money will benefit from the wood for her log burner 🙂 so everything works out for good in the end!!

    • David R. Hamilton PhD on January 28, 2013 at 11:39 am

      Your positivity made me smile. 🙂 Great your friend has some wood to fuel her fire now. 🙂