Concentrating on positive feelings during adversity extends life expectancy
Psychological stress is unhealthy, and many scientific studies have shown that it also reduces life expectancy. At least, if you are unable to deal with it. American psychologist Daniel Mroczek, at Northwestern University, discovered that men who remain positive despite stressful events live longer than men who lose their positive feelings.
The researchers got 181 men aged between 58 and 88 to keep a diary for eight days in 2002. The men recorded daily whether any stressful events had happened and they recorded their feelings. The diary enabled the researchers to make a psychological profile for each man.
In 2012 the researchers looked at which men were still alive, and then tried to work out whether there was a relationship between the men's profile and their likelihood of dying.
In the scientific literature positive emotions [Positive affect] boost survival chances and negative emotions [Negative affect] increase the chance of dying. The researchers did not detect these correlations in their study.
They did find correlations however when they looked at how the men reacted to stressful events. This is called emotional reactivity.
The researchers distinguished between positive and negative emotional reactivity. Positive emotional reactivity means that you are less upbeat, happy, hopeful, satisfied or happy after a stressful event. You experience fewer positive feelings.
Negative emotional reactivity means that after stressful events you are sadder, lonelier, angrier or more anxious. You experience more negative feelings.
The researchers discovered that negative emotional reactivity [Emotional reactivity NA] did not significantly raise of lower the chance of dying, while positive emotional reactivity [Emotional reactivity PA] significantly reduced the chance of dying.
Negative events and psychological stress are not a big factor in determining life expectancy, the researchers concluded. What is more relevant is how you deal with these events. And it's not so much about censuring your feelings and suppressing negative emotions, but rather about holding on to positive emotions.
Psychologists call this ability 'resilience'. Resilient people can deal with setbacks, adapt more easily and pick up their life again more easily. You can read more about resilience here.
"This study shows that a dynamic emotional process, in contrast to a static emotion measurement, predicts mortality", the researchers wrote. "It hints that a potentially fruitful but understudied aspect of emotional processing is important for health and longevity."
"How much one reacts emotionally to stressful events may be as important as how one generally feels in influencing physical health and longevity."
J Gerontol B Psychol Sci Soc Sci. 2015 May;70(3):398-406.
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