Can Optimism Prevent Illness?

Can Optimism Prevent Illness?

Do happier people get sick less often? Research suggests the answer is yes.

According to Dutch researcher and emeritus-professor, Ruut Veenhoven of Erasmus University Rotterdam, being unhappy can influence and even compromise your body’s basic functions, including the ability to fight of certain illnesses like the common cold or flu bug.

“Thriving organisms tend to be healthier and then to be more active,” Veenhoven is quoted to have said. “And then, in the case of the health effects, there is a lower chance that you fall ill.”

“If you’re chronically unhappy, that triggers the fight/flight system. Over the years you’re more susceptible to illnesses such as flu.”

Other than avoiding miserable illnesses known to strike each year, Veenhoven also suggests that optimistic, or ‘happier’ people tend to live longer.

“The effect of being happy or not on how long you live is comparable to smoking or not,” says Veenhoven.

Unfortunately, if you are already sick, turning that frown upside down will not warrant a miraculous recovery. But, if you are an optimist, symptoms and the length of your illness may not be as severe, researchers surmise.

Like many studying the effects of mood on the immune system, Veenhoven was unable to find a direct link between what makes happy people’s immune systems seem to operate a little better. One speculative conclusion was that optimistic people also tend to be more social. Veenhoven suggests that these individuals are more likely to build strong immune systems by increasing their exposure to social settings. Another reasonable possibility, he suggests, is that people who like to be seen socially tend to take care of themselves (i.e. watch their weight and exercise).

According to Steve Cole, a professor in psychoneuroimmunology at the University of California, Los Angeles, differences in attitude and its effect on a person’s immune system may result from the response of cytokines, which act as messenger proteins, expressing the makeup of each gene. These messenger proteins can also cause inflammation, or other immune responses to bodily injury or infection.

Cole and fellow researchers studied an estimated 22,000 different genes. They found that people who were less sociable had 209 unique genes that could lead to an increase in inflammatory responses.

“The results make evolutionary sense,” Cole reported to Scientific American.

“Early humans in close-knit social groups would have faced increased risk of viral infections, so they would have benefited from revved-up antiviral genes. By contrast, people who were isolated and under stress faced greater risk of injuries that could cause bacterial infection- and thus would need to respond by ramping up genes associated with inflammation, to help heal wounds and fight off infections.”

“But modern stresses lead to chronic and unhelpful inflammation, which over time damages the body’s tissue, increasing the risk of chronic diseases such as atherosclerosis, cancer and diabetes.”

Being happy can mean more than just putting a smile on your face. While studies are still being done to determine the relationship between mood and immunity, evidence suggests that optimists tend to fair better than pessimists when it comes to contracting and convalescing from illness.

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