In this day and age, you would have to be living under a rock not to have heard about the powerful mind-body connection. For example, we know that exercise helps alleviate depression, yoga is great for stress management, eating vegetables and other superfoods can make you happier and the way you walk can boost your mood. So, for your overall mental health, you should definitely be exercising, eating right and engaging in other forms of self-care.
But did you know that the reverse is also true? Your moods and overall mindset have a measurable effect on your body and its functioning. Here are four of the most fascinating scientific findings about how your outlook on life affects your health.
1. Your perception of stress affects its actual impact on your body.
We have all heard about the negative effects of stress on our bodies. However, researchers out of the University of Wisconsin at Madison discovered that our views about stress may actually play a bigger role in its negative effects than the stress itself. In the study, they tracked 30,000 American adults for eight years, and found that people with a lot of stress had a 43% increased risk of dying — but only if they believed stress was harmful. On the other hand, those who had a lot of stress, but didn't see it as harmful, did not have this increased risk.
2. Your level of life-satisfaction may affect bone density.
A study out of Finland followed women over the age of 60 for 10 years, and asked them to report on their level of life satisfaction. The researchers found that while all women experienced an average 4% decrease in bone density during the duration of the study, there was a 52% difference in bone density loss between those who reported the highest levels of satisfaction versus the lowest levels. In addition, for those whose life satisfaction decreased during the 10 years, their bone density decreased 85% more than those whose satisfaction increased.
3. Positive thinking can increase your immunity to the common cold.
In another study, researchers interviewed participants over three weeks to assess the degree to which they had a positive emotional style. Then, subjects were given a nasal spray of rhinovirus (the cold germ) to see how their bodies would respond. Researchers found that those who had a positive emotional outlook were three times less likely to get a cold than those who had low levels of positive emotions. Interestingly, in a later study, these same researchers found that high levels of stress make it more difficult for the body to regulate the inflammatory response.
4. Optimism is literally good for your heart.
There is a wealth of research about the positive link between optimism and heart health. For example, cultivating optimism and hopefulness is linked to decreased risk of heart attack and stroke. In addition, patients who had heart attacks and were optimistic about their treatment were more likely to be alive 15 years later as compared to those who were less optimistic and hopeful (even with the same severity of illness).
Also, in a recent study of more than 5,000 adults, researchers found that the most optimistic individuals are twice as likely to have ideal cardiovascular health markers (as measured by a variety of factors, including blood pressure, body mass index, fasting plasma glucose and serum cholesterol levels and others) compared to those who are pessimistic.
These findings are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of this growing field of research, but they point to the importance of making sure not to just focus on nutrition and exercise as part of your self-care regimen. To enjoy optimal health, it's essential to develop an optimistic outlook and engage in happiness-boosting activities each and every day. Your mind and your body will thank you.
Patricia Thompson, Ph.D., is a corporate psychologist, management consultant, executive coach, and author. She received a B.A. in sociology from the University of Toronto and later earned her Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Georgia State University. Thompson works with organizations and individuals to help them meet their career and/or personal goals. Her advice has been featured in The Harvard Business Review, Forbes, Fast Company, and more. You can take her emotional intelligence quiz here.