Why Does Having a Positive Attitude Keep You Healthier?

Being outgoing, optimistic, and laughter-filled can keep you healthier.

Posted Dec 13, 2014

Over a hundred years later, a December 2014 study from Washington University in St. Louis found for the first time that laughing gas (nitrous oxide) shows promise for helping symptoms of treatment-resistant depression.

In a press release, principal investigator Peter Nagele, MD, assistant professor of anesthesiology at the School of Medicine said, "Our findings need to be replicated, but we think this is a good starting point, and we believe therapy with nitrous oxide eventually could help many people with depression ...  It's kind of surprising that no one ever thought about using a drug that makes people laugh as a treatment for patients whose main symptom is that they're so very sad."

Anatomy of an Illness

In the 1980s, my father, Richard Bergland, collaborated with Norman Cousins. In his book The Fabric of Mind my father wrote,

Therefore it is astonishing to note that they herald a new champion: Norman Cousins, a writer who preaches that 'hormones of happiness' may be released by pleasure, joy, humour, and satisfaction. The rejuvenating power of belly laughter, which Cousins found, he first described in America’s top medical journal, The New England Journal of Medicine, and later in his book The Anatomy of an Illness.

As a child, Norman Cousins suffered from poor health and was misdiagnosed with tuberculosis and placed in a sanatorium. Being surrounded by illness, trapped indoors, and detached from the vitality of the outside world shaped Cousins’ lifelong approach to sickness and health.

Cousins said that as a youngster he “set out to discover exuberance.” As a teenager, he dedicated himself to athletics and used baseball as a way to fortify his resilience.

As an adult—when Cousins was diagnosed with a terminal illness—he decided that a hospital environment wasn’t the best place for his body to get well. Against his doctors advice he developed a personalized recovery program based on a positive attitude, love, faith, hope, and laughter.  

Cousins said, "I made the joyous discovery that ten minutes of genuine belly laughter had an anesthetic effect and would give me at least two hours of pain-free sleep." He reported, "When the pain-killing effect of the laughter wore off, we would switch on the motion picture projector again and not infrequently, it would lead to another pain-free interval."

Recently, other researchers have found evidence that explains how some aspects of our personality may affect our health and well-being. These new findings support long-observed associations between personality traits, physical health, and longevity.

In December 2014, a team of health psychologists at The University of Nottingham and the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA) released a study which examined the relationship between certain personality traits and the expression of genes that can affect someone's health by impacting his or her immune system.

Their study used highly sensitive microarray technology to examine relationships between the five major human personality traits and two groups of genes active in human white blood cells (leukocytes): one involving inflammation, and another involving antiviral responses and antibodies.

The participants completed a personality test which measures the classic five major dimensions of personality—extraversion, neuroticism, openness, agreeableness and conscientiousness.

Blood samples were collected from each volunteer for gene expression analysis and their typical smoking, drinking and exercise behaviors were also recorded for control purposes. The analysis of gene expressions was performed at the Social Genomics Core Laboratory at UCLA.

The findings indicated that 'extraversion' was significantly associated with an increased expression of pro-inflammatory genes. This implies that extroverts—who would tend to be exposed to more infections as a result of their socially orientated disposition—appeared to have immune system responses that paralleled the increased risk of exposure to germs and allowed them to deal more effectively with infection.

So Human an Animal

In the early 1960s, before I was born, my mother worked with René Dubos at the Rockefeller Institute. René Dubos was a microbiologist and humanitarian credited with discoveries which led to the first antibiotics that were ever manufactured commercially. Prophetically, after his discovery Dubos warned of potential microbial resistance to antibiotics (superbugs) and the importance of humans being exposed to some germs.

My mom took this advice seriously, and encouraged me to be outgoing and curious when I was growing up in Manhattan. She considered a part of my childhood development the “enriched environment” of culture, diversity, and ideas that New York City had to offer—but also viewed the international germs that my sisters and I were exposed to everyday as an important part of building our resilience. 

In the 1960s, antibiotics were generally being over-prescribed. Because of the knowledge my parents gained from Dubos, they only allowed me and my siblings to take an antibiotic if it was clearly a non-viral infection that our own immune system couldn’t overcome without drugs. I believe that this has kept my immune system stronger throughout my lifespan.

My mom also strongly encouraged me and my siblings to be adventurous and open to new experience knowing that this exposure would strengthen our immune systems by exposing us to a wide range of microbes. Thankfully, being sequestered in a sterilized plastic bubble was never an option when I was growing up. In my imagination, I have childhood memories of my mom almost encouraging me to lick the subway poles to boost my immune response when I was a toddler, although I’m sure she never took it that far.

Neuroplasticity and Free-Will Make Some Personality Traits Malleable

The recent University of Nottingham study begs the age old nature-nurture question of whether biology determines a psychological disposition or if psychology determines our biology. Our personality traits and genetic resilience are probably always going to be a mix of both nature and nuture. 

I am of a strong belief that mindset and personality are never static or fixed. Yes, each of us is born with unique dispositions but neuroplasticity and our free-will gives every person the ability to fine-tune his or her explanatory style and attitude towards life to some degree. Many of your Big-5 personality traits that you might want to amplify or diminish are in the locus of your control.  

I also believe strongly that there is a time and place for all five personality traits to take center stage. Just like the spokes on the wheel of a bicycle, each trait has an important role in our individual and collective survival. For example, introversion and introspection throughout the day may be just as important as extraversion, or even more important on certain days. That said, I believe that there is very little room for chronic neuroticism in any of our lives. 

In The Athlete’s Way I have a section based on the Five-Factor Personality Model that discusses the role that balancing these five traits played in our evolutionary progress and homeostasis from a neurobiological perspective.

I describe the role of each trait saying, “We developed a sensitivity to stress (Neuroticism), the need for company, protection and mating (Extroversion), the ability to problem solve (Openness to experience), the aptitude to cooperate and work collectively (Agreeableness) and an obligation to meet social and moral needs of community (Conscitentoiusness).”

Clearly, my father's work with Norman Cousins and dinner conversations about the ‘hormones of happiness’ influenced the lens through which I look at the Big-5 personality traits and led me to expand on my dad’s neurobiological connections. 

On page 274 of The Athlete’s Way: Sweat and the Biology of Bliss I describe the hormones and neurochemicals linked to personality traits and the detriments of neuroticism saying:

Neuroticism should never be a part of your game or a part of your life. Strive to eliminate it, because it is the key trait associated with rejection sensitivity and a fear of failure. It raises cortisol and lowers serotonin, which is the most lethal combination to have pumping through your system. Strengthening the other four cardinal traits will boost serotonin (confidence), dopamine (achievement), anandamide (the bliss molecule), and vasopressin/oxytocin (connectedness), while lowering MAOs (serotonin eating Pac-Men) and lowering cortisol (the stress hormone).

Neuroticism Is the Antithesis of Extraversion

My bias against neuroticism was probably subconsciously influenced by Woody Allen’s charactertures of a neurotic, hypochondriac New Yorker in 1970s movies like Annie Hall and Manhattan.

I didn't want to be a typical high-strung New Yorker, so I consciously practiced being more laid-back and easygoing every day despite the potential  pressure-cooker aspects of living in New York City. This attitude helped me have grace under pressure as an athlete, and also kept my mind and body healthy. Research shows that the same is true for people of all ages and walks of life.

A 2012 study from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, "Positive Attitude Towards Life and Emotional Expression as Personality Phenotypes for Centenarians,” found that 'personality genes' may help account for some people living past one hundred years of age.

The researchers assessed the personalities of 243 centenarians and found that there was a common thread of having a positive attitude towards life across the board. Most were outgoing, optimistic and easygoing. They considered laughter an important part of life and had a large social network.

Centerarians tended to express their emotions freely rather than keeping them bottled up. Interestingly, the centenarians also had much lower scores for displaying neuroticism and much higher scores for being conscientious compared with a representative sample of the U.S. population.

Conclusion: A Positive Attitude Is Not a Panacea for Many Illnesses, Viruses, and Diseases

As with any plague or pandemic like Ebola or HIV/AIDS we need the most advanced pharmaceuticals and healthcare protocols to save lives and help people live longer. One important caveat about the ‘power of positive thinking’ and staying healthy is the unintended subtext that imples that if you get and stay sick that it’s somehow your fault. This is wrong. 

At the end of the day, staying healthy and fighting illness is always going to be about taking the best medicine available when necessary, pragmatic optimism, and maintaining a fierce fighting spirit. The mindset of optimal health is often a tightrope walk between the two extremes of being a delusionally positive Pollyanna or a cynical and neurotic hypochondriac.

Luckily, with some practice each of us can identify our individual personality predispositions and practice making appropriate adjustments to find a sweet spot that marries all of your personality traits into a blend that keeps you alive and kicking for a long, long time. 

If you’d like to read more on this topic, check out my Psychology Today blog posts: 

Follow me on Twitter @ckbergland for updates on The Athlete’s Way blog posts.

Photo Credits: Pixabay