Getting onto your upward spiral not only feels good, it is good for you. While experts have long established the connection between optimism and the immune system, the studies were based on comparisons between optimists and pessimists. Now the latest research has added a new twist. What happens to your immune system as your positive expectations wax and wane over time? In other words, regardless of whether you are generally optimistic or pessimistic, does your immune response follow the same ups and downs as your positive outlook.
To investigate this question, the researchers (Suzanne Segerstrom and Sandra Sephton) had law students complete questionnaires and immunity checks over the course of a year. The results, reported in the March issue of Psychological Science, found that the immune response became more powerful as the students became more optimistic and lessened as they became more pessimistic. The results add to evidence of a link between attitude and disease by suggesting that “a single person – with the same personality and genes – has different immune function when he or she feels more or less optimistic,” said Segerstrom.
The researcher also points out that when “people felt more optimistic, they also felt more happy, attentive and joyous, and that accounted for some of the relationship between optimism and immunity.” In other words, when you are on an upward spiral, you are boosting both your mood and your immune cell response. Her suggestion: “I don’t think I would advise people that they should revise their expectations to be unrealistic. But if people have slightly more positive views of the future than is actually true, that is adaptive.”
If you want to follow Dr. Segerstrom’s advice and get on your upward spiral, here are some ideas:
- Find the positive aspects. While you don’t want to ignore the negative, you can find a view of the future that leans towards the positive by intentionally focusing your attention on positive elements, such as what’s working, your strengths, hopeful signs, and compliments received.
- Look for relief. As this study suggests, no one can be positive all the time. Daily living is accompanied by daily ups and downs. While you can’t control your initial reactions to the events life throws your way, you can control your perceptions, assumptions, thoughts and actions. When you are on a downward spiral, choose to find a response that will point you in a positive direction. While you might not feel positive, you can always find some sense of relief, even if it’s simply saying to yourself, “I know this will pass,” or “I’m sure I’ll feel better about this tomorrow (or next week).”
- Set a positive intention. It’s easy to feel optimistic when things are going your way, and it’s easy to get down when things aren’t. But you can put yourself in the driver’s seat by determining each day that you will stay positive. The key is to pay attention to how you are feeling. A downward turn can be one step or one mile. Setting a positive intention helps you catch that downward turn early on and saves you the effort of climbing out of a ditch instead of a pothole.
Visualize this. When you are on an upward spiral, so are your immune cells. When you feel energetic and enthusiastic, so do they. When you are excited about life, they are, too. So join forces with your immune system!