Could emotions such as love, joy and gratitude actually boost our immune system?
It is well known that stress-emotions negatively impact our physical health, but can we measurably improve our physical health by feeling good?
We know that stress hormones massively alter our body chemistry, giving us a burst of energy to deal with an immediate threat that might require us to fight, run, or hide. When our bodies are in a stress response, functions not involved in our immediate survival such as our digestive, reproductive and immune systems are reduced. In the animal kingdom, stress reactions are normally short-term, but amidst the strains of our complex human lives, they can be more sustained. An activated threat-system typically goes hand in hand with difficult emotions such as anxiety, defensiveness and anger.
But does our body chemistry also change significantly when we experience positive emotions? In 2016 a group of 117 experienced meditators took part in an experiment to see if they could boost their immune systems through doing 10 minutes' focused cultivation of positive emotions such as joy, inspiration and gratitude, 3 times a day over a 4-day period. Before and after, participants were measured for their Immunoglobulin A (IgA) levels. IgA is a powerful chemical, key to the internal defense system of the human body and serves as a good measure of a healthy immune system. The results were astonishing: average IgA levels shot up by 49.5%*. This experiment is one of many that tells us that our physical health does indeed thrive in the presence of what we could term 'creative' (as opposed to 'survival') emotions.
So, how do we go about cultivating these positive emotions? Well, don't neglect the obvious - those things you already know improve your mood, whether it be listening to your favourite music, going for a walk or run, engaging in a creative activity or simply pottering in the house or garden.
You may also like to try these 3 simple practices:
1. Make a point of noticing pleasant events: small moments of peace, happiness or joy that we may find occur more frequently than we realise. I've noticed that the sight of a child happily skipping their way home from school often brings a smile to my face and a momentary feeling of uplift in my chest. As twilight falls, I get a peaceful feeling when I see the twinkling lights of a local village through my window. I am learning to savour and deliberately call to mind such moments of wellbeing.
2. Waste time! (Yes, you read that right!) A life that is overly focused on ticking tasks off the list can start to feel joyless. Do at least one thing a day (preferably more than one) purely because you enjoy it, with no goal to achieve. What feels like a waste of time in terms of productivity could just be the thing that nourishes your mental and physical health the most.
3. Do a short 'breathing space with kindness' practice. Start by mindfully tuning in with your feelings, body sensations and thoughts. After a minute or so, focus your attention on the breath for a further minute. If you feel a need to calm down, focus on letting go into the out-breath, all the way to the end. If you need to perk up, focus on the energising qualities of the in-breath. Finally, give yourself a kind wish, such as 'may I feel safe and at ease'; 'may I be happy and well' or 'may be be free from strain and stress'. Encourage yourself to fully receive this kind wish, not just for your own benefit but because others will also benefit if you feel happier and calmer. You can find guided 5-minute and 10-minute versions of this practice here.
Treat this as an experiment: what benefits do you notice, for yourself and the others around you, when you consciously seek out happiness, gratitude and joy?
*Dr Joe Dispenza 'Becoming Supernatural'