We’re doing a big series on longevity and all it implies, and on the way to putting together a story (my part is on “World News Tonight” Tuesday evening), we ran into an interesting question. We see all these mentions that optimism, positive emotions, having lots of friends, etc., can protect your health as you age. Why?
Nobody’s sure, and there’s probably no one answer, but Barbara Fredrickson, a psychologist at the University of Michigan, offers what’s been called the “undo” theory.
If you follow the theory of evolution, she says, you can quickly see why human beings display negative emotions, such as fear or anxiety — they’re what make you run from that marauding lion in the wild. They send blood to the large muscle groups in the legs, among other things. They save your life.
But why, if you follow the same logic, do people ever have positive emotions — joy, serenity, gratitude? Are they useful?
Fredrickson says yes. A crisis sets the brain’s fight-or-flight mechanisms on overdrive. One calms down after the crisis is over (after the lion decides to look elsewhere for lunch, and you can come down from the tree), but stress hormones such as norepinephrine and cortisol keep flowing. Plenty of researchers have theorized that they wear down your heart, blood vessels and immune system.
That didn’t much matter in prehistoric times, when life was nasty, brutish and short. But now that it’s nasty, brutish and longer, we can use some help. Our fears have changed from the immediate (will I be attacked?) to the longer-term (will I be able to pay the bills?).
Fredrickson’s “undo” hypothesis says that optimistic people think more broadly than those who brood and worry. She and some colleagues were running a study on this when 9/11 happened, and found that those they’d already labeled as optimists withstood the trauma of the terrorist attacks better. They calmed down more quickly. There was less anxiety, less depression.
And, quite possibly, there was less strain on the body. “Because the positive emotions broaden people’s outlook,” she says, “they may undo the effect that the negative emotions have on your body.”
For more on our series, "Living Longer," click HERE.