I was listening recently to a radio interview of Collette Maze, a French pianist who just turned 107 years old and has released her 6th album, recording it in her home in Paris. She came across as a delightful, charming woman, full of life and brimming with humor and positivity. She had obviously figured out the secret to long life and happiness at a young age. How did she do it? It seems she focused on something that brought her joy, remaining optimistic and hopeful throughout an often-difficult life, to achieve what she deemed successful, and she’s still happy playing the piano.
To get through a childhood with a “severe and unloving” mother, she turned to the piano and composers like Schumann and Debussy to provide her tenderness. When she couldn’t reach the status of a professional due to lack of family support, she turned to teaching, and continued to focus on the music she loved. She overcame the isolation of being a single mother, remained dedicated to growing as an artist, and her optimism and resilience prevailed. I was inspired by this woman and it made me think about how cultivating positive emotions can have a real impact on our lives and our health.
Scientific literature abounds showing how negative emotions harm the body and how sustained stress can alter biological systems over time, causing conditions such as heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. Early childhood sustained stress from neglect or violence has been shown to have harmful effects on the brain and other organ systems. What hasn’t been studied as extensively is the benefit of positive emotions on the body, although this type of research has been growing over the last decade.
Laura Kubzansky, researcher at the Harvard School of Public Health, has been at the forefront of this type of research. Among the papers she’s published is a study showing that “children who are able to stay focused on a task and have a more positive outlook at age 7 report better general health and fewer illnesses 30 years later.”
A 2007 study following more than 6,000 people aged 25 to 74, found that emotional vitality (defined as a sense of enthusiasm, hope, engagement in life, and the ability to face daily stress with emotional balance) greatly reduced the risk of coronary heart disease.
Research studies suggest that developing the following types of positive personal traits could help some people avoid or better manage disease:
- Emotional vitality: enthusiasm, hope, engagement
- Optimism: believing that life will bring good things, and even when bad things happen, they’re bound to turn around for the better eventually
- Emotional self-regulation: developing resiliency from stressful situations by focusing on something else and changing one’s perspective
We can cultivate these qualities even in adulthood if we take the time to focus our attention away from our stress and worries, and onto things that bring relaxation, contentment, or joy. Some people may benefit from psychotherapy, others from meditation or yoga, and certainly acupuncture can help with emotional regulation and balance.
There are also simple things we can do every day to improve our outlook: make a phone call or visit a friend, listen to music that inspires, take a walk in the woods or city streets and appreciate the world around us, engage in something that enriches our spiritual sides, run, dance, or hop on a bike, watch something that makes us laugh.
Participating in an activity that takes all of our attention forces us to “be in the moment”, and this allows us to restore, to put aside our worries. It may sound cliché, but we now have science telling us it can make a real difference in our health.
Kathy Schoenberger, L.Ac.
Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health News, Winter 2011, Sara Rimer and Madeline Drexler
NPR, Morning Edition, Sept. 20, 2021, Eleanor Beardsley