Mental Health & Neurology

AXA Awards

United States

Happiness: An Anti-Stress Elixir for Better Health

Anyone who has taken a vacation knows that less stress feels good. It works the other way, too: feeling good can reduce your stress and improve your health. “Most people don’t realize that stress has objective physiological effects,” Dr. Sarah Pressman says, including effects that are linked to disease processes, severity and even survival. “Fortunately, positive emotions can be powerful buffers against these negative stress impacts, and we want to understand this process more clearly.”
In particular, no one has identified the specific “good” emotions that are most helpful in a given context. Dr. Pressman is bringing needed precision to the field, in order to understand the protective qualities of happiness and unravel the body’s mechanisms responsible for their downstream effects
In her research, she will compare people in their thirties and forties with adults over 65; as we get older, the very feelings we consider positive will change. To determine experimentally what kinds of positive emotions are effective against different forms of stress, Dr. Pressman will trigger feelings in her subjects, calm or invigorated, for example, and test how these states of mind impact a stressful situation. This might be a scenario where one passively endures the stress—there is little to do but stay calm when a researcher plunges your hand into a bucket of ice water—or a situation requiring an active effort to reduce stress, like getting pumped up to face a panel of judges firing mental math problems at you. From there, Dr. Pressman will tease apart how that stress is affecting the body. Monitoring cardiovascular function (heart rate, blood pressure), stress hormone levels and changes to the immune system, she will reveal to what extent positive emotions are able to counter these manifestations of stress in our bodies, and which kinds do it best.

Through well-designed, causal studies, Dr. Pressman’s work will increase our knowledge of the physiological responses brought on by positive emotions. With this new degree of precision, she hopes to contribute to planning better interventions for stress and, someday, to see happiness levels treated as a facet of medical care like any other. Stress is inevitable, she knows, “but there may be simple strategies we can use to protect the body.” Dr. Pressman’s research could be a first step toward reducing stress and keeping people as healthy and happy as possible.

Scientific title : Exploring the Complex Interactions between Positive Affect, Stress & Health

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University of California


United States



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