In two articles, “A Positive Outlook may be Good for your Health” and “Turning Negative Thinkers into Positive Ones,” NYT writer Jane Brody explores the connection between positive emotions and health and examines the mechanisms for increasing positive emotions.
She starts by discussing a few of the many studies that demonstrate at least a statistical correlation between a positive outlook and things like lower blood pressure, reduced heart disease, weight control and better blood sugar levels. For example, according to one study, people with HIV who practiced skills that increased positive emotion had lower virus levels, while according to another having a positive attitude about aging had beneficial effects on health outcomes and mortality. Conversely, brain imaging reveals that negative emotions impact the part of the brain known as the amygdala in a way that correlates with negative health effects.
Fortunately, we do not have to be passive bystanders when it comes to such information. Instead there are steps we can take both to gain the benefits associated with a positive attitude and avoid the harms associated with a negative state of mind. In one study, six weeks of kindness meditation training, which directed positive emotions towards others, resulted in an increase in positive emotions as well as an improvement in one of the main nerves that regulates heart rate.
In addition to meditation training, it has been shown that little daily activities can add to our overall positive mental balance thus improving our health, things like: doing good for other people, appreciating the world around you, developing and bolstering relationships, establishing goals that can be accomplished, learning something new, accepting yourself, flaws and all, and practicing resilience.
This is all good news, but it would hardly be news to the practicing Stoic. The most important finding here—that our mental state is in our control—lies at the core of Stoicism. The Stoics distinguished between things that are under our control and things that our not, declaring that ultimately only one thing is truly and completely under our control: our state of mind.
And if the Stoics were ignorant of the impact negative thoughts can have on the amygdala, or even what the amygdala was, they certainly understood the connection between our moment by moment thoughts and our overall mental state: “Such as are your habitual thoughts, such will also be the character of your mind,” said Marcus Aurelius, “for the soul is dyed by its thoughts.” Finally, the Stoics had numerous mechanisms for positively impacting the mind. While the would probably not have used the term gratitude journal, the following piece of Stoic advice accomplishes the same goal, it seems: “Think not so much of what you not have as what you do have. Select the best of these things, then reflect how eagerly they would have been sought by you if you did not already have them.”