Kenan Distinguished Professor of Psychology, Director of the Social Psychology Doctoral Program and the Positive Emotions and Psychophysiology Laboratory, President-Elect, International Positive Psychology Association Kenan-Flagler School of Business
So I want to pick up on what you were saying about negative emotions kind of
harming the body.
There's a, There's a new area of science that is looking at
how the immune system responds to stress and adversity.
And I've been collaborating with a colleague in the field,
Steve Cole, who has been arguing that.
That we have a forward looking immune system.
That, in a way, registers our recent experiences.
And anticipates, from those recent experiences,
what the future's going to be like.
So, the, interesting thing, this is, one way that thing,
our things like our emotional experiences, seem to communicate with
our immune systems and, and, set us up for expecting certain kinds of,
threats in terms of, you know, illnesses and bacterias and things.
the, for a long time, there's been kind of
a mysterious black box that connected negativity and stress to illness.
And recent breakthroughs in molecular as a studies,
especially of genomics have helped us break open that black box and
see how social and emotional experiences esp,
and the work here, just like work in all of psychology, started with adversity.
>> So looking at things like chronic loneliness,
bereavement, anticipated bereavement.
Low socioeconomic status or living in poverty.
Different kinds of adversity seem to affect
gene expression in the immune system, in a similar way.
You know, even those these different kinds of adversities have
different challenges associated with them.
They all seem to shift gene expression in a direction that
is an increase in pro-inflammatory gene expression and
a decrease in antiviral and antibody synthesis.
So it's kind of like adversity comes with this triple whammy.
That, that maybe makes people more susceptible to,
to disorders of chronic inflammation and less able to ward off a virus.
And again gene expression is different than our, our DNA.
Our DNA doesn't change but, but how our DNA gets
made into the actual cells of our body, that's the gene expression part.
And, that part can be variable and
seems to be very attuned to our emotional experience.
It's also attuned to our, our activity levels, and our diet, and
other things, but emotions are one of the things that talk,
that kind of talks to changes in gene expression and the immune system.
So the adversity pattern kind of helps us the,
this increased expression of pro-inflammatory genes and
decreased expression of anti-viral antibodies synthesis.
That pattern Steve Cole and his other colleagues have found.
Goes along with all of these different kinds of adversity and helps us figure
out what was that pathway that goes from negative emotion experiences to illness.
Which had been kind of mysterious, and we've seen you know, for
decades that they are correlated, negative experience and stress and illness.
But, people hadn't know the, the exact molecular pathway.
And so that starting to be illuminated.
so, getting back to this idea of this forward looking immune system.
The idea is that, in good times,
when you're connected with other people, especially.
your, those emotions of connection kind of
warn the immune system that there's a lot of togetherness going on.
Well your microbial threat is going to be a virus, haha, you know,
because that's where we catch viruses is through our connections with other people.
So the immune system kind of shores itself up for protecting against viruses.
Whereas if you're for our ancestors imagine,
if you were just shunned by the group or maybe thrown out of the group forcibly.
Or you're out on your own trying to protect yourself against the,
you know the bea, the wild beasts [LAUGH], you know, in the landscape.
Well then your, your biggest threats are bacterial infections, you know,
like from a wound or from injury.
And so when people are feeling more experiences of adversity,
it's kind of like the body's preparing for a bacterial infection and
kind of being, having inflamma, inflammatory responses at the ready.
So that's what's meant by this forward looking immune system.
It's kind of taking your recent emotional experience and trying to forecast.
What's going to be the likely threat in this system?
So this you know, it's not like your immune system has eyes and can look.
[LAUGH] You know?
But it can register the biochemistry of your emotions and, and
make some calibrations there.
So learning about Steve Cole's work on this,
you know how gene expression in the immune system is affected by adversity.
I got very curious about how is, how does good experiences affect, this especially,
if if loneliness has this adversity signature, might connection oppose that.
Or kind of bring people more into this positive healthier immune functioning.
And in a way we were,
we were testing whether you can have a do it yourself gene expression.
[LAUGH] Can you change your emotional diet and make shifts in, in gene expression.
And the bottom line is that we, we found that we can do that.
We've done similar studies where we randomly assign people to
learn loving kindness meditation, or in, in, in this more recent study,
we've gotten more rigorous control com conditions where we
compare loving kindness meditation to another kind of meditation.
That just doesn't have the positive emotion aspects of it.
It has all the other aspects of, you know, taking time for
yourself, being quiet and still.
But not so much focus or not any,
real focus on cultivating that warm and friendly feeling towards others.
And we find that, that molecular signature of health emerges in step
with increases in positive emotions and positive connections that and
that predicts shifts towards a reduction in pro-inflammatory gene expression,
and an increase in the antiviral and antibody synthesis.
So it's ,.
That again our emotional well being is so tied to our health.
And what we are discovering here is that positive emotions are like the,
the drivers of this.
The tiny engines of the nutrients that can actually lead to
shifts at a cellular level.
And again randomized control in trials help us know that there's a cause and
effect relationship here.
>> One thing's about like vitamins or excuse me, exercise and diet.
For your health. I think people maybe think
emotions are out of their control.
>> Right. >> So it's not something that they can
generate as nutrients for it.
>> Exactly. I know.
A lot of times I think we think emotions are just the weather.
>> Yeah. >> You know.
I just happens.
What's the forecast for today.
I can maybe predict but I can't control.
And, yet especially for, I think it's true for all emotions but
especially for positive emotions.
Those those appraisals that we talked about as like, you know,
sitting between the, what's happening and the actual situation and the emotion.
Those appraisals or interpretations, those are the levers that we have control over.
>> Yeah. >> You know?
So- >> And even if it's not control,
you can influence it quite a bit.
>> Right? >> Exactly.
Sometimes they just come on unbidden because the situation is so strong but
we can shape them and, and we can certainly prolong them too, a little bit.
You know, help them last just a little bit longer.
So yeah, I think you know, I think it's very reasonable to be thinking about
what might these, ability to self generate positive emotions be a health behavior.
One of the really important caveats I think is important to mention here is that
even as we know that positive emotions
might have this healthy affect on the immune system and on our hearts,
this doesn't mean that people who are facing illness are not positive enough.
[LAUGH] Do you know what I mean?
That's a logical fallacy that actually again,
a little knowledge of positive psychology can be a dangerous thing.
Sometimes people will take that and
say, Oh, well, if you're sick, well what did you do wrong?
Why weren't you thinking positive, you know?
So there's this way in which it can kind of become this,
damaging belief, which is,
again it's a, it's a logical fallacy to turn this into a blame the victim.
But it's, it's what we're simply finding is that,
well, positive emotions are one of the many factors that influence
how our immune systems work and how our, our health systems work.
And health and illness is just so multiply determined that you can't.
Look at someone's state of health and
say, oh I know what you've been feeling, you know?
[LAUGH] There's, it, it doesn't work backwards in that way, so