Health: The Biology of Joy

Scientists know plenty about depression. Now they are starting to understand the roots of positive emotion

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Despite being assigned randomly, the last group not only had the predicted jump in their overall feelings of happiness, says Emmons, but were also found to spend more time exercising, be more likely to have regular medical checkups and routinely take preventive health actions like wearing sunscreen. Overall, the "gratitude" group were promoting better health. "They rate themselves as more energetic, more enthusiastic, more alert," Emmons reports. In short, keeping the diaries contributed to their physical and emotional well-being.

Not surprisingly, the advantages were greatest when compared with the group that focused on life's hassles. "People who are grateful tend to view their body a certain way," says Emmons. "They see life as a gift, health as a gift. So they want to take certain measures to preserve it." Reminding yourself of what you're grateful for is a technique open to anyone, but more sophisticated methods of manipulating happiness are showing promise as well. Cognitive-behavior therapy and medication, for example, are used mostly to combat depression, but they may also be useful in enhancing happiness.

Such positive results gratify happiness researchers, who haven't been very successful in attracting federal dollars. "I could easily see being spoofed on the Senate floor for whatever award they give for esoteric, needless research," says Keltner. "But as the findings trickle in showing that positive emotions and happiness make your immune system function better, or help you battle disease, or help you live longer, then you're into fundable territory." Thanks to Keltner, Davidson and others, those findings have gained the field a degree of respectability that's long overdue--and that ultimately could make all of us a whole lot happier. --Reported by Dan Cray/ Los Angeles

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