Bodies can heal. Illnesses sometimes go into remission. And full recovery, from even chronic illness, sometimes happen. After diving deep into the latest research on wellness, healing, epigenetics, positive psychology, and psychoneuroimmunology, as well as walking my own healing path, I am convinced that it is possible to influence the course of our own health, and to nurture healing, even in the grips of chronic illness. But, how is it that we can positively influence our healing process?
Author and researcher, Kelly Turner, describes in her book Radical Remission, how the cultivation of positive emotions was one of the nine common attributes found in people that she studied who recovered from advanced cancer. (For a further discussion of all nine factors see Dr. Turner’s website or her article in MindBodyGreen. For more on resilience and healing see my prior post here.) What are some the positive emotions that influence healing in our bodies and how do we help ourselves have more of them? Science is beginning to show us some possible answers.
A 2013 article published in the journal Clinical Psychological Science reviews the emerging field of human social genomics and references over 100 scientific studies in which behaviors or emotions alter the expression of genes in the body. Researcher Steven Cole demonstrates that certain inflammatory genes in our bodies are expressed or “turned on” in the face of stress, loneliness, and grief. These inflammatory genes can be turned off and other more restorative genes can be expressed when a person experiences positive social support, altruism, joy, kindness or being involved in something that was felt to be meaningful or purposeful. In his book The Biology of Belief, molecular biologist Bruce Lipton, describes the study of epigenetic, which depicts how genes can shift in response to perceptions our environment.
Martin Seligman, author of Learned Optimism, has found that pessimists are significantly sicker than age matched optimists. In general, optimists live longer than pessimists and have better outcomes when facing many health conditions including cancer, heart disease, and kidney failure, and many other chronic illnesses. Optimism has even been shown to help our immune systems to work better.  Happy people tend to live anywhere from 7-10 years longer than their less happy counterparts.,
The implication of studies such as these are staggering. We are beginning to see, that the molecules and chemical inside our bodies are directly influenced by emotions that we are feeling, our social support systems, and our sense of meaning and purpose. The cultivation of a sense of positive wellbeing, an optimistic outlook, profound joy, and social support can each help our bodies turn on the genes that help us heal and turn off those genes that cause inflammation and dysfunction in the body.
It is important to note that mere self-gratification, or hedonistic pleasures are not enough to activate to positive physiological changes associated with healing. Researchers Steven Cole and Barbara Fredrickson have done studies that show how it is the core happiness that comes with a sense of profound wellbeing, deep satisfaction, joy, meaning, and purpose, which have been associated with the more healthful gene expression profiles.
If we know that a profound sense of connectedness, purpose and happiness positively contributes to health outcomes and recovery from illness, then how do we increase our core happiness?
Neuropsychologist and author, Rick Hanson, describes a simple method that helps us hardwire our brains and bodies so that we may reap more of the physiologic benefits from the everyday moments in life. In his book, Hardwiring Happiness, he teaches that the first step is to be truly present to the experiences of our lives (a smile, a warm cup of tea, a cool breeze, a kind word). Once we become fully present and aware of these moments – and not simply rush to the next thing – we can enrich and absorb these experiences more fully. Doing this literally strengthens the neurochemical messages in our bodies that contribute to healing. All it takes to unleash an internal cascade of wellness is minute or two. Doing this repeatedly throughout the day will strengthen those neurologic pathways and contribute to overall wellbeing. For those interested in more about Rick Hanson’s work, he has an excellent Ted talk on the subject that you can access here.
As part of my healing process, I have used this process of mindful awareness to cultivate positive emotions in my own life. Last week, for example, I was greeted by a troop of hummingbirds sipping nectar from a sea of Crocosmia that my husband had planted in our yard. I held still, and was within arms reach. If I tried, I think I might even have been able to touch one of these magical creatures. But of course, grasping would have quickly chased them away.
Happiness is like that too. Ephemeral, magical, constantly changing, and apt to fly away the moment we grasp too hard.
In my encounter with the hummingbirds I deliberately made myself present to the moment and tried to absorb everything about it – the smell of the flowers, the sound of wings fluttering, the fresh morning air, the feel of the wet grass beneath my feet. In doing this I was able to magnify the experience and absorb it more fully in its splendor.
Since learning about the health benefits of happiness in the body, I have deliberately made myself available for these kinds of experiences. I look for them. Whereas, a few years ago, I would have woken up, grabbed my tea and immediately hopped into my to-do list for the day. In my hast, I would have missed this momentary encounter with awe. These days, however, I actively make myself available for these small moments of awe, wonder, beauty and joy that are found in the current of my everyday life. These everyday moments have become much more than a wellness practice for me, they have also become a deeply spiritual practice in which I find myself filled with a sense of awe and wonder and connected to something much larger than my immediate existence.
If you are currently on a healing journey, the prescription I would encourage you to write for yourself is to make yourself available for, and then feel, and savor as many beautiful moments as you can find in your everyday life. For extra benefit, you could write them down and relive them at the end of each day. Anything counts – warm sunshine on your shoulders, a beautiful flower, the laughter of a child, an inspiring work of art – it doesn’t matter, as long as you allow yourself to step into the wonder of the moment and to feel it fully. It is a sweet medicine that you and your body will love.
 Slavich, G. Cole, S., “The Emerging Field of Human Social Genomics,” Clinical Psychological Science, 1(3): 331-348 (2013).
 Cole, S., Hawkley, L., Arevalo, J., Sung, C., Rose, R., Cacioppo, J., “Social Regulation of Gene Expression in Human Leukocytes,” Genome Biology, Vol. 8 (9) R189 (2007)
 Jo Marchant, The Pursuit of Happiness, Nature, Vol 503, (November 2013) 458-460.
 Christopher Peterson, Martin Seligman, George Vaillant, “Pessimistic Explanatory Style is a Risk Factor for Physical Illness: A Thirty-Five-Year Longitudinal Study,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 55, no. 1 (July 1988): 23-27.
 Lisa Aspinwall and Richard Tedeschi, “The Value of Positive Psychology for Health Psychology: Progress and Pitfalls in Examining the Relation of Positive Phenomena to Health,” Annals of Behavioral Medicine 39, no. 1 (February 2010): 4-15.
 Sheldon Cohen et al., “Positive Emotional Style Predicts Resistance to Illness after Experimental Exposure to Rhinovirus or Influenza A Virus,” Psychosomatic Medicine 68, no. 6, (November 2006): 809-15.
 Deborah D Danner, David A. Snowdon, and Wallace V. Friesen, “Positive Emotions in Early Life and Longevity: Findings from the Nun Study,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 80, no. 5. (May 2001): 804-13.
 R. Veenhoven, “Healthy Happiness: Effects of Happiness on Physical Health and the Consequences for Preventative Health Care,” Journal of Happiness Studies 9, no. 3 (September 2008): 449-69.
 Barbara Fredrickson, Karen, Grewen, Kimberly Coffey, Sara Algoa, Ann Firestine, Jesusa Arevalo, Jeffrey Mac, Steven Cole, “A Functional Genomic Perspective on Human Wellbeing,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 110 (2013) 13684-13689.