Reap the health rewards of tapping into the power of positive emotions.
When it comes to aging well, your mood matters. You already know that things are a little brighter when you’re feeling happy and content. But positive emotions are also good for your health.
Your emotions, after all, are in constant communication with your immune system. According to research from Queen Mary University of London, if you’ve just had a good laugh or watched a film starring your favorite actor, your germ-fighting cells actually work more effectively. On the flip side, negative emotions like depression and anxiety act as stressors, which dampen the immune response. As such, they may play a role in heart disease, cancer and other illnesses, according to a pair of 2018 studies in the journals Emotion and In Vivo.
The good news: As the years go by, the better your emotional health is likely to be. Just last year, researchers at Duke University found that older adults report that they’re more positive and better able to keep their moods on an even keel, compared to when they were younger. The study’s participants also said that they were eager to maximize their sense of well-being every single day.
“Older adults are pretty mentally healthy,” says Kerrie Smedley, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in Annville, Pennsylvania. “They tend to be better at tackling problems and feeling confident they can solve them, and they’re less likely to focus on negativity.”
The Meaning of Emotion
Emotions are the feelings that come and go dozens of times every day. From joy to sadness, hopefulness to despair, excitement to boredom, anger to shame —they’re all part of being human.
“Emotion is a signal to pay attention to something that’s happening,” says Smedley. “It might be important. You could experience fear because you heard a loud noise or guilt because you did something selfish. Your emotions aren’t good or bad — they’re a guide for action that help you find a way to cope.”
But balancing positive and negative emotions is key for a happier, healthier life. “Try not to be in denial about times when you’re in a low mood,” says Smedley. “It’s important to acknowledge your feelings, and then move on.”
Try Telemedicine for Your Mental Health Care
If you’re struggling with your emotions, it’s smart to reach out for help. Your UnitedHealthcare® Medicare Advantage plan may cover virtual visits with mental health providers. Sign in to, or register with, MyUHCMedicare.com for details1.
While it’s perfectly normal to feel a little grouchy at times, try not to be at the mercy of your mood. Instead, decide to do something about it. “You can positively influence your emotions,” says Smedley. “Our behaviors can actually have a positive impact on the way we feel.”
Next time you need a little pick-me-up, try one these strategies to shift to a lighter, more positive outlook:
1. Examine Your Feelings
Sometimes, Smedley points out, your feelings might not be based in reality. Say you’re upset because the leader of your community group blew off your fundraising idea, and now you’re worried you’re about to get booted from the committee. Or maybe you’re annoyed that a close friend has been turning down your suggestions for a socially distanced coffee break.
“When you have strong emotions, it’s a good idea to reassess them,” Smedley advises. “Ask yourself if your feelings are well-founded. What evidence do you have that your fears are real? Evaluate your emotions to see how accurate they are.”
If you realize your emotions are causing you to overreact, that could be a signal to slow down and evaluate your options. Smedley recommends taking a moment to look inward: Can you reach out to someone for an unbiased evaluation of the situation? Can you change your behaviors? Tuning into your emotions, she says, can calm your fears and help you figure out what to do next.
2. Spring Into Action
To cope with negative emotions like sadness or depression, do something. Pick an activity just for the joy of it — play with your dog, listen to music, watch the sunset. Or tackle a task that will give you a sense of achievement — clean out a closet, pay some bills, make those phone calls you’ve been putting off.
“It really works,” explains Smedley. “The problem with being in a slump is that it can easily spiral into an even lower mood. It’s important to fight against the message when your brain is telling you to just stay put. Even if you don’t feel like getting up off the couch, the simple act of just doing something can help to shift your mood.”
3. Try Something New
Seeking out a new experience is a great mood-booster. A study from University College London looked at more than 2,000 older adults and found that those who attended monthly movies, plays or art exhibitions lowered their risk of depression by 48%.
“Be willing to try new things,” says Smedley, “but don’t stay busy just for the sake of staying busy. That can just be a way of avoiding your emotions. Make sure you find things that are meaningful to you.”
Research in The Journal of Positive Psychology shows that creative activities can boost your feelings of well-being. Some ideas to help you break out of your old routines:
- Learn to play a new board game or a sport like pickleball (a good socially-distanced option).
- Take an online sketch class.
- Teach yourself how to make a video with your smartphone.
- Try your hand at a new hobby.
4. Cite Your Successes
Chances are you’ve overcome lots of challenges in your time — from family troubles to financial setbacks. “Think about specific experiences in your life,” suggests Smedley. “They don’t always have a happy ending, but they’ve taught us a lot about ourselves and shown us that we’ve found ways to cope in the past. We’ve learned a lot about resilience throughout our lives, and those lessons can influence our emotions in the present.”
Feeling low? Boost your confidence — and your mood — by reflecting on your past successes.
5. Keep Active
You already know that exercise helps improve your health and lowers your risk of serious conditions like cancer and heart disease, but it can also elevate your mood. In fact, physical activity stimulates your muscles to generate endorphins, your body’s natural mood-boosters, according to a 2019 study in the American Journal of Physiology: Cell Physiology.
And exercise is the gift that keeps on giving: One study of nearly 10,000 older adults found that the better your mood, the more you exercise — and the more you exercise, the better your physical and mental health. The findings were reported in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine.
“Your emotional health is closely tied to your physical activity,” says Michelle Riba, M.D., professor of psychiatry and director of the University of Michigan Depression Center. So if the pandemic is keeping you from the gym or your favorite fitness class, find another way to stay active.
“Getting outside for a brisk walk is always a good idea,” says Dr. Riba. After all, a daily dose of sunshine can work wonders. In fact, it may help reduce the risk of depression in older adults by 75%, according to a report in the Journal of the American Medical Directors Association.
Take Advantage of Your Health and Wellness Resources
Online workouts for all fitness levels. Music to fit your mood. Inspiring articles. It’s all part of Renew by UnitedHealthcare®2, which is included with most plans. Sign in to MyUHCMedicare.com and click on Health & Wellness to get started.
Friendship is the most powerful positivity driver of all. “The most important predictor of emotional well-being is social connection,” says Smedley, “and that’s something we absolutely have control over. As we get older, we tend to have fewer connections, but it’s the quality of our friendships, not the quantity, that counts.”
The easiest way to stay connected, of course, is to phone loved ones or write them an email, text or letter. You can also organize a video chat using your smartphone or computer. (Uneasy with technology? Go back to the third tip, above, and add “learn how to connect digitally” to your list of new things to try.) It doesn’t matter how you do it, just forge that bond.
“Even if you’re feeling awkward about reaching out, even if it feels like you’ve been out of touch too long, reach out anyway,” Smedley advises. “Connect in any way you can.”
This information is for educational purposes only and is not a substitute for the advice of a provider. Consult your provider prior to beginning an exercise program or making changes to your lifestyle or health care routine.
1. Benefits, features and/or devices vary by plan/area. Limitations and exclusions apply.
2. Renew by UnitedHealthcare is not available in all plans.