When Sarah Pressman was an undergraduate at Mount Allison University in New Brunswick, Canada, she kept getting sick with the kinds of illnesses that often plague college students: mononucleosis, strep throat, colds that wouldn’t go away.
She knew from her studies in biopsychology of the well-documented negative consequences of stress on health. But as Pressman moved forward in her academic career, eventually earning her Ph.D at Carnegie Mellon University, she became particularly intrigued by the idea of finding ways to protect ourselves against the physical damage wrought by stress.
Her studies led her to seek answers to key questions about the role that positive emotions and social relationships play in influencing stress and health outcomes.
In short, Pressman wanted to know whether happiness can make us healthier.
Now an associate professor of psychology and social behavior at UC Irvine, Pressman is garnering worldwide attention with her groundbreaking studies on the happiness-health connection. Her work has been featured on CBS News, and in the Wall Street Journal, U.S. News & World Report, Psychology Today and Time magazine. Even comedian Steven Colbert mentioned her research on his former show, “The Colbert Report.”
As for that big question, about whether being happy can have a positive effect on health and stress levels? The answer, Pressman has found, is yes, absolutely it can.
It might seem a strange question to ask in the first place. We tend to think of happiness as an elusive, unmeasurable quality not given to scientific analysis. But it turns out that isn’t really true. Indeed, Pressman’s academic acumen has been demonstrated in her ability to tease out ways to define and study happiness and its health consequences.
“A lot of people say, “How do you measure something as magical and intangible as happiness?” she told me in a recent interview. “It’s actually very tangible.”
Of course, one way is to just ask people. Researchers often utilize questionnaires that pose direct questions about happiness, and indirect ones that are designed to zero in on the perceptions, traits, behaviors, and support systems that are indicative of happiness.
There are other methods as well, such as studying facial coding, writing samples and social interactions for clues about subjects’ psychological states. Signals such as the number of positive words that are used are examined.
Once these happiness levels are identified, researchers can then look at physiological processes, such as stress-hormone reactivity, cardiovascular response and immune system change, as well as behaviors linked to health like sleeping, exercise and certain leisure activities.
Through these studies, Pressman has consistently found a positive link between happiness and health. And it’s not just the case that healthier people are happier because they are, well, healthy. In one study, for instance, in which subjects were exposed to a cold virus, the people who were deemed happier also got sick less and recovered faster.
“We’re proving to people that this is real. It’s not just fluffy scientific ideals,” she said.
Interestingly, Pressman’s findings directly counter a study released last year that the media pounced upon, which reputed to show that happy people did not live longer than sad people. But she argues that the research in question controlled for — that is, eliminated — the positive effects of many of the qualities associated with happiness, such as good sleeping and exercising patterns.
The particular research led by Pressman that has been generating the greatest buzz recently is her studies associated with smiling. She wanted to know whether the simple act of smiling, even if it’s forced, can have a positive effect on health — a scientific take on the old, “Smile, you’ll feel better” adage.
Pressman constructed tests, for instance, that called for subjects to hold chopsticks in their mouths in such a way that they appeared to be smiling. Then they were subjected to stressful situations, such as having their hands held in buckets of ice, or instructed to complete extremely difficult dexterity tests with low success rates. After these tasks, the people with the fake smiles recovered objectively faster — their heart rates lowered more quickly, for example — than those who were not smiling.
Another study found that people who fake-smiled while receiving shots reported feeling less pain.
The tantalizing theory arising from such research is that the brain might actually be capable of being tricked, in a sense, into happier, more positive thoughts. Taken a step further, it raises the possibility that happiness isn’t just some predetermined quality that people either possess or not, but that it can be taught.
Why does this matter? Pressman has become increasingly convinced that happiness should be considered in all standard medical evaluations. She believes that the medical establishment should train doctors to question their patients about their emotional well-being, beyond the perfunctory nod to the negative effects of stress, and to find ways to intervene if necessary to help patients achieve higher levels of happiness.
Many people are taking note of what Pressman is saying. In a talk she gave last year, she told her audience that happy people live longer, are generally healthier, feel less pain and have better survival rates even when they are stricken by disease. These findings are consistent across cultures and national boundaries.
“Happiness matters a great deal in your health,” she said. “That’s not just wishful thinking. It’s science.”
PATRICE APODACA is a former Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She lives in Newport Beach.