Positive Emotions & Health Behavior

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  • With Barbara Fredrickson, we have developed a model that explains the critical role that positive emotions play in helping us stick to our health behavior goals (e.g., exercising).Van Cappellen, P., Rice, E., Catalino, L., & Fredrickson, B. L. & (in press). Positive affective processes underlie positive health behavior change. Psychology and Health. doi: 10.1080/08870446.2017.1320798 (Special Issue on “Emotion, Health Decision-making, and Health Behaviour”)
  • Emotions and Meditation:
    • Meditation behavior increase positive emotions:Fredrickson, B. L., Boulton, A. J. , Firestine, A. M., Van Cappellen, P., Algoe, S. B., Brantley, M. M., Loundon Kim, S., Brantley, J., & Salzberg, S. (in press). Positive emotion correlates of meditation practice:  A comparison of mindfulness meditation and loving-kindness meditation. Mindfulness. doi: https://doi.org/10.1007/s12671-017-0735-9
    • Administration of oxytocin amplifies the positive emotions experienced while meditating:Van Cappellen, P., Way, B., Isgett, S. F., & Fredrickson, B. L. (2016). Effects of oxytocin administration on spirituality and emotional responses to meditation. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 11, 1579-1587. doi: 10.1093/scan/nsw078
  • Emotions and Religious practice: Despite some exceptions (religious struggle, prejudice and ostracism of select groups) religion is known to provide a range of health benefits to its adherents. However, the mechanisms through which religion provides these benefits remain understudied. What are the basic psychological ingredients that explain why a set of beliefs and practices seems to provide the right recipe for health? The most common answer is that religion is a social structure whose community and collective rituals fulfill people’s social needs. However, collective religious practices, like any collective rituals, offer more than social connection. The fact that religion and spirituality, through different means (e.g. architecture, collective and synchronous practices, music) powerfully evoke positive emotions may not be inconsequential (Van Cappellen & Rimé, 2014). In my research, I explored the role of this forgotten mechanism in the promotion of well-being. In the studies described below, well-being was measured through self-report of satisfaction with life and optimism. In one study, I distributed questionnaires to churchgoers on a particular Sunday in 20 different parishes. I found that positive emotions felt during the traditional Christian ritual (Sunday mass) independently predicted the relation between religiosity and well-being beyond the effects of experienced social cohesion. In another study, within a sample of adults interested in meditation, I found that positive emotions also explained the relation between spirituality and well-being. Critically, in both studies, uplifting positive emotions such as awe and gratitude, but not other positive emotions such as amusement or pride, were the type of positive emotions that brought out the most benefits in term of well-being (Van Cappellen, Saroglou, Toth- Gauthier, & Fredrickson, 2016). What good is the social aspect of religious rituals, then? Using the same dataset of churchgoers, I also investigated another outcome that has been found to be related to religion, i.e. prosocial behavior. I found that the social aspect of religion (i.e., feeling part of a big family) and the social positive emotion of love explained the observed relation between religiosity and altruistic giving as indexed by a projective measure of prosociality (i.e. whether participants spontaneously report wanting to share a gain at the lottery; Van Cappellen, Saroglou, & Toth-Gauthier, 2016). In sum, positive emotions are not only pleasant correlates of a good experience, they build resources that benefit the self and the greater good. Religious and spiritual practices may provide a particularly potent context to elicit such emotions and reap their benefits. One limit of this research as well as most of the existing literature on the relation between religion/spirituality and health, is that its cross-sectional design does not allow researchers to derive causal explanations. Likely, religion/spirituality hold reciprocal and complex relations with health and well-being. Using experimental designs, the research described above on the role of positive emotions in predicting spirituality is among the first to test one causal direction: from feeling good to spirituality.Van Cappellen, P., Toth-Gauthier, M., Saroglou, V., & Fredrickson, B. (2016). Religion and well-being: The mediating role of positive emotions. Journal of Happiness Studies, 17, 485-505.Van Cappellen, P., Saroglou, V., & Toth-Gauthier, M. (2016). Religiosity and prosocial behavior among churchgoers: Exploring underlying mechanisms. International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, 26, 19-30
Media coverage

See research featured in 10 Steps to Lasting Success in 2016 and Beyond by Suna Senman, Huffington Post, December 28, 2015.

Read more about our research in religion and prosociality featured in:

        UK: The Psychologist: The Cognitive Science of Religion. April, 2011.

        Belgium: Le Soir: (read more here). 


Check out related articles on the effects of believing in the horoscope in:

       Pacific Standard (here) and Format Magazine (here). Also see this featured in Belgium             (Daily Science, here; UCL Science Today, here; RTBF, here; 7 sur 7, here; L’Avenir,                       here; and Bx1) and Spain (Proexpansion, here).

      Is Astrology Really Out of This World? by Alice Fleerackers. SAD Mag. 2017