Positive affect and psychobiological processes (Dockray & Steptoe, 2010)

First of all, I must apologize for not keeping with my scheduled posting, but having to travel, and finally meeting with the husband left me with little time (and mood) to write. Another reason was that I actually was looking into something to post, but after long research and consideration I decided not to write about it. The reason was mainly because it had to do with politics, and a foreign country, and I believe, no matter how much research you do, there’s nothing like being or living there to emit an opinion, specially when most of what I read are political views and opinions. Hence, after careful consideration, I decided to go back to more firm grounds.

The current article, by Dockray and Steptoe, reviews research done on positive affect and biological activation. In comparison to the years of study dedicated to more negative aspects of human experience, positive affect and human strengths have only really caught researchers’ attention some years ago. In fact, the “birth” of the field of Positive Psychology, was only officially announced in the year 2000, in an attempt to structure, gather, and formalize all the research done until then that was gradually pointing out to the psychological, experiential and biological benefits of living a happier, more fulfilling life. Although a lot of self-help books in the past years have focused on “How to be happy”, Positive Psychology posits that there’s more to the equation than just momentary happiness. In an interesting article by Peterson, Park and Seligman (2005), the authors discuss how the different orientations to happiness (through pleasure (hedonic), through meaning (eudaimonic), and through engagement) relate to levels of life satisfaction, translating into “empty” or “full” lives. I will review this article, along with other literature related to these concepts in a later post. Barbara Fredrickson has done extensive research on positive emotions; in her review article “What good are Positive Emotions?” (1998), the author talks not only about why positive emotions have been “marginalized”, but also what their function in human evolution and well-being is. This “marginalization” of positive emotions was, for a long time, also prevalent in psychophysiological research, however recent studies have been consistently showing that Positive Affect, experienced in our daily life, or as a personality trait, has effects on neuroendocrine, cardiovascular, and inflammatory systems, and is associated to reduced morbidity and mortality.

What the current article in analysis does is to go through the recent research on positive affect and these different systems, concluding that evidence points to an overall better functioning in people who experience higher levels of positive affect in their daily lives, and those who are overall “happier”. This translates into better immune function, better stress responses, and faster recovery from stress and negative affect states. The authors are clear to point out something that has struck me in a lot of my research: there are differences in positive affect (as mentioned before, we can assess hedonic, eudaimonic happiness, and engagement). Within positive affect (as with negative affect) there are differences in the levels of arousal it elicits, such as, joy or happiness don’t elicit the same physical arousal as contentment or relaxation, however, they all are within the spectrum of pleasant feelings. Perhaps the inconsistent results found between positive affect and some physiological measures are better explained in terms of measurement issues. Different authors not only usually use all positive affect adjectives in an agglomerate scale, without discerning from high and low arousal adjectives, but also use different adjectives altogether.

Another point that stands out is the association between positive affect and its biological correlates, in spite of the levels of negative affect at the moment. It is commonly accepted in psychology that positive affect, although inversely related to negative affect, represents an independent characteristic of experience. The lack of negative affect does not mean there are increases in positive affect, and the other way around. This is particularly true in therapy! To increase well-being people need, not only to experience higher levels of positive affect, but also to experience low levels of negative affect (cf. Diener, Lucas & Oishi, 2005). It seems that this independent relation is not only true for human experience, but also for our physiological functioning.

Finally, the authors discuss possible developmental effects of positive affect, or sustained feelings of positive well-being. These effects can translate in changes in baseline levels of activation of the neuroendocrine, autonomic, and immune systems. Although some argue that a common genetic substrate to health and positive affect may exist, research in other variables associated to positive affect, such as attachment in childhood, have shown how the environment can affect the individual’s physiological functioning. There is also evidence that some pathological states, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety disorders and depression can have permanent impact on physiological functioning, namely in neuroendocrine levels (Miller, Chen & Zhou, 2007), making the case that more “healthy” psychological functioning may have beneficial and protective effects on individual’s health.



Dockray, S., Steptoe, A. 2010. Positive affect and psychobiological processes. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, doi: 10.1016/j.neurobiorev.2010.01.006

Peterson, C., Park, N., Seligman, E.P. 2005. Orientations to happiness and life satisfaction: the full life versus the empty life. Journal of Happiness Studies, 6, 25-41

Fredrickson, B.L. 1998. What good are positive emotions? Review of General Psychology, 2(3), 300-319.

Diener, E., Lucas, R.E., Oishi, S.2005. Subjective Well-being: the science of happiness and life satisfaction. In Snyder, C.R., Lopez, S.J. Handbook of Positive Psychology. New York: Oxford University Press.

Miller, G.E., Chen, E.,  Zhou, E.S.2007. If it goes up, must it come down? Chronic stress and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical axis in humans. Psychological Bulletin, 133(1), 25-45.


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