We know that depression and loneliness can take a toll on our physical health, but now a new study on patients with HIV is showing the power of positivity: Practicing tips to improve happiness resulted in improved mental wellbeing, and also decreased viral levels in the patients' blood. What’s more, the tips aren’t tailored for people with HIV, and can be practiced by anyone.
For the study, researchers from Northwestern Medicine reported that practicing skills to promote happiness and other positive emotions resulted in both lower amounts of HIV in patients' blood and lower antidepressant use too. These results could have far-reaching benefits for public health: The amount of HIV in one's blood is related to their ability to spread the virus, so actively decreasing HIV levels in patients may reduce the chances of them passing it onto others.
For the study, 80 individuals, mostly men, recently diagnosed with HIV were taught a set of skills (listed below) to promote positive emotions over the course of five weeks. As a control, 79 recently diagnosed individuals were not given these skills. Both groups had their HIV virus levels measured at the end of the study.
Results showed that 91 percent of the individuals taught happiness skills had a suppressed viral load by the end of the study, compared to only 76 percent of the control group. In addition, at the beginning of the study, 17 percent of the volunteers were on antidepressants. By the end of the study, this number had not changed for the group taught happiness skills but had risen to 35 percent for the control group.
"Even in the midst of this stressful experience of testing positive for HIV, coaching people to feel happy, calm and satisfied — what we call positive affect — appears to influence important health outcomes," said lead author Judith Moskowitz in a recent statement.
The patients were taught happiness-improving tips that anyone could easily benefit from. Many are rooted in the idea of mindfulness, which teaches practitioners to maintain a moment-by-moment awareness of thoughts and sensations. According to UCLA Berkeley, this involves tuning in and focusing on the present rather than thinking about the past or imagining the future. According to a press release, some tips used in this study included:
- Recognizing a positive event each day, savoring this event and logging it in a journal or telling someone about it
- Starting a daily gratitude journal
- Listing a personal strength each day and noting how you used it recently
- Setting an attainable goal each day and noting progress
- Reporting a minor stressor each day and listing ways to avoid it or improve on it in the future
- Treasuring kindness and practicing a small act of kindness each day
- Take 10 minutes each day to simply concentrate on breathing and enjoy the present moment.
Source: Moskowitz JT, Carrico AW, Duncan LG,et al. Randomized Controlled Trial of a Positive Affect Intervention for People Newly Diagnosed With HIV. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology . 2017