Section 3 comprises 3 articles that address positive psychology's implications for mental and physical health. Noted psychiatrist and ego defense researcher, George Vaillant, opens the section with his review, “Adaptive Mental Mechanisms: Their Role in a Positive Psychology” (Am Psychol 2000;55:89-98). Vaillant introduces the Defensive Function Scale, which measures the quality of psychological defenses and provides a metric for positive psychology similar to that for IQ. His review focuses on the defenses placed in the “mature” end of the scale, which include altruism, suppression, humor, anticipation, and sublimation (ie, redirecting energy to positive outlets such as art, work, sports).
The second article, by Shelly Taylor's University of California, Los Angeles, research group, focuses on “positive illusions” and their effects on physical health.7
The authors summarize a vast literature that has convincingly linked optimism, a sense of personal control, and a sense of meaning to physical health, focusing mostly on patients infected with the human immunodeficiency virus or who have AIDS. She argues that even grossly unrealistic optimism is protective of health. Unfortunately, in this literature's zeal for rigor and quantification, authors seem to have assumed that quantity and quality of life are interchangeable. The blinders of “positive illusions” may give patients more days of life, but they may also prevent them from using the important personal and interpersonal opportunities created by the stress of serious illness.
Salovey and his group at Yale University briefly summarize the literature on emotional states and physical health.8
The authors acknowledge that far more is known about how negative rather than positive emotional states affect health. In this sense, they have little to say directly about positive psychology. Nonetheless, their summary of negative affective states and their effect on immune function and susceptibility to disease is compelling. They share tantalizing snippets of the literature on “venting” or verbal and/or written expressions of negative affect. Despite the initial surge in negative feelings, it appears that venting—in the right place and time—has important health benefits. Interestingly, venting to a diary that no one reads also has health benefits.
The authors also touch on the importance of instilling hope in ill patients and its possible link to improved medical outcomes through the placebo response. They close with a brief mention of how changes in mood likely affect health-related behaviors such as eating, exercise, and seeking social support. Ironically, although people often drink alcohol, smoke tobacco, or indulge in unhealthy foods as a way to manage their moods, these strategies are usually ineffective in bringing about the desired emotional state.