As we recognize the value of focusing on optimal experiences and the good life more generally, we still need to recognize that our understanding of how positive mental states affect physical health has been informed not only by studying the positive, but by focusing on the negative as well. For instance, Harvard's famed physiologist, Walter Cannon, spent several decades documenting what he called voodoo death, stories in various cultures about people who because of some major troubling emotional experience (often extreme fright) suddenly died.
Cannon even traced a reasonable pathophysiology that still sensibly provides an explanation for how a person literally could be scared to death. Such findings help to illuminate mechanisms connecting all emotions, pleasant and unpleasant, to various physical health endpoints from well-being to mortality.
There has been long recognition that an optimistic mind and exhilarated spirit accompany a healthy body. King Solomon suggested that "a merry heart doeth good like a medicine" (Proverbs 17:22), and every student of health psychology has heard the story of how journalist Norman Cousins attributed his recovery from ankylosing spondylitis, a potentially life-threatening collagen disease, to his active use of laughter. Cousins believed that ten minutes of laughing provided him with two hours of pain-free sleep and that inflammation in the affected tissues was reduced after these laughing sessions. What is wonderful at this juncture is that theoretical and methodological advances in recent years have allowed us to move from these anecdotal accounts to rigorous testing of the effects of emotions on physiological functioning and health. In the coming century, the biopsychosocial mechanisms accounting for these remarkable correlations likely will be untangled, and these scientific breakthroughs could then serve to expand the basis for relevant clinical practice.