"It's better to look good than to feel good" went the SNL line made famous by Billy Crystal. It was funny, in part, because it mocked an age-old conflict -- the choice between feeling and looking good -- but shouldn't we want (and expect) both?
Intuitively we know that when we feel healthy we view ourselves more positively. But it turns out that the converse is also true, that taking care of ourselves, even spending a few minutes putting on makeup, caring for our skin or getting our hair done can positively impact our health as well.
As a psychologist who has studied this topic for over 20 years, I'm convinced that the way we look and how we feel are intimately connected. Women I've interviewed from all walks of life have shown me that a positive self-image not only enhances their sense of well-being, but also contributes to their long-term health. When they look good, they feel good and when they feel good, they look good. And, there is a growing body of scientific data to support this interaction.
It was with this in mind that I collaborated with CVS/pharmacy when they asked me to contribute to their expanding health campaign. As the next step after taking tobacco off the stores' shelves, CVS is encouraging people to make health a priority in their lives -- including viewing beauty and personal care as part of an overall healthy lifestyle -- and my role was to dig deeper into this topic with research. Here is a summary of my findings.
The Role of Subjective Well Being
The psychological experience of feeling positively about oneself is known as subjective well being (SWB) and has been shown to have significant long and short term health benefits. People with SWB tend to eat and sleep better, go to doctors more often, have increased immunity and generally take better care of themselves. Studies show that SWB can even extend longevity, adding up to 7.5 years of life.
Beauty and personal care behaviors enhance SWB, which in turn promotes other self care behaviors. Over time, this thought/action cycle leads to a repertoire of enduring personal habits that can impact overall well-being. For example, people with a positive attitude tend to smile more, walk taller, have a confident stride and make more direct eye contact. They tend to take time for themselves -- exercise, take baths, get manicures and pedicures -- and as a result, they feel and look more relaxed. Greater confidence and relaxation fuels a positive sense of self, which reinforces SWB.
Positive behaviors and attitudes also lead to more satisfying interpersonal experiences. Compliments and affirmative feedback about one's appearance can reinforce a positive self-image and the desire to continue to take care of oneself. Thus, a cognitive-behavior loop develops, which keeps the beauty-health connection ongoing: self-care and relaxation > positive attitude > improved health > increased attractiveness > affirmative feedback > reinforcement for self-care and relaxation > continuity of the loop. It's a cyclical feedback process that impacts long-term well being and supports the intrinsic link between health and beauty.
The Impact of Stress Reduction
For a long time scientists have known that relaxation improves oxygen consumption, respiratory rate, blood pressure and our sense of well-being. Tension does the opposite. More recently researchers have begun to understand the physiology behind this process. Findings show that people who relax generate less cortisol, a stress hormone that impacts cardiovascular function and the body's use of fats, proteins and carbohydrates.
In one study, patients recovered from a cardiovascular incident twice as fast following a positive trigger than following a stressful one, suggesting that emotional states affect our heart. In another study, participants with greater emotional vitality (energy, happiness and life satisfaction) were 26% less likely to develop coronary heart disease over a 15-year period. Failure to control stress or to make relaxation a part of routine life can make us more vulnerable to illness.
The relaxation response has also been shown to influence the body on the cellular level , activating what scientists call "disease-fighting" genes. Currently, researchers are examining how emotions impact cell growth and the role that stress (or the lack of it) has on the aging process. Activities like intensive meditation and relaxation have been shown to result in cellular changes that enhance longevity . If reduction of stress hormones and healthy cell growth result from relaxing grooming activities, it's not surprising that people who incorporate them into their daily routines feel and look healthier.
Beauty's Impact on the Body and Brain
Scientists have begun to document the way pleasurable experiences translate into physiological changes in the body and brain. One recent study found that people who laugh were less likely to be diagnosed with heart disease. While healthy people likely laugh more, these scientists showed similar results from joyful music, concluding that positive emotions influence blood vessel function. Another study looked at the physiological benefits of smiling, which has been shown to release endorphins, lower blood pressure, and enhance overall well-being. These findings are consistent with the changes resulting from other confidence-boosting behaviors.
Using MRI scans, scientists are now able see the impact pleasurable experiences have on neurophysiology. Findings show that emotions stimulated by beauty, love, laughter and joy influence the part of the brain called the orbitofrontal cortex, also known as the reward center. Studies highlight how neurotransmitters, like dopamine and serotonin, are activated and lead to a positive sense of well-being (similar to the impact that opiates have on the brain.) While beauty routines may not give us a high, that lift following a blow out, facial or spa treatment isn't just in our imaginations. It's our brain telling us we feel and look good. It's our body enjoying the healthy results.
So how does personal care and beauty routines impact our health? Current research suggests that activities involved in maintaining beauty positively influence our emotional and physical well-being. They create positive internal experiences that can result in decreased stress, as well as identifiable benefits to the body and brain.
Through a better understanding of health's intrinsic link with beauty, perhaps people will view personal care less as a guilty pleasure and more as an aspect of a healthy self-image. It's a shift in attitude and behavior that now has support from science, from psychologists like me and forward thinking companies like CVS. Hopefully this broader, deeper perspective on beauty will empower women, and all people, to live healthier -- and more beautiful -- lives.
Vivian Diller, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice in New York City. She serves as a media expert on various psychological topics and as a consultant to companies promoting health, beauty and cosmetic products. Her book, "Face It: What Women Really Feel As Their Looks Change" (2010), edited by Michele Willens, is a psychological guide to help women deal with the emotions brought on by their changing appearances.
For more information, please visit my website at www.VivianDiller.com; and continue the conversation on Twitter @ DrVDiller.
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