By Sharon Atieno

Developing positive affect- the experience of pleasurable emotions, such as happiness, joy, excitement, and calm- during adolescence could lead to improved health and well-being outcomes in adulthood.

This is according to a study published in the open-access journal PLOS Medicine titled Positive affect during adolescence and health and well-being in adulthood: An outcome wide longitudinal approach.

The study was based on data collected from a prospective, representative sample of approximately 10,000 U.S. adolescents in grades 7–12 (aged about 15–18) in the mid-1990s who were followed into adulthood. Participants reported on aspects of their background, health, and well-being at several time points throughout the study.

The researchers grouped participants based on how much their positive affect increased over one year during adolescence. They then assessed whether adolescents with a higher increase in positive affect had healthier outcomes as adults based on 41 outcomes related to physical health, healthy behavior, mental and psychological well-being, and prosocial behavior.

The results showed that adolescents with higher increases in positive affect scored higher on several outcomes within each of these categories, even after controlling for demographic and other variables that may bias the results.

One of the biggest effects was seen in mental health, where positive affect was associated with a lower likelihood of attention deficit disorder (ADD)/attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), anxiety, depression, and stress.

This study recommends that interventions designed to improve positive affect may have enduring impacts into adulthood. However, the researchers note the limitations in using self-reported data and the possibility of additional confounding factors they didn’t consider.

“Emerging evidence from randomized controlled trials aimed at individuals, and case studies of successful policies aimed at entire populations, suggest positive affect can be enhanced,” the authors note.

Some studies have shown that social structures and changing life circumstances shape positive affect. It is also modifiable through various interventions that can be applied among individuals such as therapy, online exercises and physical activity. It can also be changed through policies at the national level.

According to the authors, targeting positive affect during adolescence, a critical developmental phase for acquiring health assets and establishing healthy mindsets, is a promising point of intervention that might enhance the trajectory of health/well-being in adulthood.

Similarly, studies conducted in adults indicate that high positive affect is linked to improved health behaviours such as increased medication adherence, physical activity, sleep and diet. It is also associated with enhanced biological function (healthier immune function, inflammation levels and lipid levels) and decreased risk of chronic diseases (such as stroke and cardiovascular disease) as well as mortality.

Several organizations including the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations (UN) are advocating for countries to integrate well-being indicators alongside economic indicators when sculpting policies.