It’s long been a popular idea that our levels of optimism or pessimism can influence physical health. Think how we often tell ill or injured people to look on the bright side. Now scientists are finding that our internal philosophies, especially how optimistic we are, potentially have a greater impact on our health than we ever thought possible.
Dr. Becca Levy, from the Yale School of Public Health, has found some extraordinary benefits of an optimistic outlook. In one study, she looked at 660 people who’d completed a survey about their attitude to aging in 1975, then correlated their responses to the ages at which they died. “We found that individuals with a more positive view of aging tended to live seven-and-a-half years longer than those with more negative views of aging,” says Dr. Levy. “This advantage remained after adjusting for a number of factors such as age, gender, socioeconomic status, loneliness and functional health.”
A 2003 study from the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that positive thinkers responded better to flu vaccine. In the study, 52 people received a flu shot and were then asked to think and write about a very happy memory, followed by an unhappy one. Those who showed greater activity in the left side of the prefrontal cortex – a part of the brain associated with positive emotional responses – had the greatest number of antibodies against the disease six months later.
Even physical experiences may be buoyed by a more optimistic outlook. According to a 2005 study by the Wake Forest University School of Medicine, our personal outlook may influence how we perceive pain. The study found that if people were told to expect less pain when receiving a short burst of heat, they reported feeling less pain, regardless of the intensity of the heat. The researchers found that people’s expectations had as much effect on pain as a dose of morphine.
Bad attitude bringing you down?
But if an optimistic attitude can be good for our bodies, does a pessimistic attitude harm us? Many New Age books promote this idea, but the scientific evidence is less clear.
“There is a commonly held belief in the general community that stress and depression can cause cancer,” says Dr. Melanie Price from the University of Sydney. As a researcher in the newly emerging field of psycho-oncology, she examines how emotional health can influence and be affected by cancer. “There is some evidence to suggest that stress may increase the risk of a cancer diagnosis, but it’s not overwhelming,” she says. “Researchers have linked cancer registries with divorce and death registries, and some of those studies have found a particular link between divorce and breast cancer, but there are other studies that have found no link.”
Dr. Price is studying 2,500 women to see whether life events and coping styles influence the incidence of breast cancer, and is specifically looking at whether highly stressful experiences, such as the death of a partner, have any impact.
There is already strong evidence that some emotions could have an effect on the heart, with numerous studies linking heart disease to depression, and emotional states, such as hostility, to outcome for heart patients.
No one really knows why our minds could have this influence on our bodies. “One theory is that stress has an impact on the immune system and your hormones,” says Dr. Price. “If your immune system is compromised, you are more likely to be diagnosed with cancer. So it may be that stress can compromise your immune system, which could increase your chances of developing cancer.”
The mind-lifestyle connection
But an optimistic attitude may also influence the way you live your life, which has an impact on your health. “If you’re under a lot of stress, you’re more likely to not look after your diet, not exercise, not sleep as well, drink more alcohol. These lifestyle things are also risk factors for cancer and other diseases,” says Dr. Price.
Understanding how emotions are linked to physical conditions is important in helping to create new treatments, and also to offer hope to people who believe they may have brought their illness on themselves.
When Grace Gawler, who works with breast cancer patients, wanted to learn more about the emotional experiences of women in her support groups, she conducted open-ended surveys. “So many said that they felt the reasons that they got the cancer were because they had been chronically stressed, or had unresolved grief from their lives.”
She realized that many women blamed themselves for their diagnosis. This led to her writing a book called Women of Silence, about dealing with breast cancer and emotional healing. “There is pressure for people diagnosed with a disease like cancer to just ‘think positive’, but that’s not necessarily helpful. It can even be more like denial.”
“I’m careful to reframe that with people, to tell them that if they’ve had chronic stress, they did the best they could with what they knew at the time. Yes, stress might have been a factor in their illness, but how can we deal with stress, learn some simple stress management tools and re-engage the things they are passionate about?”
Finding your inner optimist
True optimism does not mean being perpetually positive no matter what, and it is not about denying legitimate feelings of sadness or grief. “It’s actually quite normal if you are diagnosed with a chronic or potentially fatal illness to feel upset about it,” Dr. Louise Sharpe, a psychologist from the University of Sydney who has studied the link between emotions and arthritis. “You have to process it and seek treatments before you can reach a point where you’re ready to accept it. What normally happens is people around you feel very uncomfortable with the grief and distress, and they try to get you to think positively, and sometimes that can be invalidating.”
Dr. Sharpe says an optimistic outlook doesn’t have to be ingrained – it can be created. She has used cognitive behavioural therapy with arthritis patients to see whether a more positive outlook has any influence on the disease. She found people with more optimistic views are much less likely to become depressed about their condition, and she believes this response has led to improved joint function in some patients.
“We look at what people say to themselves and whether it’s in fact true, or whether they are perhaps seeing things in a negative way. Then we get them to challenge negative thoughts in a realistic way,” she explains. “For example, someone with arthritis might not be able to open the milk because they have joint problems in their hands. They might think, ‘I’m stupid and useless.’ And we say, ‘Is it really the case that you are stupid and useless because you can’t open the milk?’ Then you look at other areas where they can do things, and you help them slowly come up with a more realistic and optimistic view.”
Anyone can learn to be more optimistic using the principles of cognitive behavioural therapy. “You need to look at your underlying beliefs, try to see what you are really telling yourself,” says Dr Sharpe. “Are those beliefs really true, and is it helpful to think that way? You can train yourself to have a more realistic slant on any situation.”
“Live each day consciously” is how Grace Gawler puts it. She believes living optimistically is not just about challenging negative thoughts, but also encouraging things you love. In Women of Silence she writes, “Sing your song, dance your dance, heal the old life story, close the chapter and the book and begin your new life. Go well.”