No one can avoid all negative feelings in life and it’s not realistic to think you can or should. But the happiest people somehow know how to buffer them by keeping life’s inevitable tragedies from spoiling the good stuff. And these folks may be the healthiest people as well. This section fills you in on the growing evidence that you may be able to improve your physical health just by changing the way you think and feel about your life.
All the advice to “keep the sunny side up” if you want to be healthy sounds all warm and fuzzy, but almost too good to be true. Actually, though, a load of evidence shows that your attitude about life can improve your health and even speed your recovery from a serious ailment or surgery. The attitudes that seem to help the most are optimism, hope, and, above all, a feeling that you have some impact on the quality of your own life.
Why You Should be Optimistic
No one really understands how or why a positive attitude helps people recover faster from surgery or cope better with serious diseases — diseases as serious as cancer, heart disease, and AIDS. But mounting evidence suggests that these effects may have something to do with the mind’s power over the immune system. One recent study, for example, polled healthy first-year law students at the beginning of the school year to find out how optimistic they felt about the upcoming year. By the middle of the first semester, the students who had been confident that they would do well had more and better functioning immune cells than the worried students. (See Suzanne C. Segerstrom, Ph.D., et al., “Optimism is Associated With Mood, Coping, and Immune Change in Response to Stress,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Volume 74, Number 6, June 1998.)
Some researchers think that pessimism may stress you out, too, boosting levels of destructive stress hormones in your bloodstream. Of course, it’s also possible that having a positive attitude toward life makes you more likely to take better care of yourself. And you’re more likely to attract people into your life (and keep them there) — which in and of itself may boost your health (see How Our Social Network Helps Us Thrive).
How to Become More Positive
We’re not saying that you should deny life’s darker side or interpret every calamity as a blessing. But when calamity does strike, try not to give in to despair or fatalism. Concluding that you personally have been singled out for suffering, refusing to see any silver lining, and abandoning all hope may not only be a recipe for illness: Such attitudes are also not such great ways to go through life. Try to recognize that your grief and pain, however real and deep, are only part of a larger picture — and that this picture includes many elements of pleasure, success, and meaning.
Another approach is to try to “use your pain” for good. Many people who have suffered from life-threatening and incapacitating illnesses — including cancer, heart attack, and the like — say that they consider their illness to be “a gift.” The illness taught them to value each day, appreciate the moment, and get their priorities straight. Sometimes they discover that they have the power to do things they never knew that they could.
Losing a breast to cancer, for example, has led some women to stop pouring all their energies into cultivating perfect bodies. As a result, they discover other interests and talents, such as French literature, tutoring, or race walking. Being forced to give up a high-powered job because of a disabling illness has given other people the time they always wished they had to pursue sculpting, chamber music, gardening, or other passions. We’re not saying that you should wish cancer, heart disease, or AIDS upon yourself, of course; but if you keep an upbeat perspective, even life’s blows can bring rewards beyond your wildest imaginings.
Remember that even if you can’t change the circumstances of your life, you can change your attitude! If you need help, talk to a health professional about whether psychotherapy, support groups, or other structured approaches might help you.
Attitude definitely seems to influence the course of illness. But some people take this link too far and make you feel that your bad attitude caused your disease or is keeping you from healing. Walk the other way if anyone makes you feel guilty for being sick or treats your physical ailments as if they were emotional or mental problems (included are physicians who banish you to a psychiatrist when you have no obvious signs of physical illness).