By now, almost everyone has heard of the Type A personality: the driven workaholic who supposedly is at high risk for heart disease. Well, credible evidence is starting to show that being a Type A personality isn’t the only risk factor. Shouldering any kind of negative emotion — especially powerlessness, hostility, anger, suspicion, and resentfulness — may not only increase your odds of heart disease but jeopardize your health in general.
No one can avoid these feelings all the time, of course. 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.
Changing Your Attitude
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 the section, “Social Support”).