A bit of optimism goes a long way
“Don’t worry, be happy” could be the best free advice there is for enhancing wellbeing. There’s a growing body of evidence to show that if you have a contented and positive disposition you are more likely to be healthier and live longer than those who are often dissatisfied and negative. For example, in a study that surveyed 1500 males over a period of 80 years, “expecting the worst” was linked to a 25 per cent higher risk of dying before age 65 (Mayo Clinic Proceedings75 (2000): 133-4).
Elderly Dutch people were evaluated over a nine-year period and those who were optimistic had a lower death rate (Archives of General Psychiatry61 (2004): 1126-35). Older optimists don’t take a gloomy view of ageing and are more likely to report relatively few limitations due to physical health and few problems with work or daily activities; this is coupled with feeling peaceful and energetic most of the time. Apparently, they cope successfully with the stresses of ageing and live about seven-and-a-half years longer than pessimists (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 83 (2002): 261-70).
Negative emotions include hostility and hopelessness. Irrespective of socioeconomic status and health behaviours, cynical hostility is linked to a high level of self-reported symptoms (Psychosomatic Medicine 66 (2004): 572-7). In other words, hostile people tend to have more health complaints. Hopelessness is considered to have a negative impact on emotional and physical health as well as longevity and, not surprisingly, is associated with depression and suicide.
A four-year study also showed that hopelessness specifically contributed to an accelerated progression of atherosclerosis, or clogged arteries (Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis, and Vascular Biology17 (1997): 1490-95). Sustained anxiety is also linked to atherosclerosis; and hopelessness increases the risk of high blood pressure. Here are some examples of associations between optimism and specific diseases.
In a survey of 14 European countries, complementary and alternative medicine was found to be popular among cancer patients. The majority used these therapies to increase the body’s ability to fight cancer or improve physical and emotional wellbeing, and many seemed to have benefited (Annals of Oncology 16 (2005): 655-63).
My experience is that cancer patients do not discontinue their medical treatments but want to do as much as they can to improve their survival. The real benefit of natural therapies may be in providing hope, optimism and participation in wellbeing improvement through health-enhancing behaviours.
As we know, heart disease is the major cause of death in developed countries. Medical researchers have compiled evidence suggesting that positive emotional factors may reduce the risk of heart disease (Psychosomatic Medicine 67 (2005): S47-53).
First, you need a level of mental energy that will help you overcome negative thinking and chronic stress. Second, you need to develop flexibility so you are not continually stressed by the ups and downs of everyday life. Your heart rate and blood pressure will go up if you overreact to every occurrence that doesn’t go according to plan. You will also produce more stress hormones and these affect sleep as well as glucose metabolism.
Other surveys show that a positive outlook improves recovery rates from bypass surgery and other procedures (such as catheterisation), which means an optimistic attitude not only prevents heart disease but also benefits people having treatment for heart problems. Over an 11-year period, cheerful “heart” patients are 20 per cent more likely to be alive than pessimistic patients (International Journal of Cardiology 100 (2005): 213-6). In addition, those who frequently use “I”, “me” and “my” have more heart attacks, which suggests that empathy and compassion are good for your health.
When 2478 senior citizens completed a depression questionnaire every year for six years it was found that for each “yes” answer to a positive statement there was a 26 per cent decrease in the risk of stroke. This suggests that the benefits of optimism are not necessarily due to the absence of pessimism (Psychosomatic Medicine 63 (2001): 210-15).
A brief summary of some of the research is given below:
- Depressive symptoms are linked to the development of diabetes in people with low educational attainment.
- A history of depression increases the risk of type 2 diabetes in younger adults.
- Depressive symptoms are linked to an increase in the number of diabetic complications.
- Depression increases the risk of death in diabetic patients.
Periodic lung function tests of middle-aged men showed that optimists have better pulmonary function than pessimists and the difference is comparable to the difference between smokers and non-smokers (Annals of Behavioral Medicine 24 (2002): 345-53).
Steps to optimism
You can change the way you think, but all types of change may cause stress, so it’s better to proceed one small step at a time. Here are some ways of making positive changes.
Mental and physical energy
Energy is required if you want to change your thoughts, speech and actions. You may need practitioner help because there are many causes of mental and physical fatigue, including anaemia, boredom and serious diseases. Exhaustion is a risk factor for heart disease and death from all causes because it prevents exercise and restricts many healthy activities such as meal preparation and positive thinking. Sometimes people are too tired to follow even basic treatment instructions. Although exhaustion is not an emotion, it can develop as a result of negative thinking and an unhealthy lifestyle.
Insufficient sleep is a common cause of daytime fatigue. Dr Sandra Cabot and I have outlined these causes and what to do about them in our recently released book, Tired of not Sleeping? Your brain needs oxygen and a good blood supply and these will be helped by outdoor activity as well as a varied wholefood diet with foods in as natural a state as possible. Remedies such as ginkgo, B vitamins and fish oil may help with mental energy, while ginseng is a good physical tonic.
Aside from your body’s automatic responses, nothing in your life will change without your thinking and it’s possible to change how you think, although for most people it’s a slow process. Over time, negative thinking, criticising and constantly talking about your problems can become habits that need correcting. If you become aware of these bad habits — without putting yourself down — you’ll find you gradually become more positive. Don’t compare yourself with people who seem to be more dazzling, wealthy or powerful because this could induce envy and frustration.
The main purpose of human existence is to enjoy it. Don’t think that some time in the future will be more favourable, because the future is uncertain; and don’t dwell on the past except to learn from it and to forgive yourself. Focus on the present and practise mindfulness (Thich Nhat Hanh, The Miracle of Mindfulness (Boston: Beacon Press, 1995)).
In the real world it’s good to have goals and ambition, but if you’re content with what you have, it doesn’t matter if all your hopes are not achieved or maintained. You will never be content if you continually pester yourself about self-improvement but do nothing. That will only lead to inner conflict.
Coping with stress
The reality is you are not perfect and you don’t feel the same every day. French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) said that “hell is other people”, but I think it’s more correct to say stress is often caused by our reactions to other people. Very few humans can live in complete isolation, which means we need other people and should therefore focus on improving ourselves and our attitudes rather than criticising and ineffectually trying to change others.
Occasionally, we may need to avoid or minimise contact with extremely negative people. Interestingly, it has been shown that if stressed rats are caged with unstressed rats, the contented animals develop not only stress symptoms but also the blood biochemistry of the stressed animals.
I once looked after an elderly relative for a week and he didn’t have a positive thing to say about anyone or anything. At the end of the week, I felt exhausted and stressed. Before leaving I told him, in a relatively calm way, that he hadn’t said a kind word about anyone or anything in a whole week — and got absolutely no reaction. The next time I looked after him I played a mindgame of guessing what his verbal reaction would be to events that occurred — although his responses were somewhat predictable and invariably laden with swearing. I smiled a lot and sometimes laughed out loud, which seemed to prevent a buildup of tension in me. He didn’t react and probably thought I was going mad. Humour and silent prayers may help to deflect negativity from other people.
Of course, there are different types of physical, mental and emotional stress. Blood tends to be thicker in the presence of physical and mental stressors, which makes the blood flow sluggish. Sluggish blood flow is one of various triggers that lead to high blood pressure, clogged arteries and stroke. A little stress may be stimulating, but long-term stress must be dealt with. If you are caring for infants or the less able, aim to enjoy their company and organise some relief time for yourself.
Anti-stress therapies include outings, good company, pets, music, sports, aromatherapy, learning new skills, massage and counselling.
Depression is a negative emotion; it’s the opposite of feeling happy. But there are unpleasant things happening all around us, so you can’t expect to feel positive or cheerful all the time.
Depression is a vast topic and severe, prolonged depression requires professional help. When I’m feeling “down” I remind myself of all those people who are far worse off. (However, if other people are telling you their troubles, they need sympathy; it’s not helpful to give them this advice.)
Insomnia can be caused by depression. Poor sleep in turn leads to daytime fatigue, impatience, accidents and reduced motivation. Insomnia is also linked to reduced physical and mental functioning as well as a number of specific problems such as impaired glucose metabolism, obesity and lowered immune function.
Depressed people usually have low self-esteem and little motivation, and they are tired, moody and often socially withdrawn. Unfortunately, there is a much higher incidence of depression (and most other diseases) in those with the lowest education and socioeconomic status (A Social Health Atlas of Australia, Bureau of Statistics). If depressed people feel overburdened with self-improvement advice, they may get worse — even though “education” is one of the best ways of enhancing self-respect and good health. It’s well accepted that once you achieve a comfortable socioeconomic status, having a surplus does not make you happier, which would suggest that the very wealthy have it in their power to eliminate poverty and significantly reduce physical and mental illness.
Studies show that laughing improves creative energy and positive feeling scores. Continually sitting at home alone usually worsens overall negativity. Research shows that most laughter occurs when you are with others, which means gloomy people need to make a super effort to socialise.
Researchers also say that smiling improves your biochemistry and your immune system, and Dr Paul Pearsall suggests that, whether you like it or not, you should smile for four to 10 seconds as many times a day as possible to improve your immune efficiency. Smiling is correlated with happiness, irrespective of interpersonal power (Emotion 3 (2003): 303-9). People with specific nerve/muscle disorders of the face are unable to smile and researchers found that the degree of impairment in smiling matched the degree of depressive symptoms.
Another advantage of smiling is it improves your physical appearance — and most people feel better if they look better. When you need help you’re likely to be somewhat anxious, but make a special effort to be pleasant because you’ll get more help if you smile — and feeling supported has positive effects on your health. I’m not suggesting you walk around grinning broadly at everyone and everything, but develop a little half smile by practising in the mirror. Feeling liked is also a positive emotion and you’ll be surprised to find that your pleasant facial expression is reflected back by many people. A little smile keeps the facial muscles toned without exercising them too much.
Physical activity is important for overall wellbeing. It not only produces beneficial chemicals but also makes you stronger, smarter and more confident. Early-morning outdoor walks are highly recommended because the morning light provides a strong signal for your biological clock (circadian rhythm), which is linked to sleep and many metabolic processes.
“The first sign of spirituality is cheerfulness,” said Sri Ramakrishna (1836-1886). Most scientific surveys indicate that spiritually minded people are generally positive and have a sense of purpose. Here are some of the health advantages of spirituality.
- Adolescents who are spiritually minded have more involvement in health-promoting behaviours rather than high-risk behaviours.
- Elderly people who report greater spirituality are more likely to rate their health as good. Perhaps they place more emphasis on their inner self rather than futilely longing for a young body.
- People with serious illnesses, such as HIV/AIDS, tend to live longer if they have faith in God, a sense of peace and compassion for others. They also have lower levels of cortisol (a stress hormone).
Meditation is one of the best ways of attaining inner peace and it helps reduce negative emotions such as anxiety, anger and depression. Brain scan studies with Buddhist monks show they can deliberately “switch on” the positive part of the brain (left frontal area), but even a few months of training can result in a degree of shifting to this area.
If your negative emotions are strong it’s usually difficult to meditate, so you may need to start with some relaxation therapy or physical activity. Then try a meditation that involves slowly and silently repeating some words together with a visualisation, as an agitated body and mind may not be diverted by techniques such as watching the breath or repeating a mantra. You may need to try a few different techniques before you find one that suits you. Meanwhile, here’s a meditation with two verses that involves slowly and silently repeating some words while visualising a healing light:
I’m sitting comfortably
My spine is straight, shoulders relaxed
My elbows are close to my body, hands and fingers relaxed
I picture myself breathing out grey air
My breath is calm and rhythmic
All my negative emotions are being released in the grey air
With each breath out I release negativity
Getting rid of anything I don’t want or need
Picturing the grey air with each breath out
I know that negative thinking can become a habit
I know that my outward breath can eliminate negative thoughts
Now I visualise a soft white light
The light is surrounding my body
The soft light is healing and protecting
With each gentle inhalation I take in the soft, healing light
The light fills my head and my mind becomes clear and calm
The light fills my body and I feel light and tall
My breath is flowing gently and evenly
With each breath in I feel lighter and more peaceful
With each breath in I become more positive
I picture the soft white light filling my mind and body
My thoughts are purified by the soft light
The second verse may be repeated a number of times. You don’t have to learn the words exactly and you can change them to suit your needs. An added advantage is that learning verses improves your memory.
Living longer and healthier
If you’re sick or in pain it’s difficult to be upbeat, work effectively and motivate yourself. But when health, socioeconomic status, race, gender and other similar factors are taken into account, having a positive view is still linked to a longer and healthier life. Optimism may be more advantageous than lowering blood pressure or reducing cholesterol and some experts think it’s superior to exercise, not smoking and maintaining a healthy weight. Researchers suggest this may be due to a greater will to live, but it could also be due to various positive attitudes.
Some of my patients say things like, “Apart from the Parkinson’s and diabetes, I’m quite healthy”, while others maintain hope through prayer or by actively participating in what’s happening to them. We are all responsible for our own behaviour and we should also strive to make other people happy by our positive speech and actions.
Tips for being optimistic
- Keep a little half smile on your face most of the time.
- Think of the person whose company you most enjoy, as an example. We all like cheerful people. If we want to mix with the cheerful we need to make an effort ourselves. An old yogic saying is: “Mix with the happy, pity the sick, avoid the vicious.”
- Give yourself a daily treat.
- Go some place you’ve never been before.
- Enjoy the plants and the sky. Go for walks in the bush or by the sea and look at the stars and the moon.
- Give compliments freely.
- When you say “I’m sorry”, look the person in the eye.
- Read inspirational books, look at TV less.
- When you answer the telephone, smile. People will hear it in your voice.
- Pray and meditate. Those who pray recover better from illness and live longer.
- Make sure you get outdoors every day. A little sunshine (or natural light) and exercise improve your brain chemistry.
- Do a good deed daily. Putting others before yourself, at least for part of the time, is not only good for the soul but also gives your mind a holiday from yourself.
- Resolve to become happy. We weren’t born to cause trouble and disharmony.
- Trust in God but lock your car!
Nancy Beckham is a qualified naturopath, herbalist, homoeopath, yoga teacher and horticulturist. She recently co-authored Tired of not Sleeping? (WHAS Pty Ltd) with Dr Sandra Cabot.