A Silver Lining In The Silver Lining…

Here’s a nice data-review in the Harvard Health News about the role of optimism and health. This article is a good summary of several large studies on whether having a better outlook on life can help your health. It is a long article (four online dense pages), so here, for all you Doc Gurley readers, is the bottom line, as well as practical tips for how to apply this info to your life:

1) There are two definitions of optimism used in studies: One is called dispositional optimism (you expect things to get better) and the second is called an explanatory style. An explanatory style refers to how you respond to good or bad news. An optimistic explanatory style is a person who believes that he/she “tends to give herself/himself credit for good news, assumes good things will last, and is confident that positive developments will spill over into many areas” of life. A pessimistic explanatory style person believes that bad things are his/her fault; unlikely to get better over time; and will have a global impact on everything he/she does. Doc Gurley Practical Tip : Do an attitude check for three days – keep track of how you tend to respond to events around you – is your thinking that of an optimist or pessimist? Do you tend to ruminate on bad news and (as we say in healthcare jargon) “catastrophize” events? After you take stock of your thinking traits, spend the next three days seeing if you can shift your thoughts in a more positive direction – tell yourself the Trio of Positive Traits: 1) hey, I did some good here, 2) I’ll bet something good will come of this, and 3) I bet these good things will last. See if making that small, intentional change in your thinking changes the way you feel about yourself and the world around you. Does it seem like your engine starts to idle a little lower? Do you feel a little less like the top of your head is going to blow off? (hey, that feels kind of nice, even if nothing else changes)

2) Several large, well-designed studies have shown that optimism seems (even when all other factors are “controlled”) to protect against high blood pressure, heart disease, catching the cold, cancer, recovering from heart procedures, and even sudden fatal heart attacks. Doc Gurley Practical Tip: Hmmm. When it comes to being optimistic, there’s a lot to be said for it as a drug. One, there’s no cost. No side effects – except possibly feeling “happier.” In fact, there seems to be no down side at all (except perhaps if it doesn’t work and you merely feel more positive but don’t actually change your health outcome). Only a pessimist wouldn’t give this a try.

3) Is a flaw here? The most obvious argument against these results is that pessimists are pessimistic because they know more – maybe they already feel bad, and that’s why they’re pessimistic. That argument has been pretty well shot down by the studies – some of which pre-screened for all the diseases and then followed people for as long as 40 years. Next, optimism may be a “proxy” for something else – for example, optimistic people are  shown to have more friends, and strong social support and being active have long been known to improve health – although, in studies, optimists don’t eat better, and aren’t leaner than pessimists. Finally, there’s a good chance that one’s thinking may be hard-wired by one’s genes. In fact, the “answer” may be that the gene for optimism is right next to a gene for robust health – so we’re finding a link between the two that’s not a real cause/effect. Doc Gurley Practical Tip: How can you know if a touchy-feely health result is real? Well, here are the purists tests for when a health claim is generally-accepted to be true: first, is it “robust” – which is to say that the same results are found over and over in different countries, with different researchers, over decades, and even with different diseases. In this case, we get a resounding yes. Second, is there biologic plausibility? Well, when a person is stressed or “down,” the human body tends to release a chronically high level of pretty toxic hormones that can both rev up your circulatory system (increasing blood pressure), increase your chronic levels of inflammation (already associated with heart disease) and suppress your immune system (definitely a risk factor for cancers). These effects are reversible. So, again, we’ve got another resounding yes. What we’re missing here is the final proof for optimism being a cause of good health – which is whether or not doing an “intervention” produces the desired result. We can’t know if changing your thinking now results in better health outcomes later. At least, we don’t have those results yet. But, at the risk of outing myself as a pragmatist (and – gasp – not a purist at all!), I personally don’t want to wait for the thirty-year intervention trial. I’m thinking now’s a good time (har) to act on these results – what’s the down side?

Do you agree? Or have a differing opinion? Pessimists (and skeptics and purists) are welcome to pile on in the comments section!

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