During medical training at UCLA, I had the good fortune to learn from Norman Cousins, a Jewish writer, editor, and adjunct professor of medical humanities. Despite being misdiagnosed with tuberculosis at age 11, he set out as a boy to “discover exuberance.” He believed that positive emotions were the key to fighting illness, which he exemplified in the telling of his own battle with a severe form of arthritis. In the book Anatomy of An Illness, he describes his victory over a potentially life-threatening condition by taking mega doses of vitamin C, and watching Marx Brothers movies and TV sitcoms. He relates, “Laughter is a form of internal jogging. It moves your internal organs around. It enhances respiration. It is an ignitor of great expectations.” His underlying belief was that positive emotions induce favorable biochemical changes in the body so that healing is more likely to occur.
Proverbs 17:22 states, “A joyful heart makes for good health; despondency dries up the bones.” So clearly, a correlation of cheerfulness with health has been recognized for centuries, but what is the supporting evidence? Do optimistic people simply take care of themselves better than pessimistic people, does being in good health by itself lead to optimism, or are both choices correct? The results of The Women’s Health Initiative study of 100,000 postmenopausal women showed that cynicism and hostility were associated with a higher risk of heart disease and cancer, and optimism led to longer life. In a large meta-review of 83 studies published in the 2009 Annals of Behavioral Medicine, optimism was found to be a significant predictor of positive health outcomes ranging from heart disease and stroke, pregnancy, cancer, and stronger immunity – even against the common cold. Benefits also included lower rate of depression and better coping in times of stress. My conclusion from reviewing these medical studies is that optimism leads to healthy behavior and outcomes, but also practicing healthy habits, in turn, leads to greater optimism.
One has to be careful about overgeneralizing the impact of optimism on health. If a person gets sick with heart disease or cancer, does that mean the illness was that person’s fault? Don’t assume that the root of all illness is negative thinking, and that thinking positively will provide the cure. Our emotions are only one determinant of our overall health, and whatever side of the optimism/pessimism spectrum you are on, it’s important to make appropriate health-wise decisions. For example, I have known patients who were pessimistic about having a heart attack because a parent died at an early age. This fearful attitude resulted in a strong devotion to avoiding cholesterol and to exercising rigorously. Some optimists think they will never get sick, so they shun vaccinations or screening tests for cancer. Others have had the unfortunate circumstance to have suffered trauma or loss of a loved one or suffering from clinical depression, so telling them to simply be optimistic is inappropriate. So whatever your outlook on life, it’s important to understand your own situation.
Most of us are born with a predisposition to seeing the glass half full or half empty, but my observations from treating hundreds of patients as well as observing behavior of friends and family have led me to believe that our outlook on life can be changed significantly. Here are some recommendations worth practicing to enhance one’s mood and outlook:
- Express gratitude.
- Show compassion.
- Exercise regularly to increase the pleasure hormones in your brain. Do something you enjoy such as walking, running, biking, or rowing a kayak. If your spouse orders you, “Go take a hike,” you both will be in better moods when you reunite!
- Be forgiving of yourself, and laugh at yourself if you had an embarrassing moment.
- Be playful. If you have young grandchildren, this is easier.
- Like Norman Cousins, entertain yourself with a humorous movie or sitcom.
- Indulge yourself in a good novel, and share your insights in a book group or with friends.
- Play a musical instrument or sing, or attend a fine concert.
- Enjoy a friendly game of bridge, scrabble, or poker with friends. Just don’t lose!
- Go to a play, especially a comedy.
- Volunteer. If you don’t already volunteer somewhere, you will be amazed what this does for your mood.
- Eat a healthy diet and don’t drink in excess. (When alcohol wears off, it can act as a depressant.)
- Surround yourself with supportive positive people.
- Pray. The mind-body connection is promoted by praying, helping to relieve stress and worry and indirectly improving your emotional and physical condition.
Whether you like it or not, our emotions affect our physical health. You do have some control over your life, and it’s never too late to practice behaviors that will help you see the glass at least half full. Oprah Winfrey, in her recent memoir What I Know for Sure, states, “I continued to believe that no matter how hard the climb, there is always a way to let in a sliver of light to illuminate the path forward.”
For more information about happiness and health, go to the Harvard School of Public Health.
Jerry Saliman, MD is a volunteer internist at Samaritan House Medical Clinic in San Mateo. He retired from Kaiser South San Francisco after working there more than 30 years. While at Kaiser SSF, Dr. Saliman was also Chief of Patient Education. He received the 2012 “Lifetime Achievement Award” given by the Kaiser SSF Medical Staff.
Editing acknowledgement: Ellen Saliman
Neither the PJCC or our guest columnists provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Please make your health care decisions in partnership with your health care provider