Lemonade for the Soul: How a Positive Mental Attitude Can Improve Your Health
When it comes to the idea of positive thinking, most of us would agree that ‘glass half full’ folks seem to do somewhat better in life than grouches, and are able to overcome challenges with enviable fortitude. We all know of people who just seem to ooze good health and positive vibes. Is this because they are luckier than the rest of us; that life hasn’t thrown them quite so many curve balls? Or is there really something in the theory that positive thinking equates a happier and healthier life?
Scientists like Barbara Fredrickson have devoted their careers to this very quandary and indeed, Fredrickson’s highly influential broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions has shown, quite convincingly, that people who experience lots of positive emotions are, by consequence, able to demonstrate a much broader spectrum of responses and behaviors in life than those who experience life with a ‘glass half empty’ approach.
It is a theory that is somewhat at odds with conventional wisdom, which pitches us at our evolutionary best while we experience negative emotions – ‘flight or fight’ is a good example of this. The traditional theory is that negative emotions help us to adapt and survive by enabling us to find the strength to fight and overcome challenges. We tend to think quickly and with a single-minded vision when angry or in an offensive mode. Positive emotions, however, are considered an altogether more frothy affair, all very pleasant but not critical to survival. Or are they?
Fredrickson’s studies show that although emotions are fleeting, they act like essential building blocks that we take forward with us into everyday life – much like a tool kit. Positive emotions tend to induce a more expansive approach to life – we are likely to become more sociable and be apt to acquire and develop skills that we can then build upon and utilize later on. Negative, angry emotions incline us towards a myopic, tunnel vision approach; we tend to focus intently on that experience and emotion and have trouble focusing our attention outside of that, which is limiting. This ability to focus on one issue intently was undoubtedly a valuable evolutionary tactic in our ancient past, but it makes for quite a narrow skill set today – a bit like focusing solely on biceps during a workout and nothing else. In essence, if we approach life in terms of a series of possibilities rather than limitations, we expand our psychological and physical skill sets and develop broader and more successful coping strategies for life’s challenges.
While Fredrickson’s positive emotions theory makes sense from a behavioral and psychological perspective, how this theory applies to physical health outcomes – particularly chronic and serious ones – is much debated and possibly harder to gauge thanks to the difficulties associated with measuring those outcomes reliably, particularly when patient subjectivity is a determining factor.
The placebo effect has been well documented, however, with scores of studies proving that there is more than a grain of truth in the idea that people can wish themselves better simply by believing a drug or supplement is real and thus beneficial, even if it’s just a sugar pill. In fact, various controlled studies have shown a high positive response rate among patients prescribed a placebo. For critics of Positive Mental Attitude (PMA), however, the theory loses ground somewhat when the little white pills and clinical setting are taken out of the equation, and it’s true that we do tend to respond better to placebos if we have a high expectation of the outcome by allowing ourselves to trust in an authority figure; i.e. the doctor administering the pill.
There are studies, such as that conducted by Dr Bernie Siegal with a group of breast cancer sufferers that seem to disprove PMA can positively affect the outcomes of certain serious illnesses, such as cancer. However, there is evidence to the contrary. John Allegrante has published his observation of three studies on PMA and chronic disease; in all three, and evidence suggests subjects who cultivate a positive mental attitude and practice self-affirmation techniques are more likely to stick to an exercise regimen and are better at adhering to a prescribed treatment plan, which, in turn can only be of positive benefit.
What is clear is that while the jury is potentially still out on the physiological effects of PMA on all illnesses, there is irrefutable support for the idea that it certainly won’t do you any harm. There is also mounting evidence to suggest that taking a positive approach has the potential to act both as a preventative measure to illness, as a means to equip us to adapt and think outside the box, and as a great psychological coping strategy when things don’t go to plan.
Of course, it’s also important to remember that positive thinking is not universally revered. In a recent interview on the subject with CNN.com, mind-body expert and founder of the Chopra Foundation, Deepak Chopra cautions against falling into the trap of believing that positivity, once achieved, is a blissful state of permanence to be clung to at all costs: “The mind has to defend itself from negativity, and that is exhausting as well as unrealistic. You may succeed in calming the appearance you present to the world, but there’s almost always a struggle hidden just below the surface.”
It’s an idea echoed by website author James Clear recently in the Huffington Post. Clear writes about the benefits of using behavior science to master your habits and improve your health, and he believes the key to happiness is to find ways to build happiness that work for you, be that through meditation, playing an instrument, or simply hanging with your favorite buddy. It’s highly personal.
Finding the kind of happiness that leads to a positive lifestyle and health outcomes is perhaps best described as being at peace with oneself. Meditation is particularly beneficial and Clear, Chopra and Fredrickson all advocate the practice as a way to achieve focus, build long-term skills and, of course, to enjoy the calming health benefits of sitting in silence and clearing the mind.
What we can learn from all of this is that it’s okay to take time out of our busy schedules to seek out pleasure, to play, to focus on oneself without negative introspection or guilt. If that means watching a game with good friends, or spending an hour with a good book in a quiet spot in the park, that’s all good. Taking up a sport or hobby that you love is another great way to channel some positivity. Try to remember that success follows happiness, and in doing things that make you happy, you are far more likely to succeed. So next time life throws you lemons, add sugar and water and enjoy a tall glass.
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