The only disability in life is a bad attitude.
~ Scott Hamilton
Biomedical scientists all over the world work tirelessly on improving health and extending life, funded by various government and private institutions and by every tax-paying person. The reason that so much time, energy and wealth are spent on the medical research is the positive notion that we will find cures for diseases and that people all over the world will be healthier. What I find ironic though, is that very little attention is paid to the value of the positive attitude itself, and the role that it plays in our health, in the prevention of disease, in the recovery from disease, and how we age.
In fact, we already know – thanks to our intuition, observations and experience – that positive attitude plays a most influential role in our lives. But our rushed lives sometimes make us forget the importance of the right attitude. I believe, however, that we get reminders of this fact regularly. These reminders get delivered to us in various ways and forms: a person, whom you love or respect, but also even a complete stranger or a random event may remind you of that, a book, a movie or an article can become good reminders – if only we can keep our eyes and ears open to see or hear those reminders to stay positive.
It goes without saying that to be healthy does not only mean to have your heart, your lungs, your liver function well. It is also very important to feel good emotionally, psychologically. After all, if the psychological component is out of balance, the heart and the liver will not be able to work well for too long.
It has been shown that feeling happy has direct and indirect effects on our health and well-being. It is widely known, that when we are happy we release “happy hormones“ and neurotransmitters. In fact, we release them even while anticipating happiness, before the actual event, for example on our way to the movie theater to watch a comedy.
Hormonal imbalances can negatively affect one’s mood too, so it can become a vicious cycle. However, in many cases it is within our power to break that cycle. Often just by controlling our mood and managing our stress levels, we can give the best gift to ourselves and, indeed, to those around us. All we have to do is take control over the initial step, the brain will take it from there and send the appropriate signals to all cells and organs. In other words, just by working on this first step, you will initiate a new, positive chain reaction in your body, which will make you healthier and happier.
A positive attitude promotes the release of “happy hormones” with a myriad of positive effects on the body. However, the effects go far beyond this one function. Many health benefits are also indirect consequences of a positive attitude. People with a positive outlook tend to take better care of themselves, including better nutrition and physical activity. People with a positive attitude tend to have more friends, and having a strong and dynamic social circle has a very beneficial impact on various aspects of our health. People with positive attitude tend to make better choices in general: travel more, have more hobbies, etc. – all of which impacts upon the quality of their life and that, in turn, impacts upon their health.
Having a positive attitude can improve the function of one’s immune system, reduce the risk of coronary heart disease and cardiovascular mortality, protect against stroke in older adults, help to cope with chronic pain, and lower inflammation. It influences positively the course of disease, and even the recovery from and survival of disease. It can affect wound healing and recovery after surgery. It has been shown that psychological interventions decrease the complication rate during treatment and recovery, and the length of stay at the hospital and ICU. Moreover, the effects of having a positive attitude are seen in short- and long-term manners. An interesting article published a few months ago by a group of researchers in the Netherlands showed a correlation between the dispositional optimism in the adult offspring and the longevity of their parents.
In 1984, “Science Magazine”, one of the most respected scientific magazines, published an article by Dr. Roger S. Ulrich, a Professor of Architecture, showing that “Twenty-three surgical patients assigned to rooms with windows looking out on a natural scene had shorter postoperative hospital stays, received fewer negative evaluative comments in nurses’ notes, and took fewer potent analgesics than 23 matched patients in similar rooms with windows facing a brick building wall.” This article became a milestone and was the headline news for a week at the American Medical Association. This was a pioneering evidence-based study showing the importance of developing mind-body medicine and considering the wider range of factors that affect diverse health indices of the patient.
However, these conclusions do not sound surprising, do they? In keeping with the view that we already know the effects of a positive attitude on health, it is almost certain that there are many more as-yet unrecognized indices affected by positive psychological state of the person.
Some may argue: “But I am not an optimist, I am a realist.” My reply to that is that it doesn’t really matter whether you see the glass half full or half empty – in both cases you are a realist. As long as you don’t see the glass a quarter full, or three quarters full, when it is half full – you are a realist. (And even if you see the glass only a quarter full, that only means that your problem is with your eyesight, doesn’t it?). Having a positive attitude and being a realist are not mutually exclusive. Having a positive attitude is about remembering the good in people, when disappointed by someone’s specific behavior, it is about enjoying the walk under the rain on a summer day, when the clouds cover the blue sky… Having a positive attitude means seeing the situation realistically and then making the best of it and to strive having the best experience possible.
An amazing older woman lives in my apartment complex. Even though mostly students and young professionals live in this complex, she fits in very well – because of her attitude and her life style. She is genuinely nice, I would say even sweet, she is always very elegant – both in how she dresses and in her manners. Every time I talk to her I feel that she radiates positive, almost palpable energy. If I had to guess, I would say that she is in her mid-70s, but during our recent little-chat-in-the-elevator she told me that her oldest daughter is 73! She realized my shock and shared with me her own age… It turned out she is 95. She went on to add that she is still working. And she is n-i-n-e-t-y-f-i-v-e! That particular chat impressed me very much and I think of her quite often. Could it be that her positive outlook on life and her positive attitude are, at least partially, the keys to her gracious longevity?
by Roza Selimyan, Ph.D.