Optimism, Wellness, and Recovery, Part I
This is the first installment in a two-column series focusing on the impact of optimism on wellness and recovery. The current column deals with the impact of optimism on our physical health; the second column will provide a more detailed treatment concerning the role of optimism in recovery from addiction.
In The Power of Optimism (1990), psychologist Alan Loy McGinnis contends that optimists have control over their futures. Describing negative impressions of early teachers regarding Abraham Lincoln, Amelia Earhart, and other historical giants, he observes that early on these people came to realize that authority figures or authoritarian concepts were not the determinants of their destinies. Rather, they themselves were.
The fascinating research of Harvard psychology professor Ellen Langer relating to the health impact of a positive outlook is described by Bruce Grierson in a recent New York Times article titled “What if Age is Nothing but a Mind-Set?” (2014).
In 1981, Langer conducted an experiment involving eight men in their seventies who spent five days in an environment designed to replicate the world as it had been twenty-two years previously. A black and white TV screen portrayed Ed Sullivan welcoming young Elvis Presley and other guests, Perry Como crooned on the radio, and all books, magazines, and newspapers reflected vintage 1959 content. Mirrors were replaced by earlier photos of the subjects and they were encouraged to make a psychological attempt to be the person they were twenty-two years ago.
At the end of the experiment the men were evaluated in relation to the same physiological measures that were taken at the study’s onset. Their limbs were noticeably more flexible, they showed improved manual dexterity, they sat taller, and surprisingly their vision had improved. In Langer’s words, the subjects had “put their minds in an earlier time and their bodies went along for the ride” (Grierson, 2014).
Another study focused on eighty-four hotel chambermaids. When interviewed at the onset subjects generally reported that they didn’t get much exercise. The researchers then informed them that cleaning rooms was serious exercise—as much if not more than what the surgeon general recommends. Once their expectations had shifted to a more positive perception, the maids lost weight and also scored more favorably on other measures including body mass index and hip-to-waist ratio. As Langer points out, the only difference was a change in the subjects’ mind-set.
In Positive Imaging (1981), Norman Vincent Peale recounts the experience of a young soldier who suffered debilitating injuries from enemy machine-gun fire. Experiencing little if any improvement during hospitalization, he began to recall in detail past athletic triumphs he had experienced as a boy. Believing in guidance from a beneficent higher power, he began to realize that it was his responsibility to create powerful images of his own recovery and nurture them with faith. He told himself “If I affirm and visualize my recovery, my thoughts will steadily be forming and producing their physical counterparts” (Peale, 1981). To his doctors’ amazement he began to mend rapidly and went on to live a normal, happy, and productive life.
What is the take-home concerning our own prospects for applying an optimistic outlook to optimize our health? I firmly believe that our minds and bodies are intimately connected in matters relating to health and healing.
In one of my favorite movies, Tuesdays With Morrie, sociology professor Morrie Schwartz, who is dying from Lou Gehrig’s disease, is determined to “teach his final course” by drawing on his dying experience as a guide for living. In collaboration with a former student who went on to become a leading sports reporter, the two conduct a series of recorded interviews. On these encounters, and even though he was on the brink of death, Morrie consistently portrays an exuberant, upbeat attitude. When asked by his protégé if he is always this optimistic, Morrie replies to the effect of “Gosh no, when I wake up in the morning I am totally despondent and angry. For the first ten minutes I wallow in despair concerning this disease and the awful pain I am experiencing. Then I tell myself, ‘Okay, ten minutes is all I’m going to give this,’ and I proceed to get on with my day” (1999).
Drawing on my own experience, I am a former pessimist who learned to become a virtually incurable optimist. Years ago I decided that, God willing, I intend to enjoy a happy, healthy, and productive lifespan of ninety-five years. While I by no means have access to a crystal ball, I fall back on one of my own favorite sayings: “I’d rather be an optimist and be wrong than be a pessimist and be right.”
In dealing with doctors we should consciously bring to bear a positive outlook and avoid becoming overwhelmed by their authoritative posture. Suppose, for example, that you are diagnosed with cancer and your oncologist tells you that on the average a patient in your stage of cancer will die within the year. At that juncture I would encourage you to reply, “I don’t care about averages—I want to beat this disease and to learn about those exceptional patients who have managed to recover!” For more information on exceptional patients, I highly recommend Love, Medicine, and Miracles (1998) by Bernie Siegel.
I would then advise you to track down several of these patients and interview them concerning what they were doing right in the face of a devastating diagnosis. You should be able to link up with such patients with the help of major cancer treatment centers or organizations such as the American Cancer Society.
Learn from these patients’ experiences, commit yourself to taking charge of your health, and visualize yourself experiencing a successful recovery. If at this point your oncologist is still pessimistic, I would urge you to “fire” him or her and shift your care over to a doctor or health care team that is in alignment with your desire to maintain a hopeful outlook and actively chart your pathway to recovery.
As stated earlier, I firmly believe that a positive outlook can have a very positive impact on our health and prospects for recovery from illness; there is a growing body of evidence that supports this belief. I encourage you to explore what you might do to cultivate a more optimistic outlook, and to share this article with clients who may benefit from the message.
Until next time—to your health!
Forte, K., Winfrey, O. (Producers), & Jackson, M. (Director). (1999). Tuesdays with Morrie (Motion picture). United States: Carlton America & Harpo Productions.
Grierson, B. (2014). What if age is nothing but a mind-set? New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/26/magazine/what-if-age-is-nothing-but-a-mind-set.html?_r=0
McGinnis, A. L. (1990). The power of optimism. San Francisco, CA: Harper & Row.
Peale, N. V. (1981). Positive imaging. Pawling, NY: Foundation for Christian Living.
Siegel, B. S. (1998). Love, medicine, and miracles: Lessons learned about self-healing from a surgeon’s experience with exceptional patients. New York, NY: Harper & Row.