Over the past two decades research from around the world has produced a steady stream of scientific evidence that psychological traits, especially optimism can contribute to good health. Optimism does this by:
- Reducing that sense of helplessness that stifles constructive action.
- Giving a person a reason to stick to health regimens and seek medical advice
- Reducing the number of bad events a person experiences because optimists are more likely to take steps to stop bad events once they begin
- Fostering social support, which is important because close friendships reduce the risk for disease, particularly the recurrence of chronic disorders
How is this possible? States of mind, such as hope, can affect the rest of the body. When a person is depressed, catecholamines, one type of neurotransmitter, become depleted. When catecholamines get depleted, the brain’s internal morphine( i.e., chemicals called endorphins) increase. When the level of endorphins increases the immune system detects this and turns itself down. This reduction in the immune system is temporary in grieving people. On the other hand, a pessimistic outlook on tends to lower immune activity independent of physical health problem and transient emotional states. Unlike temporary states such as sadness during a bereavement, or depression in the course of a divorce, or a bout of illness, pessimism may be able to impair your health over the course of your entire life span.
Traditional views do not acknowledge a major determinant of health, namely our own thoughts. The reality is that we have much more control than we probably think we do. For example:
- How we think, especially about our health, can change our health.
- Optimists catch fewer contagious disease than pessimists
- Optimists are more motivated to maintain better health habits than pessimists
- The immune system of an optimistic individual works better than the immune system of a pessimistic individual
- There is even evidence that optimists live longer than pessimists.
One of the most intriguing studies in this area has been going on for decades. In the mid-1930’s the William T. Grant Foundation decided to study healthy men throughout the course of their adult lives. The investigators were interested in studying exceptionally gifted people to learn more about what determines success and good health. Subjects were selected from five Harvard freshman classes. Investigators selected men who were physically fit and intellectually and socially gifted. This group of men cooperated fully with this demanding study. Participants have received physical checkups every five years, were interviewed periodically and had to fill out endless questionnaires. Their diligence has provided a treasure of information about what makes a person healthy and successful.
As time passed and the original investigators aged they decided to ask a younger man, George Vaillant, a brilliant young researcher, to assume responsibility for the continuation of this longitudinal study. George Vaillant’s first important finding from the study was that wealth at age twenty does not guarantee either success or good health. Instead he found a high level of failure and poor health among the men in the study including failed marriages, bankruptcies, premature heart attacks, alcoholism, and suicide. Indeed these men experienced tragedy at almost the same rate as men born at the same time in the the poorest areas of the inner city.
The original research challenge had been to try to determine factors predictive of success and good health. So what was going on? If wealth did not guarantee good health and success what did? Vaillant began to focus in on how men in the study dealt with challenging events in their lives. Information that had been collected from the men indicated that even while in college some of them handled bad events with what may be described as “mature defenses.” They used humor, altruism, future-mindedness and the ability to delay gratification to meet the challenges thrown at them. Interestingly some of the men never used these strategies. Instead they used “immature defenses” such as denial, and projection, i.e., blaming others for their problems. By the time they were sixty years old none of the men who used mature defenses in their early twenties was chronically ill. On the other hand over one-third of the men without mature defenses at age twenty were in poor health by the time they were sixty.
About the time the men in the study were entering middle-age, around age forty-five, a study involving 99 randomly selected men from the ongoing study was conducted. The men’s identities and state of health were kept from a second set of investigators that were given essays the men wrote as they returned from service in the World War II in 1945-1946. The essays were compiled into an explanatory-style portrait of each man. These explanatory-style summaries were then returned to the original investigators so they could determine what had happened to these men and whether the second investigators’ designation of individuals as having an optimistic or pessimistic outlook on life made a difference. What was discovered is that the health of the men at age sixty was strongly related to optimism at age twenty-five. The pessimistic men came down with diseases of middle-age earlier than the optimistic men and by age forty-five the difference in health was large. In fact optimism stood out as a primary determinant of health beginning at age forty-five and continuing for the next twenty years. In the next decade researchers will be able to learn if optimism predicts a longer life in addition to predicting a healthier one. While we all cannot be born wealthy, we can modify our outlook on life—especially if taking a more optimistic view leads to better health.