Be happy? “But I’m just trying to remain calm in the middle of the storm called my life!” you may say.
Before you dismiss the concept outright, however, I urge you to reconsider; the scientifically-verified connection between maintaining a positive attitude and health may surprise you.
The Grant Study
It was the 1940’s. While most medical researchers were studying what made people sick, Dr. Arnie Block of Harvard Medical School decided to do the exact opposite. The “Grant Study” was an eight-decade long research project that asked a questions: What makes for a truly healthy individual?
The study began with 268 Harvard college sophomores who were at the “top of their game.” They were healthy, gifted, intelligent, of sound mind, white and male (it was the 1940’s after all). A side note: one of the participants was former president John F. Kennedy.
What Block and others found as the study went on was quite shocking. While all the men started out on a relatively even playing field, by the time they were in their 50’s, regardless of their external experiences, a third of them were diagnosed as mentally ill. Of those who were clinically depressed at age 50, roughly 70% had died or were chronically sick by 63. On the other hand, those who reported being “extremely satisfied” with their lives had one-tenth the rate of severe illness or death compared to those who were not.
Pessimism vs. Optimism
Fast-forward to the early 2000’s. Psychologist Martin Seligman and his team had been studying how pessimists and optimists view and explain the good and bad events that occur in their lives. As a result of their research, Seligman and his team determined that:
-Those with an overall pessimistic attitude view the bad events that happen to them as permanent (its always going to be this way), pervasive (this is going to ruin everything) and personal (it’s all my fault). They see good events as temporary, specific and outside of their control.
-Optimists, on the other hand, see good events as permanent (this good thing is going to last), pervasive (this is going to change everything for the better) and personal (this is the result of my own hard work, unique positive qualities, etc.). And the bad events? You guessed it: they see them as temporary, specific and external.
Seligman and his team decided to revisit the data from the Grant Study to see how pessimism and optimism correlated with disease risk. What they discovered was that by age 45, those who fit the description of “pessimists” were less healthy than the optimistic men. And by age 60, the pessimistic men were significantly less well than their optimistic counterparts.
Lissa Rankin, MD, author of Mind Over Medicine, says: “When you make permanent, personal and pervasive explanations for bad events that inevitably happen to everyone, you pave the way for chronic unhappiness and, ultimately, illness.”
What the Stats Say about Happy People
The almost 100-year old Grant Study eventually concluded that “Happiness can be found most in loving,
healthy relationships.” Positive thinking pioneer Louise Hay, on the other hand, states that “happiness is feeling good about yourself.” And Rankin defines happiness as “the overall appreciation of one’s life as a whole.”
Ultimately, YOU are the expert when it comes to what happiness means to you. But one thing is certain: you know it when you feel it. And studies have shown that your cells feel it too:
-People who have a higher level of “subjective well-being” live up to 10 years longer than those who don’t;
-Upbeat mental states reduced individual risk of death by 50% over 9 years, according to a 2004 Dutch study;
-A positive attitude significantly effects the body’s ability to ward off infection;
-Those with an overall positive attitude fair better when diagnosed with cancer, according to Rankin;
-And according to an Israeli study, a positive attitude may cut your risk of breast cancer by twenty-five percent.
What You Can Do
Martin Seligman says that you can teach yourself how to maintain a positive attitude by observing your thoughts. He calls this the “ABC Method:”
A = Adversity. Describe the “bad” thing that happened. Try to be as objective as possible.
B = Beliefs. As the event was happening, what were the thoughts that were running through your mind?
C = Consequences. What are the consequences of those beliefs? (How did they make you feel and for how long? Did they lead to other behaviors?)
It is at the point of belief that you have the power to change your mind, and your experiences. As Louise Hay says, “A belief is just a thought you keep thinking.” In future blogs about stress, attitude and cancer prevention, we will take a look at how our attitudes and stress levels effect the body chemically. In the meantime, the studies mentioned above provide clear evidence of just how much YOU really are in control of your own journey towards breast health and a vibrant, fulfilling life!