"What happens in the mind of man is always reflected in the disease of his body."
-Scientist-humanist René Dubos
Attitude exerts a huge influence on health. Individuals who sustain optimism, instead of pessimism, and who express their emotions, are more likely to be healthier or overcome their afflictions. I've seen first hand that people do better who see their cups half full. Unfortunately, those who see their cups half empty are more likely to become victims, first emotionally, then physically. Then their health deteriorates accordingly.
I am reminded of one eighty-six-year-old Floridian with a bad heart, arthritis, and a hearing problem, who asked me at a recent seminar with my newsletter subscribers how he could make his cup fuller. At the time I was talking about the importance of positive attitude. "I want to make plans for the next thirty years," he said, with a laugh. Now that's what I would call filling up one's cup with optimism.
His attitude reminded me of a fascinating study I read several years ago done at the University of Kentucky. The researcher studied the medical histories and length of life of some two hundred nuns who had compiled handwritten autobiographies during the 1930s when they were in their early twenties. It turned out that those individuals who expressed strong positive emotions about life actually lived as much as ten years longer than pessimistic fellow nuns.
It is absolutely true that emotions become molecules inside the body that affect our physical well being or not-so well being.
The late Norman Cousins, a prominent political journalist, showed dramatically how laughter (along with plenty of vitamin C) could overcome disease-in his case, a debilitating collagen disorder called ankylosing spondilytis. He wrote about it in his bestselling 1979 book, Anatomy of an Illness.
Cousins also suffered from heart disease and died in 1990 of heart failure, ten years after being first diagnosed and years longer than his doctors had predicted he would live. After one heart attack, and as he was beingcarried into an emergency room on a stretcher, he announced his determination to overcome his physical challenges: "Gentlemen, I want you to know that you're looking at the darnedest healing machine that's ever been wheeled into this hospital."
In the 1990s, Lee Berk, a researcher at Loma Linda University who had been inspired by Cousins, demonstrated how laughter actually strengthened the immune system and protected patients following heart attacks. He did that by showing patients videos of their favorite sit-coms.
More than twenty years ago, I participated as an instructor in a psychotherapy training workshop. During the workshop we conducted an eye-opening experiment. We asked a group of forty-four male and female volunteers to discuss the most difficult issues-issues of sadness, bereavement, grief, and stress-in their lives. Afterward, we collected urine samples from them. I was amazed to find that the individuals who talked most freely about their problems, and it was primarily women, had fewer stress breakdown chemicals in their urine, and much less evidence of cardiovascular disease. It was just the opposite for the men. We men usually have a hard time crying, or expressing emotions as well as women, and one consequence is that we are more susceptible to heart disease.
This experiment provided the inspiration for Heartbreak & Heart Disease, a book I wrote in 1996, and recommend to patients because it contains lessons and stories that demonstrate how powerful a role the emotions can have in healing or harming the body.
Do tai-chi. Yoga. Meditate. Pray. Laugh a lot. Cry. Retire later in life. Volunteer your services. Get a dog or cat that gives you unconditional love. Follow your own personal passion. Do whatever it takes to stay optimistic, happy, and engaged in life. You'll be creating the molecules of longevity.