Cheer Up! You'll Feel Better

by DavalosMcCormack on May 6, 2008

Yesterday Shirley wrote about a friend who ended up with walking pneumonia after dealing with a lot of personal problems. She called it “circumstantial illness”, how his circumstances were making him sick. But we don’t have to be victims of circumstances, no matter how bleak they are. Even in the worst of times we have the power to keep bad news from affecting our health.

There are many studies that show that optimists enjoy better health than pessimists. In fact, the May ’08 issue of Harvard Men’s Health Watch is all about those studies, and why that may be the case.
First, it lists some of the benefits that scientists have seen:

— Optimistic patients who underwent heart bypass surgery were only half as likely to need re-hospitalization as pessimists.

— Highly pessimistic patients were three times more likely to develop high blood pressure compared to optimists

— Optimists were much less likely than pessimists to have lower blood pressure

— In one study the most pessimistic men were more than twice as likely to develop heart disease compared to the most optimistic.

But you could ask which came first, the optimism or the good health? After all, if you are in good health you are more likely to feel happy about your life than if you are sick. So maybe it’s not that optimists enjoy better health, perhaps it’s that healthy people are more likely to feel optimistic.

Well, some researchers wanted to find out if that was the case so they did some more studies, this time making adjustments for pre-existing medical problems. They found that it didn’t matter. The optimists still came out on top, enjoying overall better health than pessimists.

Now it could also be that people who are optimistic are more likely to be sociable and popular – after all, who wants to hang around with a grumpy person who complains the whole time – and are more likely to take care of themselves with a balanced diet and healthy lifestyle.

So, while the scientists are trying to figure out why this is the case perhaps the rest of us should be asking an even more important question, namely, how can we all learn to be optimists, and even if we don’t feel like that can we get benefits from just faking it? Researchers at Loma Linda Univeristy in California have come up with some intriguing findings that suggest we might be able to get some of the benefits of being optimistic without having to be relentlessly cheerful all the time.

In 2006 they were studying the interaction between the brain, behaviour and the immune system. They found that even just the anticipation of “mirthful laughter” could give our bodies a boost of health-protecting hormones. They found that when a group of volunteers were told they were going to watch a funny video they got a 27% boost in beta-endorphins (those are chemicals that help alleviate depression) and an 87% boost in human growth hormone (HGH is not just useful for baseball pitchers! It’s also important for our immune systems). A group who were not told the video was going to be funny did not experience any increases.

So, this year the researchers went back and did a similar experiment, only this time they were trying to see if anticipating laughter could reduce the production of stress hormones. They repeated the experiment and measured levels of hormones that are typically released during periods of high stress. In a crisis these can help the body prepare for the so-called “fight or flight” response but chronic exposure to these hormones can weaken the immune system.

After telling the study group that they were going to watch a funny video the researchers found that their levels of cortisol, adrenaline and dopac were reduced by 39%, 70% and 38% respectively compared to a control group.

Just the thought of being happy made these people happier. Interesting notion eh! So next time someone tells you to cheer up, don’t ignore them, just tell them you are thinking about it!

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guide February 4, 2009 at 1:00 pm

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