“Look on the sunny side of life.”
“Turn your face toward the sun, and the shadows will fall behind you.”
“Every day may not be good, but there is something good in everyday.”
“See the glass as half-full, not half-empty.”
Researchers are finding that thoughts like these, the hallmarks of people sometimes called “cockeyed optimists,” can do far more than raise one’s spirits. They may actually improve health and extend life.
There is no longer any doubt that what happens in the brain influences what happens in the body. When facing a health crisis, actively cultivating positive emotions can boost the immune system and counter depression. Studies have shown an indisputable link between having a positive outlook and health benefits like lower blood pressure, less heart disease, better weight control and healthier blood sugar levels.
Even when faced with an incurable illness, positive feelings and thoughts can greatly improve one’s quality of life. Dr. Wendy Schlessel Harpham, a Dallas-based author of several books for people facing cancer, including “Happiness in a Storm,” was a practicing internist when she learned she had non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer of the immune system, 27 years ago. During the next 15 years of treatments for eight relapses of her cancer, she set the stage for happiness and hope, she says, by such measures as surrounding herself with people who lift her spirits, keeping a daily gratitude journal, doing something good for someone else, and watching funny, uplifting movies. Her cancer has been in remission now for 12 years.
“Fostering positive emotions helped make my life the best it could be,” Dr. Harpham said. “They made the tough times easier, even though they didn’t make any difference in my cancer cells.”
While Dr. Harpham may have a natural disposition to see the hopeful side of life even when the outlook is bleak, new research is demonstrating that people can learn skills that help them experience more positive emotions when faced with the severe stress of a life-threatening illness.
Judith T. Moskowitz, a professor of medical social sciences at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, developed a set of eight skills to help foster positive emotions. In earlier research at the University of California, San Francisco, she and colleagues found that people with new diagnoses of H.I.V. infection who practiced these skills carried a lower load of the virus, were more likely to take their medication correctly, and were less likely to need antidepressants to help them cope with their illness.
The researchers studied 159 people who had recently learned they had H.I.V. and randomly assigned them to either a five-session positive emotions training course or five sessions of general support. Fifteen months past their H.I.V. diagnosis, those trained in the eight skills maintained higher levels of positive feelings and fewer negative thoughts related to their infection.
An important goal of the training is to help people feel happy, calm and satisfied in the midst of a health crisis. Improvements in their health and longevity are a bonus. Each participant is encouraged to learn at least three of the eight skills and practice one or more each day. The eight skills are:
■ Recognize a positive event each day.
■ Savor that event and log it in a journal or tell someone about it.
■ Start a daily gratitude journal.
■ List a personal strength and note how you used it.
■ Set an attainable goal and note your progress.0