Do people tell you that if you were only more positive and could look at the bright side, you’d be healthier? Your bad attitude is hurting you. I remember when I told my obstetrician that people were telling me that I wouldn’t get pregnant (we’d been trying for 2 years) as long as I kept worrying about it. His response made me feel better (even if it didn’t help me get pregnant): “Hogwash. If that’s the case, why do rape victims get pregnant?”
But wait a second. Doesn’t everyone know that if we’re unhappy or under stress, we’re going to make ourselves sick or sicker – mind/body connection? Dr. Suzanne Segerstrom, a researcher on optimism and health, wrote that after 20 year of researching this topic, she thought that optimists are more likely to stay healthier, too.
But recent studies have come opposite conclusions. One found that people who are more optimistic have more difficulty dealing with more difficult stress. The researchers concluded that optimism makes a person more immunologically vulnerable. Optimism, the ability to see possibilities and opportunities in the face of challenge, “…was protective against the stress’s effect on the immune system, but only when dealing with the stress was easy (resolves easily). When dealing with the stress was difficult, optimism made people more immunologically vulnerable.” (P.120, Breaking Murphy’s Law, in case you’re interested).
Segerstrom seems to conclude from this that optimists believe that they will succeed when faced with difficult situations and therefore, don’t give up easily or at all. Their optimism, therefore, doesn’t protect them from immunological compromise but it makes them more likely to compromise themselves because they don’t know when to stop.
This makes sense. I know numerous examples of people who pushed themselves professionally and personally to their maximum limit of energy for long periods of time. As they tell the story, some time during that push, they started getting sick but kept going. Most report that they felt worse as they kept pushing their bodies when they weren’t well. Some aren’t so sure.
On the other hand, I’ve had clients who have stopped and pulled back when they developed significant pain or illness. Some report that they got better, some haven’t seen any change at all.
My conclusion? I don’t have one. Frankly, I’m not sure it matters what studies say. What matters, I think, is that you figure out what you want and what it will take to achieve that. I’ve learned from personal experience that life is infinitely more enjoyable and it’s easier to get out bed in the morning when I’m feeling hopeful and optimistic. I’ve also learned that it is much easier to be hopeful and optimistic when I’m not in significant pain or fatigue. Finally, I know for sure that it’s easier for me to stay optimistic when I have significant distraction that allows me to get immersed in something other than my body. And that something is most often work.
How about you?