Optimism and Good Health

This post is the seventh in a series of posts based on Dr. Martin Seligman’s important book Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. There are four ways the theory of learned helplessness strongly suggests that optimism should benefit health.

The first follows from the research of Madelon Visintainer’s findings that learned helplessness in rats made them more susceptible to tumor growth. This research was bolstered by more detailed work on the immune systems of helpless rats. The immune system provides the cellular defense agains illness. It contains different kinds of cells whose job is to identify and then kill foreign invaders, such as viruses, bacteria, and tumor cells. T-cells recognize specific invaders such as measles, then greatly multiply and kill invaders. Another kind, natural killer cells (NK cells), kill anything foreign they happen across. Researchers looking at the immune systems of helpless rats found that the experience of inescapable shock weakens the immune system. T-cells from the blood of rats that become helpless no longer multiply rapidly when they come across the specific invaders they are supposed to destroy. NK cells from the spleens of helpless rats lose their ability to kill foreign invaders.

A second way in which optimism should produce good health concerns sticking to her regimens and seeking medical advice. Consider a pessimistic person who believes that sickness is permanent, pervasive, and personal. She is not likely to give up unhealthy habits nor to pursue a healthy lifestyle.

A third way in which optimism should matter for health concerns the sheer number of bad life events encountered. It has been shown statistically that the more bad events a person encounters in any given time period, the more illness she will have. People who in the same six months move, get fired, and divorced are at a greater risk for infectious illness—and even for heart attacks and cancer—than are people who lead uneventful lives. Pessimists encounter more bad events and are less likely to take steps to avoid bad events and less likely to do anything to stop them once they start. So putting two and two together, if pessimists have more bad events and if more bad events lead to more illness, pessimists should have more illness.

The fourth reason that optimists should have better health concerns social support. The capacity to sustain deep friendships and love seems to be important for physical health. Middle-aged people who have at least one person whom they can call in the middle of the night to tell their troubles to, go on to have better physical health than friendless people. Unmarried people are at a higher risk for depression than couples. Even ordinary social contact is a buffer against illness. People who isolate themselves when they are sick tend to get sicker. Pessimists become passive more easily when trouble stikes, and they take fewer steps to get and sustain social support. This connection between lack of social support and illness provides the fourth reason to believe that an optimistic explanatory style is likely to produce good health.

The brain and the immune system are connected not through nerves but through hormones, the chemical messengers that flow through the blood can transmit emotional states from one part of the body to another. It is well documented that when a person is depressed the brain changes. Neurotransmitters, hormones that relay messages from one nerve to another, can become depleted. One set of transmitters called, catecholamines, become depleted during depression. If your level of pessimism can deplete your immune system, it seems likely that pessimism can impair your physical health over your whole life span.

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