This week our contributing writer Doctor Gifford-Jones talks about how positive thinking helps one live longer.
What makes for a long and happy life? A talk at The Harvard Medical School about fighter pilots provided one answer. And a recent trip to celebrate my wife’s aunt’s 100th birthday provided another one. Part of the solution is how you read the following: “happinessisnowhere.”
“Wow, what a lady!” was my reaction when I visited Aunt Tat at 97 years of age. At the time she was troubled only by a “little” arthritis. I jokingly told her I had a good cure for this problem. My prescription? An occasional nip of Bailey’s Original Irish Cream sherry would ease the pain. Smiling at me , she slowly reached behind her chair and pulled out a bottle of Bailey’s Irish Cream! A sense of humour has obviously helped her reach 100.
She also possesses a huge amount of that hardy, Yankee stubbornness, still living alone in her own home. One would think that at 100 there would be several things to complain about. But she remains constantly upbeat, that is, as long as no one beats her beloved Boston Celtics basketball team.
This lady is happy in her own skin. She decided long ago that it takes no greater effort to be happy every day than it takes to be miserable. The choice is ours to make.
Albert Einstein was once asked the secret of life, He replied, “It’s the way one sees the universe”. In other words one’s outlook on life determines its quality.
An article in Consumer Reports on Health says that more and more research indicates that optimistic people are less likely to develop chronic problems later in life.
In one study researchers assessed the emotional status of 334 healthy people. They then administered a drop of rhinovirus, a germ that triggers colds, into the nose of these volunteers. Those participants who had the highest scores of energy, happiness and relaxation were less likely to come down with a cold.
The Mayo Clinic conducted a major study involving optimism versus pessimism. 30 years ago they gave psychological tests to 839 patients. They found that those who had the highest levels of pessimism were 20 per cent more likely to die prematurely than the optimists.
Another study in the Journal of Neurology assessed the psychological status of 800 older people. It reported that those who were more inclined to anger, depression, anxiety and feelings of hopelessness were twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s Disease than those who possessed a high “joy factor”.
Negative emotions and stress help to kill by increasing the output of hormones such as adrenaline which triggers physiological changes linked to heart attack. Moreover, emotional duress often results in unhealthy lifestyle such as excessive drinking, smoking and over-eating.
So is it possible to cultivate happiness? Like everything else one has to work at it and the process is called “positive psychology”. Just as you can interrupt an overly talkative friend you have to learn to interrupt your own negative thoughts and count your blessings every day.
I’m sure my wife’s Aunt Tat has blue days, but she learned to keep her “happiness thermostat” at the right level of optimism. She was going to enjoy her 100th birthday come hell or high water, with or without Bailey’s Irish Cream. Her outlook on life reminds me of a talk I had with Dr. Thomas Hackettt, a psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School.
Dr. Hackett’s hobby was to seek out World War I fighter pilots to discover whether they possessed a special quality that helped them survive the war and live a long life. He found they all possessed “a wealth of optimism and a want of fear”. They considered themselves indestructible – an outlook which continued after the war. And when struck by disease they always minimized the seriousness of the problem.
So whether you’re a centenarian or a fighter pilot being positive leads to a healthier and more fulfilling life than chronic pessimism. That’s why I’m sure this centenarian and fighter pilots would easily pass the word test above. How did you interpret the letters? I hope it was, happiness is now here, not happiness is no where. That means Aunt Tat’s bottle of sherry is half full, not half empty, the way she sees it!