Healthy mind Healthy Body

Can optimism improve your longevity? investigates Kim Bell

Positivity is a good thing. As Barrie Davenport, a personal and career coach, and founder of the blog Live Bold and Bloom (, says: “When you’re feeling good, how much trouble is it to think, ‘hey, I like me. My life is cool. Things are great’?” But, she adds, what about those days when things are really bad? “I’ve met people who remain perky during really bad times. And to be honest, they make me want to slap them around a bit. That Pollyanna, ‘life is beautiful’ attitude when things are falling apart just yanks my chain. However, I’ve come to the conclusion these people know something I don’t.”

As she explains, positive thinking really does change your brain. “Not in some magical, woo woo kind of way, but in a real physical way.”

This science, known as neuroplasticity, was first introduced by William James in the 1890s, but was rejected on the basis that scientists, for many years, believed that the brain is rigidly mapped out, with certain parts of the brain controlling certain functions. However, explains Davenport, your thoughts can change the structure and function of your brain. You can literally rewire your thinking.

‘Studies have found that social isolation tends to increase levels of cortisol and other stress hormones, to raise blood pressure,
and to weaken the immune system’

Author of The Emotional Life of Your Brain, Dr Richard Davidson of the University of Wisconsin, has, since May 2010, served as director of the university’s Centre for Investigating Healthy Minds, a research complex dedicated to learning how the qualities of mind that humankind has always valued – such as compassion, wellbeing, charity, altruism, kindness and love – arise in the human brain and how they can be nurtured. His work in neuroscience, backed by over 10 years of research, looks at the emotional life of the brain, which he has identified as “Emotional Style”.

He explains: “Emotional style is a consistent way of responding to the experiences of our lives. It is governed by specific, identifiable brain circuits and can be measured using objective laboratory methods. Emotional style influences the likelihood of feeling particular emotional states, traits and moods. Because emotional styles are much closer to underlying brain systems than emotional states or traits, they can be considered the atoms of our emotional lives – their fundamental building blocks.”

Emotional style, says Davidson, affects how we feel about ourselves, how we behave, how susceptible we are to stress, our cognitive function, and our vulnerability to particular psychiatric disorders. “But emotional style also affects physical health. It has physiological consequences that, in turn, have important downstream effects on the function of our respiratory, immune, cardiovascular, gastrointestinal and endocrine system – in short, on health below the neck. I would go so far as to assert that of all forms of human behaviour and psychological states, the most powerful influence on our physical health is our emotional life.”

Davidson talks of the trend of behavioural medicine or health psychology (also known as mind-body medicine): “Studies have found that social isolation tends to increase levels of cortisol and other stress hormones, to raise blood pressure, and to weaken the immune system, with the result that most people who live alone and lack a robust social network produce a weaker antibody response to flu vaccines.”

He adds that behavioural medicine has also shown that depression raises the risk of dying from coronary artery disease. “You might be tempted to protest that sad, lonely people do self-destructive things like smoking or drinking too much, and that this is the reason why they have shorter life expectancies and worse health. But these studies take that possibility into account and have ruled it out as the causative mechanism. What is found over and over again is that – again, on average – the emotional state itself predicts the health problems.”

Dr Ian Weinberg, a Johannesburg consultant neurosurgeon and world expert in the field of psychoneuroimmunology (PNI), agrees with this sentiment. He talks of Dr Viktor Frankl, a psychiatrist and neurologist who found himself interned in a concentration camp. “Despite the harsh, and in fact lethal environment, Frankl was able to evaluate objectively the morbidity and mortality that surrounded him. In effect, he noted that fellow inmates would succumb to malnutrition, infection or were exterminated if they were no longer able to work.

“Preceding the development of the pre-terminal situation was the prevalence of a mind-state of despair, characterised by the traits of hopelessness and meaninglessness.” This mind-state, Weinberg says, is today loosely known as hopeless-helpless.

Frankl’s pioneering work found that a pre-existing negative mind-state could give rise to a chemical process that could suppress immunity and other aspects of your metabolism. This research was subsequently proven in studies published in the 70s with the establishment of PNI, the study of influences of the neuropsychological processes on immune function.

“Subsequent clinical research confirmed the existence of a suppressed immunity in certain life situations, which in many cases was associated with the presence of chronic infection, inflammation and tumour formation. These life situations included, among others, bereavement, anxiety and depression.”

Weinberg explains that hopeless-helpless refers to a mind-state arising from a situation that you may perceive as pointless and devoid of meaning and purpose. “In addition, the given situation appears to be unchangeable in the context of your life situation at that point. Hopeless-helpless, therefore, can be defined as an entrapment situation.

“This mind-state has been studied in detail and has been shown to be associated with the production of chemistry (pro-inflammatory cytokines) which enhances inflammation, increases cortisol levels and compromises immunity. This chemistry also predisposes one to coronary artery disease, Type-2 diabetes and osteoporosis, and has, more recently, been associated with the development of myeloma and breast cancer.”

More recently, this PNI school of thinking has been replaced with the term psychoneuro-endocrinology (PNE). Weinberg says that this is because mind-states have been shown to impact the entire metabolic system and not just immunity. “In view of the fact that this was all becoming very complicated, we developed the Neuro-Vitality programme.” This, he explains, is a measure of your state of wellness and is influenced by a positive or negative state of mind. “It’s this mind/body chemistry that influences the health of our immune system.”

Weinberg describes it as an application based on the developing PNE, a multi- and interdisciplinary field of medical science that investigates the relationships and influences that exist between neuropsychological processes and body physiology. “The emphasis is ultimately on the chemistry resulting from this interaction, which determines optimum levels of wellness, performance and leadership.”

He adds that scientists and doctors are now able to explain specific mind-states, the chemistry that each produces and the effects on bodily function. “Essentially, we have created a vehicle to facilitate the accessing of the chemistry of wellness, performance and leadership, based on the science of psychoneuro-endocrinology and neuropsychology.”

As much as a negative frame of mind can lower your immune system and health response, so a positive outlook on life can improve longevity and health outcomes. Weinberg explains that you can rewire your brain and change your negative thoughts into positive ones by shifting to a more purposeful mind-state.

“In fact, studies show that the mind-state associated with enhanced wellness and performance comprises purposefulness, a sense of achievement and greater degrees of autonomy. This may be further enhanced by a mind-state in which one acknowledges one’s blessings and empathises with those less fortunate, contributes to one’s environment and acknowledges the value contributed by others. Removing the distraction of future fear and past regrets and loss also enhances the appropriate mind-state.”

Davidson explains that, for decades, when health psychologists spoke of the negative effects of emotions on health, they were almost always referring to negative emotions: anger, hostility, depression, anxiety and fear. “To be sure, there are mountains of evidence showing that, on average, negative emotions weaken the immune system, raise the risk of heart disease and the like,” he adds.

And, in 2005, two health psychologists counted the studies of depression and health and the studies of happiness and health that had been done up until then, and, says Davidson, they found over 20 times more of the former than the latter.

Weinberg notes that, in many cases, chronic illness reflects a negative mind-state. “The problem is that you get caught up in a vicious circle: chronic pain and inflammation give rise to more pain and inflammation, which negatively impact on the mind-state.” He says that it is important to engage in a purposeful activity to neutralise the spiral of negativity, such as exercise.

Davenport adds that repetitive positive thought and activity can rewire your brain and strengthen those areas that stimulate positive feelings. “In his widely acclaimed book, The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science, Dr Norman Doidge states plainly that the brain has the capacity to rewire itself and/or form neural pathways – if we do the work. Just like exercise, the work requires repetition and activity to reinforce new learning.”

‘You can rewire your brain and change your negative thoughts into positive ones by shifting to a more purposeful mind-state’

According to Davidson, it is only recently that health psychologists have looked at the effect of positive emotions: happiness, joy, contentment, eagerness, excitement and enthusiasm. “But establishing that relationship was a struggle. The reason had to do with yet another obstacle that psychosomatic medicine has had to overcome: finding a reliable way to assess people’s moods.”

The reason, he says, is that although assessing how positive you are with your life should yield approximately the same answer from one day to the next, assessments swing wildly, depending on when you ask them. “If people are asked about their general wellbeing on rainy days, they report being less satisfied with their life than when they’re asked on sunny days. If they’re asked the question after a rotten commute home, they also describe having a lower sense of wellbeing than if they’re asked in the middle of a triumphant day at work.”

However, studies have managed to overcome this human-element obstacle. And, he adds: “My reading of this research, shared by many of the leading lights in behavioural medicine, is that positive emotions seem to be beneficial for patients with diseases that have effective treatments and decent odds of long-term survival, such as stage 1 breast cancer, coronary heart disease and HIV/Aids.”

Davidson suggests you need to be realistic in your positivity. “High levels of positive emotion may be detrimental in people with advanced disease that have a poor prognosis, such as metastatic melanoma or breast cancer and end-stage renal disease. One reason might be that a consistently positive outlook – ‘I’ll be fine’ – causes patients to under-report symptoms, and thus not receive the care they require, or makes them fail to take prescribed drugs or undergo recommended screenings or treatments. Sometimes too much optimism can backfire on you.”

That said, if you believe in being positive, it will benefit your health and longevity. Weinberg explains that, at a basic chemical level, an optimistic outlook increases your dopamine and serotonin levels in your brain, which in turn will move your metabolism into a wellness-enhancing space. You can literally think yourself healthier. ■

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