Welcome back to More Than Healthy as we continue to share our weekly health tips. This week’s tip is one of my favorites. I also believe it is one of the most important health tips of all. This week we’re talking about Tip #64, the health benefits of a positive attitude.
This topic might come as a surprise, and you might be thinking, “What kind of health tip is this??” But buckle up…because wait until you see the scientific proof! The studies supporting the connection between positivity and health are pretty amazing. Plus, we’ve lived this. I have witnessed this first-hand as David spent years battling for his life and fighting for his health.
An up-close example of positivity
David is an incredible example of keeping a positive attitude even during terrible health crises. Because of this, most people had no idea how sick he truly was. Even my mom had no idea all that David was going through until she read our book where we tell his story. She was so surprised when she read how bad it really was and how much pain he was in. My mom shared, “He was always so upbeat and positive around us that we didn’t even think his cancer was that bad!”
And it’s true. Even after a big blow, like hearing the cancer was back, David truly kept a positive attitude no matter what the doctors said. He smiled and always made sure to laugh, constantly cracking jokes through the pain. Many times when we were heading out to an event he would say, “I hope that we can talk about something other than my cancer tonight. There are so many more interesting topics to discuss.”
“During the years that I was sick, kind, well-intentioned people always asked how I was doing. Often, that question was followed up with stories of other people they knew battling cancer. I knew people were just trying to share their love and concern with me. And for that, I was very grateful.
Surrounded by so many loving and kind family members and friends, I would always answer their questions, but I would quickly change the subject whenever I could to talk about anything else other than my health.
I also always wanted to stay positive. My brain was hearing what I was saying to others. If I wanted to have the best health outcomes, I needed to talk to myself positively as well as anyone else I was coming in contact with. Don’t get me wrong, I had some rough days. Some really rough days. Like when I was told the second and third times that the cancer was back. I started wondering if I was going to get rid of it or if this was it. But I didn’t let those thoughts stay long. I would immediately start thinking to myself, “I’m going to beat this. I’ve got to reach my goal of my 50th wedding anniversary when I’m 95 years old.” And I would deliberately turn my attention to positive thoughts.”
Seeing life through a positive lens
I started to wonder if I was going to be a widow. Especially when David’s cancer came back a third time. Rarely do people seem to survive their third bout with cancer. But, just like David, I would always remain positive around him and others because I know the power of words and attitude.
David and I are both ‘half full’ kind of people, meaning we see the cup as half full whenever possible. We try to find the good in a situation and look for positive life lessons from each circumstance. We’re ‘doers,’ meaning when things get tough, we get busy finding solutions. Many of the things we tried that eventually reversed David’s health were from all the research we did (lots of trial and error) because we weren’t just going to sit there and take the diagnoses and not try to do what we could.
Life is stressful enough! Negativity adds to that stress. If you can find ways to have a positive attitude when dealing with life’s stressors, you tend to have better outcomes. Even better, the stress won’t be able to affect your health as negatively.
Is positivity an acquired skill?
If you are a ‘half empty’ kind of person (pessimistic), don’t despair. You absolutely can learn positive thinking skills. Positive thinking doesn’t mean you ignore life’s less-than-pleasant situations. Positive thinking just means that you approach unpleasant situations in a more positive and productive way.
It means thinking the best is going to happen, not the worst. And it starts with self-talk. You know, that endless stream of unspoken thoughts that runs through your head? Those thoughts are talking to your brain.
Our thoughts can be positive or negative. Some of the negativity comes from logic and reason. But some negative self-talk arises from misconceptions that you create because of a lack of information or unrealistic expectations.
Start paying attention to those thoughts each day. Make a note if they’re mostly positive or negative. Awareness is the first step! You might be surprised at how much of your self-talk falls in the negative category, especially if you haven’t really paid attention to this before.
Our favorite health benefits of having a positive attitude
Scroll down for tips on how to change your brain and become a more positive person. But first, let’s talk about the actual health benefits that come from being a positive person!
There are so many health benefits to positive thinking that we could write a book about them! For this blog post, we’ve chosen some of our favorites. We’ll include links to additional information for those of you who are interested in learning more.
Benefit #1: A positive attitude can increase your lifespan
Our very favorite health benefit of a positive attitude is that it can actually help you live longer. There’s a brilliant study about this very topic called the Nun Study. Here’s a synopsis of how it worked:
Researchers looked at 180 nuns over a 70-year period. To be accepted into the convent, the nuns had to write a short 2-3 page autobiography about their lives and what they thought lay ahead. When the nuns drafted these documents in the 1930s and 1940s, they were 22 years old on average. Researchers examined the amount of negative, neutral, and positive words and sentences in each of the 180 biographies. The nuns were then grouped according to the frequency of occurrence of these words, resulting in four groups of 45 women each.
The results were stunning. Take a look at these statistics:
- The 45 happiest nuns lived an average of 10 years longer than the 45 unhappiest.
- At the age of 85, more than 90% of the happiest nuns were still alive.
- 54% of the happiest nuns lived to at least the age of 94.
- In the unhappiest group, only 15% reached the age of 94.
What makes these observations so significant? The conditions of the experiment are priceless since the nuns lived in virtually identical circumstances. They don’t drink alcohol, don’t smoke, don’t have sex, aren’t married, have no children, live in the same building, do similar work, and eat the same food. Among other things, the study shows that happiness has little to do with what happens to us in our lives and much more with how we choose to see things.
Furthermore, the study highlights the importance of appreciating what you already have in your life, or appreciating what your days have to offer right now, instead of constantly thinking, “If only this or that would happen, then I would be happy.”
Other studies say happiness matters, too
The Nun Study is maybe my favorite study, but it’s not the only study corroborating that happy people live longer. In fact, if you start typing, “does being happy…” in your Google search bar, it will automatically suggest an ending of “…make you live longer,” a search that yields 890 million results. I’ve chosen just a couple of these studies to highlight below.
The saliva study
A study conducted by The English Longitudinal Study of Ageing followed more than 11,000 people age 40 and older for over two years, collecting saliva samples four times a day while rating how happy, excited, content, worried, anxious, and fearful participants felt.
Even with adjustments for demographic factors such as wealth, education, and health, researchers discovered that older people who reported being the “least happy” died at nearly twice the rate in the next five years compared to those who reported being the happiest. In other words, the risk of dying in the next 5 years was 35% lower for the happiest people.
Another study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences confirms that those with higher levels of optimism have a longer life span. Researchers analyzed data collected from two large population studies, including 70,000 women from the Nurses’ Health Study and 1,400 men from the Veterans Affairs Normative Aging Study. The study controlled for external factors and health behaviors, and found that whether you’re a woman or a man, if you’re optimistic, you have a greater chance of living past age 85, which is classified as “exceptional longevity.”
I could go on! There are so many, and these studies are fascinating to me! I even found a study that says older adults who are happy retain their physical function better than those who aren’t happy. If you’re happy, your walking speed will decline more slowly. Sign me up for that!
Benefit #2: A positive attitude may reduce risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke
We’ve talked a lot about heart health here at More Than Healthy because so many factors affect your heart. In fact, in the U.S., someone dies every 34 seconds from cardiovascular disease. We are interested in everything that reduces our chances of cardiovascular disease and stroke.
Lisa R. Yaneck, M.P.H., from Johns Hopkins Medicine, conducted a study that proved the connection between heart health and positivity. The study included 1,483 healthy people with siblings who had experienced a coronary event (like heart attack) before age 60. Yanek and her team used a survey tool that assesses a person’s cheerfulness, energy level, anxiety levels, and satisfaction with health and overall life as they followed study participants for 25 years.
Study outcomes showed people with a family history of heart disease who also had a positive outlook were one-third less likely to have a heart attack or other cardiovascular event in the next 5-25 years than those with a more negative outlook.
Positivity, heart health, and hope
The “why” of the connection between health and positivity remains murky, but researchers suspect that people who are more positive may be better protected against the inflammatory damage caused by stress.
Another possible explanation is that hope and positivity help people make better health and life decisions and focus more on long-term goals. This is something I know helped David immensely. When he stayed positive and could visualize his long-term goals, he could stay focused on the things that he could do to help his situation rather than all the things that were wrong.
Benefit #3: A positive attitude can reduce pain
This is another incredible health benefit of a positive attitude that I saw so clearly in David’s experience. It works because positive thoughts create feelings of well-being, and in turn, the brain produces serotonin and dopamine.
We’ve already discussed in a previous post how laughing releases endorphins, and endorphins release signals of safety and calm. It’s important to remember that pain starts in the brain, and our thoughts can impact how we feel physically.
Every thought releases some type of chemical. Negative thoughts are a catalyst for the brain to release stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. Positive thoughts, on the other hand, help the brain to release “happy hormones.”
Why it works
When dealing with chronic pain you need all the “happy hormones” (serotonin, dopamine, and endorphins) you can get. Studies prove there is a direct link between positive attitude and chronic pain outcomes.
Smiling increases dopamine and serotonin. Studies show that people who smile while receiving a needle injection rate the ordeal as 40% less pain than those who didn’t. And their heart rates didn’t increase as much in response to the stress, either.
Laughing increases endorphins. The studies about laughter and its link to pain and health are pretty incredible, with outcomes so compelling that hospital caregivers are encouraged to use “humor therapy” as a means of reducing pain and loneliness. Telling a joke or a funny story has a marked therapeutic effect on patients, particularly patients aged 80 and older.
This is something I saw firsthand with David. His pain level was at an 8-10 on a daily basis, but he used humor all the time to lessen the pain and still focus on the joy in life. Here’s his take on it:
“It was important to me to model the behavior I talked about all the time. I wanted my wife, children, and grandchildren to see that I could remain happy and joyful even though I was going through such a difficult health crisis. And I believe it truly helped in my healing process.”
I believe that, too.
Benefit #4: A positive attitude can help improve resistance to illness
Another aspect of health we talk a lot about is boosting your immune system. It’s hard to overstate the importance of having a healthy immune system! And studies show that a positive attitude does just that.
A series of studies have shown that optimism has positive effects on cellular immunity. One study took 300 healthy participants and interviewed them three times a week for two weeks to assess their emotional states. They described how they felt based on three categories of positive attitude: vigor, well-being, and calm. They also described their negative feelings based on levels of depression, anxiety and hostility.
After each assessment, researchers gave the volunteers a squirt of rhinovirus, the germ that causes the common cold. They then monitored them for five days to see who became infected and how symptoms developed. Positive emotional styles (those who were energetic, happy, and relaxed) were less likely to catch colds than those who were depressed, nervous, or angry. They produced fewer signs and symptoms of illness, probably because healthy attitudes tend to promote healthy lifestyle habits.
Interestingly enough, this study even showed that uptight or sad people are more likely to complain of cold symptoms, even if they didn’t have a clinical cold.
These are some pretty compelling health benefits of having a positive attitude!
You can retrain your brain
Now that we’ve talked about some of the incredible health benefits of a positive attitude, let’s share a few things you can do to increase positivity in your life.
Even if your natural state isn’t that of an optimist, the good news is, you have the power to change your brain! We know that the brain can change because it has what’s called “neuroplasticity.” This means that the brain is able to reorganize and change its patterns with practice and repetition.
Remember, be patient with yourself. If your brain has had years of practice being negative, it might take some time and deliberate effort to retrain your brain. But it’s absolutely possible. And totally worth it!
Six tips for increasing positivity
(And accessing the health benefits of a positive attitude)
- The first one is easy: simply smile more. As we learned above, smiling spurs a powerful chemical reaction in the brain and produces serotonin. A University of Kansas study found that smiling, even fake smiling, reduces heart rate and blood pressure during stressful situations. This is part of the “fake it ‘til you make it” mentality. Smiling actually helps trick your brain into feeling happy, because it can’t tell the difference between a real or forced smile. So the next time you feel annoyed, or even downright unhappy, try a few minutes of YouTube humor therapy…and smile.
- Practice reframing. Reframing has been described as “therapy’s most powerful tool.” It’s all about looking at a thought, situation, or feeling from a different angle. Instead of stressing about a traffic jam, for instance, accept that you can’t do anything about the traffic. And then, appreciate the fact that you can afford a car and get to spend a few extra minutes listening to music or the news. The power of reframing is proof of the immense power that self-talk has on the brain.
- Build resiliency. Resiliency is the ability to adapt to stressful and/or negative situations and losses. Experts recommend these key ways to build yours: Maintain good relationships with family and friends, accept that change is a part of life, and take action on problems rather than just hoping they disappear or waiting for them to resolve themselves.
- Another good thing to do to help maintain a positive attitude is to follow the weekly tips we share here on More Than Healthy to maintain a healthy lifestyle. Exercise for at least 30 minutes most days. Get enough sleep. Eat healthy whole foods cooked in good oils. Drink plenty of water. Do some type of breathwork or meditation to manage your stress. (As of this week, we’ve got 63 other posts about small but significant things you can do to become healthier in both mind and body. Check them out here.)
- Surround yourself with positive people. This one is so important! Have you heard the phrase, “you’re the sum total of the five people you hang out with the most?” This is an area where it’s particularly true. Surrounding yourself with positive, supportive people rubs off on you. Negative people may increase your stress levels and make you doubt your ability to manage stress in healthy ways.
- Practice positive self-talk. One of my favorite functional medicine doctors, Dr. Mark Hyman, says, “Negative self-talk actually decreases brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) a protein that keeps brain cells strong and thriving.” So here’s a good simple rule to start with: Don’t say anything to yourself that you wouldn’t say to anyone else. Be gentle and encouraging with yourself. If a negative thought enters your mind, evaluate it rationally and respond with affirmations of what is good about you. It’s a good time to practice gratitude and focus on things you’re thankful for in your life.
There are so many other great tips for training your brain to be more positive. Choose what works best for you. And then, practice! Practicing positivity won’t only change your life – it will change the lives of everyone around you as well.
More Than Healthy Hair Analysis
Something else to consider is that it may be a little more difficult to stay positive if you’re deficient in your vitamins and minerals. A great way to find out if you are is with hair analysis testing, an amazingly informative service now offered at More Than Healthy. With just a few strands of your hair, you receive a full report that looks at toxins, nutrients, vitamins, minerals, amino acids, electromagnetic frequency exposure, chemicals, radiation, parasites, immune factors, and which foods you should avoid. Go to our website to learn more. You can schedule a local hair analysis or order it online to be mailed to you today.
Please don’t hesitate to reach out if you have any questions. We also love hearing your success stories! You can find us on social media (@morethanhealthyliving). We try to respond to all questions and comments. We’d love to become your health coaches as you work to become “more than healthy” and achieve optimal health.
Have a healthy – and happy – week!
Note: Remember, we’re not doctors. We’re just sharing with you what’s worked for us on our health journey. You will want to consult your doctor before making any major changes to your diet and supplementation.