By Mark Underwood
For most people, the carefree days of childhood were filled with good times with friends and family free from excess worry and stress.
But as people grow up, most trade the innocence of childhood for worries about finances, their family’s health, job security, politics, the economy and environment, and their children’s future. Still, a pervasive sense of optimism guides, protects and inspires all of us. Some scientists would even go so far as to say that human beings are hardwired for hope.
By definition we are planners. We have savings accounts, we service our cars before winter, we plan vacations, and we buy green bananas. Planning is a form of cognitive time travel. We forecast how we’re going to feel about something by planning ahead. How can we live a healthier lifestyle? What do we need to do to save for retirement? How can we free up more time to do more of the things we want to do? All of these things require the ability to imagine the future by painting a rosy picture in our minds.
A positive attitude has long been linked to better mental health, but in the last few years, a person’s optimistic nature has also shown to be beneficial for a person’s physical health.
Did you know heart disease patients are more apt to survive a heart attack or heart surgery if they have a positive outlook on life?
Researchers at Duke University Medical Center surveyed more than 2,800 heart disease patients regarding how optimistic they felt about their illness. They were asked if they thought they would successfully recover and then be able to return to their regular daily life.
The researchers followed the patients for 15 years after which 1,637 had died. The majority (885) of the patients had passed away from heart disease. But there was encouraging news, too. The patients who had an optimistic outlook were 30 percent less likely to die during the 15-year period.
Duke University researchers also found that pessimism was linked to poorer health – which factored similar patients with severe heart disease, age, income, gender and support from family and friends.
The study concluded that a patient’s optimistic outlook has a direct correlation not only on the outcome of their disease but also how successfully they will transition from being a heart disease patient to returning home and having a productive daily routine.
But there’s a small wrinkle in the optimism studies and that is this: Tali Sharot, Ph.D., a neuropsychologist at University College London, has said that when the brain foresees the future as being better than the past, it’s called “The Optimism Bias.”
That was the basis for a new study that found that the brain sometimes is overly optimistic. Like the song lyrics, “Don’t worry, be happy” the study suggests the brain often picks and chooses which optimistic message to listen to. For example, even though people know the divorce rate is 50 percent; they don’t feel they will be one of the unfortunate statistics. Or, they see an ad campaign that says smoking can cause severe health problems, but their brain ignores the message. Instead, the brain sends out a message that says that smoking can certainly cause health problems, but those problems are more apt to be linked to other smokers.
What should we take away from this study in our everyday life? A combination of optimism and realism may be the smartest combination of all. Envisioning a better tomorrow relies partly on the hippocampus, the part of the brain that is crucial to memory. Science has confirmed that as human beings we are programmed to be hopeful, but it’s also important to be realistic.
So plan ahead, work hard, and enjoy the world around you. Live life to the fullest with a combination of optimism and realism, and chances are you’ll reap the rewards of better health. Buy green bananas to enjoy in the future, but keep an umbrella in your car, just in case the weather unpredictably changes.
Mark Underwood is a neuroscience researcher, president, and co-founder of Quincy Bioscience, a biotech company located in Madison, Wisconsin focused on the discovery and development of medicines to treat age related memory loss and the diseases of aging. Mark has been taped as an expert in the field of neuroscience for The Wall Street Journal Morning Radio, CBS, and CNN Radio among others. Underwood is also a contributor to the “Brain Health Guide” which highlights the research at Quincy Bioscience and offers practical tips to help keep health brain function in aging. Visit www.TheGoodNewsAboutAging.com for more articles and tips for healthy aging.