Who is rich? The one who is happy with his portion. (Avos 4:1) Is your glass half full or half empty? In other words, do you have a positive or negative outlook on life? And taking this a step further, is good mental health simply the absence of a disorder like depression, anxiety or a phobia, or is the development of meaning, fulfillment and positive emotions all crucial to the quality of daily life? We certainly believe that doing Hashem’s will results in a more rewarding and happy life. How important is happiness and can being positive enhance your health?
Most of 20th century psychiatry and psychology has worked within a medical model with the goal of moving people from painful mental states to more neutral ones. But newer thinkers in the world of psychology now think that positive emotions, psychological states and optimal human functioning can assist people in their quest for joy and fulfillment. Dr. Abraham Maslow is the one credited with coining the term positive psychology in the 1950’s and he introduced the concept of “self-actualization”—a yearning for growth and meaning in life. But was Dr. Martin Seligman who broke new ground in the 1990’s with the concept of “learned optimism” which is the basis of today’s study of happiness. Only 2 years ago, Seligman came out with the concept of PERMA—positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning and accomplishment. As novel as this new psychological approach may seem, research is beginning to bear out the benefits of positive thinking and happiness. Dr. Seligman brings many studies in his latest book, Flourish:
Among the studies he mentions is one from the mid-1980s, where 120 men from San Francisco had their first heart attacks were studied as to the relationship between type A (aggressive, time urgent, and hostile) and B (easygoing) personalities. This study disappointed many psychologists and cardiologists by ultimately finding no effect on CVD (Cardiovascular disease) by training to change these men’s personalities. However, Gregory Buchanan, then a graduate student at Penn, studied their first heart attacks: extent of damage to the heart, blood pressure, cholesterol, body mass, and lifestyle—all the traditional risk factors for cardiovascular disease. In addition, the men were all interviewed about their lives: family, job, and hobbies. Every single statement they made in regard to optimism and pessimism was taken. Within eight and a half years, half the men had died of a second heart attack. None of the usual risk factors predicted death: not blood pressure, not cholesterol, not even how extensive the damage from the first heart attack. Only optimism, eight and a half years earlier, predicted a second heart attack: of the sixteen most pessimistic men, fifteen died. Of the sixteen most optimistic men, only five died. This finding has been repeatedly confirmed in larger studies of cardiovascular disease, using varied measures of optimism:
Similar studies showed similar results. Veterans Affairs Normative Aging Study done in 1986, tracked 1,306 veterans for ten years. During that time, 162 cases of cardiovascular disease occurred. Smoking, alcohol use, blood pressure, cholesterol, body mass, family history of CVD, and education were measured, as was anxiety, depression, and hostility. Men with the most optimistic style had 25 percent less CVD than average, and men with the least optimism had 25 percent more CVD than average. This trend was strong and continuous, indicating that greater optimism protected the men, whereas less optimism weakened them.
In the European Prospective Investigation, more than 20,000 healthy British adults were followed from 1996-2002 during which 994 of them died, 365 of them from Cardiovascular Disease (CVD). Death from cardiovascular disease was strongly influenced by a sense of mastery, holding smoking, social class, and the other psychological variables constant. People high in mastery had 20 percent fewer CVD deaths than those with an average sense of mastery, and people high in a sense of helplessness had 20 percent more CVD deaths than average. This was also true of deaths due to all causes.
999 Dutch men and women aged sixty-five to eighty-five were followed for nine years. In that time, 397 of them died. At the outset, researchers measured health, education, smoking, alcohol, history of cardiovascular disease, marriage; body mass, blood pressure, and cholesterol along with optimism. Pessimism was very strongly associated with mortality, particularly when holding all the other risk factors constant. Optimists had only 23 percent the rate of CVD deaths of the pessimists. Interestingly this protection was specific to optimism, a future-oriented cognition, and present-oriented mood items.
Perhaps depression is the real culprit? Pessimism, in general, correlates pretty highly with depression, and depression, in many studies, also correlates with cardiovascular disease. So you might wonder if the lethal effect of pessimism works by increasing depression. The answer seems to be no, since optimism and pessimism exerted their effects even when depression was held constant statistically.
In the largest study of the relationship between optimism and cardiovascular disease to date, ninety-seven thousand women, healthy at the outset of the study in 1994, were followed for eight years. As usual in careful epidemiological studies, age, race, education, religious attendance, health, body mass, alcohol, smoking, blood pressure, and cholesterol were recorded at the start. Epidemiological studies investigate patterns of health in large populations. Optimism was measured in yet another way by the well-validated Life Orientation Test (LOT), which poses ten statements such as: “In unclear times, I usually expect the best,” and “If something can go wrong for me, it will.” Importantly, depressive symptoms were also measured and their impact assessed separately. The optimists (the top quarter) had 30 percent fewer coronary deaths than the pessimists (bottom quarter). The trend of fewer deaths, both cardiac and deaths from all causes, held across the entire distribution of optimism, indicating again that optimism protected women and pessimism hurt them relative to the average.
According to happiness researcher Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky of the University of California, Riverside, 40% of our happiness is within our power to change through our actions and thoughts. Another 50% can be attributed to genes. Surprisingly (although perhaps not surprisingly in the Torah world), only 10% of our happiness is associated with life circumstances, such as money, health, marriage, appearance, etc. So keep in mind, as Dr. Avraham Twersky has told us many times, when it comes to happiness, there is nothing to pursue. The pursuit of happiness is a false trail. We already have the happiness within us, we just have to dig deep and find it. And as we have seen, the benefits of positivity and happiness are great.
A positive attitude will “add hours to your day, days to your year, and years to your life.”
Alan Freishtat is an A.C.E. CERTIFIED PERSONAL TRAINER and a LIFESTYLE FITNESS COACH with over 17 years of professional experience. In addition to his private consultations and personalized workout programs, Alan is the co-director of the Jerusalem-based weight loss and stress reduction center Lose It! along with Linda Holtz M.Sc . Lose It! now features special programs for Seminary Girls and Yeshiva Boys. Alan can be reached at 1-516-568-5027, 972-2-651-8502 or his cell phone 972-50-555-7175. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Visit the Lose It! website www.loseit.co.il