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There is so much talk about positive thinking. There are movies, books and entire conferences on it. But what is the scientific evidence? Is it hope, or is it all hype?
Before we dive into the research, it’s essential to understand how big the self-help market is. Self-Help is an industry of over $10 billion each year. There are infomercials, audiobooks, personal coaching, self-improvement apps, and more.
As you look into this industry, it’s also important to understand the power of the placebo effect—the idea of seeing improvement in symptoms despite getting a nonactive treatment. The placebo effect can account for as much as 30% of the change in some cases! Therefore, if you have a study without a placebo or control arm, it may not be a very effective study.
That’s why the gold standard for any study is a randomized placebo-controlled trial. The placebo effect can account for as much as 30 percent of the change! Therefore, if you have a study without a placebo or control arm, it may not be a very effective study.
Another essential part to realize about self-help and positive thinking is that you can’t just spend your entire life always being positive. People with excessive optimism on things could get themselves into trouble because they can underestimate what their abilities are. Over time, this can actually lead to more stress and anxiety.
Now, let’s get into the research on the impact of having a positive outlook on our health. As we look at this data, keep in mind it’s not about being positive all the time. It’s about having a sensible, balanced outlook on life. This balance is what allows us to be successful.
The impact of positive thinking on longevity is an interesting topic. Everyone wants to know how to live longer. Here’s an interesting study looking at inflammatory markers, survival, and positive thinking on aging. The authors followed 4,419 participants over the age of 50 and measured their C-reactive protein (CRP), a marker for inflammation.
The study participants were assessed at four years and six years of follow-up. The authors looked at CRP and at survival. They found that those folks who had a positive outlook on aging not only had lower CRP levels but also lived longer.
Once again, this is not blind optimism. It’s having a positive outlook on life with perspective.
How does positive-outlook affect heart disease? In a fascinating study, Yanek and colleagues looked at almost 1500 healthy siblings of people who developed early onset of heart disease. They stratified the participants based on the Framingham Risk Score: low, medium, and high.
The authors found that participants who had the most positive outlook on life had a thirty-three percent lower risk of developing heart disease.
Interestingly, participants with the highest risk of developing heart disease had even more pronounced results. In this subgroup, the participants with the highest positive outlook had a 48 percent lower risk of developing heart disease.
Another target of research on positive outlook in our immune system. In a study looking at 124 first-year law students, researchers wanted to see the impact of a positive outlook on the immune response to injections. The researchers studied the students five times over six months. At each interval, they asked questions about how optimistic the students felt about law school.
Along with asking questions about their outlook, the researchers also injected the students with some material that would elicit an immune system response so they would get a bump on their skin. The stronger the immune system, the quicker it would attack this foreign substance, and the bigger the bump would be. Thus, it was a surrogate for how strong the immune response was.
So what did they find? And remember, they repeated this several times. The participants that were more optimistic about law school had a more robust immune response. Those who are pessimistic about how their outlook in law school saw a weakened immune system and the bump was smaller and took longer to occur.
This study shows us that how we feel about our outlook on things affects our immune systems. This also explains why other studies have linked a positive outlook to things like catching a common cold.
One of the most critical things in our life is our memory. As we get older, there is a slow decline in our ability to learn new things and remember information as well as when we were younger. But how does a positive outlook play into this?
In a nine-year longitudinal study of 991 middle-aged and older adults, researchers looked at the role of positive affect and memory. The study occurred from 1995 to 2014, and the researchers brought the participants in for testing in 1995 to 1996, 2004 to 2006, and 2013 to 2014.
In each evaluation, the researchers assessed the emotions of participants in the last 30 days. They also gave them validated memory tests.
What the researchers found is consistent with all the other studies we have discussed so far. Those participants with a higher positive outlook on life had less memory decline over nine years. Even more impressive was that these differences were even more pronounced in the oldest participants.
OK, this is all great, but how does one apply this to their life. The answer is through following the SELF Principle: Focus on sleeping more (7-9 hours each day); moving more (10K steps a day); practicing gratitude, kindness, and meditation; and eat a whole-foods, plant-based diet.
Start with creating a consistent sleep schedule. Don’t drink caffeinated beverages after 12 pm and avoid alcohol before bedtime. Turn off electronics 30 minutes before bedtime.
Every day, practice a little bit of gratitude every day. What are you thankful for today? What things in your life make you happy?
Add a little bit of meditation in the morning. As little as 3-5 minutes can have a profound impact on the rest of your day.
Make it a point to exercise first thing in the morning. Walk, jog, bike, swim, lift weights, or anything else that gets you moving. Don’t make it complicated; just do it!
Lastly, incorporate a whole-foods, plant-based diet into your life to give your body the nourishment it needs to fight stress and work at its optimal level.