Optimism, Pessimism, Mental Health & Chronic Illness

“Positivity is not about how to maintain a positive attitude, but how to produce positive emotions.” – Frederickson, 2009.

“Research indicates that pessimism correlates with depression, lowered achievement, and health problems.” – Martin Seligman, 1998.

If you don’t know who Seligman is, that’s totally okay and to be honest totally normal if you haven’t studied psychology. He’s the founder of positive psychology (which does not say that positivity is the cure to mental health, just to be clear) and has done a lot of research in this area. For me, the interesting part of the statement isn’t the mental health aspects, which are a bit less surprising, but the physical health part, because what does that mean for people with a chronic illness?

Are you an optimist or a pessimist?

Okay, so here’s a quick overview of some research of optimism vs. pessimism and chronic pain or illness. According to Forgeard and Seligman (2012) disease may progress slower for optimists than for pessimists. Optimists typically have better cardiovascular (heart) functioning and less heart disease, and they may have better immune functioning (though the research is more mixed on that the later). They also found that cancer patients had better survival rates one year after diagnosis if they were optimists, and that in general optimists are about half as likely to die from whatever disease they have than pessimists are. They do caution that some studies don’t show this effect and/or the results are negative, but it’s theorized that the stage of disease may play into this. They also theorize that unrealistic vs. realistic optimism plays a role. (I’ve often said that you can be – and that I am – a realistic optimist).

Life of a realistic optimist.

In terms of chronic pain, Ramirez-Maestre et al. (2012) found that optimism leads to better overall well-being and this might have to do with coping strategies that optimists and pessimists use. Basically, pessimists are more likely to use passive coping strategies such as avoidance and optimists are more likely to use active coping strategies such as acceptance. Active coping leads to lower pain severity, less depression, and better daily functioning.

I don’t know about you, but less pain always sounds good to me!

I can hear some of you saying, “But I’m naturally pessimistic! I can’t help it!” Positive psychology actually shows that we can have learned helplessness and learned optimism – yes, I said it, we can learn optimism. It’s not necessarily a fixed part of personality and there is research to support that. Basically, if we learn to combat negative self-talk, we can become more positive. Pessimism is caused by selecting our attention to certain things as well as a lack of internal confidence in our abilities to control or change parts of our lives (learned helplessness) so when we fail at something, we blame it on something within us we can’t change. I hope I didn’t lose anyone during this.

Seligman explains this way better than I do.

If you want to be more optimistic here’s something things you can do, according to Seligman:

  • utilize gratitude (maybe use a gratitude journal or write a gratitude letter)
  • help others in need (by volunteering for example)
  • challenge your negative thoughts and believes (what’s the evidence for and against them)
  • tackle your negative self-talk (trying changing it)

In the Science of Well-Being course taught by Yale professor Laurie Santos, she explains that only 50% of our happiness comes from genes. So, if you’re still believing that you can’t change from being a pessimistic to an optimistic because it’s how you are born, then remember that. 10% of our happiness comes from our circumstances, and the last 40% comes from our actions and thoughts. Which means, you can still improve your levels of happiness (and thereby some aspects of your health) even if you’re not naturally inclined to optimism.

If you haven’t checked out The Science of Well-Being course yet (it’s free), then I highly recommend it!

I hope this was helpful for some of you! Let me know how it goes with those four techniques to learning optimism! Keep on making the most of it!

Choice, Growth, Freedom, Values & Acceptance

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” – Viktor Frankl

Viktor Frankl

For those of you who are not familiar with Viktor Frankl, he is a psychiatrist, author, existential philosopher and Holocaust survivor. His belief system, which was seemingly helpful to him while he was in a concentration camp, is that life can have meaning even in the worst possible circumstances (like he himself faced) and we are motivated to continue to live when we find that meaning. Like many other existentialists, Frankl believed we had the choice to do what we wanted with the circumstances we are given, even if we don’t always get to choose the circumstances ourselves. When it comes to chronic illness – physical or mental – it can be hard to always see the choices available to us, and sometimes those choices may be more limited, but they are still there. If I am in pain today, I can choose to lie on the couch or I can choose to do some stretches. I can choose to do nothing, or I can choose to sit at the computer and write a blog post that will hopefully help someone else. Depending on your situation, your choice options will look different than mine and that’s okay. The last part of Frankl’s above quote says that “In our response lies our growth and freedom.” Personal growth, and healing journeys (check out my podcast about healing here and personal growth here) are difficult but necessary if we want to live full and rich lives, if we don’t want to give up and into our circumstances. There is so much overlap between chronic physical illness and mental illness and feelings like hopelessness and helplessness play into both. Breaking ourselves out of the cycle is the key. That often takes the form of reaching out for help, and/or using our own self-help and self-care skills to propel us forward (for example, reading self-help books about these topics can be helpful if you don’t want to or can’t afford therapy).

Meaning, choice, freedom – even with chronic illness.

Recently I have been learning a lot about Acceptance and Commitment Therapy as that is what I would like my practicum to focus on (I have to pick something that is CBT – cognitive behavioural – focused and ACT is “third-wave” and combines a lot of mindfulness). Here is a quote from the ACT training I’ve been completing.

“In this moment I’m holding my pain so that I can choose to do the things I care about.” – Timothy Gordon

Values and meaning look different for each of us.
(Vienna, 2017)

ACT is very values focused and as you can see values are closely related to life meanings which stem from growth and freedom, which stem from choice. This is a therapy with a lot of efficacy for chronic pain and chronic illness because it asks us to acceptance our pain, and helps us to move toward our values. I personally accepted my pain and my illness a long time ago. That acceptance has allowed me to do more with my life, like go back to school and start a new career, travel, exercise, write a book, and help others. These are all values of mine and they all bring my life meaning. But I didn’t have to choose to move toward any of these. I could have stayed where I was, but truth-be-told, I wasn’t happy. That realization of unhappiness sent me down this growth path which in many ways started with the acceptance piece. If you’re not happy, or you don’t know what your life meaning is or what you want it to be, I would suggest just starting with your values. What’s important to you? And then what your life would look like if you were living for those values. Now, this work is of course best done in the context of therapy, but if you’d rather some reading on the subject I would say check out the book The Happiness Trap by Russ Harris.

Acceptance can lead to new realities.

Your pain and illness don’t have to control your lives if you don’t want them to. Keep making the most of it everyone.