Although many studies show that it is possible to be happy even in the disease, it is clear that good health is a very important goal for our well-being and personal development.Psychoneuroimmunology is the science that studies the relationship between the thoughts, emotions, and immune system. Persistent thoughts about stressful situations affect the immune system. Thinking and believing that one cannot have a positive effect on one’s life can have a negative impact on health. This shows up in studies by Madelon Visintainer that are mentioned Learned Optimism by Martin Seligman. La Rosa more recently found similar results, including
- Pessimists tend to have higher blood pressure.
- Positive emotions decrease the heart rate and blood pressure and the level of cortisol in the circulatory system.
- Couples with marital conflicts have greater difficulty with wound healing and an overall weaker immune response.
Experimentation shows that positive emotions and positive thinking habits can have a protective effect on our health.
However, I don’t believe enough people know that they can take care of their health by caring for their habits of thought.
My Experiments with Executives
A few months ago I explored the relationship between health outcomes and explanatory style in the same group of 200 executives that I described in an earlier article. The group included 119 men and 81 women from the main companies in Peru. I divided the executives into two groups based on the Seligman’s Attributional Style Questionnaire, using the short version with 32 items that does not include the personalization factor. One group had predominately optimistic and hopeful explanatory styles while the other group had predominately pessimistic and hopeless explanatory styles.
I looked at the way their explanatory styles related to two variables of health:
- Body Mass Index (BMI)
- State of health in the three months prior to the research, in particular whether they had suffered problems such as flu, fever, sore throat, pharyngitis, or infection in that time period
BMI is a measure which is very popular in the field of nutrition precisely because of it is easy to estimate and it correlates with predisposition to suffer cardiovascular problems, diabetes, arterial hypertension, and other ills.
Here are the results of our study (also shown in the figure below):
|Condition||Optimistic Executives||Pessimistic Executives|
|BMI in the overweight range||36%||52%|
|Infection in last 3 months||41%||76%|
Thus we found that the executives with an optimistic style were more likely to be within the normal weight range according to their size and age, allowing them to enjoy better health. Those with a pessimistic style tended not to believe they had direct control over their weight and were more likely to be overweight with a greater risk of disease.
With respect to infection, those with an optimistic style seemed to have immune systems that coped better with the exposure to viruses, bacteria, and other pathogens, since they seem better able to resist disease.
How does the style of thought affect our health?
According to Seligman, there are four ways that the pessimistic style impacts health.
The first way is basic biology. For example, glucocorticoids have a depressive effect on the defensive role of T cells and NK or natural killer cells. These mechanisms have been studied by Robert Sapolsky from the point of view of stress and its relationship with depression. Stress and depression are both related to a pessimistic style of thinking.
The second way concerns habits. The individuals who are pessimistic and hopeless on average have less healthy habits because they tend to consider that their actions have little effect on the circumstances, they have a greater predisposition to abandon the medical treatments, and they tend not to follow healthy guidelines.
A third way is the increasing number of difficult situations that the pessimistic people face as a result of their own decisions and behaviors.
Finally a fourth way is related to the lowered quality of relationships and social support that comes from the passive role that pessimistic people tend to choose.
It appears that the optimistic style of thinking becomes a protective shield against illness. This is a very important element in a work context, because work requires sustained energy and physical and mental resources to deal with the daily challenges, stress, and the goals of business. The costs of disease affect companies in terms of loss of productivity and absenteeism. Society faces the use of economic resources to treat illnesses, and individuals face a lower quality of life with the increased risk of disease.
I believe that it is very important for people to be aware that managing thinking patterns can affect health and wellness.
Aurich Cornejo, J. L. (2016) Hope and optimism in Peruvian executives. Positive Psychology News.
La Rosa Rodríguez, E. (2014). De la felicidad a la salud. Cómo ser feliz para tener buena salud. Lima, Peru: FCE. More information.
Peterson, C. (1988). Explanatory style as a risk factor for illness. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 12, 117-130. Abstract.
Peterson, C., Semmel, A., von Baeyer, C., Abramson, L. T., Metalsky, G. I., & Seligman, M. E. P. (1982). The Attributional Style Questionnaire. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 6, 287-300.
Sweeney, P.D., Anderson, K, & Bailey, S. (1986). Attributional style in depression: A meta-analytic review. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 50, 974-991. Abstract.
Sapolsky, R. M. (2004). Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, Third Edition. New York: Holt.
Schneider, S. (2001). In search of realistic optimism. Meaning, knowledge, and warm fuzziness. American Psychologist, 56(3): 250-63. Abstract.
Seligman, M. E. P. (2006). Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. 2nd Edition. New York: Vintage.
Seligman, M. E. P. (no date) Attributional Style Questionnaire. Questionnaires for researchers at the Penn Positive Psychology Center.
Visintainer, M. & Seligman, M. E. P. (1983). Fighting cancer: The hope factor. American Health, 2 (4), 58-62.
Great article Jorge, and I appreciate your stats, graph, and personal explanatory style. I will share this article with execs I coach and others, too. Well done!
Great and helpful article. Thank you so much Dear Jorge.
Jorge, do you have any references to what creates pessimistic Vs optimistic explanatory styles, and what kind of interventions are effective in making the positive shift between the two? Thanks, Tom