More threads by lallieth


Jan 31.2008
By Francis X. Brennan, PhD, and Carl J. Charnetski, PhD, Prevention
ContentPosting_P : Body & Mind : Health & Fitness : Sympatico / MSN

An upbeat outlook can help you prevent colds, flu, and much worse

Our friend Bob is probably the most steadfastly optimistic person we've ever met. His hair could be on fire, yet he'd view the blaze as the perfect opportunity to go out for a walk in the rain. Nothing ever seems to get this guy down. He's convinced that everything will turn around any time now. And he never seems to get sick, either.

On the other hand, our friend Ellen is nice, sweet, generous ? and the most pessimistic doomsayer you've ever encountered. Even when life is great, Ellen is convinced that misery lurks just around the corner. She's so negative that her doctor scribbled out a prescription for Prozac. And she seems to have some sort of health-related concern every day. Two days ago it was the ache in her belly. Yesterday it was a headache. You can safely bet that she's still not going to feel well tomorrow, either.

How Do You Look at Life?

Bob and Ellen look at life very, very differently. Bob is an optimist who rarely blames himself when bad things happen. He's always fully confident that good things will shortly follow the bad and that his life will continue on as full of sunshine as it's always been.

Ellen couldn't see the sun if it fell on her. She's a pessimist who blames herself for everything bad that happens. And she's firmly convinced that when something bad does happen, it will ruin her life forever.

Bob's optimistic way of interpreting the world and Ellen's pessimistic one are called "explanatory style." As defined by Martin Seligman, PhD, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia who pioneered this field, explanatory style is your own unique way of interpreting what happens to you ; it's how you assess, interpret, and perceive the world. And it's composed of three very specific questions that you must ask yourself about whatever happens to you:

# Is the incident your fault?
# Is it temporary or long lasting?
# Does the cause affect one or many aspects of your life?

People can blend explanatory styles and fall anywhere on the continuum between the two extremes. But when something bad happens, pessimists tend to blame themselves. They believe that the cause of the bad event will be around for quite some time and that it will affect many parts of their life. Optimists, on the other hand, are essentially the opposite: They don't blame themselves, they expect the consequences to be minor and of short duration, and they don't let it affect other parts of their life.

Style Matters

Unfortunately, how you wander through the world ? either as an optimist or a pessimist ? affects your health. Significantly.

Pessimists end up being sick more days in any given month than their more optimistic counterparts, according to a study by Christopher Peterson, PhD, a researcher at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. They also go to the doctor more frequently.

Why? Well, that's what we wanted to know, too. The fact that pessimistic students in Dr. Peterson's study got colds and the flu more frequently than optimistic students suggested to us that IgA, a disease-fighting antibody that circulates in saliva and other body fluids, was somehow involved. (Low IgA levels correlate with getting sick.) So we decided to test the proposition.

In 1999, we gave the Attributional Style Questionnaire (ASQ) ? devised to ferret out explanatory styles ? to 116 students at Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre, PA. While they answered questions, we took saliva samples to check for the presence of IgA. No relationship existed between the overall scores and IgA or between optimism and IgA. However, the more pessimistic the students were or the more hopeless they felt, the lower their IgA levels.

Feeling Good Is Good for You

Why would a dark outlook on life influence health? Perhaps pessimism and hopelessness cause IgA levels to drop. Perhaps pessimists feel more stress and its attendant immune effects as they wait for disaster to strike. Maybe they just can't sit back, relax, and enjoy life. Maybe it's a combination. Or maybe it's something that science has yet to identify.

What is clear, though, is that the worse you feel about yourself and the worse your outlook on life, the worse your health may be. You don't even have to be a certified cynic or a dictionary definition of a depressed person . Day-to-day, hour-to-hour fluctuations in mood also exert influence on your immune strength and on the odds that you'll get sick.

For instance, you might be a generally carefree, cheery, and well-adjusted person, but if you happen to be angry, upset, or otherwise negative just minutes before you run your hand along a stairway railing that harbors a flu virus, you're more likely to get a cold than if you were happy-go-lucky and free of hostility when you came into contact with the bug. That's because when you're upset, angry, or moody, even for a little while, your IgA drops markedly and your T lymphocytes slow to a crawl. (T lymphocytes are important immune system cells that include helper and killer T cells.) So for however long you pout and feel sorry for yourself, your defenses are down.

Fine-Tune Your Attitude

But what if you're feeling bad? Are you doomed to an unhappy, unhealthy life? Of course not! No one feels good all of the time. But here are some ways to improve your mood when you're down and, in the process, boost your immunity.

Just do it.

Even if you don't feel like getting off the couch, taking a shower, and going to the theater to see that movie you thought might be good, do it anyway. Go to that party. Head to the music store, and buy the new CD by your favorite band. Drag yourself to the gym.

Most of us think that attitude must change before behavior changes. That's true, but the inverse works also. If you force yourself to behave in a way that's out of synch with how you actually feel, your brain won't be able to tolerate the incongruity for long. It'll change your attitude to come into accordance with your behavior.

Dump the doubters.

Minimize the time you spend with complainers, doubters, and other pessimists. Think of negativity as the emotional equivalent of a room filled with cigarette smoke. Pessimism is a psychologically contagious disease.


This is crucial. Vent your repressed, emotionally charged feelings . At least once a week, visit with or call a different friend or family member, and talk about something that's been bothering you. Cycle through your list of confidantes, then start all over again.

Grin ? it helps you bear it.

Whether or not you have reason to do so, smile frequently. The nerves connected to your face's smile muscles project right into parts of the brain that help determine mood. Send a signal to your brain that you're happy, and voila. You are happy?and so is your immune system.

Give yourself a round of applause.

If something good happens, give yourself the credit you deserve. Make a big deal out of it. But when something unfortunate occurs, don't dwell on it. Consider the circumstances surrounding it, and assess your responsibility. Then put it behind you, and move on. Don't bad-mouth yourself.

Get on a winning streak.

Nothing succeeds like success, so set yourself up for a string of victories. Put yourself into situations that can have only positive outcomes. As you experience success, you'll begin to perceive yourself as successful, and your perception of yourself then dictates your behavior.

Plan to prolong pleasure.

If you do something spontaneously on Saturday night, you and your immune system will enjoy it ? but only on Saturday night. But if you plan the activity on Thursday, you'll look forward to the enjoyment all day Thursday, all day Friday, and all day Saturday. Anticipation helps determine mood. Anticipating a negative event provokes anxiety and, if continued long enough, depression. Anticipating a positive event, on the other hand, brightens your mood and attitude.

Be humorous and quick to laugh.

Humor benefits more than just the immune system , and amusing others amuses you.

Take control.

It's amazing how much of our lives we can control if we think about it. Even if a situation is bad, exert some control. Don't wait all day for a confrontational phone call. Make the call at 9 am instead of receiving it at 1 pm and suffering 4 hours of anticipatory anxiety. Your immune system hates this.

Focus on the positive.

Don't focus on the negative things that you have no control over. At any point in time, 90 percent of our lives may be a mess and uncontrollable. Focus 90 percent of your time on the 10 percent that you can control for positive effects, and you'll do well 90 percent of the time.

Use negative moods as alarm clocks.

Then wake up, and do something about them immediately. Don't let them change from states to traits.

Is the Glass Half-Empty or Half-Full?

Here's a quick way to find out if you're a pessimist or an optimist: Recall the most recent negative event you experienced in your life, and ask yourself why it happened.

Now consider the most recent positive occurrence, and ask the same question.If you attribute the negative event to your own stupidity or to the dark cloud that always seems to hover overhead, you are leaning toward the pessimistic side of life. If you chalk up the positive event to a stroke of dumb luck that probably won't happen again, you are also displaying a pessimistic nature.
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