Wednesday, January 26, 2011

It's All About The Attitude -- Or Is It?

Early in our dating, my now-husband expressed a belief that people get sick because, for some reason and at times subconsciously, they want or need to get sick. 

Maybe they want a day off work because they've been putting in long hours, so they somehow develop a cold and get that sick day they've been longing for. Maybe there's some other reason. 

At the time, he was talking about himself, but as I was struggling to recover from what turned out to be a career-ending on-the-job injury (I retained a job for an additional 10 years, but my career died on May 19, 1995.) that started me on a path of chronic pain, I took it personally and got my feelings hurt badly. Of course, high levels of pain make almost everything feel personal and intended to be hurtful. 

But that whole concept that people have mental control over their health and well-being is ... well, crazy talk, in my opinion. 

Focusing on positive thinking and choosing happiness can certainly have an effect on one's life. After all, life just has to be more pleasant when one is happy and thinks positive. But it doesn't make one healthier, and I was delighted when my friend Shiri posted a link on my Facebook page to a NYT article on exactly that topic. (Note: You may have to register on the newspaper's website to read the article, but access is free.) 

What can I say? It resonated deeply for me. 

An excerpt that jumped out for me:

"[T]here’s no evidence to back up the idea that an upbeat attitude can prevent any illness or help someone recover from one more readily. On the contrary, a recently completed study of nearly 60,000 people in Finland and Sweden who were followed for almost 30 years found no significant association between personality traits and the likelihood of developing or surviving cancer. Cancer doesn’t care if we’re good or bad, virtuous or vicious, compassionate or inconsiderate. Neither does heart disease or AIDS or any other illness or injury."

A little farther down, the writer talks about the human desire to want to believe that in the end, only good things happen to good people. That belief forces people who can't overcome their health crises to question whether they did something to "deserve" their illness and/or injury. I've written about the issue here before, the inner critic who keeps telling me that I must have done something to deserve this chronic illness, that it must be some kind of karma.

But it's not healthy emotionally to believe that one brought one's illness on oneself. OK, a smoker who develops lung cancer or an alcoholic who develops liver disease should take some responsibility for the way their choices affected their health. But y'know, half of those people who get interviewed for living to be over 100 credit their age to smoking and drinking. (The other half credit their longevity to refraining from those vices.) And even for those who smoke or drink heavily, it sure looks like genetics plays a huge role in determining who's going to have repercussions for their vices. 

In a Facebook conversation about the NYT article, a friend whose husband has had serious health issues wrote on my wall: "Total pessimists have beaten terminal illnesses and vice versa. A positive attitude might get you through a difficult time, but why would it save one person and not another? Why do people who have completely given up hope survive? Hope is a good tool if it keeps you focused on doing all that you can, but ultimately it's the luck of the draw."

I know I'm rambling here. But I feel like it's unfair and cruel for society to continue to hold onto this wishful thinking that essentially tells people whose loved ones die or remain seriously ill that well, they must have done something to deserve it or they would have had a personal miracle. Is that really the message we want to be sending to people who are suffering enough already?

My friend has recommended that I read a book by Barbara Ehrenreich called Bright-Sided: How The Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Underminded America. I'll let you know what I think after I've had a chance to read it. :-)

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Melody Marie Murray said...

I enjoyed Bright-Sided a lot. I'll be interested to hear what you think of it.

WinnyNinny PooPoo said...

Interesting post!

I personally cope better with an optimistic outlook since that is my personality type.

I do believe you make a personal choice each time you feel bad about something or good about something and that you can control some of this with practice. I decided a long time ago that most of MY unhappiness was self induced so I decided to un-self-induce it. This is not the same as depression - I don't think there is a way to un-depress yourself. Nor do I think my decision to walk on the brighter side of life 30 years ago has any impact whatsoever on my physical illnesses. Magical thinking is not my cup o' tea!

Pissed Off Patient said...

I'm a little loopy from tapering the steroids so I may not make any sense.

But while I try to be proactive (which is not necessarily the same thing as being positive or negative) I hate people who think we can think our way to health, good or ill.

These people have never been sick or if they have, they are revising their history.

Humanity is so big on blame that I wonder has anyone looked at the evolutionary purpose it serves???


Aviva said...

M: You make sense to me! I hope the steroid taper goes as smoothly and easily as possible for you!

Yep -- proactive (which is a Very Good Thing to be) is totally different than thinking positive. I personally also have a pet peeve about being told to put my faith in God, or Jesus, or any form of deity, and that will somehow cure me. :-P

And I agree that it's a curious question whether there's an evolutionary purpose behind assigning blame. I sure haven't come across anything that studied the topic, but it sure seems like people have been assigning blame for various things as far back as history can go. :-/