Public Health Manipulation?
While researching my upcoming book, Become More Resilient: The Smart Way, I came across some research that I find quite disturbing.
The research was attempting to determine the reason for optimistic bias and whether or not it could be eliminated by increasing the subjects information about the risk, for example, the risk of getting cancer.
They theorized that in order to get people to do the preventative behaviors that would lower their risk, they had to reduce their optimistic bias. In order to do that, they wanted to determine if the reason for optimism was to reduce anxiety, to maintain self-esteem, or to maintain a positive emotional state.
What they did not consider in this misguided attempt was that positively focused individuals (optimists) have a lower risk of cancer. If you take the total risk of the population and ask an optimist to accept that risk as his or her own, it would be an overestimation of the individual risk. Why?
Research has shown that the presence of positive emotions has a beneficial impact on the bio-chemical function of our bodies. Specifically,
- Improved immune function
- Improved cognitive function
- Increased likelihood of making good decisions about behaviors (diet, exercise, alcohol, etc.)
- Improved digestive function
The very health promoting behaviors the researchers want more of are more likely to be done by those who feel positive emotion than those who are pessimistic, stressed, or in negative emotional states.
Their idea of making people feel less optimistic, which would lower the degree to which they feel positive emotions, flies in the face of strong evidence that demonstrates that positive emotions provide a protective effect against chronic illness and dread diseases. The improved immune function translates directly into a lower risk of cancer, which is supported by the evidence. The presence of positive emotions reduces the risk of heart disease (the #1 cause of death worldwide) at least 50% and some newer research is showing 70%.
Negative emotions have been shown to reduce the likelihood of an individual engaging in health promoting behaviors. Even individuals who know exercise is good for them and will make them feel better readily admit that they forgo their usual exercise routine when they feel too stressed. Food choices vary by mood, which negative emotion highly correlated to the less healthy choices. Alcohol and drug use are the method of choice for millions who do not have the skills necessary to reduce their level of stress (negative emotions).
In addition to being misguided for the above reason, the research was not considering the underlying cause of optimism and pessimism. The questions they asked were never going to address individual differences. Optimism (and pessimism) are the result of habits of thought individuals developed and then continue to repeat throughout life (unless they elect to deliberately change their habits). Thoughts are influenced by underlying beliefs about the self, others, and the world combined with the way the individual perceived past experiences. The number of unique permutations possible cannot be accurately modeled in a simple theory of reducing anxiety, maintaining self-esteem, or maintaining a positive emotional state.
Every individual has unique beliefs about every topic. For example, with respect to one’s mother, there will be beliefs that pertain to Mom and money, Mom and food, Mom and shopping, Mom and education, Mom and alcohol, Mom and cleanliness, Mom and family, Mom and other siblings, Mom and transportation, Mom and flowers. The list is endless. An individual may feel good about some of the beliefs about Mom, and bad about others.
How you feel about each of those topics depends on the perspective you take. If Mom was very frugal you may feel guilty when you buy anything that you do not consider necessary—even if you are able to easily afford luxuries. There are many ways to handle every scenario. You could behave frugally, not enjoying the prosperity available to you to avoid the guilt. Some people self-sabotage their career or investments so they do not have enough funds to violate this internalized rule about frugality. There are dozens of ways to handle this underlying belief but the best way is to develop a belief that serves your highest good. That’s easy—when you know how. Attempting to understand why any individual behaves in a specific way is not easy, or necessary.
Human behavior cannot be understood in a simple construct with three reasons for optimism. My own optimism comes from a variety of perspectives—and deliberate conscious choices. First, maintaining a positive state of mind is important to me because I want to feel good. But I also know that doing so is the absolutely best thing I can do for my health and my relationships. I developed skills that enable me to do this very well on a consistent basis regardless of circumstances. I also found a solid platform for healthy self-esteem, one that does not require defense against attacks and that does not place my worth or value above that of any other—but also not less than any other.
The details, the thoughts that support a positive emotional state vary widely depending on the circumstances focused on in any given moment. We think about 60,000 thoughts each day. Each thought results in an emotional response that either feels better, worse, or the same as the prior thought felt. To attempt to classify 60,000 thoughts into three buckets and derive meaningful and useful information from it is an exercise in futility.
Citations for the statistics in this article are included in True Prevention—Optimum Health: Remember Galileo. Many of them are also in other blogs on my website.
Jeanine Joy teaches others how to develop beliefs that create sustainable positive emotions. Her programs increase resilience, optimism, happiness, self-esteem, internal locus of control, and help them develop supportive relationships. Her programs are available for organizations, schools, and individuals.