Health Agenda

Mental Health

Positively healthy

Could an optimistic approach improve an injury or help you reach health goals? A growing body of research says yes.

Health Agenda magazine
January 2018

While positive thinking can’t replace medical advice and treatment, research published in the Journal of Consumer Research in 2017 indicates that it might actually assist in the recovery of seriously ill patients, and may help disaster victims overcome psychological trauma.

The research, from professors at Stanford University, the University of Houston and Sydney University, looked at how well patients were able to imagine getting better and how this helped their recovery.

Over 6 experiments, with 1,300 participants, the researchers were able to prove that patients with a more optimistic outlook actually recovered better and more quickly. What’s more, that positivity had other knock-on effects, from increased energy and physical endurance, to a greater willingness to take on physical therapy

Professor Donnel Briley, the lead researcher on the study from Sydney University, says “Mentally simulating your future is incredibly important to optimism. We asked people to think about their futures and what they were going to do to get better.

“What made the difference was clearly being able to envision implementing these ideas. The more clear [the ideas] were, the more optimistic they became about their futures.”

Visualising success

Although positive thinking can’t heal disease or injury, this research suggests that in some cases it can have benefits for those with health issues.

Visualising the future in an optimistic way can motivate us to make healthy choices – and that may be relevant to all of us. Kathleen Alleaume, nutrition and exercise scientist, and author of What’s Eating You, encourages her clients to visualise their success.

“People want quick-fix solutions, but being healthy is about making small choices over and over. One thing that helps with that is thinking positively about the result you want.”

She recommends clients think about the way they feel after eating a favourite salad, going for a run or doing yoga.

“We almost always feel better when we make a healthy choice. Framing those choices positively and constantly reaffirming them to ourselves helps us to repeat them over and over.”

Indeed, this is the advice Prof Briley now gives. While we think of negative thinking as a vicious cycle, he notes that there’s also a cyclical element to positive thinking.

“The more optimistic people are, the more likely they are to [make] better, more healthy choices. They feel better about themselves and they reflect that in their choices.”

How to practise optimism

Thinking positively can be difficult, especially if you have a chronic physical or mental illness, or injury. Here are some strategies to get you started.

1. Keep a journal

Regularly write down 1 positive thing you see yourself doing in the future – running, enjoying a holiday or even something as simple as kicking a ball around with your friends.

2. Be accountable

It’s good to extend that positivity to action if you can. If your goal is losing weight, seek help from your GP with your diet. If you want to do a fun run, join a training group or download the Couch To 5K phone app. Break down your goals into small steps so they’re more manageable.

3. Socialise

Having a solid community has been shown time and again to improve our health and happiness. In 2010, a major analysis from Brigham Young University, US, found people with an adequate or high level of social relationships had a 50% greater survival likelihood overall than those who were friendless.

4. Prioritise positivity

If possible, rearrange your schedule to include an activity that brings you joy once a week, even if it’s as simple as setting aside half an hour to read, uninterrupted.

5. Don’t value happiness too highly

This sounds counterintuitive, but forcing yourself to feel optimistic when you truly don’t can backfire. If you feel down, try finding some calm first – for example, with deep breathing or mindfulness

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