Amid life’s turmoil, take a look on the bright side of life

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Vectorios/iStock via Harvard Gazette

By Brett Milano
Harvard Correspondent/Harvard Gazette 

Bad day, or week? Or maybe it’s the endless eon that 2020 and the first month of 2021 have felt like?

A Harvard expert has some advice, and it doesn’t involve diving ever deeper into coverage of the pandemic or politics.

“Try to have some perspective,” says Laura Kubzansky, Lee Kum Kee professor of social and behavioral sciences at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health (HSPH). “If you look at the history of world events, things are always changing. So it helps to avoid saying things like, ‘This will never change, we’ll be in this situation forever.’ And it helps to recognize where the silver linings are — which I’d say the news media is especially bad about doing.”

If you can’t conjure up some optimism, she says, try focusing on the hopeful things in your life. “Sometimes it’s just about realizing there’s a certain amount of randomness in the world and you need to roll with it. Maybe now that the world is disrupted, you can find out things about your kids that you wouldn’t have learned otherwise. Maybe you can notice that it’s a beautiful foliage season, and spend time outside. And maybe you can think that we’ve just been too driven, we all need to slow down.

“Finding perspective isn’t just about optimism — it’s also about the things that travel with it, in terms of feeling a sense of meaning and purpose. And that goes with the understanding that you’re not going to feel good all the time — that’s OK. It’s a hard time and nobody’s saying ‘Look on the bright side every minute.’”

Julia Boehm, a former research fellow at Harvard Chan School and current associate professor in the Cream College of Health and Behavioral Sciences at Chapman University, agrees that staying upbeat these days can be a challenge. “It’s something I’m working hard on in my own life. The thing to do is to hold onto what we can in these unusual circumstances. We might be losing something in terms of larger social relationships but there are ways of cultivating that, like having game nights over Zoom and really holding onto the people in your bubble. We can still practice kindness toward others in this time, which is something that’s shown to produce feelings of happiness. And you can always say, ‘The sun still rises every day, and the sunset still looks beautiful.’”

Optimism may not come easy, but evidence is growing that it makes a measurable difference. “What we have done is to understand that optimism is in some way protective for health,” Kubzansky said. “Higher levels of optimism been shown to be associated with lower risk of developing diabetes, coronary heart disease, and poor lung function. And it can contribute to greater likelihood of achieving exceptional longevity — as well as healthier aging. This is important, because living longer but sicker is not something anyone aspires to. We have documentation of these associations, and we’re looking more closely into the mechanism.”

Beyond its intrinsic value (that is, being optimistic is a positive facet of mental health in its own right), optimistic people tend to make healthier decisions. “They tend to be more goal-orientated, willing to delay gratification: ‘It may be more fun to sit on the couch and eat bonbons, but I also have this goal of being fit, so I’m going to the gym’ and optimism can help keep people focused on their larger goals. Data suggest this is the case. Optimism is linked with better health behaviors, a better diet, less likelihood to smoke. So behavior is one pathway, but we are also looking at potential biological pathways that might link optimism to better health including cellular markers. Some initial findings suggest some biological pathways are plausible. For example, people who are optimistic have healthier lipid profiles, and less risk of developing hypertension.”

Boehm adds that studies have indicated that a positive attitude reduces the risk of heart disease by anywhere from 10 to 40 percent. “Let’s be honest, optimism is not going to stop you from getting cancer if you have a history in your family and aren’t taking care of yourself. Where it comes into play is there are often factors that encourage us to take actions that help our health. And people who are optimistic tend to engage in healthier behavior than people who are not.”

A devil’s advocate could certainly argue that there are a lot of old cranks out there. The caustic Dorothy Parker outlived most of her Algonquin Round Table colleagues, and Bob Dylan just released one of his darkest albums at age 79. “There are always going to be people who appear to be the outliers,” says Boehm. “But maybe that cranky person is the one walking around with some resolve for the future.”

(Reprinted with permission from the Harvard Gazette.)

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