The National Health Interview Survey has been monitoring Americans since the late 1950’s. By tracking healthcare statistics, healthcare access and attitudes about healthcare, it provides the most comprehensive snapshot available of our nation’s wellbeing.
Turns out that, according to the most recent survey, the majority of us are feeling pretty good about our health. 82 percent of those who were surveyed between the ages of 65 to 74 said that they were in excellent health — another 64 percent reported themselves to be in good or very good shape.
Only 18 percent said they were in fair to poor health.
These numbers are in sharp contrast to the actual physical symptoms this group experiences: it is estimated that close to 60 percent of serious chronic illnesses (heart disease, diabetes, and hypertension) impact those over the age of 65.
So why do we feel good when we have so many problems?
The answer lies in the cliché, “your attitude is your altitude.” Emotional wellbeing and positive thinking appear to trump physical limitations. This is not groundbreaking thought – in the first century, philosopher Epictetus wrote, “people are disturbed not by things, but by the views which they take of them.”
Sociologist Jason Schnittker has investigated self-rated health (our own evaluation of how we feel, such as reported by NHIS) and discovered it is very important: “researchers have long recognized the value of self-rated health as an indicator of overall health. Self-rated health is fundamentally subjective, but it stands as a uniquely strong predictor of mortality.”
Dr. Barbara Fredrickson has long been a proponent of the notion that a truly positive view of life — not some Pollyanna, pie-in-the-sky hope — promotes health, resilience.
“Positive emotions,” Fredrickson says,” are not trivial luxuries, but instead might be critical necessities for optimal functioning…the negative screams at you but the positive only whispers.”
Recognized as an expert researcher in social psychology, Fredrickson has received copious funding from the National Institutes of Health: this exploration has led her to the conclusion that positive emotions play an essential role in our survival. She has found that “positivity” induces faster recovery from cardiovascular stress, fewer colds, better sleep and more overall happiness.
Her research has identified ten positive feelings — the “big ten emotions” — that are pivotal. These include: joy, love, gratitude, serenity, hope, interest, pride, amusement, awe and inspiration.
Fredrickson states that she is “excited these days about investigating how positive emotions change the very ways that our cells form and function to keep us healthy.”
In addition to the Fredrickson’s top ten, other experts underscore that forgiveness and reconciliation are also critical to mental and physical salubrity.
Relinquishing negative feelings about a person and/or events can actually be taught: adults who have gone through such courses have shown definite improvement in quality of life scales. One Stanford study found that increased forgiveness skills led to an almost 30 percent reduction in physical complaints such as gastrointestinal disorders and high blood pressure.
Other studies have focused on the plethora of problems that retention of negative, angry feelings have on our bodies — upset hormonal balance, depletion of brain chemicals which enable happiness, damage to our immune system and even shortened life span can all be set into motion by these unhealthy feelings.
The bottom line here is that the mind/body connection is always a salient variable when it comes to understanding health. The subjects in the National Health Interview Survey may have physical problems, but they seem to roll along, ailments or not.
This is consistent with what another psychologist, Dr. Laura Carstensen, founding director of the Stanford Center on Longevity, has discovered. Her work has demonstrated that as death approaches, we gravitate toward the people and aspects of life that matter most.
“As we age,” Carstensen hypothesizes, “our time horizons grow shorter and our goals change. When we recognize that we don’t have all the time in the world, we see our priorities most clearly; we take less notice of trivial matters.”
Pioneering psychologists Aaron Beck and Albert Ellis were advancing the impact of attitude on mental and physical health more than sixty years ago. Beck, the father of modern Cognitive Therapy, early on identified a triad of negative thoughts — about oneself, the world and the future — as key to understanding toxic behavior. Ellis, whose book, “A Guide to Rational Living” has sold over 1.5 million copies, postulated a whole therapeutic approach based on the construct that patients largely feel the way they do because of rational or irrational beliefs.
“Positive thinking, along with positive visualization, enables you to create rational coping statements and images that aid your goals and enhance your life,” Ellis wrote. “It is not outer events or circumstances that create happiness…it is our perception of events that create positive emotions.”
As Buddha put it, “all we are is the result of all we have thought.”