December 23, 2009

USA: Positive thinking can brighten your day - and your medical outlook

. TAMPA, Florida / The Tampa Tribune / Life / December 23, 2009 By Mary Shedden | The Tampa Tribune Starting anew in 2010 could be as simple as looking on the bright side of life. A sunny disposition doesn't necessarily make you a ridiculously optimistic Pollyanna, even in these tough times, say advocates of positive psychology. What they're talking about is leading a positive, purposeful life, and experts on the subject point to increasing scientific evidence backing the health benefits of hopefulness. Studies show people with a sense of high purpose were about half as likely to die as those with a diminished sense of self-worth. Photo: Jay Nolan "Many people probably go through life feeling they don't have a major purpose, like, say, Mother Theresa. … But this is not about charity and changing the world," says Sharon Whitely, chief executive of the wellness site "It's much more personal." For some, the boost comes from volunteering or from reaching a personal goal. Others find their purpose through social activities or spiritual faith. Regardless, researchers are finding a health connection that comes from being happy with the present and optimistic about the future. Much of the positive psychology research targets brain function among the aging. The Rush Alzheimer's Disease Center in Chicago, which led one of the largest recent studies, found that over a five-year period, people with a sense of high purpose were about half as likely to die as those who had a diminished sense of self-worth. The 1,238 senior participants in the Rush study answered questions about daily activities, goals and purpose to determine how successful the aging process would be. Another study looked at how volunteering affected seniors living with mild to moderate dementia. Half of the 15 senior participants in that study were asked to serve as mentors once a week at a Cleveland charter school. These volunteers, and their peers who remained at a nearby assisted living facility, were observed over a period of 10 months. Researchers discovered that those who volunteered had better cognitive stimulation, improved moods, reduced stress and a stronger sense of purpose than their non-volunteering peers, says Peter Whitehouse, a neurologist at Case Western Reserve University, which led the small, controlled study. He says socialization and that feeling of belonging are critical to our brain and physical well-being. "Our brain health has as much to do with the environment we create as our genes," says Whitehouse, author of "The Myth of Alzheimer's" ($25.95, St. Martin's Press). Whitehouse's rejection of what he calls "negative brain-aging views" is a popular topic at positive psychology workshops and conferences, including the third annual National Conference on Positive Aging held last month at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg. The conference isn't a scientific session; it holds consumer-centric workshops aimed at boosting the individual psyche through creative arts, healthful living, social activity and interacting. The purpose-finding message is gaining momentum as the massive Baby Boomer generation grows older. "You get to a place where life is finite," says Whitely, a positive aging conference leader. "It's not a fear of death, it's just that there's a limited time left, and that's when you ask about purpose," she says. In the past, much of the research on positive psychology related to matters of religion and faith. Conventional wisdom said a sense of purpose translated to a faith in a higher being. University of Michigan researchers, for example, have been looking for a correlation between prayer, optimism and success rates in people undergoing cardiac surgery. The most recent study, published in October's Journal of Behavioral Medicine, found that those who prayed more had fewer complications than those who did not. But for some people, the value of spiritual faith isn't necessary to reap emotional and potentially physical benefits, says neurologist Andrew Newberg, author of "How God Changes Your Brain" ($27, Ballantine Books). His Center for Spirituality and the Mind at the University of Pennsylvania found that people who have a mindful focus through meditation - interrupting any train of thought that might cause emotional instability - can reap the reward of improved brain function. Newberg's book describes how participants who meditated for 12 minutes a day for eight weeks developed cognitive growth similar to that seen in devout Tibetan Buddhist monks and Zen practitioners. "Meditation practice, even when removed from its spiritual and religious framework, can substantially improve memory in people suffering from cognitive problems," Newberg wrote. "This is good news for millions of Americans, because it is easy to get into the habit of meditating 12 minutes a day." But Whitely emphasizes that positive psychology isn't a blind belief that everything will be OK. Instead, it builds on life experiences, from joy and victory to loss and trauma. "Being positive doesn't mean it doesn't hurt or you don't cry over misfortune," Whitely says. "It's about moving on and realizing there's a great deal worth living for." [rc] © 2009 Media General Communications Holdings, LLC