WHY DOES THE possibility that mental life influences physical illness meet with such resistance? The answer reflects the knottiest of all the philosophical problems I know. There are but two kinds of substance in the universe argued the great seventeenth-century rationalist Rene Descartes: physical and mental. How do they act upon each other?
We can see how one billiard ball hitting another causes it to move. But how does the mental act of willing your hand to move to cause the physical movement of your hand? Descartes had his own quirky answer. He said that the mind runs the body via the pineal gland, a brain organ whose function is still not well understood. Descartes’ answer was wrong, and scientists and philosophers ever since have been trying to figure out by what path mental substance might influence physical substance.
Optimism and Good Health
IN THE LAST five years, laboratories around the world have produced a steady flow of scientific evidence that psychological traits, particularly optimism, can produce good health. This evidence makes sense of and supersedes the torrent of personal stories in which states ranging from laughter to the will to live to appear to help health. In four ways, the theory of learned helplessness strongly suggests that optimism should benefit health.
Pessimism, III Health, and Cancer
THE FIRST SYSTEMATIC study of pessimism’s role in causing sickness was carried out by Chris Peterson. In the mid-198m, when he was teaching abnormal psychology at Virginia Tech, Chris got his class of 150 students to fill out the ASQ.
The Immune System
MATERIALISTS VIEW the immune system as isolated from the psychology of the person in whom it resides. They believe that psychological variables like optimism and hope are as vaporous as spirit, so they are Doubting Thomas’s claims that optimism, depression, and bereavement all affect the immune system. They forget that the immune system is connected to the brain and that states of mind, such as hope, have corresponding brain states that reflect the psychology of the person. These brain states then affect the rest of the body. So there is no mystery and no spiritualism involved in the process by which emotion and thought can affect illness.
Optimism and a Healthier Life
Is IT POSSIBLE that optimists live longer than pessimists? Is it more likely that if you have an optimistic explanatory style while you are young, you will be healthier for the rest of your life? This is not an easy question to answer scientifically. It will not do to point to the legions of very old people and show that the majority are optimists. They may be optimists because they have lived long and been healthy, rather than the other way around.
Before we could answer this question, we had to answer several others. First, we needed to find out if the explanatory style is stable across a whole lifetime. If optimism, while you are young, is to effects your health into old age, it should be the case that your level of optimism lasts a lifetime. To investigate this, Melanie Burns, a graduate student at the university, and I advertised in senior citizens’ publications for people who still had diaries they kept when they were teenagers. Thirty people answered our ad and turned their diaries over to us.
Just as exciting, we will be trying prevention. We will be giving the exercises you’ll find in chapter twelve to people at high risk for disease: newly divorced or separated individuals and military recruits in the Arctic cold. These people ordinarily suffer unusually high rates of illness. Will changing the pessimistic explanatory style bolster their immune defenses and prevent physical illness? We have high hopes.