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New Attitudes for Better Health

By Cynthia Haines, MD

America is a place where people have always dreamed big. Millions of immigrants moved their families here in hopes of a better life, inventors changed our reality with the force of their imaginations, and our society has celebrated a "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" mentality.

Even today, many Americans still subscribe to the view that you can accomplish virtually anything through positive thinking. Oprah Winfrey created her empire on the foundation of positive thinking. A popular book featured on her show - The Secret - essentially carried the message that if you want something, just focus on it with positive intention…and it will be yours.         

I'm not always a "glass is half-full" kind of person, but maintaining a positive mindset is a viewpoint that has served me - and I believe my patients - well. Do I think that imagining yourself winning the lottery will actually put the winning ticket in your hand? No. Do I think that a sunny disposition will protect you from ever having a disease? Of course not. But I also know that how we see the world around us plays a big role in how situations affect us.

After all, stress can contribute to health problems both small and large: It can lead to headaches and back pain, high blood pressure and decreased immunity. But stressful situations are in the eye of the beholder. Some people see a challenging situation and quickly get overwhelmed. Someone else can run into the same problem and gracefully get around it without a care. Repeat this situation over and over for years, and who likely experiences less mental and physical wear and tear?

Scientific research has supported the benefits of positive thinking - and the negative effects of pessimism. In a 2009 study from the Annals of Behavioral Medicine, researchers compiled more than 80 studies that assessed links between optimism and physical health. They concluded that on the whole, "These studies strongly suggest that optimism is a significant predictor of physical health."

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