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The Power of a Positive Attitude

By Cynthia Haines, MD

In my last article, I wrote about the value of positive thinking for good health. Since I believe this is such an important - and often overlooked - aspect of health, I've been digging through the medical literature a little more before returning for part two of this topic.


Here's some interesting food for thought:


Researchers at a 2009 conference presented the results of their study including 20 people with diabetes, hypertension, and high cholesterol (which are all extremely common conditions these days). They were either treated for these problems with usual therapies, or the usual care plus 30 minutes of humor every day. The patients who did more laughing had higher levels of "good" HDL cholesterol two months later. They also had lower levels of inflammatory chemicals that are linked to poor health.


Another study, from 2006, offers additional insight. Researchers had healthy young adults watch either a portion of a stressful movie (like the chaotic opening scene from Saving Private Ryan) or a comedy like There's Something About Mary. At the same time, the researchers measured blood flow through an artery in the participants' arms. The type of measurement they were using is, in general, lower in people with plaque buildup in their arteries, but it goes up when people lower their risk of heart disease. In most of the volunteers, this measurement was lower after watching the stressful clips, but it increased in nearly all of them after the funny clips.      


So a sunnier view may lead to better health outcomes. And we all want to be happy. What's the key to maintaining an upbeat attitude and finding humor in life? That's up to you to find out: To some people, nothing is funnier than a clown, but to other people the big red nose is stressful. But here are some ideas to get you going:


  1. Surround yourself with the positive. Our culture has a real appreciation for the dark side, with horror movies, downbeat TV shows, and tragic news available 24 hours a day. Be sure to balance this kind of input with more cheerful material. Spend your $10 on a funny movie instead of the kind that leaves you in a funk for the rest of the day. Listen to upbeat, energizing music when you need a lift; choose calming tunes when you are looking to calm down and chill out. And try going on a "news fast" for a few days - if something important happens in the world, a friend will tell you about it.
  2. Remember the inspiration. When you hear a lyric in a song that moves you, jot it down. Do the same when you read an inspirational quote, or your child makes a profound observation. When you're feeling low, go back and read these notes. It can help bring you back to the inspiration you felt upon hearing or reading it the first time.
  3. Focus on leading a healthy lifestyle. Physical activity is a great way to improve your mood and reduce your stress hormones. Try to get 30 minutes of exercise on most days. While you're at it, eat a steady amount of healthy, minimally processed foods throughout the day, instead of binging periodically on sugary junk foods and caffeine. This will help keep you from feeling groggy during the day, which sets the stage for feeling down. And try to get enough sleep. All these suggestions are good for your body and your mental outlook.
  4. Get a pet. Loneliness is a recipe for a bad mood, and pets provide great company. Their energy can be infectious, they do silly things, and - at least for dogs - they get you out of the house, where you can meet other people.   And, according to a study recently published in the journal Obesity, people with dogs may be slightly more active than those without dogs. The researchers also found that, after a year, the people with dogs had lost an average of 11 pounds (the dogs lost weight too).


Other research indicates that people with pets tend to enjoy lower stress levels and resultant health benefits such as reduced resting blood pressure.


Come to think of it, maybe my kids' campaign for a puppy will see success in 2010.

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