At some stage of our lives, most of us will experience a traumatic health event. Addressing the physical is essential, but we rarely consider the impact of our psychology on our recovery.
Cultivating optimism fuels recovery and helps us to make better decisions about our health, according to a new study by researchers at the University of Sydney Business School.
“We all know doctors can prescribe certain medicines that are useful if we’re sick or very ill, and we wanted to better understand how the mind could help us in these situations where an illness is quite serious and recovering is a matter of life or death,” explained lead author Professor Donnel Briley.
In a series of six experiments, researchers explored how thinking about the future affected more than 1300 participants including those recovering from cancer and people who had recently been affected by severe flooding.
As well as asking participants how they felt about their futures, the researchers looked at physiological outcomes.
“We saw a number of outcomes that were quite powerful,” Briley said. “We were interested in looking at the impact of our thinking techniques on what we call ‘mission critical behaviour’ so the amount of energy or endurance people have. We found that our techniques led to greater physical energy.”
In a grip-test for instance, those facing cancer squeezed more vigorously when they pictured their future more clearly and concretely.
“We also examined people’s choices in terms of their eating. The more optimistic people had better, more healthy choices about what they ate. They felt better about themselves and they reflected that in their diet selections.”
Across all experiments, they found that optimism was a “cornerstone” of recovery but there was not a “single, universal” approach to cultivating it.
“We found an interesting cultural difference in how to make people optimistic about their future, such that they’re more likely to overcome the health threat that they’re facing,” Briley explained. “It’s not the case that everybody should do the same thing in order to overcome a serious illness.”
Specifically, they found that people with a European background were most able to think optimistically about the future when they imagined what they would do regardless of the circumstance.
“On the other hand, those with an Asian background were less optimistic under those circumstances than they were if we asked them to directly think about how they would respond to particular hurdles, situations and issues that they might face,” Briley said.
The hypothesis is that those with an Anglo background tend to place more value on the independent self, where they ‘initiate’ action regardless of circumstance, whereas those from an Asian background, where interdependence is more valued, find it easier to imagine outcomes that are integrated into circumstance.
Either way, Briley says, “it is very important, when you’re gravely ill, to take the time to plan for the future, and a part of that is imagining the steps it takes to get better”.
Optimism, Briley insists, is not the same as gratitude for hardship.
“What we’re suggesting is a much more assertive, forward-thinking approach to illness,” he explained, “so our recommendation is that you do need to think about and plan for your future and the way you think about and imagine that future is important in terms of generating the optimism that is going to be successful in terms of pushing you through to a successful recovery.”
This can be challenging for those who don’t feel optimistic or hopeful about their situation. Briley said that before a person is able to think positively and plan for the future, “a certain amount of calm is very important”.
“That means a bit of relaxation, a bit of meditation, reducing some of the basic anxieties so that one has the foundation to build that optimism,” he said. It may also mean getting support to address any anxieties or fears.
He also makes the distinction between optimism and hope.
While hope is “a good thing to have as well”, optimism is more powerful, Briley said as it is believing in a positive outcome rather than hoping for one, but not believing it will, or can, happen.
There is no The Secret-style attempt to manifest the unlikely, rather optimism is using what is in our control to plan the steps you need to take for a positive future.
“At the base it’s imagery that we have, it’s imagery that’s important,” Briley said. “If you actually see yourself in your mind doing something, being successful, overcoming the obstacle, it makes it more likely that in reality that will actually happen.”