The Sunny Side of Positive Thinking

Now that I’ve trashed positive thinking in The Dark Side of Positive Thinking, it’s time to set the record straight.

Our beliefs and thoughts have a real, physical effect on our bodies, our brains, and our world.

Take the placebo effect. When I was in college, there was a time I had a headache every evening at 9 pm. My routine was to walk into the bathroom and take 2 aspirin. This was so automatic that it took me awhile to notice my headache disappeared seconds after I’d swallowed the tablets.

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Hmm…the aspirin couldn’t possibly work in 10 seconds. I knew about the placebo effect and decided to experiment on myself.

The next evening, my headache came right on cue. I walked into the bathroom, shook the closed aspirin bottle into my hand, and imagined there were 2 invisible aspirins there. I pretended to pluck them up and drop them onto my tongue. I swallowed them down with (real) water.

That was the end of my chronic headaches.

Lest you think I have bats in my belfry, let me assure you I’m not the only one who gets a placebo effect even when I know it’s a placebo.

Take the practice of vertebroplasty, where doctors inject cement to patch up a fractured vertebrae in the neck to relieve pain. 3/4 of a million people received this treatment over a 10 year period. Then it was tested with a control group who received only a shot of Novocaine, a short-term anesthetic. The other group received the Novocaine and then the cement injection.

Both groups had the same incidence of pain relief. What’s even more striking is that when the doctor told them the procedure worked no better than a placebo, the patients still wanted the treatment and still experienced pain relief!

That’s a concrete example (literally) of the power of positive ideas.

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Placebos don’t cure people, but they sometimes take away symptoms. Nocebos are the other side of the coin – an adverse physical symptom when you believe you’ve been exposed to something bad.

A famous case of a nocebo is the June Bug epidemic of 1962, when a mysterious disease broke out in a dressmaking factory. Word spread in the factory that a bug was biting its victims and causing numbness, nausea, dizziness, and vomiting. Almost immediately, 62 employees developed this illness. Some of them were hospitalized. Researchers concluded that it was an example of mass hysteria. No evidence was found for a bug which could cause those symptoms. Most workers had no evidence of being bitten by anything.

When I was in 4th grade and our class was dissecting frogs, someone suddenly cried out, “I cut into the frog and a squirt of formaldehyde shot into my eye!” In those days, this chemical was still being used to preserve the specimens.

Within minutes, more than half the students had experienced squirts of formaldehyde in their eyes. Naturally, I was one of those kids whose eye began to sting, burn, and turn red. 20 of us trooped into the nurse’s office and proudly emerged donning black eye patches. It was quite an exciting day, and we got to roam the halls like a band of one-eyed pirates.

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You get the idea.

People who have a positive view of aging and see it as a time of wisdom, self-realization and satisfaction, are 44% more likely to fully recover from a bout of disability.

A 2006 study explored the link between emotions and viral respiratory infections. Scientists evaluated the personality style of 193 healthy volunteers, then gave each a common respiratory virus. People who displayed a positive personality style were less likely to develop viral symptoms than their less positive peers.

So how does this positive thinking change the world around you?

I strive to be a realistic, or skeptical optimist. It means I examine reality but believe that good things will happen to me and that negative events are temporary setbacks to be overcome.

How do realistic optimists fare in the world? Optimistic sales people sell more than pessimistic ones. They don’t give up, they inspire confidence, and they’re more fun to be around.

Optimists tend to get better grades. They usually make more money.

The secret is having what’s called an internal locus of control. If a writer has an external locus of control, she might believe her novels are rejected because of bad luck. Maybe all the agents who read it were in the process of a divorce, or their dogs died. There’s nothing she can do to change that luck. But if she has an internal locus of control, she believes she has to revise more, write more books, or submit to agents who just returned from a holiday on the French Riviera. She believes she can shape her own destiny with her actions.

While nervously waiting on line at a dock in the Cancun Club Med to try water skiing for the first time, I overheard a young woman explaining her fear of the water. I eavesdropped because I too was terrified.

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“Why are you pushing yourself to water ski then?” a young man asked her.

She told this story: “I was always afraid of heights. When I heard that this Club Med had trapeze lessons, I decided to face my fear. It was the scariest and most exciting thing I’ve ever done. I aced it. When I returned home, I kept telling myself – you’re the type to fly on a trapeze. You can do anything you put your mind to. I became more assertive at work and was promoted. Learning the trapeze changed my life. Now I want to see what water-skiing does for me.”

What positive stories have changed your life and world?

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