Are you realizing the full potential of your mind?
Now, before you recoil in horror from the New Agey guru-lingo that question probably sounded like, bear with me a minute. I was recently thumbing through one of my favorite books, Dr. Bruce Lipton’s The Biology of Belief, and it got me considering the possibility that creative visualization and positive thinking can both play enormous roles in the context of the Primal Blueprint. Lipton’s book discusses the emerging science of gene expression (sound familiar?), including the very PB-friendly notion that our environment – our diet, our stress level, even our state of mind – controls our DNA, rather than the other way around. If that’s the case (and the science seems to be agreeing that it is), our thoughts, actions, and moods might play an even bigger role in our health and general wellness than previously thought.
We’ve all heard anecdotal accounts of and seen movies about people beating terrible diseases with the power of positive thought. Little kids in baseball caps and terminal wards who get better when their hero hits a couple home runs for them at the big game. Cancer cases where the chemotherapy and radiation treatment don’t seem to work, but the reintroduction of a former lost love does. Even Lance Armstrong attributes a ton of his success – and part of his survival – to positive thinking and optimism. And I don’t think anyone would deny that being generally glum, surly, and unconfident about life will generally result in unfavorable outcomes – but does that mean the opposite is necessarily true?
There’s definitely evidence that positive thinking can be protective. Take breast cancer, for example. While the biggest determinants are largely genetic and environmental (including Vitamin D blood levels) in nature, one study found that of 255 women with breast cancer, most had either suffered adverse life events, like divorce or the death of a loved one, or were likely to characterize their pre-cancer life as “unhappy.” The control group – 367 healthy, cancer-free women – tended to be happier. These results suggest that a person’s state of mind can affect their susceptibility to cancer, but it doesn’t mean thinking happy thoughts can replace treatment. In fact, an Australian study found that a patient’s mental well being had no effect on breast cancer survival or recurrence. It may be that thinking positively can help stave off the depression that often accompanies an illness, and it can even reduce the chance of developing breast cancer, but it’s not a magic cure-all, and it won’t miraculously destroy cancer cells.
One way in which positive thinking can absolutely, unequivocally improve health is via the reduction of stress. Stress and negative thoughts – the two go hand in hand. If there’s one, the other probably isn’t far off. There’s no way the banker who works fifteen hour days, never sees his family, and loses hair every time he showers is happy; he’s stressed out beyond belief, and the negative health effects are plain to see (and some, like increased heart attack risk, poor sleep habits, and stroke, are probably lurking beneath the surface). Being happier would most likely reduce a lot of his issues and kill the stress, but it’s not as simple as putting on a (fake) smile and thinking (fake) happy thoughts. He can’t just will himself into thinking positively. His positive thoughts need some basis in reality; otherwise, he’s just lying to himself. As long as he’s still amassing all that stress and working the same job without any behavioral changes, all the happy thoughts in the world aren’t going to change a thing.
Researchers at the University of Waterloo in Ontario found that such “false” positive thinking can actually have a net negative effect. Merely repeating positive statements – regardless of whether or not they actually made sense or were applicable to a patient’s real mindset – wasn’t helpful to the subjects who already had low self-esteem. Those subjects who were already happy and confident found them helpful, but that was probably because the statements were just reinforcing what they already knew. The unhappy patients just got unhappier. Rather than filling them with newfound self-confidence, the superficial positive thinking just reminded them how terrible they felt. The happy people were telling the truth when they thought, “I am a lovable person,” because they believed it. When the unhappy people “thought” that, it amounted to a big lie, because they didn’t believe it. They may very well have actually been “lovable,” but it didn’t matter.
So what does this tell us about positive thinking? Is there any merit to it? Absolutely. Positive thought is essential to health and happiness, but you need to back it up with something substantial. Just going around with a silly smile on your face isn’t enough, unless you follow through with actual behavioral changes that reflect your optimism. Don’t think of happy thoughts as a panacea; think of them as a symptom of good living. Live well, eat well, move well, and you will be naturally happy. Also, thinking happy thoughts is a pretty reliable indicator that you’re doing it right and living well by the Ten Laws.
I’ll be touching on this topic again in the future. I’d love to hear your thoughts on how positive thinking plays (or doesn’t play) a role in your Primal lifestyle. Hit me up with a comment!