Newsletter - December, 2000

Impact of Positive Emotion on Health: Survival

Paul McGhee, PhD

    “If I’d known I was going to live this long, I’d have taken better care of myself.”

Last month we discussed the effect of positive emotion (in studies not looking at humor or laughter) upon patient symptoms for a broad range of health conditions. This month, we will consider the impact of positive emotion on patient survival. One important study showed that among a group of individuals 65 and older, those who were optimistic about their health, in spite of lab tests that showed them to be in poor health, had lower death rates over the next six years than those who were pessimistic about their health--in spite of health records which documented that they were in good health.1 Optimism, in this case, became a self-fulfilling prophecy, leading individuals in relatively poor health to fare better than their healthier, but pessimistic peers.

The most dramatic evidence of the impact of a positive attitude on health comes from studies of survival rates of cancer patients. For example, among patients with metastatic (spreading) cancers, those who expressed greater hope at the time of their diagnosis survived longer.2 In another study, over 400 reports of spontaneous remission of cancer were reviewed and analyzed. The patients themselves attributed their cure to a broad range of causes, but only one factor was common to all cases--a shift toward greater hope and a more positive attitude.3

One clinician traced unexpected tumor shrinkage to favorable changes in the psychosocial situation of the patient. Examples of such changes include “a sudden fortunate marriage; the experience of having one’s entire order of clergy engage in an intercessory prayer; sudden, lasting reconciliation with a long-hated mother; unexpected and enthusiastic praise and encouragement from an expert in one’s field; and the fortunate death of a decompensated alcoholic and addicted husband who stood in the way of a satisfying career.”4

Norman Cousins described the preliminary findings of a national survey of oncologists, completed during his stay at the UCLA Medical School. Of the 649 who offered their opinions on the importance of various psychosocial factors in fighting cancer, “More than 90% of the physicians said they attached the highest value to the attitudes of hope and optimism.”5

All of these findings are consistent with the findings of a recent study showing that method actors asked to generate the emotion of joy within themselves showed an increase in the number of natural killer cells circulating in the blood stream within 20 minutes.6 Once they got themselves out of this positive state, their levels of natural killer cells quickly dropped again.

There have always been doctors who have emphasized the importance of a “will to live” in fighting serious diseases. Most recently, this banner has been carried nobly by Dr. Bernie Siegel, who emphasizes the importance of hope, determinism, optimism, and a “fighting spirit” among patients who are battling cancer. Research now supports this view, so it is important that doctors, nurses, and family members associated with people who are ill make an effort to support the development and maintenance of a positive outlook in the patient.

Evidence of the importance of a fighting spirit was obtained in another study of cancer survivors.7 Cancer patients with a fighting spirit were most likely to be long-term survivors, and have no relapses. Short-term survivors were more likely to show a “stoic, stiff upper lip attitude,” and to continue their lives either as if nothing were different, or with a sense of helplessness or hopelessness.

AIDS patients with a more optimistic outlook have also been shown to survive longer,8 as have men suffering heart attacks.9 In describing preliminary findings from a study of AIDS survivors completed at the UCLA Medical School, Cousins reported that “the refusal to accept the verdict of grim inevitability” is one of the traits that characterizes AIDS patients who live long past the time predicted for them.10 All of these findings clearly support the idea that positive beliefs, attitudes, and emotions contribute to your survival. And your sense of humor helps maintain this positive focus on a day-to-day basis.

Hopefully, you are not presently dealing with any form of serious illness. But if you are, you have every reason to do whatever you can to take control of your daily attitude, maintaining as positive and hopeful an outlook as you can. Your sense of humor provides one tool for helping you do this.

[Excerpt from Dr. McGhee's book, Health, Healing and the Amuse System: Humor as Survival Training. Published by Kendall/Hunt, 1999. To order a copy by e-mail, see Click on orders. ISBN number is 7872-5797-4.]

Pun Fun

1) When Europeans first discovered how to make expresso coffee, everyone was very excited about the stimulating new taste. All agreed that this gave them __________ for a big celebration.
CLUE: What's the term we use to refer to the by-product of making coffee?

2) What kind of degree do they give dogs who successfully complete dog training school? A ______________ degree.
CLUE: Play with the American term used for college degrees
EXTRA CLUE: What do we call the sound a dog makes?

3. A man was locked in a room and told he couldn't come out until he made a pun. He immediately shouted "______ the door!" When he came out, he angrily quipped that anyone caught violently forcing others to create puns should be sent to a ______________.
CLUE: What is the natural word to use in the first blank?
EXTRA CLUE: Use the word "pun" in each case.

4) Oliver Wendell Holmes once said that he was grateful for small _______.
CLUE: This is a play on a familiar American phrase. What do we use thermometers for?

1. Mossey, J.A. & Shapiro, E. Self-rated health: A predictor of mortality among the elderly. American Journal of Public Health, 1982, 72, 800-808.
2. Gottshalk, L.A. Hope and other deterrents of illness. American Journal of Psychotherapy, 1985, 39, 515-524.
3. Green, E. & Green, A. Beyond Biofeedback. New York: Delta, 1975.
4. Weinstock, C. Recent progress in cancer psychobiology and psychiatry. Journal of the American Society of Psychosomatic Dentistry and Medicine, 1977, 24, 4-14.
5. Cousins, N. Head First: The Biology of Hope. New York: Dutton, 1989, p. 126.
6. Kemeny, M. Emotions and the immune system. In B. Moyers, Healing and the Mind. New York: 1993.
7. Pettingale, K.W., et al. Mental attitudes to cancer: An attitudinal prognostic factor. Lancet, 1985, 8, 750.
8. Temoshok, L. Clinical psychoneuroimmunology in AIDS. Paper presented at annual meeting of the Society of Behavioral Medicine, San Francisco, 1986.
Solomon, G.F., et al. An intensive psychoimmunologic study of long-surviving persons with AIDS. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1987, 496, 647-655.
9. Peterson, C. & Bossio, L.M. Health attitudes: Optimism, hope, and control. In Goleman & Gurin, 1993.
10. Cousins, 1989.

Answers to Pun Fun
1. Grounds.
2. Barkalaureate (baccalaureate)
3. O-pun (open) . . . punitentiary (penitentiary).
4. Fevers (the familiar phrase is "grateful for small favors).