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September 30, 2013 at 8:53 PMComments: 0 Faves: 0

Optimists vs. Pessimists: Secrets for a Healthy, Happy, Lengthy Life

By Jeffrey VanWingen M.D. More Blogs by This Author

As a primary care doctor, I give out a lot of bad news. "You have diabetes." "You have cancer." "You have herpes." These are daily diagnoses in my office. When my patients hear this sort of news, they often enter a cloud of confusion. When the bad news bombs are dropped, strategic treatment discussions are often ignored in favor of the question "How did this happen to me?"

Different people have different outlooks. Some believe themselves invincible, while others consider themselves programmed for destruction. A lot of this has to do with maturity.

Ambivalence: The Invincible

Teenagers in particular are characteristically ambivalent toward consequences of poor health choices. Many behavioral psychologists consider this indestructible self-perception an expected milestone. In unfortunate cases, things tend to come crashing down rather quickly - the classic example being unprotected sex resulting in an unwanted pregnancy or sexually transmitted disease. Of course, the classic refrain in these situations is, "I didn't think it could happen to me." This can create a bewildering "fast forward button" to a more realistic viewpoint.

Fate: The Doomed

Some people just feel like the odds are stacked against them. This mindset may exist for no apparent reason or as guilt for otherwise unrelated actions or behaviors, a desire for atonement of sorts. For instance, I've spoken with patients that are convinced that they won't live beyond a certain age. They just can't imagine themselves existing in the future. Others believe that they have a burden to bear or a debt to pay with their pain and suffering. Though no science has sufficiently proven it, I'm amazed by how many of these people tend to self-fulfill their own prophecies.

Acceptance: The Healthy Balance

As a bit of contrast, some accept that their afflictions are God's will. While this can open a whole different group of questions and frustrations, most find comfort in the notion that their suffering is part of a process of growth. According to the maxim, metal needs to be forged in fire to become what it was meant to be.

Sometimes I have to be brutally honest and tell people that their afflictions are just random dumb luck, that they represent the statistical chance that a certain health problem can affect one in some large number. As the "one," they search in vain for some reason for their new burden when no such reason exists. For instance, pancreatic cancer has no apparent cause that we know of. This mostly fatal disease strikes without reason and plucks people from their complacent, healthy lives. 

Lifestyle Vs Genetic Causes

For some health issues, the scales have been tipped. Smoking obviously has influenced the odds when it comes to lung cancer. Consider that smokers have a one in four chance of contracting lung cancer as opposed to one in five hundred for non-smokers. While a non-smoker could consider lung cancer bad luck, a smoker should know better.  

While smoking is an example of a controllable predictor of illness, many factors that impact the odds of getting an illness cannot be controlled. Genetics have taught us that having a parent with colon cancer increases the odd of also getting the disease. And, in this day and age at least, there is no changing genetics.  As they say, you can pick your nose, but you can't pick your relatives. In many cases, however, knowledge is the best medicine, increasing vigilance and reducing risk. Those with a family history of colon cancer, for instance, can prevent the legacy with the vigilance of a simple colonoscopy. 

The Best Mindset for a Healthy Life

While this may seem philosophical and abstract, a mindset can help us in times of negative health outcomes.

  • Don't Count On Luck. If we continue down the path of risk, we shouldn't be surprised to see where it leads us. We must consider the consequences of our health decisions and plan for these consequences instead of rationalizing that we will be the lucky ones. 
  • Predict The Most Likely Consequence. When I question a patient about their smoking and hear, "I know a guy that smoked two packs of unfiltered Marlboros for his whole life and died in his sleep at the age of 95," I know that a realistic picture is absent.
  • Fight Fears With Action. I ask patients about the fears they may have about their future health and challenge them to decrease their odds by reducing risky behaviors. Stimulate the mind to prevent Alzheimers or watch the cholesterol to reduce stoke risk, for instance.
  • Talk to Your Kids. Teens need a reality check. They need to be reminded that they're mortal after all, but in a creative and non-condescending way. Nothing turns a teenager off more than pigeon holing them into the "teenager box."
  • Keep it Balanced. I encourage people not to fear potential sickness, but to celebrate health.

Bad health outcomes happen and some may even be considered inevitable. Embracing the facts that unhealthy behaviors increase risk and that chance can affect anyone, can help us approach these possibilities in a realistic manner. 

Reducing risky behaviors can prevent the consequences of such behaviors, while ambivalence can sabotage health through bad decisions. Waiting for the hammer of illness to drop creates unnecessary stress and may negatively impact health. 

Life is best lived healthy, appreciating each day as a gift.  Live, and live well!

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