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Think Positively to Be Healthier

Research shows that tapping into positive thoughts and actions can improve our healthy behaviors.

| January 26th, 2012
Think Positively to Be Healthier

Remember when "The Secret" came out? The power of positive thinking could have monumental impacts on our mental health, we were told. Joy, happiness and success abounds!

Well, according to new research, this same positivity can have a substantial impact on our physical health, too.

In three recent studies, scientists evaluated how positive thinking, thoughtful actions and self-affirmation could help patients with certain chronic diseases, including coronary artery disease, high blood pressure and asthma. What they found was an interesting correlation between positivity and making better health decisions.

Published in the Archives of Internal Medicine and funded by the National Institutes of Health, the studies looked at patients with various medical problems, testing the same intervention in each different population. This plan included a self-management workbook tailored to their condition and population, a behavioral contract outlining what they needed to do to improve their health, as well as phone calls every two months to check on their progress.

QUIZ: How Happy Are You Feeling?

In addition, patients were encouraged to think of “positive affirmations” or small things in their lives that made them feel good when they got up in the morning and throughout the day, or self-affirmations for previous successes when faced with obstacles that might interfere with their health (like an unwillingness to exercise when it was cold outside). Participants also received surprise gifts like tote bags prior to the phone sessions.

For those practicing positive affect and self-affirmations, the researchers discovered an improvement in healthy behaviors. For example, 55 percent of those with coronary artery disease increased their physical activity (compared to 37 percent of the control group) and walked an average of 3.4 miles more than the control group each week. Meanwhile, 42 percent with high blood pressure adhered to their medication regimen versus 36 percent in the control group. For asthma patients, there was also a notable benefit for patients requiring medical care.

Dr. Mary Charlson, professor and executive director of the Center for Integrative Medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College, led one of the studies and credits the positive actions with helping people follow through on behaviors to improve their health.

MORE: Thinking Well of Others Helps Your Wellbeing

"This simple approach gives patients the tools that help them fulfill their promise to themselves that they will do what's needed for their health. For example, if it's raining and they don't feel like exercising, these strategies can help them get past this mental block and into their sneakers," said Charlson in a statement.

Think this is a great idea? We do too.

While we love the idea of receiving unexpected gifts, that’s probably not realistic. (Darn!) What you can do though is practice some of the positive thoughts from the script that worked for the participants in the study:

First, when you get up in the morning, think about the small things that you said make you feel good, like _________ (example: babies in hats, the sunrise...). Then as you go through your day, notice those and other small things that make you feel good and take a moment to enjoy them.

Second, when you encounter some difficulties or are in a situation that makes it hard for you (e.g. taking your blood pressure medications or exercising), think about things you enjoy or proud moments in your life, like __________ (example: a graduation, success of a child...).

And even if you don’t have any physical health problems, don’t forget the power of positivity for your mental health, too!

MORE: Boost Your Positivity by Boosting Others

 

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