LOS ALTOS, CA, July 29, 2013 – There is certainly no shortage of health advice these days, much of it contradictory. Today we are told that aspirin, coffee, and nuts are good for us. Next week? Maybe not so much. There is little doubt, however, and plenty of evidence to suggest, that a diet that includes the following mental nutrients will always produce a healthier and happier mind and body.
Ask Dr. James Doty, a world-class neurosurgeon and director of Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE), what the secret is to better health and he’ll tell you it’s compassion. “While survival of the fittest may lead to short-term gain,” he wrote in a column last year, “research clearly shows it is survival of the kindest that leads to the long-term survival of a species.”
Not only is compassion a predictor of longer life and faster recovery from disease, it also provides a greater sense of happiness, purpose, and meaning – and that’s just for the one who is being compassionate. There is also ample evidence to indicate that patients who feel genuinely cared for by their doctor respond more positively, suggesting that it’s not just drugs and surgery, but also a supportive mental environment that leads to healing.
Last year the John Templeton Foundation gave Dr. Robert Emmons, a psychology professor at the University of California, Davis $5.6 million to fund a three-year project to promote evidence-based practices of gratitude in schools, offices, homes, and communities. As Emmons himself would likely say, though, the real payoff isn’t in the number of dollars his research is attracting, but in the impact that gratitude is having on people’s lives. Perhaps most importantly on their health.
In one of his earlier studies, Emmons divided research participants into three groups. At the end of each week, one group wrote down five things they were grateful for, another group kept track of daily hassles, and a control group listed five events that had made some impression on them. In the end, Emmons discovered that those in the gratitude group generally felt better about their lives, were more optimistic about the future, and reported fewer health problems than the other participants.
A few years ago Dr. Elizabeth Dunn, along with two of her colleagues from the University of British Columbia and one from the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, conducted a study to determine the mental and physical impact of generosity. A game was played in which each participant was given ten dollars and told that they could either keep the money themselves or give any portion of it away.
“What we found, was that the more money people gave away, the happier they felt,” said Dunn in a podcast interview for Scientific American. “Conversely though, the more money people kept for themselves, the more shame they experienced.”
More than a mere imposition on one’s psyche, shame is thought to be a precursor to increased stress, which alone accounts for anywhere between 60 and 90 percent of all visits to the doctor.
According to a study presented to the American Psychological Association last summer, Dr. Anita Kelly confirmed what most of us have likely suspected all along – that telling the truth can have a positive impact on our mental and physical well being.
“Recent evidence indicates that Americans average about 11 lies per week,” said Kelly. “We wanted to find out if living more honestly can actually cause better health.”
During a 10-week experiment, Kelly observed 110 adults between the ages of 18 and 71. About half were told to stop telling lies. The other half received no special instructions.
What she found was that the link between less lying and better health was much stronger for people in the no-lie group. For example, when these participants told three fewer lies than they did in other weeks, they experienced on average about four fewer mental complaints, such as feeling tense or melancholy, and about three fewer physical complaints, such as sore throats and headaches.
“We found that the participants could purposefully and dramatically reduce their everyday lies,” said Kelly, “and that in turn was associated with significantly improved health.”
For over 20 years Dr. Fred Luskin has been teaching doctors, lawyers, hospital workers, and financial advisors, as well as those involved with major world events such as the conflict in Northern Ireland, how to forgive. Along the way he’s learned that forgiveness is not simply a pleasant state of mind. It is an essential element of our health.
“My research has shown that learning to forgive helps people hurt less, experience less anger, feel less stress and suffer less depression,” says Luskin, director of Stanford University’s Forgiveness Projects and author of Forgive for Good: A Proven Prescription for Health and Happiness. “Our research has also shown that forgiveness has physical health benefits. People who learn to forgive report significantly fewer symptoms of stress such as backache, muscle tension, dizziness, headaches and upset stomachs.”
Chances are, those who have been forgiven are feeling better as well.
Who knew that the simple act of trusting your neighbor could improve your health? Dr. Eileen Bjornstrom, for one.
In 2011 the assistant professor of sociology at the University of Missouri conducted a study and found that those with a higher relative income were more likely to distrust their neighbors, while those who said that their neighbors could be trusted also reported better health on average.
This was surprising to Bjornstrom, as she had assumed that feelings of financial inferiority lead to stress and negative emotions such as shame, hostility, and distrust, resulting in poorer health.
“If affluent individuals are less likely to trust their poorer neighbors,” says Bjornstrom, “it could be beneficial to attempt to overcome some of the distrust that leads to poor health.”
What’s love got to do with it? If the “it” you’re referring to is health, then quite a lot. Just ask Dr. Sean Mackey.
In 2010 the Stanford University researcher studied a handful of undergrads and found that those focusing their attention on a photo of their beloved boyfriend or girlfriend while receiving pain stimuli reported feeling 44% less pain than when they looked at a photo of just another friend.
Although some might interpret this as proof-positive that “pain is all in your head,” Mackey says that it is not as simple as that. While the body, in and of itself, is not capable of experiencing pain, it does appear to engage in some level of interaction with an individual’s thought before it can be interpreted as such. The question remains, however, whether it is the body governing our thought or our thought – including our capacity to love – that governs our body.
Many years before the likes of Drs. Doty, Emmons, Dunn, Kelly, Luskin, Bjornstrom, and Mackey began exploring the benefits of gratitude, forgiveness, and love, Mary Baker Eddy, a health researcher in her own right and the founder of the Christian Science church, saw the connection between the morally uplifted thought and body.
“The body improves under the same regimen which spiritualizes the thought,” she wrote in her seminal book, Science and Health, “and if health is not made manifest under this regimen, this proves that fear is governing the body. This is the law of cause and effect, or like producing like.”
Eddy’s discoveries were founded in large part on the work of another advocate of good health, who pre-dated her by about 2000 years. He knew, perhaps better than anyone before or since, that what we put into our bodies pales in comparison to what comes out – that is, the thoughts we entertain and the attitudes we adopt toward others and ourselves.
“It’s not what goes into your mouth that defiles you,” he said, “you are defiled by the words that come out of your mouth” (Matthew 15:11).
That was good health advice then and remains good health advice today.
Eric Nelson’s columns on the link between consciousness and health appear regularly in a number of local, regional, and national online publications. He also serves as the media and legislative spokesperson for Christian Science in Northern California.
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