Optimal health begins with a positive mental attitude. There is a growing body of evidence that the thoughts and emotions you experience on a regular basis determine to a very large extent the level of health you experience as well as the quality of your life. Life is full of events that are beyond our control, but we do have full control over our response to these events. Our attitude goes a long way in determining how we view and respond to all of the challenges of life. You will be much happier, much healthier, and much more successful if you can adopt a positive mental attitude rather than a pessimistic view.
Studies using various scales to assess attitude have shown that individuals with a pessimistic attitude have poorer health, are prone to depression, are more frequent users of medical and mental health care, exhibit more decline in memory and brain function with aging, and have a lower survival rate compared with optimists.1–8 One of the most recent studies involved a study of 5,566 people who completed a survey at two time points: between ages 51 and 56 and then again between ages 63 and 67. The results showed that people with negative attitudes were 7.16 times more likely to be depressed 10 years later.8
Determine Your Level of Optimism
Attitude is reflected by explanatory style, a term developed by noted psychologist Martin Seligman to describe the way we habitually explain the events in our lives.7 To determine your level of optimism, take the Attributional Style Questionnaire developed by Seligman, provided in Appendix A. Techniques to help you learn to be more optimistic are given later in this chapter.
Attitude, Personality, Emotions, and Immune Function
The importance of attitude to human health has been demonstrated in the links between the brain, emotions, and immune system. Research in the field of psychoneuroimmunology indicates that every part of the immune system is connected to the brain in some way, either via a direct nervous tissue connection or through the complex language of chemical messengers and hormones. What scientists are discovering is that every thought, emotion, and experience sends a message to the immune system that either enhances or impairs its ability to function. A simplistic view is that positive emotions, such as joy, happiness, and optimism, tend to boost immune system function, whereas negative emotions, such as depression, sadness, and pessimism, tend to suppress it.
Studies examining immune function in optimists vs. pessimists have demonstrated significantly better immune function in the optimists.5,9–12 The immune system is so critical to preventing cancer that if emotions and attitude were risk factors for cancer, one would expect to see an increased risk of cancer in people who have long-standing depression or a pessimistic attitude. Research supports this association.13,14
Just as research has identified attitude traits that are associated with impaired immune function, it has also identified a collection of “immune power” traits. These include a positive mental attitude, an effective strategy for dealing with stress, and a capacity to effectively deal with life’s traumas and challenges.14,15
Attitude and Cardiovascular Health
In addition to the brain and immune system, the body’s cardiovascular system is intricately tied to emotions and attitude. The relationship of explanatory style (optimistic or pessimistic) to incidence of coronary heart disease was examined as part of the Veterans Affairs Normative Aging Study, an ongoing cohort study of older men.6 Men reporting high levels of optimism had a 45% lower risk for angina pectoris, nonfatal myocardial infarction, and death from coronary heart disease than men reporting high levels of pessimism. Interestingly, a clear dose-response relationship was found between levels of optimism and each outcome.
To illustrate how closely the cardiovascular system is linked to attitude, one study showed that measures of optimism and pessimism affected something as simple as ambulatory blood pressure.16 Pessimistic adults had higher blood pressure levels and felt more negative and less positive than optimistic adults. These results suggest that pessimism has broad physiological consequences.
Excessive anger, worrying, and other negative emotions have also been shown to be associated with an increased risk for cardiovascular disease; however, these emotions may simply reflect a pessimistic explanatory style.
Attitude and Self-Actualization
A positive mental attitude is absolutely essential for us to really live life to the fullest. It also helps propel us to be the best that we can be. There appears to be an innate drive within each of us to achieve the experience of self-actualization in our lives. Self-actualization is a concept developed by Abraham Maslow, the founding father of humanistic psychology. His theories were the result of intense research on psychologically healthy people over a period of more than 30 years. Maslow was really the first psychologist to study healthy people, as he strongly believed such research would create a firm foundation for the theories and values of a new psychotherapy.17
Maslow discovered that healthy individuals are motivated toward self-actualization, a process of “ongoing actualization of potentials, capacities, talents, as fulfillment of a mission (or call, fate, destiny, or vocation), as a fuller knowledge of, and acceptance of, the person’s own intrinsic nature, as an increasing trend toward unity, integration, or synergy within the person.”17 In other words, healthy people strive and are actually driven to be all that they can be.
Maslow developed a five-step pyramid of human needs in which personality development progresses from one step to the next. The needs at the lower levels must be satisfied before the next level can be achieved. When needs are met, the individual moves toward well-being. The figure above displays Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
The primary needs that form the base of the pyramid are basic survival or physiological needs—the satisfaction of hunger, thirst, sexual desire, and the need for shelter. These are essential biological needs. The next step consists of needs for safety—security, order, and stability. These feelings are essential in dealing with the world. If these needs are satisfied, the individual can progress to the next step, love. This level refers to the ability to love and be loved. The following step, self-esteem, requires approval, recognition, and acceptance. These elements contribute strongly to high self-esteem and self-respect. The final step is self-actualization—the utilization of one’s creative potential for self-fulfillment.
Maslow studied self-actualized people and noted that they had strikingly similar characteristics. Here in abbreviated form are some of Maslow’s findings:
1. Self-actualized people perceive reality more accurately and effectively than others and are more comfortable with it. They have an unusual ability to detect the spurious, the fake, and the dishonest. They judge experiences, people, and things correctly and efficiently. They possess an ability to be objective about their own strengths, possibilities, and limitations. This self-awareness enables them to clearly define their values, goals, desires, and feelings. They are not frightened by uncertainty.
2. Self-actualized people have an acceptance of self, others, and nature. They can accept their own human shortcomings without condemnation. They do not have an absolute lack of guilt, shame, sadness, anxiety, or defensiveness, but they do not experience these feelings to unnecessary or unrealistic degrees. When they do feel guilty or regretful, they do something about it. Generally, they will feel bad about discrepancies between what is and what ought to be.
3. Self-actualized people are relatively spontaneous in their behavior, and far more spontaneous than that in their inner life, thoughts, and impulses. They seldom allow convention to keep them from doing anything they consider important or basic.
4. Self-actualized people have a problem-solving orientation toward life instead of an orientation centered on self. They commonly have a mission in life, some problem outside themselves that enlists much of their energies. In general, this mission is unselfish and is involved with the philosophical and the ethical.
5. Self-actualized people have a quality of detachment and a need for privacy. It is often possible for them to remain above the battle, to be undisturbed by things that upset others. The meaning of their life is self-decision, self-governing, and being an active, responsible, self-disciplined, deciding person rather than a helpless pawn ruled by others.
6. Self-actualized people have a wonderful capacity to appreciate again and again the basic pleasures of life such as nature, children, music, and sexual experience. They approach these basic experiences with awe, pleasure, wonder, and even ecstasy.
7. Self-actualized people commonly have mystic or “peak” experiences, times of intense emotion in which they transcend self. During a peak experience they have feelings of limitless horizons, feelings of unlimited power, and at the same time feelings of being more helpless than ever before. There is a loss of place and time, and feelings of great ecstasy, wonder, and awe. The experience ends with the conviction that something extremely important and valuable has happened, and the person is to some extent transformed and strengthened by the experience.
8. Self-actualized people have deep feelings of identification with, sympathy toward, and affection for other people in spite of occasional anger, impatience, or disgust.
9. Self-actualized people have deeper and more profound interpersonal relationships than most other adults, but not necessarily deeper than children. They are capable of more closeness, greater love, more perfect identification, and more erasing of ego boundaries than other people would consider possible. One consequence is that self-actualized people have especially deep ties with rather few individuals and their circle of friends is small. They tend to be kind to or at least patient with almost everyone, yet they speak realistically and harshly of those who they feel deserve it, especially individuals who are hypocritical, pretentious, pompous, or self-inflated.
10. Self-actualized people are democratic in the deepest possible sense. They are friendly toward everyone regardless of class, education, political beliefs, race, or color. They believe it is possible to learn something from everyone. They are humble in the sense of being aware of how little they know in comparison with what could be known and what is known by others.
11. Self-actualized people are strongly ethical and moral. However, their notions of right and wrong and of good and evil are often not conventional ones.
12. Self-actualized people have a keen, unhostile sense of humor. They don’t laugh at jokes that hurt other people or are aimed at others’ inferiority. They can make fun of others in general, or of themselves, when they are foolish or when they try to appear big despite being small. They are inclined toward thoughtful humor that elicits a smile, is intrinsic to the situation, and arises spontaneously.
13. Self-actualized people are highly imaginative and creative. The creativeness of a self-actualized individual is not of the special-talent type such as Mozart’s, but rather is similar to the naive and universal creativeness of unspoiled children.
Practical Application of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs
LEVEL OF NEED
Opportunities for creativity
Achievement in work
High status of job
Feedback from the job itself
Work groups or teams
Health and safety
Contract of employment
The Road to Self-Actualization
Self-actualization doesn’t happen all at once. It happens by degrees, subtle changes accumulating one by one. Self-actualization begins when you take personal responsibility for your own positive mental state, your life, your current situation, and your health. Once you take on this responsibility, it is up to you to direct your life. You must commit yourself to being the best you can be at whatever you do in life. For motivation, here is an all-time favorite quote from Goethe:
Until one is committed there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never have otherwise occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it. Begin it now!
The Seven Steps to a Positive Mental Attitude
In an effort to help you develop a positive mental attitude as well as attain self-actualization, we offer the following seven key steps:
Step 1: Become an Optimist
The first step in developing a positive mental attitude is to become an optimist rather than a pessimist. Fortunately, according to Dr. Seligman, we are, by nature, optimists.18 Optimism is a vital component of good health and an ally in the healing process. Focus on the positives even in challenging situations.
Step 2: Become Aware of Self-Talk
We all talk to ourselves. There is a constant dialogue taking place in our heads. Our self-talk makes an impression on our subconscious mind. In order to develop or maintain a positive mental attitude you must guard against negative self-talk. Become aware of your self-talk and then consciously work to imprint positive self-talk on the subconscious mind. Two powerful tools in creating positive self-talk are questions (Step 3) and affirmations (Step 4).
Step 3: Ask Better Questions
One of the most powerful tools that Dr. Murray has found useful in improving the quality of his self-talk and, hence, the quality of his life is a series of questions originally given to him by Anthony Robbins, author of the best sellers Unlimited Power and Awaken the Giant Within. According to Tony, the quality of your life is equal to the quality of the questions you habitually ask yourself. Tony’s belief is based on the idea that you will get an answer to whatever question you ask your brain.
Let’s look at an example. An individual is met with a particular challenge or problem. He can ask a number of questions when in this situation. Questions many people may ask in this circumstance include “Why does this always happen to me?” and “Why am I always so stupid?” Do they get answers to these questions? Do the answers build self-esteem? Does the problem keep reappearing? What would be a higher-quality question? How about “This is a very interesting situation. What do I need to learn from this situation so that it never happens again?” Or how about “What can I do to make this situation better?”
In another example, let’s look at an individual who suffers from depression. Questions she might ask herself that may not be helping her situation include “Why am I always so depressed?” “Why do things always seem to go wrong for me?” and “Why am I so unhappy?” Better questions she might ask herself include “What do I need to do to gain more enjoyment and happiness in my life?” “What do I need to commit to doing in order to have more happiness and energy in my life?” After she has answered these questions, she might ask, “If I had happiness and high energy levels right now, what would it feel like?” You will be amazed at how powerful questions can be in your life. Changing the questions she asks reprograms her subconscious into believing she has an abundance of energy. Unless there is a physiological reason for the chronic fatigue (e.g., see the chapter “Chronic Fatigue Syndrome”), it won’t take long before the subconscious believes.
Regardless of the situation, asking better questions is bound to improve your attitude. If you want to have a better life, simply ask better questions. It sounds simple because it is. If you want more energy, excitement, and/or happiness in your life, simply ask yourself the following questions on a consistent basis:
1. What am I most happy about in my life right now?
Why does that make me happy?
How does that make me feel?
2. What am I most excited about in my life right now?
Why does that make me excited?
How does that make me feel?
3. What am I most grateful about in my life right now?
Why does that make me grateful?
How does that make me feel?
4. What am I enjoying most about in my life right now?
What about that do I enjoy?
How does that make me feel?
5. What am I committed to in my life right now?
Why am I committed to that?
How does that make me feel?
6. Whom do I love? (Start close and move out.)
Who loves me?
7. What must I do today to achieve my long-term goal?
Step 4: Employ Positive Affirmations
An affirmation is a statement with some emotional intensity behind it. Positive affirmations can make imprints on the subconscious mind to create a healthy, positive self-image. In addition, affirmations can actually fuel the changes you desire. You may want to have the following affirmations in plain sight to recite them over the course of the day:
I am blessed with an abundance of energy!
Love, joy, and happiness flow through me with every heartbeat.
I am thankful to God for all of my good fortune!
YES I CAN!
Here are some very simple guidelines for creating your own affirmations. Have fun with it! Positive affirmations can make you feel really good if you follow these guidelines.
1. Always phrase an affirmation in the present tense. Imagine that it has already come to pass.
2. Always phrase the affirmation as a positive statement. Do not use the words not and never.
3. Do your best to totally associate with the positive feelings that are generated by the affirmation.
4. Keep the affirmation short and simple but full of feeling. Be creative.
5. Imagine yourself really experiencing what you are affirming.
6. Make the affirmation personal to you and full of meaning.
Using the above guidelines and examples, write down five affirmations that apply to you. State these affirmations aloud while you are taking your shower, driving, or praying.
Step 5: Set Positive Goals
Learning to set goals in a way that results in a positive experience is another powerful method for building a positive attitude and raising self-esteem. Goals can be used to create a “success cycle.” Achieving goals helps you feel better about yourself, and the better you feel about yourself, the more likely you are to achieve your goals. Here are some guidelines to use in setting goals.
1. State the goal in positive terms; do not use any negative words in your goal statement. For example, it is better to say “I enjoy eating healthful, low-calorie, nutritious foods” than to say “I will not eat sugar, candy, ice cream, and other fattening foods.”
2. Make your goal attainable and realistic. Again, goals can be used to create a success cycle and positive self-image. Little things add up to make a major difference in the way you feel about yourself.
3. Be specific. The more clearly your goal is defined, the more likely you are to reach it. For example, if you want to lose weight, what is the weight you desire? What is the body fat percentage or measurements you desire? Clearly define what it is you want to achieve.
4. State the goal in the present tense, not the future tense. In order to reach your goal, you have to believe you have already attained it. You must program yourself to achieve the goal. See and feel yourself having already achieved the goal.
Any voyage begins with one step and is followed by many other steps. Remember to set short-term goals that can be used to help you achieve your long-term goals. Get into the habit of asking yourself the following question each morning and evening: “What must I do today to achieve my long-term goal?”
Step 6: Practice Positive Visualization
Positive visualization or imagery is another powerful tool in creating health, happiness, and success. We have to be able to see our life the way we want it to be before this can happen. In terms of ideal health, you absolutely must picture yourself in ideal health if you truly want to experience this state. You can use visualization in all areas of your life, but especially when it comes to your health; in fact, some of the most promising research on the power of visualization involves enhancing the immune system in the treatment of cancer. Be creative and have fun with positive visualizations, and you will soon find yourself living your dreams.
Step 7: Laugh Long and Often
When you laugh frequently and take a lighter view of life, you will find that life is much more enjoyable. Researchers are discovering that laughter enhances the immune system and promotes improved physiology. Recent medical research has also confirmed that laughter:
• Enhances the blood flow to the body’s extremities and improves cardiovascular function.
• Plays an active part in the body’s release of endorphins and other natural mood-elevating and painkilling chemicals.
• Improves the transfer of oxygen and nutrients to internal organs.
Here are eight tips to help you get more laughter in your life.
1. Learn to laugh at yourself. Recognize how funny some of your behavior really is—especially your shortcomings or mistakes. We all have little idiosyncrasies or behaviors that are unique to us that we can recognize and enjoy. Do not take yourself too seriously.
2. Inject humor anytime it is appropriate. People love to laugh. Get a joke book and learn how to tell a good joke. Humor and laughter really make life enjoyable.
3. Read the comics to find a strip that you find funny and follow it. Humor is very individual: what one person may find funny, another may not. But the funny papers have something for everybody. Find a comic strip that you think is particularly funny and look for it every day or week.
4. Watch comedies on the small screen. With modern technology, it is amazingly easy to find something funny on television or the Internet. When you are in need of a good laugh, try to find something that you can laugh at on TV or YouTube. Some favorites are the old-time classics such as The Andy Griffith Show, Gilligan’s Island, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and so on.
5. Go to comedies at the movie theater. Most people love to go to the movies and especially enjoy a good comedy. When people see a funny movie together, they find themselves laughing harder and longer than if they had seen the same scene by themselves. We all feed off each other’s laughter during and after the movie. Also, laughing together helps build good relationships.
6. Listen to comedy audiotapes in your car while commuting. Check your local record store, bookstore, video store, or library for recorded routines by your favorite comedian. If you haven’t heard or seen many comedians, go to your library first. You’ll find an abundance of tapes to investigate, and you can check them out free.
7. Play with kids. Kids really know how to laugh and play. If you do not have kids of your own, spend time with your nieces, your nephews, or neighborhood children with whose families you are friendly. Become a Big Brother or Sister. Investigate local Little Leagues. Help out at your church’s Sunday school and children’s events.
8. Ask yourself, “What is funny about this situation?” Many times we find ourselves in seemingly impossible situations, but if we can laugh about them, somehow they become enjoyable, or at least tolerable. We have all heard people say, “This is something that you will look back on and laugh about.” Well, why wait? Find the humor in the situation and enjoy a good laugh immediately.
Our attitude is just like our physical body in that it requires constant conditioning to stay fit. Just as you do not find yourself in excellent physical condition after one exercise session, you may not find yourself with a positive mental attitude after reading this book. We want to encourage you to really work at staying positive and optimistic through life. We all will have our fair share of challenges, and many of them will feel unfair and undeserved—bad things do happen to good people. However, what really determines our life’s direction is not what happens in our lives but how we respond to the challenges. Hardship, heartbreak, disappointments, and failures are often the fuel for joy, ecstasy, compassion, and success. By conditioning your attitude to be positive, you will experience a higher level of health and happiness in your life. One of the best ways to condition your attitude is to regularly read or listen to inspiring books.
• A positive mental attitude is the real foundation for optimal health.
• There is an innate drive in all living things to be the best that they can be.
• Achieving self-actualization begins by taking personal responsibility for your own positive mental state, your life, your current situation, and your health.
• The seven key steps to developing and maintaining a positive mental attitude are:
Step 1: Become an optimist.
Step 2: Become aware of self-talk.
Step 3: Ask better questions.
Step 4: Employ positive affirmations.
Step 5: Set positive goals.
Step 6: Practice positive visualization.
Step 7: Laugh long and often.
• Read or listen to inspiring messages.