Optimism – therapy for the seriously ill and traumatised

Positive thinking is able to hasten the recovery of seriously ill patients and help disaster victims to overcome the psychological impact of a traumatic experience.


According to University of Sydney Business School research in Australia and the United States found that additionally culture plays a major role in determining the type of thoughts that produce a positive or optimistic state of mind.


The findings, detailed in a paper titled “Cultivating optimism: How to frame your future during a health challenge”, are seen as a breakthrough in the rehabilitation of people suffering serious physical and mental illness.


“People who are more optimistic about their recovery when they are ill are more likely to recover,” said researcher, Professor Donnel Briley. “They’re more likely to have positive mental health, and they’re more likely to have a range of positive physiological outcomes.”


Professor Briley went on to say that the most effective thoughts were those that focused on future activities or behaviours.


“Mentally simulating your future is incredibly important to optimism,” he said. “For example, if I’m ill, I might want to exercise more and by imagining myself exercising more actually makes it more likely that I will exercise more in the future.”


The research team, which also included Stanford University’s Professor Jennifer Aaker and the University of Houston’s Assistant Professor Melanie Rudd, monitored levels of optimism in ill and traumatised people through a series of experiments and“different variables”.


“Rather than simply asking them how they felt about their futures, we also looked at physiological outcomes,” Professor Briley said. “For example, we included in one study a hand grip task and we found that people squeezed it longer and more vigorously the more optimistic they were about their futures.”


“We did something similar after a major flood when we went in and asked a number of people about their intentions to use a vaccine that would protect them from disease and we found that they were more likely to do so when they felt optimistic about the future.”


However, the research paper also says that cultural background can determine the way that people generate optimistic thoughts of the future.


“We were interested in culture from the outset and we found some very interesting cultural differences,” said Professor Briley.


“In one study involving cancer patients, we found that those of an East-Asian background were much more optimistic when they were thinking about the particular situations that they might face in the future, while this bogged Anglos down,” he said. “Anglos were much more optimistic when they were thinking in the abstract, and not about specific situations.


“Yes, absolutely,” Professor Briley said when asked if he could see a practical use for the research. “I believe that doctors and many medical professionals could definitely benefit from understanding this particular finding.”


“People who are suffering from a critical illness, cancer, for example, or some other debilitating disease – HIV AIDS, really need optimism in order to recover and live a better life,” Professor Briley concluded.


Cultivating optimism: How to frame your future during a health challenge, is published in the Journal of Consumer Research.


19 August 2017.