By John Stark
From the Bible to Norman Vincent Peale to that little train that tells itself, "I think I can," the power of positive thinking is hardly a new concept. But what is being newly confirmed in scientific studies is the amazing health benefits of being a person who sees the glass as half full. These reports are telling us that people who live long and healthful lives possess a similar personality trait: their attitude. For them, tomorrow isn't just another day but an opportunity, a possibility, a gift.
At a convent in Mankato, Minnesota, researchers have been studying the effects of Alzheimer's disease—who gets it and why. According to the ongoing, innovative "Nun Study," nuns who have expressed more positive emotions in their lives lived significantly longer—in some cases 10 years longer— than those who expressed fewer positive emotions.
In Boston, scientists who have been studying centenarians to find out why they live so long have found that almost all of them remain positive thinkers to the end. Their optimistic attitudes have helped them outlive every disease they had that could have killed them, including cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and Alzheimer's.
Nuns do it. People who live past 100 do it. I want to do it, too. I want to live a long and healthful life. But if it means always having to have a positive demeanor or going around telling people to have a nice day, then I'm afraid I'm already on borrowed time. The more I witness man's inhumanity to man, animals, and the environment, the darker my outlook on life becomes. The more time I spend on Earth, the more losses I experience, from my physical abilities to the death of friends and relatives.
More and more, I feel like the blighted rose that's being done in by the invisible worm in William Blake's Songs of Innocence and of Experience. As Blake pondered, how do life's experiences not make you jaded? How do you embrace the world without going into total denial or being a naive Pollyanna?
As I stare down my 53rd birthday, I realize I need to take some action. If I don't do something to change my emotional attitude soon, it might be too late. I could become set in my ways, destined to become a lonely, crotchety old geezer, on whom the neighborhood kids play Halloween tricks.
With that in mind, I decided to take a journey of enlightenment—a journey to lighten up, as it were. Along the way I talked to a varied group of people who are observers of human behavior, including a gerontologist, a neuroscientist, a priest, a philosophy professor, an artist. But it wasn't until I talked with my last source, a yogi, that I found the answer.
The Child Within
My journey began at Boston's Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, where I met with Margery Silver, Ed.D., of the New England Centenarian study Over the last several years Silver has studied the psychological profiles of almost 200 healthy centenarians. According to Silver, "Generally speaking, they were forward-looking people who want to know what interesting things tomorrow will bring."
I asked Silver my burning question: How do you get older and not become a curmudgeon? "That's a difficult question," she said. "It's a question that I wanted to find the answer to. In grad school, it's what made me decide to become a gerontologist."
In a way Silver's decision was formed when she was a child growing up in Pennsylvania. "I had this remarkable grandmother who lived into her 90s," she said. "She had a sense of wonder that never left her. She had never traveled, but after my grandfather died, she started going to Europe. We had a small plane, and I have this picture of her climbing up over the wing and getting in with us. She thought it was a great adventure."
From a psychological standpoint, Silver said her grandmother had a capacity called "regression in the service of the ego." "It means being able to let go and play, to be childlike," she said. "But there's a distinction between being childlike and being childish." If you can be a mature person who is also in touch with your so-called inner-child, that's an irresistible combination. People of all ages will embrace you. "No one," said Silver, "wants to hang out with negative people."
Although older people may claim the world was a better place when they were young, Silver's subjects can tell you that is simply not the case, having grown up before there were antibiotics or clean drinking water. They experienced world wars, the Depression, even the Holocaust. Are their optimistic personalities due simply to natural chemistry, or to learned behavior? Or both?
"Temperament may play a part because certainly there's been research on children being born with certain temperaments, particularly shy babies," said Silver. "But I think some of it is learned behavior from one's environment. And I would guess that has a lot to do with self-esteem. If you think of yourself as a pretty decent person and you feel you deserve something fairly decent from the world, everything is tinted with that hue. If you think you deserve to be miserable, then you're looking for things to make you miserable. They're certainly there to be found."
Despite the many losses in their lives, centenarians quickly get over setbacks and tragedies. "They don't dwell," Silver said. Nor do they fret or get depressed. Silver recalled one centenarian who told her, “As a young man I realized that worrying wasn't getting me anywhere. So I decided to be a fun guy from then on."
If there's one essential lesson to take away from the centenarians, it's to be proactive. They reach out, make friends, write letters, vote, and do volunteer work. "The most surprising find for me was that most have strong social relationships and families," said Silver. "Even those who didn't have kids created their own networks."
Being of retirement age, Silver finds many reasons to be positive about getting older. "I can't make generalizations, but a lot of older people tend to know themselves better. And there is less caring about what other people think."
Using herself as an example of how getting older can improve your emotional state, she said: "With this job I have to do a lot of public speaking. Years ago the idea of giving a talk was the most painful thing in the world to me. At one point I realized that people were responding more to me than to what I was saying, which meant I didn't have to worry so much about what I was saying. The other thing is, if it isn't fun, why am I doing it? So I might as well make it fun. From that point on I started enjoying myself."
What Are You Thinking?
In his book, Change Your Brain, Change Your Life (Three Rivers Press, 2000), psychiatrist and clinical neuroscientist Daniel G. Amen, M.D., talks about his pioneering work using sophisticated brain-imaging techniques to provide visual evidence of brain patterns that correlate with behavior. It's his contention that all thoughts release chemicals that make us feel good or bad, and that negative thinking weakens the immune system.
When I reached Amen at his clinic in Southern California, I expected him to tell me that people who think negatively can't help their thoughts unless they take mood-altering drugs to change their brains' chemistry. But that wasn't the case. "No doubt some people are born with the tendency to be depressed, and medicine helps them," he said. "But in the process it's also about learning how to take better control over your thoughts."
When I told Amen that a McDonald's franchise was opening directly across the street from another McDonald's in my neighborhood and that I found this proliferation of fast food depressing, he replied, "What if you like McDonald's?"
But obesity is killing people, I countered. "Everything's going to kill you," he said. "You know, you can go to McDonald's and have a salad."
His point: "If you only see what's awful in the world, it's going
to make you depressed, and the fact is there are a lot of awful
things in the world. And there are a lot of amazingly wonderful
things in the world. It depends on what you choose to focus on. And
it's always been like that. It's not new. It's always been awful and
terrible, and you get to choose what you think about."
However, choosing what you think about does take practice. "When people are properly instructed, they can change the way they think," Amen said. "It's a skill, and they should teach it in school just like they teach the times tables. There's really nowhere in school where people teach you to think about your thoughts, which is called metacognition.
"It's too bad because most people, when they're properly instructed and have the right kind of motivation, can change how they think. It makes a big difference in brain function. Like the piano, you have to practice to keep it in tune, to be sharp."
In order to change from negative to positive thinking, Amen said, you should continually challenge your thoughts. "It's important to question your ANTs," he said, “ANT” being Amen's acronym for a term he's coined: Automatic Negative Thoughts.
"You don't have to believe every single thought you have. Many thoughts lie to you. They scare you. They make things out to be worse then they really are. The problem is, if you don't think about your thoughts, you believe them 100 percent."
But how can I deny my scary thoughts as not being true? I was referring to the events of September 11th, which were unfolding as I was speaking to Amen. "Turn off the TV," he said. "The brain can't tolerate those horrible images repeated over and over. Spend time with the people you love and who love you. Take care of what's important to you, and you'll feel better. You'll be less depressed if you balance out the horror by focusing on the amazing, wonderful stories of heroism that came out of this."
As much as I try to exterminate the ANTs that crawl on me as if I'm an open jar of honey, there are some facts of life I find especially hard to be positive about—like social change, or the lack of it. "Your problem," said my friend Gretchen Breese, a philosophy professor at Boston's New England Conservatory of Music, "is that you think only in terms of individual time."
Buddhists, Breese told me, think in terms of how long it will take for all sentient beings to become enlightened, and hence to suffer no longer. "It will take as long as it would for a crane with a silk scarf flying back and forth over a mountain range to wear it down," she said. "I find that image helpful and calming when I'm feeling distraught about why we aren't seeing more progress in civil rights. I try to think in that time scale. It's a funny arrogance to insist that everything happen in our little, tiny life span. That's not to say that we should get lazy and not care to work for it, but we have to define a balance between continuing to work for things we believe in and not insisting they happen right now— and not having a tantrum when they don't."
The other fact of life I find hard to wrap a positive attitude
around is loss. The longer I live, the more of my friends and
relatives die. As I age, it's only getting worse.
If anyone should know how people could stay positive in the face of loss, I figured it would be Father Paul Morrissey, who wrote Let Someone Hold You (Crossroad, 1994) about his experiences as a hospice priest in New York City. When I visited Morrissey at a Catholic retreat in North Andover, Massachusetts, he told me how he was able to help survivors — those who don't possess the centenarians' innate ability to move quickly past their losses — to let go.
"At first they'd want to hang on to a loved one's toothbrush, or that last message on the answering machine, or that person's clothes," Morrissey said of the people who attended his eight-week grieving sessions." But as they told stories about that person, they began to claim the meaning of the clothes and the phone message and the toothbrush. By looking inside themselves to tell those stories, they saw that their relationships and love are something now indestructible. They live. It was then that they could let go of the toothbrush and move on. It was then that they could give away the clothes.
"Whether it's the loss of a person — or a skill — by working through that loss, by discovering its meaning, you'll come out on the other side of it. That allows a person to let go."
Morrissey said he's even seen the positive side of death. "Sometimes it provides the opportunity for someone to make something of his or her life. Sometimes people who only have six months to live do amazing things."
I realize this sounds vain when people are dying in their prime, but how, I asked Morrissey, who's in his early 6os, do you deal with the loss of your youth? How do you keep a cheery attitude when your body begins to sag and give way?
"As I get older and look in the mirror and see my loss of hair, as I find my knees won't let me run or bicycle the way I used to, I'm faced with finding some meaning in that," Morrissey said. "One of the meanings is to accept aging as part of the human condition. You don't need to go to the gym every day and take hundreds of vitamins in a dogged effort to stay exactly as you were 20 years ago. But you do need to try to stay youthful in spirit. Struggling against giving into natural limitations and at the same time having some acceptance of them — it's a grace.
"One of the beliefs I have is that we're actually invited by the aging process to be more in touch with the spirit," he added. "It's really hidden in early life, when we're young and beautiful, when we're all body. At first, it's 'look at the gorgeousness' of myself or someone else. Only after we start going through pains in life and a physical decline can we begin to allow ourselves to recognize what is internal in us, and that's the spirit, which endures beyond death.
"Turn your losses into opportunities," Morrissey emphasized. "If you can't run, then swim. Don't be one of those people who curse and say, ‘I can't do that anymore.’ Be like a river. When a tree falls down in front of you, find another avenue to continue. Even if the new activity isn't as fulfilling as the old one, you're still engaging the world."
Breaking the Cycle
For the last 30 years, Harriet Casdin-Silver has been doing just that—engaging the world. She is a cutting-edge holographer whose latest installation is a series of oversized, three-dimensional portraits of elderly people entitled "A Celebration of Aging." I recently discovered Casdin-Silver, who's in her mid-7os, in the New York Times, where the art critic described her as "bubbling over with ideas for future projects, creating an impression of youthfulness at odds with her years."
I had to meet her, not to recreate her haunting illusions but her spirited reality. Visiting her Boston waterfront studio, I asked the diminutive, red-haired artist where her positive energy comes from. "I've asked myself that many times, and I honestly don't know," she said. But after a pause her blue eyes lit up. "You have to have something to look forward to, something exciting that you can be passionate about. If you have nothing to look forward to, you have to make something happen. I'm very fortunate in that I have two such elements in my life: my work and my family I'm never going to retire. That would be ridiculous. What would I do? And I have my grandchildren. I just love and worship them. And they love me. The grandchildren write poetry and stories all about their crazy Nana."
As you get older and more experience, "You gain self-confidence," she said. "I don't need experts to tell me if my work is any good. Now I'm the expert. That's a wonderful, wonderful feeling." More than anything, she said, "Staying positive is having the recognition of your blessings."
In retrospect, Casdin-Silver's advice sounds simple. What everyone has been telling me sounds simple: If I want to eliminate the invisible worm of negativity that threatens my health as I grow older, then I need to quit worrying, stop dwelling on my problems, work quickly through my losses, not care so much what other people think, be playful, think nice thoughts, reach out to friends and family, be patient with change, engage in a passionate pursuit, and find a physical activity that doesn't give my aging body aches and pains.
But, still, I found something missing in my journey to lighten up. I lacked a tool that would allow me to make those simple changes a natural part of my life. Opening a can of soda may look easy, but not if you don't have a church key.
"Yoga," said Rick Faulds, chairman of the board of the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health in Lenox, Massachusetts, "can be that tool."
Why yoga? "It provides us an opportunity to turn off the flow of adrenaline produced by a 'fight or flight' response, and turn on, through relaxation and deep breathing, the parasympathetic nervous system, which is where all the healing mechanisms of the body are," said Faulds.
"What this does is give us a tool to break a vicious cycle of stress. In a world that's constantly bombarding us with stressful and negative images, this is a godsend. You can take action. You can do something that breaks that stress cycle. If you don't break that cycle, you can live in it for weeks, months, even years. And that's what many people do.
"If you just try telling yourself, 'I should think more positively' that's not very effective," he added. "But if you do yoga and have that deep experience of relaxation, it's much easier to get up and say, 'It's a nice day out,' or go for a walk before dinner. It becomes a visceral thing."
But yoga offers much more than physical benefits that help maintain optimism. According to Faulds, if you practice yoga regularly, over a period of time, it gives you access to what are commonly called higher, deeper states of awareness — brainwave states that modem science is just beginning to explore. These elevated states of consciousness, say many yogis, can enhance creativity facilitate insight and other forms of intuitive knowing, and in the long run allow us to draw from the broad spectrum of mental and emotional states to respond rather than react to life. “And that's crucial with aging, because aging involves all sorts of losses,” said Faulds.
"In our later years of life, the tendency is to worry and have anxiety about what's going to happen to us," he added. "That translates into despair. And truly the antidote to that is to go for wisdom. Use your life experience to draw upon and access a wisdom that is beyond the body. And that's what yoga is all about."
Now let my journey begin.
© John Stark 2002
Electronically re-printed on Lotus and Rose by permission from the author.
John Stark is a freelance writer and editor
who lives in Boston, MA. This article first appeared in Yoga Journal, January/February 2002. Yoga Journal’s Web