Friday, October 24, 2014

No Amount of Positive Thinking Will Make You Immortal

When I saw that the Times had published an article titled, "What if Age is Nothing but a Mind-Set?" I thought, that is going to be their most viewed and emailed article all week. Sure enough.

It isn't even a stupid article. It describes the research of Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer, who explores the connections between attitudes and health, and especially between attitudes and the health effects of aging. She has gotten famous for studies like this one:
One day in the fall of 1981, eight men in their 70s stepped out of a van in front of a converted monastery in New Hampshire. They shuffled forward, a few of them arthritically stooped, a couple with canes. Then they passed through the door and entered a time warp. Perry Como crooned on a vintage radio. Ed Sullivan welcomed guests on a black-and-white TV. Everything inside — including the books on the shelves and the magazines lying around — were designed to conjure 1959. . . .

The men in the experimental group were told not merely to reminisce about this earlier era, but to inhabit it — to “make a psychological attempt to be the person they were 22 years ago,” she told me. “We have good reason to believe that if you are successful at this,” Langer told the men, “you will feel as you did in 1959.” From the time they walked through the doors, they were treated as if they were younger. The men were told that they would have to take their belongings upstairs themselves, even if they had to do it one shirt at a time.

Each day, as they discussed sports (Johnny Unitas and Wilt Chamberlain) or “current” events (the first U.S. satellite launch) or dissected the movie they just watched (“Anatomy of a Murder,” with Jimmy Stewart), they spoke about these late-'50s artifacts and events in the present tense — one of Langer’s chief priming strategies. Nothing — no mirrors, no modern-day clothing, no photos except portraits of their much younger selves — spoiled the illusion that they had shaken off 22 years.
After five days in this environment, the men showed improved results on several tests designed to measure debility, and they felt and acted younger.

Which is interesting, and gets at the important truth that how we think and feel (emotionally, that is) have big impacts on our physical health. Everybody knows that rich people live longer than poor people, that successful people live longer than those who perceive themselves as failures, that people who have lost their jobs are much more likely to suffer debilitating back pain than those who are still working. Elderly people with active social lives live years longer than those who feel lonely.

But here's the thing about the 1959 study: it lasted for five days. All of Langer's other studies have also been quite short term. I am perfectly willing to grant that positive thinking (and fun new experiences) can make sick or elderly people feel better for a while. It might even help them feel better for years. And if not, it certainly might help them enjoy their last years a lot more.

Eventually, though, everybody is still going to die. Mentally healthy people with positive attitudes may be less likely to get heart disease and cancer than miserable drug addicts, but very happy people still do get sick. My reaction to this article was, first, an annoyed "there they go again with the living forever thing;" then interest as I learned about Langer's experiments; and then a sort of deeper unease that people will focus too much on Langer's message about optimism and lose sight of much that is random and tragic about human existence. You may be thinking, but what harm can it do for people to feel that their health is under their own control? If optimism helps people be healthy, why not promote optimism? But I think such attitudes are very dangerous. People who really believe that they control their own destinies fall too easily into thinking that others are to blame for their own woes, and many of them become libertarians. When the Affordable Care Act was coming into place I read or heard interview after interview with healthy young people who said, "I'm healthy because I take care of myself and I shouldn't have to subsidize fools who ruin their own health with bad thinking and bad habits."

I think the illusion that we control our own health is as politically dangerous as the belief that we could all be rich if we just worked hard enough. Thinking that sick people and poor people are responsible for their own problems promotes indifference to their fates. Indifference, I think, is bad; what we need is more compassion, always more compassion.

So, by all means, get out, have fun, recapture what was best about your youth. Focus on the positive. But never forget that we live in a fallen world where dangers are everywhere, many of them completely beyond your control.

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