There’s an enormous literature these days on happiness, and pretty much all of it pushes some variety of positive thinking. The Happiness Hypothesis is one of the most thoughtful of these books, and Stumbling on Happiness is a fairly good read too, and Professor Layard’s Happiness is worth reading if you want to understand why the English NHS is about to spend millions on CBT.
But I’ve never been a fan of either bandwagons or one-size-fits-all treatments so I read this study about optimism with interest. Two professors at Duke University’s Business School have come up with an interesting way of measuring optimism – they asked people how long they expected to live and then compared these estimates with actuarial tables of life expectancy. Optimists were classed as those whose self assessment of longevity was beyond that of the statistical predictions and 5% of them were classed as super-optimists – people who reckoned they’d live a good 20 years longer than the statistics would predict! Interesting method, huh?
What they then did was interview people about their behaviours (being a business school they were most interested in financial behaviours). They found the following -
Puri and Robinson find that optimists:
- Work longer hours;
- Invest in individual stocks;
- Save more money;
- Are more likely to pay their credit card balances on time;
- Believe their income will grow over the next five years;
- Plan to retire later (or not at all);
- Are more likely to remarry (if divorced).
In comparison, extreme optimists:
- Work significantly fewer hours;
- Hold a higher proportion of individual stocks in their portfolios, and are more likely to be day traders;
- Save less money;
- Are less likely to pay off their credit card balances on a regular basis;
- Are more likely to smoke.
In other words, while a dose of optimism might be good for you, too much optimism was associated with riskier and less healthy behaviours. I guess it’s this kind of thing that makes it very difficult to do health education with teenagers – trying to tell them smoking will shorten their lives means nothing to most of them – they think those problems are highly unlikely to happen to them.
I think that all coping strategies in life are good if they work for you, but that any coping strategy which is pushed to an extreme will start to harm you. So a little optimism is no doubt a good thing but optimism which is way beyond the probable can disengage a person from reality.
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Don’t you hate it when people judge you? And don’t you hate it when people assume they know all about you because they’ve stuck you in some pigeon hole? You know the kind of thing. I mentioned in another post sitting on the train recently next to two men who spent the whole journey dismissing huge swathes of humanity – doctors they said were only interested in one thing – money; Iraq was always a hell-hole, now it was just a hell-hole with less buildings; everyone who lives below the Mason-Dixon line is an in-breeder……and on and on and on. These are not uncommon conversations.
One way we function as human beings is to focus on part of reality, classify it and judge it. We do that to try and get a sense that we understand the world and we also do it to try and control our experience of reality. The thing is this strategy brings loads of bad side-effects. For a start, generalised judgement stops thought. Once you judge a whole class of something, you stop thinking about it. By that I mean you stop seeing, stop hearing, stop experiencing the context-sensitive reality of the individual member of that “class”.
I find this way of thinking very, very disturbing. I understand why it’s there, and I know that human beings are incapable of experiencing the totality of experience as it is. We can only perceive and experience aspects of reality at any given moment. But when we are not aware of the enormous down-side of this human function then we are no longer living in the real world. Instead we limit our experience of reality to our pigeon-hole set. We see everything through the thick discoloured lenses we’ve made for ourselves.
This happens in all areas of life. In Medicine, it happens with diagnoses. How sad it is to see people classified as a “case of X” and how much more sad it is to meet a person who can only see themselves as a “case of X”. When we squeeze every patient into a tightly defined diagnostic box we stop seeing them as who they are. People with mental illnesses experiences this a lot. Once they’ve been given a “diagnosis” they often find that all of their experience is interpreted by the doctors as part of that diagnosis. This is what leads to bad and dangerous prescribing. I recently saw a patient who had suffered from a variety of symptoms for the last couple of years. He was investigated at the outset of the illness and given a particular diagnosis. The diagnosis was wrong. But despite the fact that every time he saw his doctors he told them that certain treatments weren’t working they wouldn’t listen. The doctors said they were prescribing the right medicine for his problem. But they weren’t! Luckily, he got sicker and ended up with other doctors and a different investigation which revealed the true diagnosis. Since getting the appropriate treatment for that condition he’s not in a wheelchair any more.
We also stop experiencing the reality of the rich uniqueness of every human being when we classify them according to race, religion, accent, or life-style. It’s sad and it’s such a stupid way to live. Next time you catch yourself, or somebody else, saying that “all X are Y”, challenge them. All X are never all Y! And if you think they are, you’ve lost touch with reality.
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One of the great and surprising joys of blogging is the making of connections with people who you’d probably never ever have met in any other way. It’s one of the best reasons to blog in my opinion. I’ve made a good new friend with a fellow blogger who goes by the name of sugarmouseintherain. We’ve been having email discussions as well as sharing things on our respective blogs and one of his ideas was to have a conversation on the net. (the newer Web 2.0 technologies really make this possible – we used google documents – if you don’t know this tool, google it and explore it!)
Sugarmouse has posted our first conversation about health and healing on his blog today. Please follow this link to go to his blog and read it. We’d both be really keen to have your feedback which you can do by either commenting on the post on his site or by emailing us.
And why is he called sugarmouseintherain? You can find that out on his blog too!
Thankyou for taking the lead on this sugarmouse. It’s really great to make new friends this way.
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Did you know that Mills and Boon, the publishers of romantic novels, have a whole section dedicated to medical romance stories? Well, an Irish psychiatrist, Dr Kelly, has analysed about twenty of them and come up with some interesting findings. He found
marked preponderance of brilliant, tall, muscular, male doctors with chiselled features, working in emergency medicine.
He said they were commonly of Mediterranean origin and had personal tragedies in their pasts.
Oh well, that rules me out!
A spokesperson for Mills and Boon said
the medical setting offered much potential for human drama.
“We see exactly the same on televised medical dramas. In these kinds of professions, there is the need to remain emotionally distant, which spills over into private lives – there’s nothing more thrilling than a damaged hero.”
Hey, isn’t that all of us? Aren’t we all damaged heroes?
This little piece got me thinking though about the way doctors are portrayed in fiction and what kind of influence that has. I’ve wanted to be a doctor all my life. First stated that intent at the age of three! And it wasn’t a family connection. There were no medics in my family ever. What I do remember though is watching a soap opera on TV when I was a child – “Dr Finlay’s Casebook”. Dr Finlay was a Scottish GP working in the fictional village of ‘Tannochbrae’ (actually Callander, very close to where I was born and live now – Stirling). I was hugely impressed with Dr Finlay and I have deep seated memories of wanting to be a doctor like him. There were other doctors on TV then. Dr Kildare, for example. Couldn’t stand him! Waltzing around in his white coat like God’s gift to medicine! So, I guess, fictionalised doctors made an impact on me.
How about you? Which fictionalised doctors impress, or impressed you? Did any of them inspire you to become a doctor? or a nurse? Or even put you off the idea for life? Which doctor in fiction would you most like to be your personal doctor? Go on, tell me.
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I wrote recently about how paper extends our minds, and how that related to a book I was reading just now, Being There, by Andy Clark (review coming soon), and then along comes this article in the NY Times. OK, it’s pretty tongue-in-cheek, but funny how I should happen across it when I’m just reading about the extended mind concept. How often that kind of thing happens! Seems more than just a paying attention phenomenon. David Brooks, who wrote the opinion piece for the NY Times gives many examples of how he’s given up functions of his mind to technology – from becoming unable to navigate in his car without satnav, to being unable to remember anybody’s phone number ‘cos all his contacts numbers are in his smartphone, to following recommendations from TiVo, Amazon and iTunes for his entertainment.
He’s got a point though. We really are extending our minds by using technology this way. I heard a discussion on Radio Scotland this morning about the spread of broadband and the constant demand for faster and faster connections, and one of the interviewees said that he recently moved house and was without broadband for a couple of days and couldn’t believe just how disconnected and paralysed he felt. I’ve had that experience too. Being connected to the net is becoming an increasingly important part of the way my mind functions – from knowledge seeking, to memory stores, to inspiration and the making of new friends. I love it I must say, and Brooks’ view that we are losing function in the process is not something I share. I don’t care that I don’t know anybody’s phone numbers any more – that’s what the contact list is for! I don’t need to clutter up my brain with that! And I love how Web 2.0 tools help me find things I’m interested and and serves up so many fascinating, amusing and moving sites which stimulate my thinking and extend my networks and my mind.
What do you think? Are you enjoying extending your mind out beyond your personal brain? I guess if you don’t like it you don’t have to do it after all!
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