What role does mental attitude play in physical health? Is it true that happy people tend to be physically healthier?
Looking after your body (eating well, getting enough sleep, and exercising regularly) is just one side of the coin when it comes to good health. The other side of the coin is how happy you feel internally—your mental attitude influences the way that your body heals.
In this article, we’ll explore the link between good health and happiness, and how your mental attitude influences your physical health.
How Your Mental Attitude Impacts Your Health
Maxwell Maltz, the author of Psycho-Cybernetics, says that there is a direct link between good health and happiness. This idea came about from an observation that Maltz made repeatedly throughout his career: Patients who were optimistic and had things to look forward to in life generally recovered from surgery faster than patients who didn’t feel any satisfaction in life. In other words, Maltz claims that happy people are generally healthier and more resilient to physical setbacks because they expect to get well and have a reason to get well.
On the other hand, unhappy people suffer from poor health and wellbeing because they don’t have a reason to get better—they don’t have anything to look forward to. Studies have shown results that support his idea that negative attitudes are bad for your health. For example, stressed out and unhappy people often suffer from ulcers and high blood pressure and are more likely to develop addictive behaviors and less likely to engage in healthy routines.
Multiple research experiments confirm Maltz’s claim that mental attitudes impact health. Studies on the impact of negative mental states (depression, stress, anxiety) on health confirm that negative attitudes are bad for your health. Prolonged negativity affects your:
- Hormones: Leads to increased heart rate and high blood pressure.
- Immune system: Makes you more vulnerable to illnesses and infections.
- Sleep: Prevents your mind from relaxing.
- Brain: Increases cognitive decline.
- Digestion: Damages your gut (indigestion, vomiting, constipation). These researchers suggest that you can reduce your levels of stress and negativity by undertaking a daily ritual such as meditation, therapy, or physical exercise.
An Active Mind Is a Happy Mind
The realization that success comes from cultivating happiness led Maltz to think about what makes people feel happy. Maltz argues that your mind is designed to achieve goals. You’re more likely to feel interested and engaged in your life when you give your mind goals to pursue. The more you pursue satisfying goals, the more you have to look forward to and engage with them. This makes you want to look after your health and your wellbeing. As a result, you’re more inclined to feel happy.
(Shortform note: Like Maltz, the author of Flow argues that people are more likely to feel happy when they focus all of their attention on completing tasks and achieving goals. He claims that the more you direct your focus to achieve a goal, the more absorbed you feel in what you’re doing. This sense of absorption makes it difficult for your mind to wander and get distracted by negative thoughts. This process trains your mind to feel satisfied and happy—your mind gets used to experiencing satisfaction and this feeling impacts your overall mood and behavior.)
In contrast, if you stop pursuing goals, you find it difficult to find meaning in your life, and your physical health reflects this. For example, it’s common to hear about people that suffer from depression or severe illness within a few months of retirement. Maltz argues that this is because they no longer feel satisfied—their jobs gave them active goals and made them feel important and valued. When they don’t provide themselves with meaningful goals to replace their jobs, they feel useless and worthless and their bodies literally give up.
Why Retirement Leads to Illness
Maltz’s conclusion that retired people suffer illnesses when they don’t replace their jobs with meaningful goals was confirmed in a recent study. It revealed that retirement increases the chances of suffering from clinical depression by 40%, and of being diagnosed with a physical illness by 60%. This is because it leads to:
- Loneliness—if there is no social life outside of the workplace.
- Inactivity—if the motivation to leave the house was only linked to the daily commute to work.
- Old age—if poor lifestyle choices such as smoking and drinking create health problems. Experts agree that you can enjoy a happy retirement if you plan ahead and create ways to stay engaged in meaningful activities, look after your health, and make the effort to socialize with friends and family.
Make the Decision to Be Happy Regardless of External Circumstances
It’s important to note that, while the pursuit of goals will increase your chances of feeling happy, you’ll only experience the benefits if you let yourself feel happy and satisfied throughout the process. People tend to delay their happiness—they wait until they’ve achieved or acquired something until they let themselves feel happy. Life is full of problems, minor annoyances, and challenges—there’s always an excuse to be unhappy.
However, Maltz argues that you shouldn’t wait to achieve your goals to feel happy—you should choose to see the best in every experience and decide to feel happy now. This becomes easier the more you remember that your opinions about experiences determine how you feel, not the experiences themselves.
Maltz argues that you need to experience success and happiness internally before you see the results externally. Similarly, The Happiness Advantage applies the latest research in neuroscience and positive psychology to argue that happiness isn’t the result of success, but the cause of it. When you choose to cultivate the habit of thinking positive thoughts, you train your brain to find opportunities in adversity and find it easier to overcome challenges and setbacks. This creates positive momentum in your life and fuels further opportunities to feel happy.
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Here's what you'll find in our full Psycho-Cybernetics summary:
- How to program your mind in the same way you’d program a machine
- How your self-image and patterns of thinking impact everything you do
- Five methods you can use to improve self-image and create success