He was only ten years old, but Daniel had been battling cancer for a year. His doctors had given up hope, as had others close to the boy. But Daniel held on to hope. He believed that he would grow up to be a researcher and help to find a cure for cancer someday.
He was especially hopeful regarding the upcoming visit of a doctor who specialized in treating his particular form of cancer. When the day arrived, though, the specialist was forced to cancel his visit because of bad weather. Daniel’s spirits sank. For the first time, he became listless. He died within a few days.
Daniel’s account was related by a health-care worker who studied the role that hope and hopelessness play in relation to health. You may have heard similar stories. An elderly person, for example, lies near death but is eager to reach some long-anticipated milestone –whether the visit of a loved one or simply an anniversary. When the event has come and gone, death quickly ensues. What is at work in such cases? Can hope really be as potent a force as some believe?
A growing number of medical researchers suggest that optimism, hope, and other positive emotions indeed have a powerful effect on a person’s life and health. But such views are hardly unanimous. Some researchers dismiss all such claims as a lot of unscientific folklore. They prefer to think that physical ailments have strictly physical causes.
Of course, skepticism about the importance of HOPE is not new. Thousands of years ago, the Greek philosopher Aristotle was asked to define hope and replied: “It is a waking dream.” And more recently, the American statesman Benjamin Franklin observed tartly: “He that lives upon HOPE will die fasting.”
What, then, is the truth about HOPE? Is it always mere wishful thinking, a way for people to seek comfort in empty dreams? Or is there valid reason to see hope as something more –something that all of us need for the sake of health and happiness, something with real basis and real benefits?
WHY HOPE IS SO EFFECTIVE AS MEDICINE
What if Daniel, the young cancer victim described at the outset of the preceding article, had maintained high hopes? Would he have beaten cancer? Would he be alive today? Even the most ardent proponents of hope would probably stop short of making such claims. And therein lies an important point. Hope should not be oversold. It is no cure-all, no panacea.
In an interview with CBS News, Dr. Nathan Cherney warned about the danger of overlapping the power of hope when dealing with very sick patients: “We’ve had situations of husbands berating their wives that they haven’t been doing enough medication, that they haven’t been thinking positively enough.” Dr. Cherney added: “This whole school of thought created an illusion of control, and when people do poorly, it’s as if to say they haven’t managed to control their tumor well enough, and that’s not fair.”
In truth, those combating a terminal illness are engaged in an exhausting, consuming battle. Adding guilt to their already heavy burden is surely the last thing that their loved ones would want to do. Should we conclude, then, that hope is without value?
Not at all. The same doctor, for instance, specializes in palliative care –that is, treatments focusing, not on fighting disease directly or even on prolonging life, but on making the patient’s life more comfortable and pleasant as long as the fight lasts. Such doctors believe firmly in the value of treatments that lead to a happier state of mind, even in the very sick. There is considerable evidence that hope can do that –and more.
“Hope is powerful therapy,” asserts medical journalist Dr. W. Gifford-Jones. He reviewed various studies carried out to determine the value of emotional support given to terminally ill patients. Presumably, this type of support helps people to maintain a more hopeful and positive outlook.
One 1989 study found that patients who received such support survived longer, whereas recent research has been less conclusive on that score. However, studies have confirmed that patients who receive emotional support suffer less depression and less pain than do those without it.
Consider another study that focused on the role of optimism and pessimism in coronary heart disease [CHD]. A group of over 1,300 men were carefully evaluated as to whether they had an optimistic or a pessimistic way of looking at life. A follow-up ten years later found that over 12 percent of those men had suffered some form of CHD. Among them, the pessimistic outnumbered the optimists by nearly 2 to 1. Laura Kubzansky, assistant professor of health and social behavior at the Harvard School of Public Health, comments: “Most of the evidence for the notion that ‘thinking positively’ is good for your health has been anecdotal –this study provides some of the first hard medical evidence for this idea in the arena of heart disease.”
Some studies have found that those who rate their own health as poor actually fare worse in the wake of surgery than do those who rate their health as optimal. Even longevity has been linked with optimism. One study looked at how the elderly are affected by positive and negative views of aging. When older people were exposed to fleeting messages linking the aging process with increased wisdom and experience, they were thereafter found to walk with increased strength and energy. In fact, the improvement was equivalent to the results of a 12-week exercise program!
Why do such emotions as hope, optimism, and a positive outlook seem to benefit health? Perhaps scientists and doctors do not yet understand the human mind and body well enough to provide definitive answers. Still, experts who study the subject can make educated guesses. For instance, one professor of neurology suggests: “It feels good to be happy and hopeful. It’s an enjoyable state that produces very little stress, and the body thrives in those conditions. It’s one more thing that people can do for themselves to try to stay healthy.”