DHEA is a repairing hormone created when you feel happy.
I've always been wary of the view that an upbeat attitude can heal what ails you. It's not that I think we should all sit around and fear the Reaper. It's just that suggesting people can avoid getting sick if they have sunnier dispositions makes me mad.
But I do wonder if there's anything to the idea that chronic optimism is a healing habit. Common sense would say it is, and certainly many researchers see a relationship between depression and heart disease, for example. Still, claiming that a cheerful outlook is a tonic, altering the outcome of disease, turns out to be premature.
What the experts say
"In a large sample of head and neck cancer patients, we found that the patients with a positive attitude did not live any longer than those with a negative attitude. That held up even when we looked at the extremely positive and the extremely negative versus the rest of the group. Certainly, patients with a positive attitude are easier to deal with, but they don't live longer. The important implications are that the emphasis on patients adopting a positive attitude is misplaced. Ultimately, they may blame themselves for not having the right attitude as they deteriorate."
JAMES COYNE, professor of psychology, University of Pennsylvania Medical School, Philadelphia
"I have done studies showing that optimistic people live longer and better than do their pessimistic counterparts, in part because they behave differently. They take better care of themselves (exercise, eat right) because they believe doing so will make a difference. Pessimists are fatalistic; the irony, of course, is that the optimists create a self-fulfilling prophecy.
CHRISTOPHER PETERSON, professor of psychology, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor
"Optimism affects how we feel, and how we feel affects a number of different neuroendocrine pathways in the body. Those pathways ‘speak' to the immune system. As well, optimism affects what we do, which can require different levels of energy to maintain. When something requires a lot of energy, the body can ‘borrow' energy from the immune system. For young, healthy people, it's quite possible to tolerate fluctuations in immunity due to emotion or energy changes without getting sick. However, people who are already immunologically compromised because of disease or age might not be able to tolerate these fluctuations as well."
SUZANNE SEGERSTROM, associate professor of psychology, University of Kentucky, Lexington
"Optimistic people have less disease, fewer catastrophic happenings in their lives and more vitality. Every emotion creates a hormonal reaction. Cortisol is a hormone released when you're stressed and pessimistic. DHEA is a repairing hormone created when you're feeling happy. Optimistic people take more chances, and if you take more chances you live more life experiences. Babe Ruth was the best batter, but that's because he swung at almost every ball that came his way."
LISE JANELLE, transformational life coach, Toronto
"People who believe that positive thinking is key may neglect other, more efficacious means of treating disease. People who do not do well may blame themselves for failing to think positively enough, thus adding to their burden of guilt and suffering. Adherents of the power of positive thinking may judge that their patients' suffering is their own fault, thus further stigmatizing illness."
RICHARD GUNDERMAN, professor of medical education, Indiana University, Indianapolis