The healing power of optimism

In Mind
Written by  Femke Kools Monday, 25 August 2008 00:00

Vici research: Why do optimists recover faster than pessimists?

It is a fact that people recover better from illnesses and live longer after operations if they have a positive attitude to life. Research at Maastricht University is examining whether optimists also develop chronic pain complaints less often than pessimists. How exactly could that work? And is it possible to change a pessimist into an optimist temporarily, to open the door to new therapies? With the help of a Vici grant, Professor Madelon Peters hopes to find answers in her experimental research in Maastricht.

It sounds slightly gruesome: create three blisters on the arms of healthy young volunteers, apply a sterile cover and then measure how fast the wounds heal. According to the theory, however, if one group has a positive attitude towards recovery and the other does not, the optimists’ wounds will heal faster.

This laboratory research on the healing of wounds is one of Peters’s four research lines at Maastricht University. The research is financed by a prestigious Vici grant from the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (Nederlandse Organisatie voor Wetenschappelijk Onderzoek, NWO). The goal: to investigate how an optimistic outlook contributes to the speedy recovery of acute pain complaints, and helps prevent chronic pain complaints from developing.

Mechanism

Earlier research by Peters and colleagues has shown that optimistic people and those who are less scared before an operation often have fewer pain complaints after a year, function better, feel more recovered and experience a higher quality of life. Peters hopes to find out how this mechanism works. ‘Once we know that, we can influence it and perhaps even develop a therapy for clinical practice in the distant future. But we still have a long way to go.’

Her search leads from cognitive behaviour mechanisms (‘do optimists think differently about pain, and handle it differently?’) to biological processes (‘do optimists’ wounds really heal faster than those of pessimists?’) and finally to clinical practice. ‘We will monitor women who are going to have a hysterectomy. Before the operation we will measure their attitude towards it using questionnaires, then monitor them to see how they deal with the pain and what sort of health attitude they show.

‘We also examine the influence of genetic factors as well as epigenetics, which is new in pain research. Epigenetics is about the hereditary defects people have for something, such as chronic pain development, which only present themselves when certain genes are activated, for example because of an operation. This interaction between genetic predisposition and psychological factors is a very interesting specialty that I have not been involved with before. But because of the Vici grant and the fact that it’s quite prestigious, I have come into contact with researchers at our university who have been researching epigenetics for some time.’

Character trait

Peters’s research seems to brush off the idea that optimism and pessimism are character traits that are hard to change. ‘That’s right, they are hard to change, but not impossible.’ This was confirmed by three pilot studies leading up to the Vici research. The question was: can we make people temporarily more optimistic? In a written assignment, participants were asked to concentrate on a positive aspect in their present or future life. They were also challenged to fantasise about their best possible self. ‘Where could you be in ten years’ time, assuming a best-case scenario?’

‘They not only worked on that in the lab, but also at home, thinking about it consciously every day for five minutes before they went to sleep. This did in fact increase their positive feelings and expectations and decreased the negative ones. And it worked for optimists as well as pessimists. However, we have to keep in mind that the participants were young, healthy students’, says Peters. ‘It remains to be seen whether we can use the same strategy for people with chronic pain complaints. We may have to adjust the content of the positive visualisation to the situation of these patients, because generally they are not youngsters at the start of their lives with opportunities ahead of them. But it is definitely promising that we could make young students more optimistic, even if temporarily.’

Five to ten percent

Peters has been researching pain and the fear of pain for some time. Most people recover well from operations and do not develop chronic pain. But five to ten percent of the population do: according to Statistics Netherlands (CBS), chronic pain complaints are the second most common cause of sick leave (psychiatric complaints being the first). ‘So it is a serious health problem. Most chronic pain research focuses on the relatively small group that does not recover well from acute pain complaints. I became interested in the characteristics of the large group that does recover well. As yet, optimism seems to be the most evident common factor.’

When she submitted her request for the Vici grant, Peters immediately felt good about it. ‘I am an optimist, so I had already visualised it and had therefore more or less expected it. Without wanting to seem arrogant, it was a good proposal and I thought: ‘If this is not good enough, what is?’ And it did turn out to be good enough: for the next five years, Peters can set about her work with optimism.

Madelon Peters is a professor in experimental health psychology, especially chronic pain, at Maastricht University. She was awarded the NWO Vici grant in December 2007; her research is carried out in the Experimental Psychopathology research institute (EPP).

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