Crozet Annals of Medicine: The Love Drug

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Happy New Year Crozet! This first week of the new year brings out the optimist in most of us. A new year, a new chance, new resolutions and new determination to do better this year.

It is easy to be optimistic for 2023 being a better year than the last few. The three terrible Covid pandemic years seem now to be mostly behind us. Democracy appears to have withstood the tests of election denying and January 6th. The economy, while wobbly, has not turned into a recession despite the years of global supply chain issues brought on by the war in Ukraine and China’s recession. The war in Ukraine, while horrifying still, shows the strength of a community to resist the worst of despotic violence and aggression. 

Of course, pessimism can also be warranted; there is lots of bad news, too. But optimism and pessimism are both choices and optimism is the healthy choice. I will show you why, and give you some tips on how to be more optimistic.

Optimistic people live longer—a lot longer. A study published last year in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society screened 160,000 women with a validated survey that measures optimism. Optimistic women lived more than 5% longer than pessimists. While optimists tend toward healthier lifestyle choices, this accounted for only 25% of the increase in longevity.

A study in 2019 in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) of over 200,000 patients showed a decrease in heart attacks of 35% in optimistic people and a decrease in death rates from all causes of 14%. This was after adjusting for lifestyle choices so that equal comparisons could be made. Optimists also succeed more in life, in politics, jobs and athletics.    

Pessimists might argue that optimism is not a choice but a fixed trait, so there is no way to change it. Of course they would, they are pessimists. But they would be partially right. There is strong evidence that optimism and pessimism are genetically encoded in the OXTR gene that also controls production of the hormone oxytocin. 

Researchers sometimes refer to oxytocin as the “cuddle hormone” as it is linked to positive emotions and social bonding. It is the hormone that produces uterine contractions during childbirth and milk delivery during breastfeeding. Levels of oxytocin rise in all of us when we fall in love and when we make love. It is no wonder that this “love drug” is associated with lower levels of depression and higher levels of optimism.

Genetics plays only a modest role in optimism, though. Psychology research shows that optimism can be taught and that for most people optimism is a conscious choice. So how do we choose it?

Optimism and pessimism are all about people’s explanatory styles, especially when facing setbacks. Psychologists look at what they call the three P’s to analyze explanatory styles; 1) Permanence, 2) Pervasiveness, and whether it is 3) Personal.

Pessimists tell themselves that bad events:

  1. Will last a long time, or forever. (“I will never be successful.”) Permanence 
  2. Are universal. (“You can’t trust any of those people.”)Pervasive
  3. Are their own fault. (“I’m terrible at this.”) Personal

Optimists see the exact opposite, The best example of this is athletes’ press conferences after bitter defeats:

  1. Bad things are temporary. (“We are in a bit of a slump, but you know next week we have another chance to get it right.”)
  2. Bad things have a specific cause and aren’t universal. (“We didn’t execute today on offense.”)
  3. It’s not their fault. (“Injuries played a big role today.”)

How can you flip the script toward optimism? Analyze your explanatory style. Argue with yourself. Is it really all your fault? Most things have multiple causes. Is it really permanent? Almost nothing is. And is it really pervasive? There are always exceptions. 

That takes some cognitive work, but with diligence many people have been able to improve their resilience by analyzing their explanatory styles. 

But there is an easier way to become more optimistic: raise your oxytocin levels. Not all of us can breastfeed or go through childbirth, but almost all of us can hug someone, touch someone, or love someone. These all raise oxytocin levels significantly and improve mood. So does exercise and listening to music.

So, that is my New Year’s resolution. I want to raise my oxytocin level. And it won’t all be exercise and music. More hugging! Happy New Year! 

  

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