Optimism has Healing Powers: A Conversation
Modern medicine and research support the old adage that laughter is often the best medicine. Happiness truly is a gift that keeps on giving. With several studies demonstrating the benefits, effects of optimism in life and in our health, the question begs: how do we feel more optimism right now in the last few days of 2020? Optimism is everything. Welcome to Health Dogs. This is the last show of 2020 and what a year. I’m Laura Termini, founder of ChicaNOL.com. And today I welcome Dr. Firdaus Dhabhar, a professor in the department of psychiatry, microbiology, and immunology at Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center, part of the University of Miami Health System. Thank you so much and welcome doctor.
Dr. Firdaus Dhabhar:
Thank you. Thank you for having me.
So happiness, laughter, but let’s talk about optimism. Something that I think it was so important for me to talk about this, 2020 and in December. So let’s start with, what’s optimism?
Dr. Firdaus Dhabhar:
So, that’s a great question. There are different ways that people look at it, but in an essential sense, one could say that it is part of one’s personality or characteristics that sort of gives you an idea about your outlook and expectations of the world. And if you generally see the best in situations, expect the best in people, expect the best in situations, you have a more optimistic view of life. And there are debates about how much of it is just biologically, what you have, how much of it can be changed over life and like everything, I think, in biology and life, it’s probably a combination. There’s a certain sort of innate biology that you have. And then there’s a certain way in which life and your experiences and what happens around you and how hard you work on certain aspects of it can change it. So it’s changeable too, to a certain extent,
It’s a skill that you can develop?
Dr. Firdaus Dhabhar:
That’s a great way to put it too. Except do not make it seem like it’s easy to develop.
Dr. Firdaus Dhabhar:
But yes, that many of these characteristics, even happiness, one can work on it. But the one important thing is, one could say, well, how would you improve your optimism? Right? That’s one of the ways one could discuss change. And so authenticity, being honest with yourself and others, is the key. You can say you’re optimistic. You can scream you’re optimistic. You can wear a t-shirt saying I’m an optimist, right? That’s not bad. That’s not bad, but it’s very likely that in order to reap the health benefits and all the other benefits, the optimism has to be heartfelt. It has to be genuine, to truly come from within.
I was talking with my psychiatrist doctor and, I’m laughing, I’m a Hispanic Latina, and it’s very difficult to talk about mental health with Latinos because we have the perception, since we were little, that you have this aunt or this uncle and, oh, the crazy one. Or if you have somebody in the family who’s an artist, I’m an actress, so, oh she’s crazy because she’s an artist and it’s a misperception of what really is going on in our heads as a community as well. And in Miami we have a lot of people like me. So I was talking with my doctor about optimism in times like this one. COVID 19 happened, it’s still happening. And mental health has really been something that we never spoke about before. Tell me your ideas about this.
Dr. Firdaus Dhabhar:
This is a very, very thoughtful question. When I was thinking about this interview, first I was going to share the academic information because that’s important. But then when thoughts came to my mind about some of my experiences also, I said should I, I mean, not a whole lot, but should I share it? Should I not? And then they said, you know what?
Dr. Firdaus Dhabhar:
All of us have to be more open and share not only our successes, but also our struggles and all of us have to respectfully and lovingly and caringly listen to one another when we are sharing our good as well as our bad. And so, I don’t think it’s just the sort of one section of the population.
I think we all have trouble sharing these things, whether it’s mental health, physical health, but especially mental health. And I think that now, especially with the kind of social connectivity that we have, because of the kinds of things that you are doing, we should really say, you know what, let’s be more open. Let’s be more supportive of one another. Let’s not just share all our successes and how great we are, but also say, you know what, hey, these are my struggles. And when you hear that from someone, say how could I help them?
And if you’re in a strong position, just help.
Just help without seeking anything, without thinking of anything you want in return. And when you’re in a weak position or when you’re in trouble, feel comfortable to say, you know what? These are the struggles that I’m dealing with.
Everybody thinks my life is perfect, but these are the struggles that I’m dealing with. And actually in these areas, it would be great if somebody could help me. So, that’s how I feel about it. And if you get a chance to, depending on what we discuss, I’ll sort of give you my view on how I deal with optimism and where I started and where I am and things like that, without giving the whole life story of myself, I’m not going to do that. So don’t worry.
I would love to, doctor. I would love to. Let’s talk about optimism and health, because how can you increase your optimism when you are going through difficult times? For example, if you are sick, or if you have somebody that you love that is sick. This year has been a challenge for COVID, as I said, the mental health, by numbers, you see more and more people getting sick because their nervous system is just like a mess.
People like me who are now facing, like my dad is sick, he’s been diagnosed first with Parkinson’s for two years and now we just found out last week at UMiami, the neurologist, he said that my dad has Lewy Body Dementia and all those struggles. And I know that there’s a lot of people like me who are having this kind of like, oh my God, it’s overwhelming. But I feel like that’s part that I have inside of me, I have to reignite that flame inside of me to be optimist, because sometimes I feel like, how can I do this?
Dr. Firdaus Dhabhar:
Yes. So, first of all, I’m sorry to hear what you’re dealing with. And I hope that within the circumstances, as much as can be, things stay on the good side, understanding that everything can’t be good, right? It is a tough situation, but things stay on the good side. And there are a couple of thoughts that came to mind as you are discussing this topic. So one is, what can people in truly difficult circumstances do? And then the other one would be because what can somebody who was lucky to not be in a very difficult circumstance do to be optimistic or to practice optimism? Right?
So the one about the situation of being somebody in a truly difficult circumstance, and I think that illness to oneself or to loved ones, friends and family around you, is one of the most difficult circumstance. And there, I think we have to recognize that it’s just tough. It’s just natural. And most people are not superhuman to just say, hey, I’m optimistic. And here, one has to be very caring about the messaging, because well-meaning people say things like, you can be optimistic, and if you’re optimistic, it’s going to be good for your mental health. It’s going to be good for your health, and it’s going to be good for your dad because you’re going to be in a better place to do it.
But that kind of, you can be optimistic without paying attention to the situation that the person is in and how difficult.
And in some situations it’s easier to be optimistic.
And other situations, to me, it’s more difficult. One has to recognize that. And in the very, very difficult situations, even in the easier ones, it doesn’t mean that the person should give up and say, oh, I’m just going to be pessimistic, right?
You support with yourself, you support as much and nurture as much positive, genuinely positive thinking and optimism as you can get. And then the people around you who care for you, who love you, or who are even just acquaintances; they’re not necessarily a need to love you, should do everything they can to help. And this is what I was referring to before: that when you are in a good position to help, just help people in whatever way you can. Not because you’re looking for something in return, just do it. It feels good. You’re just do it. And if everybody does that, then when somebody is in a tough position, there are people who can help them too, and you gracefully accept help when you’re doing that.
So what do you described is very hard and you know what? We can continue this conversation over time because I do want to learn, how can we help better? And how can somebody in a tough position help themselves better, but in a very human manner? Then we can talk about how you can practice optimism under more normal circumstances.
Dr. Firdaus Dhabhar:
This is what I mean, for the tough … This is what I feel for the really tough situations.
Hopefully we’re going to help a lot of people with this. My audience know they’re my digital family. They know that I’m very authentic. And if I feel bad, I feel bad. And if I cry, it’s because I’m going through the situation and they, I think they appreciate that because I feel inside of me that I’m helping others, too.
Let’s talk about normal situations, doctor. We are like, let’s be optimistic and let’s think about 2021. And we’re going, this transformation, amazing transformation through suffering. That’s how I see it. Because the lessons that I’ve learned in life is through that kind of suffering, we learned such an important lesson. So being more optimistic, what are the positive effects of, the emotional and the laughter, and being optimistic in your health and your physical health?
Dr. Firdaus Dhabhar:
So what are the positive effects? Okay. And then you are right, that if you go through a challenging time, a tough time successfully, with doing the best you can, that almost makes you stronger, right? So, grandma says that. Our grandmas, grandpas, they all tell us, right? What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. And in our work on stress, for example, we see that all the time.
Again, not to say that it’s easy and everybody gets it or whatever, but do see that. Those are the kinds of things that we want to understand better and develop better. But as far as optimism goes, so what are the ways in which it can improve health for us, right? Now, it’s very important to know that the things that we are talking about are all a work in progress, as far as the science goes.
So, these are not definitive facts of life. They’re not exceptions. So just because somebody may not be optimistic or not be feeling optimistic, they shouldn’t think like, oh my God, I have a one-way ticket to a short life and then, sort of, sickness, right? So just keep that in mind. I really mean that.
But studies have shown that people who are optimistic tend to have better health and they may even live longer. Okay.
Some have observed higher survival rates and quality of life in cancer patients. And now this may all be driven by a biology of mind and body that accompanies an optimistic state of mind that promotes all these things.
Another very important factor is that optimism is thought to reduce bad stress, and chronic or long-term stress is bad stress, and it has so many negative effects on mind and body, on brain and body. Okay? So anything, in this regard, if optimism can reduce somebody’s levels of bad stress, that in itself is going to have effects through the stress battle. But again, when I’m talking about stress, one has to be really clear that mother nature did not give us stress to do bad things to us. Mother nature gave us our stress response to protect us, to help us survive. This is a major, major focus of my lab’s research.
The difference is, when the stress is long-term, it has all of these bad effects, but mental stress is short-term, it’s a fight or flight response. It’s the kind of stress you feel before you have to do an exam or run a race or something like that. If you’re in a healthy state, that short-term stress actually helps you do better in situations that involve a challenge or a threat or a danger, or even a process of undergoing surgery. And we find that anything that you can do to reduce your bad stress, to reduce your chronic stress actually helps your good stress do a better job.
So an optimistic personality, an optimistic outlook, by reducing chronic stress could also help good stress do a better job. But again, just keep in mind for everybody who may listen to this, that this is all a work in progress. We can’t say definitive things, and every single thing that I’m saying will likely not apply to every single person.
You talk about science, and that’s why I love these interviews. If you’re here for the first time, I’m Laura Termini, founder of ChicaNOL.com, and I’m with Dr. Firdaus Dhabhar. You want to see this video from the beginning, just rewind it. And we’re talking about mental health, we’re talking about optimism, and it’s such an amazing topic to talk to. When it comes to science, what are the things that we can do on a daily basis to become, or to be, more optimistic?
Dr. Firdaus Dhabhar:
So, maybe I’ll sort of share it from a personal perspective.
Rather than sort of an academic… Do this, do this, take five steps or whatever. Right?
So I used to be an extremely optimistic person. Okay? Very, very optimistic, genuinely optimistic. But as you go through life, you take hits and the harsh realities get you. Okay? In fact, some of the hits that I’ve taken in life may be because of my optimism, right? I thought the best of people and situations, and I expect the best. I thought the best, I trusted. And in some cases got taken advantage of, right? Got taken advantage of pretty badly. But fortunately, that didn’t stop me from being optimistic. I didn’t say, oh, the whole world is bad or whatever. No, I don’t think that. But what I became is slightly different. I became a realistic, maybe more realistic optimist or maybe more cautious optimist.
I’m definitely an optimistic person, but now I’m a little bit more cautious.
But how does one maintain that? When I’ve thought about this, because people have asked me, friends have asked me, and they say, are you just saying it? And I’m like, no, no, no. I don’t believe in just saying it. I don’t have a shirt saying I’m an optimist.
So, I think for me, it comes through gratitude, hard work, and having faith in people and the work.
So gratitude, hard work, and having faith. So I’m grateful for what I have, but I don’t pretend that everything’s perfect. I’m not going around saying, oh, I’m so happy, I’m so grateful. I am grateful, but I don’t pretend that everything’s perfect. And in fact, working to improve things, for yourself and for those around you, is a pretty good way to be, and that’s what I try to be.
My life right now, perhaps like that of most people, has been a mix of good things and some pretty tough challenges.
Science-wise, our research on good stress and bad stress has been groundbreaking with the potential to significantly help people: sick people, healthy people. And our publications and presentations have been greatly appreciated and recognized all over the world. So I’m very grateful for that. By truly objective metrics, one would say that my lab’s research is very, very strong, but going through the highly subjective process of getting funding to do that research, okay, which all scientists’ life depends on getting funding to do the research that they love. Going through that subjective process of getting funding for my research has been very, very hard for the past few years.
And that is a hugely stressful thing, because here is the thing that you love, my science. I love it. I can see the hope in it. Okay? But I can think like, am I ever going to get through with enough strength to do it, that’ll enable me to do what I truly want to do?
So the way I deal with this is being grateful for what I have, working very, very hard, and having faith that things will get better. And gratitude, I think, is very important because it helps in many ways, but you need to open your eyes. To see the things around you, I find that sometimes. Or even not try very hard, but just be open to seeing them.
I want to give, I was thinking of an example that just recent experiences that have brought to the floor and that is, my institution, the Miller School of Medicine, the University of Miami Health System, and the University of Miami as a whole, right?
I have really appreciated from the beginning of this year the wise, adaptive, and caring manner, and our (University of Miami) President Frenk always likes to say we have to be adaptive in our response to the pandemic. I really appreciate so far how they have handled it, that I don’t think people know. And nobody paid me to say this. They didn’t tell me to say this, but I think it’s important. They have done it, I feel, in a very wise manner. The entire medical center, UHealth, Jackson Hospital, all our frontline workers. I’m not a frontline worker, but our frontline workers, they’re the real heroes. They have done a remarkable job taking care of COVID-19 patients as well as non-COVID patients. Okay?
So this actually is something that I’m grateful for and helps me to be optimistic. We had a town hall recently where the president of UM, the chairwoman of the board, the provost, the Dean of The School of Medicine, the CEO of UHealth, the entire UM leadership was there to discuss social justice, very important topic. It was a terrific discussion. And at one point somebody said, and the question asked, I think it was, how are we going to afford this? How are we going to pay for this? And Mr. Joe Echevarria, the interim CEO of UHealth, I hope he becomes permanent CEO, I was so happy and encouraged to see… He is the person who knows about the money, right? And that’s a really important factor.
And he said, let’s define what we have to do, and we will find the resources to do it. Something like that. I don’t want to put words in his mouth, but it was something like that, as I was listening to it. And I said, this is awesome. Okay? My department, the Department of Psychiatry, we had a meeting yesterday where colleagues presented research opportunities, the work that they were doing, so that residents could train with us. But the creativity, the meaningfulness, the potential impact of the work being done in our department was phenomenal.
Seeing this made me grateful and made me optimistic.
Yes, I could go on like that, but to be part of an institution that’s a really good one, and I hope many other institutions are like this, can be one reason. But the reason why I’m saying this is one has to be open to seeing it, because it is so easy to be critical of whoever you’re working for and always think oh, they do this, they do this, they do this: we forget to see the good.
I mean, look at our roads. Our roads are, most of our roads, are in perfect shape. But again, we complain about the potholes that there is, you know? So just change the mindset, not to never complain, not to not see things that are bad because you have to see things that are bad and say that, hey, this has to be corrected; but to recognize, to be open to seeing the good, because not only does that gratitude, true gratitude, help you on its own in terms of health, but it also gives you the reason for why you can be optimistic, and that optimism will then help you. And we can-
Doctor, it’s amazing, everything that you’re putting out and I think our audience is going to love it. This is the time that we have today. We’re going to keep doing another video so I can do more with you. I would love to spend more time with you on camera so we can really share. This is so important. I’ve been saying it the whole year. It’s okay to take care of your body, but the mind is in your body and the mind and the brain is what you need to pay attention.
So optimism is a gift that keeps giving and spreading joy to someone will leave you with a feeling of joy and gratitude. This holiday season, Doctor, I feel so happy that this was the last interview that we have for 2020 and to end up in such a positive and optimistic way. I thank you so much and I thank the universe and life sent you to me so we can spread joy and optimism throughout my platform.
Dr. Firdaus Dhabhar:
Thank you. I feel the same way. Thank you for a really thoughtful interview and for what you’re doing for your readers and listeners. And I just want to wish you and your followers the very best for the holiday season and the new year. Yes, if I can be of help with anything, let me know. And I really wish you the best with your Dad. And I really hope that things are as good as they can be.