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The week before he was diagnosed with cancer, my father called to say his doctor had scheduled a biopsy. He was losing weight and having trouble swallowing, and a preliminary test had found an obstruction in his esophagus. "It's probably just a polyp," he said.
The "polyp" was stage-4 cancer. Doctors gave him fewer than six months to live.
It was a diagnosis my father chose not to acknowledge. He was a man whose first impulse was to believe any good thing was possible. One of his favorite songs was an old Johnny Mercer tune, "Accentuate the Positive." So when he learned he had terminal cancer, he was determined to beat it.
For a long time he was winning: His first chemotherapy regimen resulted in a remission that lasted nine months. The oncologist didn't even want to try the next round of chemo, but Dad insisted and, sure enough, it gave him another remission. On and on it went, with treatments that offered poorer and poorer chances of success, though each time Dad would get better -- for a while.
In the end, by dint of what his generation called the power of positive thinking, my father lived more than two years past his terminal diagnosis. Twenty-nine months may not seem like a long time, but in the context of stage-4 esophageal cancer it qualifies as a miracle. Against all the odds, Dad lived long enough to celebrate the arrival of the last two of his six grandchildren. Long enough to take my mother on a cruise. Long enough to teach the rest of us what it really means to accentuate the positive.
Sadly, I did not inherit my father's sunny disposition. I'm not a pessimist, exactly, but I can be a real fretter, inclined to contemplate the worst-case scenario. I can't count the times I've returned from a trip I didn't want to take or a social event I didn't want to attend only to realize that the heavy dread I'd experienced beforehand was far worse than the event itself. And I tend to linger on my mistakes, "crimes" like talking too much at parties or forgetting to send in a school permission slip the day it's due.
Almost every woman I know succumbs at times to the same kinds of paranoid, persecuted thoughts that keep me up at night. One good friend of mine -- who's too busy to get together as often as we did when we were both home with babies -- routinely greets me by saying, "You hate me now, don't you?" Another friend has been telling me for the past three years that she's about to lose her job. She's had several great performance reviews, but she still believes she'll get the ax: "In this economy, it's just a matter of time before I'm downsized."
This grimness may not be a fluke. It turns out my father had an unfair advantage in the optimism department. Studies show that women are far likelier than men to engage in negative thinking: We worry more, have a greater awareness of risk, have higher rates of depression and anxiety, feel less comfortable with uncertainty, and are more apt to blame ourselves when things go wrong.
A recent study from the University of California, Davis, found that girls as young as 3 are more likely than boys to believe bad events in the past might recur. "Even in childhood, girls have more anxieties and worry more intensely," says Kristin Hansen Lagattuta, PhD, the study's author. Women may have it worse, but all human beings, male and female, have a "negativity bias," says John T. Cacioppo, PhD, a neuroscientist at the University of Chicago. Our brains literally react more strongly -- with a surge of electrical activity -- to negative stimuli than to neutral or even positive information. Dr. Cacioppo believes this is left over from our evolutionary past: "Thousands of years ago it was really important to run from anything that looked like a tiger, even if it turned out to be only a rock."
There's still a place for thinking negatively today: When you anticipate what might go wrong, you're better able to plan for those possibilities. When you think about how you messed up, you learn from your mistakes. But negativity isn't the best plan when it causes tiny setbacks, such as a spat with your husband or a bounced check, to turn into major preoccupations that stop you from enjoying your life and moving forward.
A chronically dark outlook can also push people away. "Let's face it: Negative people are no fun to be around," says Kathleen Hall, author of A Life in Balance. As a result, she says, you don't get as many social invitations, which makes you feel even more negative, and the vicious circle continues. Even if you aren't being rejected because of your grim attitude, you're shortchanging your relationships, says Steven C. Hayes, PhD, a University of Nevada, Reno, psychologist and author of Get Out of Your Mind & Into Your Life. That's because you're too busy mulling over your mistakes, shortcomings, and frustrations to focus on your husband, your kids, and your friends.
Negativity also does a serious number on your health. If you're sick, you can make yourself sicker by dwelling on your fears. "If you expect something to be harmful, then it frequently is harmful," says Richard Kradin, MD, an associate professor of pathology at Harvard Medical School and author of The Placebo Response and the Power of Unconscious Healing. And if you're healthy but constantly thinking that things will go wrong -- your child will get hurt, your party will be a flop, your boss will hate your proposal -- you can worry yourself sick. This may explain why people with a sunnier view of the world and of themselves -- those who, like my father, can routinely accentuate the positive -- may actually live longer, healthier, and happier lives.
"Negative thoughts are like hurricanes," says Hall. "The more you focus on them, the more they pick up speed and power." One mom I know works herself up into those kinds of storms on a regular basis. When her grown son hasn't returned her phone call within a day, she goes from being irritated to wondering if he's angry with her to convincing herself he's dead on the highway -- even though part of her realizes she's being ridiculous. Trying to talk yourself out of thinking negatively, or browbeating yourself for it, never works, says Dr. Hayes. Such inner debates just put those thoughts front and center in your mind. And by criticizing yourself, you end up feeling you're even more of a failure: "What's wrong with me that I can't get over this and be happy?"
Instead, recognize that most dark, fearful thoughts ("My mom didn't send me a Valentine's Day card; she always loved my sister best") are normal, based on primitive instincts -- and that it's usually best to tune them out. "If you've got a toddler following you around prattling nonsense," says Dr. Hayes, "you don't try to argue. You learn to let it go in one ear and out the other."
It also helps to consider the context, says Hall. When you're overreacting to something -- you're afraid your running buddy is mad you had to cancel again -- try to figure out what's behind the disconnect. Did you sleep poorly? Are you facing a major deadline at work? When you're exhausted or under stress, your thoughts often default to negative patterns laid down long ago (say, when your best friend in third grade dumped you for a more popular girl), even though they have no relevance to the current situation.
And if you catch yourself indulging in self-defeating thoughts ("I'm a total failure"), notice what you're actually doing: I'm criticizing everything about myself right now because I feel bad about one particular mistake I made at work. Looking at the big picture can help you keep irrational thoughts at arm's length.
If you're inclined to jump right to the worst-case scenario, arm yourself with facts. Many fears stem from inaccurate or incomplete information, says Dr. Lagattuta. When my first child was a baby, I was so afraid of SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome) that I kept waking up several times a night to check on him, even after he was sleeping through the night himself. If I'd known that the risk of SIDS for any individual infant is less than one-thousandth of one percent, I would have been less paranoid.
One of the best ways to keep negativity at bay is to skip the venting, says Rick Foster, coauthor of How We Choose to Be Happy. You may think that complaining to friends and family about your unreasonable mother-in-law or your overdue bills will help relieve the pressure you feel. In fact, says Foster, all you're doing is digging yourself a really deep trench of despair. "If you keep on reliving the feeling, you're trapping yourself in the negativity.
"Instead, focus on the moment. It's not a coincidence that negative thinking is commonest when we allow our minds to wander, says cognitive psychologist John Selby, coauthor of Take Charge of Your Mind. Turn your attention to what you're doing, even if it's just a mundane task, such as washing your hair, driving to work, or eating a sandwich. Staying in the here and now will help you stop worrying about the future and obsessing over past mistakes. And it will simultaneously remind you of the genuine beauty and pleasure in life -- the wonderful stuff you've been missing in the middle of all that negativity.
Laugh. This simple act releases endorphins and makes you feel good. Laughing also invites laughter from other people -- a social connection that will boost your mood, too.
Count your blessings. People who concentrate on what they genuinely have to feel happy about are -- surprise! -- happier than those who dwell on the negatives. If you're in a bad funk, you might have to start with "I'm grateful I have legs." Before too long you'll see how much you really have going for you.
Say thank you. Expressing gratitude ratchets up the happiness quotient even more. In one study, research subjects wrote a thank-you letter to someone who had helped them in a significant way. Their happiness levels shot up immediately afterward and, amazingly, remained higher than normal for a month.
Play to your strengths. One measure of happiness is the ability to become absorbed by a task, and we're most absorbed by new activities that we're naturally good at. If your strength is social connection, find a hobby that allows you to interact meaningfully with other people. If your strength is self-expression, consider starting a blog or taking an art class.
Do good. In study after study, any form of generosity -- simple acts of kindness, donations, or volunteer work -- raised happiness levels.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, February 2009.