The Science of Happy

One of the best gifts I ever received was from a colleague who sent me a link to this Shawn Achor  TED talk and a small “Gratitude Journal”. This talk, followed by subsequent observations in my own practice, really had me thinking about the impact of our mood on our health. Dr. Achor is a Harvard scientist whose research is focused on happiness. The basic premise of his research findings are two key points:

  • Our brains work more successfully when we are positive.
  • There are ways to train your brain to become more positive.
    • One way to do this is to write down three things you are grateful for, everyday; if you do this 2 minutes a day, for 21-days in a row, Achor reports that the “brain retains a pattern of scanning the world for the positive.”

I used to think that there were happy people in the world (optimists) and there were the others…you know who you are (me, before watching this TED talk).  Dr. Achor’s research flies in the face of this assumption and demonstrates that people are able to impact their level of happiness by focusing on positive things in their life.

I see the impact of mood on health play out on a daily basis in my breast cancer patients. Patients who come in “ready for the fight” tend to do fairly well throughout therapy and those with more fear, not infrequently, had a more complicated or difficult course. That’s not to say there are not genetic or other reasons why some people tolerate therapies better than others. There absolutely are. However, if you look at patients on treatment as a whole, I would say that the optimists tend to do a bit better.

Perhaps this is because the optimists see the chemotherapy as a challenge, something they can overcome rather than a barrier to their well-being. Perhaps the fear and anxiety frequently associated with the diagnosis of breast cancer actually contributes to increased side effects on therapy. There was an interesting study by Cimprich and colleagues reported at the San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium in 2012  on the effects of mood, specifically anxiety, and fatigue on the development of “chemobrain” or cognitive dysfunction during and following a course of chemotherapy. The study essentially showed that women who were more anxious before starting therapy developed more fatigue and cognitive issues while on therapy. These changes were quantifiable on cognitive testing and on brain MRI. It was pretty impressive to see this direct impact of mood on actual physiologic changes in the brain. What we learned from this study is that really focusing on the psychological state before one embarks on a course of therapy for breast cancer is essential to one’s well-being during and following the course of therapy.

Let me be clear, what I am not saying is, “you were just diagnosed with breast cancer, now be happy!” What I am saying is that once the initial shock of the diagnosis has passed, having some positive thoughts might go a long way to improve your emotional and physical health while on therapy. Positivity can come from appreciating your support system, your care team, or most importantly, appreciating yourself and understanding that you are strong enough to do this.

Strength and positivity can also come from empowerment. Studies have demonstrated that women who are prepared for their consultations with medical specialists by having either a “prompt-sheet” (set of questions for their doctor) or a Consultation Planning session, much like we do here at Breast Cancer Consultants, have a better sense of satisfaction with their subsequent visits with specialists. Controlling some of the “fear of the unknown” with knowledge can be very powerful and may even lead to better well-being during and after breast cancer therapy.

So, if you’re ready to study the Science of Happy, here’s some homework you can do:

  • If you haven’t already, watch Dr. Achor’s TED talk. I still do, frequently…
  • Empower yourself by being prepared for your doctor’s visits.
  • Get a gratitude journal and start writing. It may be one of the best things you can do for your health!