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Optimism a Strong Ally for Immune System

by Sarah Ligon

"Whistle while you work." "Look for the silver lining." They're age-old bits of folk wisdom, but as sound medical advice we tend to dismiss these sayings along with "an apple a day."

However, recent studies of optimists under stress by UK psychologist Suzanne Segerstrom have shown that you may indeed stay healthier if you think the glass is half full.

Segerstrom's interest in optimism's effects on health began while she was a graduate student at UCLA, working on a study of men infected with HIV. "I started out looking at outcomes like emotional and social adjustment," she says, "but in the process I became interested in whether these same factors were also predicting immune system changes."

To explore the effects of positive outlook on the immune system, Segerstrom then studied the 1997 batch of first-year law students at UCLA—a group guaranteed to be under relatively high stress.

Segerstrom began by surveying the students for two main types of optimism: "dispositional" optimists, who had more generalized positive beliefs about the future, and "situational" optimists, people who had specific positive beliefs about their upcoming law school experience. The survey asked students to agree or disagree with such phrases as, "In uncertain times I expect the best," or "It's unlikely that I will fail." Once characterized as more optimistic or pessimistic, the students had blood drawn: once before starting school, and again at mid-semester.

"Before they started law school," says Segerstrom, "there was absolutely no difference in the optimists' and pessimists' immune systems." However, as the semester progressed and the coursework piled higher, Segerstrom's pessimists began to lag.

By midterm, the optimists had higher numbers than pessimists of cells that protect the immune system against disease. Segerstrom repeated the tests in 1998, this time on UK's first-year law students, and got similar results. At UK midterm, 67 percent of pessimists but only 29 percent of optimists tested "clinically inadequate," indicating the partial failure of their immune system.

This doesn't mean that 67 percent of pessimists were actually sick. "You can change quite a bit and still be within normal parameters for a healthy person," says Segerstrom. And many symptoms of such classic fall-semester bugs as influenza or the common cold are actually caused by the immune system itself, generating heat and sapping energy levels as it fights germs. "So it's possible that if you're anergic, you just won't feel as sick," she says. "Your immune system might not respond as strongly."

The significance lies in the change under stress. "It's not like pessimists are walking around sick all the time," Segerstrom points out. "What optimism really does is buffer you against stress."

With the help of UK undergraduates, research interns, and graduate students, she is trying to discover the secret behind optimists' stress management. "It seems there's something else going on with them," says Segerstrom. "Studies have shown that things such as amounts of sleep and alcohol intake don't explain the immune system differences."

Whether pessimists can be transformed into optimists, then, is still unclear.

"It may be more fruitful," she says, "to get people to employ certain cognitive strategies—get them to think positively—rather than try to change their personalities."