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The Super-Medicine That Fights Colds, Cancer, and Setbacks: Optimism

Posted by Joe Robinson


THE MOST POTENT WEAPON to promote good health and ward off serious illnesses is not what you’d expect—exercise or proper diet. Yes, they both definitely help the cause, but they don’t pack the punch of a mild-mannered wellness super-agent that can outperform the latest medical remedies: optimism.

A study of veterans who took the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory showed that those who had an optimistic outlook had 25% less cardiovascular disease than the least optimistic. In a Dutch study of almost a thousand people aged 65 to 85 optimists had only 23% of the death rate of pessimists. Those with high levels of optimism died at a lower rate than average, while pessimists died at a higher rate.


This same pattern holds in large population studies. The Women’s Health Initiative measured 94,000 women and found that those highest in optimism had 30% fewer coronary deaths than the most pessimistic. Women were given statements to agree or disagree with, such as “in unclear times I always expect the best” and “if something can go wrong for me, it will.”

What we tell ourselves about why things happen to us and what we expect will happen to us in the future play an astonishing role in our health, stress, success on the job, and relationships at work and in life. An optimistic outlook strengthens health, the data clearly shows. It creates a sense of possibility and mastery, which pays off a core psychological need, competence.

Optimism is a hidden elixir for much of what ails us, a free medication we all have access to. It's something that forms a key part of programs I teach—from keynotes ("The Power of Possibility") to stress management and work-life balance training. The skills of an optimistic outlook are so invaluable for health and relationships, I'd like to see them taught in school from an early age. 

Optimism also prevents one of the most harmful responses to what life brings our way—learned helplessness, which drives powerlessness, pessimism, and depression.

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The connection between mind and body is closer than we imagine. In a groundbreaking experiment, Carnegie-Mellon's Sheldon Cohen gave healthy subjects a rhinovirus that causes the common cold. The volunteers were first interviewed over seven nights to gauge their mood, such as energetic, cheerful, sad, nervous, or unhappy. Then the rhinovirus was introduced through the nose. People with high positive emotion before the virus got fewer colds than those with average positive emotion, and that latter group got fewer colds than the ones with low positive emotion.

This resistance dynamic also holds true for cancer. A metastudy that included 18 cancer studies involving 2858 people, found that optimism resulted in better cancer outcomes “at a robust level of significance.”


The quote and these findings were reported by the University of Pennsylvania’s Martin Seligman, one of the leading lights of practical positive psychology and author of Learned Optimism and Flourish. Early in his career Seligman set out to investigate the origins of depression. What he discovered was the power of pessimism to freeze minds in harm’s way, a paralysis of futility that he called “learned helplessness.”

He found that the way we frame negative events, the self-talk we concoct about them that leads to pessimism, is one of the most critical factors in human flourishing or flailing. One of the recipes for depression, he found, is failure meeting pessimism.

The story we tell ourselves when bad things happen either aggravates the situation by ginning up fear and pessimistic thoughts, or it gives us the power to be resilient and bounce back. All setbacks initially touch off exaggerated fears that create a false belief. Pessimists see that event, colored by the dire cloud set off by the stress response, in three ways, as Seligman detailed in Learned Optimism—“permanent” (you’ll never escape it), “pervasive” (the setback affects every aspect of your life) and “personal” (you get your ego and, thus, runaway emotions into it).

This pattern locks us into a worse-case scenario mindset that becomes self-reinforcing the longer it goes unchallenged. It leads to rumination that entrenches pessimistic and catastrophic thoughts. Beliefs of disaster and futility drive stress and the gauntlet of health conditions that can come from it.


Optimists have an ability to counter the false beliefs and projections of fear. They respond by not taking the event as permanent. It’s only a temporary setback. They don’t exaggerate the situation into something that spells doom for every aspect of life. It’s specific to the circumstance of this event. And they have one of the best habits we can have—they don’t take things personally.

When you let ego set off a flood of irrational emotions, that just makes getting the event behind you all the more difficult. Panicked emotions blind us to the instrument that can extricate us from the darkness, the rational deductive logic of our prefrontal cortex.

For you Star Trek fans out there, optimism is like the deflector shields on the Enterprise. It creates a force field that protects us from incoming attacks. Positive emotions have been found to broaden and build our emotional resources. They serve as a buffer in hard times. Negative events still hurt, but they bounce off if you’ve got enough juice in your positivity shields.

Barbara Fredrickson at the University of North Carolina, one of the world’s top researchers on positive emotions, along with mathematician Marcial Losada, have demonstrated that we need three positive to every one negative event to stay on the positive side, since the negative is so powerful—it’s our default as a species with a hyperactive survival instinct.

Increasing positive emotions increases the most potent medication we have in hard times, optimism. When we feel good, immune function is improved. Cohen found the key factor is that pessimism increases a protein that causes inflammation, interleukin-6. High positive emotions lower interleukin-6.


To show you just how effective positive emotions are at activating biochemical resources, one of my favorite studies—which examined singers in the Pacific Chorale—found that joy and also the intensity of that positive emotion can increase immune protection. As I reported in my book, Don’t Miss Your Life, Cal State Irvine School of Medicine’s Robert Beck and Thomas Cesario discovered that a protein essential to fighting disease, immunoglobulin A, increased 150% during the chorale’s rehearsals and 240% during concert performances!

Since optimism helps you live longer and happier, it would seem that evolution selected out positive emotions as a survival strategy. Optimism keeps our options open. We are receptive to new ideas, people, and settings that can help us solve problems and survive. That doesn’t mean we need to be Polyannas or discount negative information. We just need to weigh the most likely stories for a given situation, not reflexively the worst.

The secret agents of positive emotion can only be called upon to assist our well-being, though, if we know they are there and proactively deploy them. That seldom happens, because the default to fear and negative emotions in times of duress blocks the way out of the trap. The false beliefs are piled high: Things will never work out. I don’t see anything getting better. I don’t have any power to change my situation. I don't have any luck.

The negative emotions that charge a bad mood are intense, and we can’t stop clinging to them. Try to make someone laugh when they’re in a funky mood—they won’t have it.


Building a healthier mind and body through optimism requires a new set of beliefs to counter the pessimistic and false neuronic burps that run our world when we are in blind reaction to events. Somehow I’ll get through it. I have the power to make choices that can change where I am. I’m not helpless, I can act. I know I can find a solution. Tomorrow’s another day. Maybe it will work next time.

Controlling self-talk isn’t the only thing that leads to optimistic outcomes. If we want to increase the strength of our optimism shields, we have to participate in things that create positive emotions—social activities with friends, learning and mastery experiences, recreation and fun, and on the job, be more open and less defensive, and ask more questions. Losada found that people who exhibited those latter traits had better rapport with colleagues (which increases positive emotions), and higher sales and performance.

Happiness doesn’t come from success. It’s the other way around. Positive emotions lead to success. The study that proved that, by Sonia Lyubomirsky, Laura King, and Ed Diener, showed that success for chronically happy people was largely the result of their “positive affect,” the expression of optimism and buoyancy in facial expression and body language.

The science of optimism is telling us that our well-being is in our own hands—and minds. The resources to reframe events from calamity to opportunity are within us. The strength to overcome is within us. The power to see our lives as not static and stuck but ever-changing, depending on our outlook, is within us. And only one person can turn that life force on. When we do, we alchemize positive emotions into the essence of our chief survival trait as a species: resilience.


Tags: wellness, optimism, Joy and positive emotions, keynote speaker, optimism and health

How to Live Now, Not Later - Life Calling at Rio's Carnaval

Posted by Joe Robinson

TURN IT UP! The Sao Clemente samba school show at Carnaval 2017.

ONE OF BRAZIL'S TOP SAMBA composers, Arlindo Cruz, has a great song titled, “There’s Still Time to Be Happy.” It’s a reminder that it’s never too late to shift moods or circumstances, a point driven home in the most colossal way by Brazil’s annual Carnaval, a period of a week to two weeks where Brazilians switch off their myriad problems and work and turn to something that the research says is one of the best tonics for stress and negative emotions: the art of play.

As I watched Carnaval online over three nights of revelry in Sao Paulo and Rio, it struck me that we could all use a dose of the Brazilian talent for letting go. They know where both play and the joy that comes from it live—not in some future time when all your problems are solved or you have enough money. No, it’s right here, right now, when we can drop the reactions and projections that keep us mired in rumination and tenses we are not in and escape the life postponement rut.

"It's not that we have a short life, but that we waste a lot of it," wrote the Roman philosopher Seneca a couple thousand years ago, an observation that appears in a tiny but thoughtful book, On the Shortness of Life. "Putting things off is the biggest waste of life: it snatches away each day as it comes, and denies us the present by promising the future."


As some of you know, I’m a big fan of Brazilian music and culture. I'm pretty sure I was mistakenly switched at birth from a Brazilian mother. I lead a samba dance lesson at my keynote addresses, from work-life balance to motivation and happiness, and employee trainings, even for time management. It's a lesson in full engagement—and we always have a blast. 

Happiness and samba go together, and one of the reasons is that both are usually participant affairs. Samba is “we” music, a collective experience that involves call-and-response singing and dancing in most of its many forms. It’s a music born out of life’s disappointments that stands on the neck of difficulties with powerful, uplifting melodies people share at get-togethers and barbecues.

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Samba is also a cultural and social glue that bonds Brazilians, and particularly Brazilian neighborhoods, together. The big "samba schools" that perform in the blowout Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro are neighborhood associations, social clubs in the poor districts around Rio, where as one song puts it, you learn to laugh, samba, keep rhythm in a 300-piece band and march in crazy costumes with a cast of thousands.

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The mind-blowing triple-tiered floats and spectacular costumes at Rio’s famed Carnaval are the byproducts of communities that don’t have much in material terms, but that turn their passion for samba and life into spectacles of art and imagination as sophisticated as anything dreamed up by Hollywood. 

Carnaval in Brazil is the Super Bowl of life celebration, where everyone can participate, no matter your budget or walk of life. Researchers say participating in engaging experiences that satisfy core needs such as autonomy and connection with others, are key to happiness. And that puts Carnaval and people all over Brazil who indulge in their neighborhood bloco, or block party, the more informal celebrating that most Brazilians participate in, right in the sweet spot of life satisfaction.

So much so that I saw samba school members, even macho band directors, shedding tears of joy as they took their places at the beginning of their march on the avenue at the Sambadromo. Samba and the samba school is life. "It's in the blood," one legendary samba singer, Monarco, once told me.

That goes for fans watching in the stands and even on TV as well. Once the drummers start booming, you are no longer apart from life, but part of it. That’s the idea of joy, dropping the force field around us and allowing ourselves to be touched by something and feel it deeply. It tends to be something that happens with others, just like fun.


On the last night of parades of the top samba schools in Rio, I found my favorite, Sao Clemente, which was second out of the gates. Their 3,000 members used their deliriously catchy theme song to crowdsource joy into a force so awesome I couldn't stop smiling for the whole hour-plus they marched at the Sambadromo. And I haven't been able to stop playing the video of their performance over and over. Feel it yourself and supercharge your day with the group's entire show above or on video here.

Sao Clemente is not one of the traditional champions of what’s known as the Special Group of samba schools, such as Mangueira and Beija-Flor, known for their artistic extravaganzas and righteous baterias, or drum sections, but it rose above all the other schools this year in collective joy, powered by its infectious samba-enredo, the high-octane samba song created just for Carnaval.


Each samba school debuts a song each year for the event that tells the story or theme of their show, which the percussion orchestra thunders to life. They and the featured vocalists and all parade participants sing that samba for the full hour and 15 minutes as they parade, dance, and shake past the grandstands and judges at the Sambadromo. It's endurance joy in the wee hours of the morning, and no one runs out of spirit. It's the culmination of months of practice to hone the music, the rhythm arrangements, choreography, and the various roles the marchers will play.

I’ve been to a few samba school rehearsals in the poorer neighborhoods of Rio, and the experience is boggling. You don’t just hear the music, you feel the locomotive engine of the drums in your kidneys. It tells you that, yes, there’s another of level of elation out there when we dig deeper into our affinities.

I got hooked on the ecstatic chorus of Sao Clemente's samba, sung in unison by thousands of passionate Sao Clemente participants and fans in the stands. It was especially powerful when the instruments paused and those rousing voices filled the night air with their hearts and souls. That is the definition of sheer joy for me.

With the hyper-strummed strings of the mandolin-like cavaquinho and throbbing surdo bass drums driving them onward, the grandmother wing of the school, known as Baianas, had an extra bounce in their step as they twirled their enormous dresses like whirling dervishes. Ordinary folks dressed in finery of the French Renaissance—the theme of the show was the French Sun King and arts patron Louis XIV—raised arms to the heavens.

The strategically sequined passistas, the showgirl-style dancers, kicked into the fastest dance steps on the planet, doing their speed samba in teetering heels. All ages, all races had opted out of preoccupations to immerse for a special time in their lives in unadulterated joy.


University of North Carolina researcher Barbara Fredrickson has found that positive emotions like joy broaden and build us. We become more resilient in the face of setbacks and open our minds to new experiences, something our brain neurons crave. Other researchers have found that singers performing in a chorus had higher levels of a protein that strengthen the immune system. You bet, singing and dancing is good for you.

Sure, Carnaval participants go back to their lives and their problems after the show—Brazil has a lot of them these days, with the worst economic crisis in a century—but many of its citizens will have gotten in the kind of peak life moments many of us are missing out on and that help cushion setbacks ahead. 

Moods and force of habit can keep us locked out of our own lives, sidelined by past problems or future worries. We forget what Thich Nhat Hanh calls "our appointment with life." We have to "say goodbe to the past so that we can return to the present. To return to the present is to be in touch with life."

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The reality of emotions is that the negative stick around longer than the positive ones and, as a result, are great at keeping us distracted from what we're supposedly working for—life. Our survival instinct is set to a default to obsess about what's wrong. It makes it seem like things are worse than they are. Researchers say that we have many more neutral to positive emotions in the day, but we don't remember them, only the negative.

Happiness, joy, and elation don't last nearly as long as we'd like. That's okay. Positive emotions operate on a different dynamic. Even though they are shorter in duration, having a steady dose of various positive events can crowd out the negative.

Joy is not a special event that happens a couple times in life or can only be indulged in when we "deserve" it. One of the fallacies I see too much is a belief that you have to work till the threshhold of pain before you are entitled to step back and enjoy life. No, you are entitled to live now, and when you do, your work will be more energized for it, as I wrote in my last blog, on vitality.


We can access joy whenever we want by leaving behind worries the mind clings to and diving in to recreational experiences that put us in touch with things we love to do, like samba for me, for instance, things that make us happy by the act of being in the experience and not for some instrumental goal that we may get out of it. It’s the demand that everything pay off for us externally that keeps us from enjoying our lives, says a consensus of scientists around the world. What brings joy doesn’t come from the external payoff side—money, success, status.

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It comes from experiences we do for their own sake, not what anyone else thinks. Research at the University of Montreal shows that, if you have a passion, you can add eight hours of joy to your week. 

Play is like a muscle. When we do more of it, it’s easier to access it and escape moods that keep us in a bunker. If we haven’t played in ages, it’s very difficult to dig the spirit out, and this is one of the problems most adults have. We lose the skills of spontaneity and surrender to what’s in front of us. Try using the video above of Sao Clemente as your motivator and reminder to put life on the calendar.

The drummers, dancers, and fans at the Sambadromo have gone home now. The party always ends. I'm still pumped, though, with the spirit of samba, which is as near as the Sao Clemente video or the rest of my samba and music collection.

Pure joy and fun is contagious. Sao Clemente's vivacious samba song was voted best of the 2017 Carnaval by experts on a jury panel of the event's broadcaster, Globo. Click on the video, turn up the volume, and catch the spirit! These are the best times of your life.

If you would like more details on a keynote address on work-life balance, happiness, or motivation, or spreading fun with a samba lesson for your audience, click on the button below.

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Tags: happiness, Rio Carnival, Joy and positive emotions, positive affect, samba

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