The human immune system is incredibly complex.
As living organisms, we are constantly bombarded by invading
viruses, fungus, and bacteria and it is a constant battle with
first, second and third lines of defense against invaders.
We have immunoglobulin A in our saliva, for example,
to help kill invaders as they enter our mouths. We have many
different immunoglobulins in our lungs, our intestines, our tears,
etc. in our points of vulnerability the places
where an invader can invade.
At those points, we have immune defenses,
guard posts, forts, standing guards. Our lives are at stake and
the immune system that has evolved is amazing. The benefit of
each advance in the immune system all along our billions of years
of evolution were enormous: The ultimate benefit life
We have T-cells that circulate in the blood
and when they recognize an invader they have fought before, the
measles or a flu virus for example, they reproduce the antibody
for that invader and overwhelm it to kill it off.
When a virus invades your body, it's always
a race between your T-cells and the invader. Whichever one can
multiply fastest wins. You are invaded fairly often, but if your
T-cells reproduce faster than the invader, you never even know
the war went on. You won. You didn't get sick. But if your T-cells
are sluggish, if they don't reproduce fast enough, the invaders
multiply too quickly and overwhelm your defenses, and then backup
defenses take over: Fever, excess mucous, whatever tools your
immune system can muster to destroy the invader and prevent your
Another battalion in your immune system
killer cells (NK cells). They cruise through your blood looking
for anything foreign, like cancer cells, and kill it off. Your
NK cells are more effective under certain conditions than others.
In one study, the researchers measured
the level of pessimism, cynicism and defeatism (the deadly triad)
in a group of elderly people and also once a year took blood
samples to check the activity level of their immune system. The
immune system was less vigorous and less effective in those with
the highest measure of the deadly triad. Pessimism is bad for
your immune system. Pessimism weakens your defenses against disease.
In another study, researchers looked at
what might happen if people learned to think less pessimistically
you can do here).They divided cancer patients into two groups.
Both groups received standard medical care, and one group also
received training in thinking less pessimistically once a week
for twelve weeks, and also learned some relaxation techniques.
Taking blood samples, the researchers measured
the NK cell activity. It was dramatically higher in the people
trained to think differently.
In a study I mentioned in my book, Self-Help Stuff That Works, people were tested
for their level of pessimism, cynicism, and defeatism. Then they
were given some health-related information to study on health
topics (like cancer, for example). Here's an interesting finding
that really ought to be obvious: The most pessimistic spent less
time studying the information and remembered less of it. It ought
to be obvious but it was surprising to me when I first read about
it, and it's surprising to a lot of people (especially pessimists).
But if you think about it, the outcome
of the study makes perfect sense. Pessimism of course makes you
less inclined to believe you can do anything to successfully
change the course of events. And if you assume you can't do anything
about preventing cancer, for example, you're not going to be
very motivated to learn anything about it, are you? By assuming
you're helpless, you become more of a victim.
What I like about this study is it counters
what seems to be a common belief negative people have about optimists.
They believe it is a form of sticking your head in the sand and
ignoring reality. How else, the pessimists ask, could you avoid
being pessimistic, cynical and defeatist? But this study shows
that it is actually the people infected with the lamprey of the mind who are avoiding reality.
People who haven't had their strength drained by the lamprey
know that their own actions have an impact on the world. They
know they aren't helpless. They know they have an influence on
the outcome of events, so they are more open to information that
can help them influence those events.
Because they get more information and they
don't make themselves feel defeated, optimistic people are more
likely to take action like eating better, exercising, getting
checkups at the doctor. A pessimist is less inclined to take
those kinds of actions because they feel it won't make much difference.
And their lack of positive action makes them statistically more
likely to die prematurely.
An optimist (and here I'm using the word
in the scientific sense, which really has nothing to do with
looking on the bright side or saying nice things to yourself;
about scientific optimism) might say, "I can quit smoking."
And if they try once and fail, they wouldn't give up. They aren't
defeated so easily. They'll try again.
A pessimist would be less likely to try
in the first place because they explain events in more defeatist
ways. "I can't help it. Nicotine has me completely addicted."
But if they try anyway but fail, their explanation will not motivate
them to try again: "I guess I just can't do it." They
are more likely to accept their fate and die prematurely.
In a study of cancer patients, those who
thought most pessimistically had the highest death rates, even
though they weren't any more diseased when the study began.
Here's another interesting study. Researchers
from California and Finland teamed up to ask 2400 men how much
they agreed with these two statements:
1. The future seems to me to be hopeless,
and I can't believe that things are changing for the better.
2. I feel that it is impossible to reach
the goals I would like to strive for.
Clearly this simple questionnaire measures
how thoroughly the lamprey has done its work.
Six years later, the ones who answered
with pessimism, cynicism and defeatism were two to three times
more likely to have heart attacks, develop cancer, or die of
Researchers are amazingly creative. Some
people collect stamps. I collect studies. I love the way researchers
go about discovering how things work. Here's another good one.
Researchers in Texas tested 2300 people over the age of 65 for
1. Hopefulness about the future.
2. How much they enjoyed life.
4. Their average walking speed.
5. Their happiness level at the time.
Two years later, the researchers followed
up on these people. Using these measurements of emotional health,
they found that the least pessimistic participants were:
1. Half as likely to have trouble with
their daily activities.
2. Were twice as likely to be alive.
3. Had faster average walking speeds.
And these results were independent of their
sex, weight, education level, or how much they drank or smoked.
In a Carnegie Mellon University study,
researchers gave a cold virus using a nasal spray to 400 volunteers.
They found that the most stressed out were twice as likely to
catch the cold. Pessimistic, cynical, defeated ways of thinking
make mildly stressful situation into more intensely stressful
events, and as their actions ensue from their thoughts, they
make things get even more stressful (by snapping at people, for
example, causing people to snap back). The stress and the cortisol
it produces then impairs the immune system.
Another great study was done by the Mayo
Clinic. This one followed 800 people for 35 years. Every ten
point difference in their level of pessimism increased their
chances of dying from any cause 19 percent.
cortisol: the stress hormone
When you undergo stress, your body responds
by pumping cortisol into your blood stream. Scientists all over
the world have shown how cortisol influences the immune system,
sometimes quite directly. For example, college students volunteered
to have their mouths injured once during their summer vacation,
and once again three days before the first test of a new semester.
Cortisol levels are lower during summer vacation and higher right
The wound given in the mouth was very exact
and measured carefully. Then the researchers measured a wound-healing
substance in the blood and measured how long it took the wounds
to heal. The ability to heal a wound is another of the immune
system's line of defense.
During vacation, the wounds healed, on
average, in eight days. During the exams, the wounds took eleven
days. During the exams, the amount of the wound-healing substance
in the blood dropped a whopping 68%.
Psychological stress is one of the side-effects
of pessimism. And stress alters the level of certain hormones,
like cortisol. These changes in hormones then alter the synthesis
of other compounds. For example, cytokines are a compound that help regulate
the immune system. When stress levels go up, it changes the level
This kind of roundabout causal chain explains
some of the many different influences pessimism, cynicism and
defeatism have on the immune system. For example, when people
are given a vaccination for Hepatitis B or the flu, their immune
system responds. Researchers have found that stress suppresses
T-cell activity and measurably lowers antibody levels.
It's a common observation of doctors that
people don't recover from surgery as well if they are very anxious
and depressed before the surgery, but researchers have only recently
begun to find out how this could be possible. Like the study
above, another experiment deliberately injured volunteers and
then carefully measured the immune response to see if the more
stressed volunteers' immune response differed from the less stressed
ones. It did.
The researchers created minor blisters
on the volunteers' forearms and then removed the top skin layer
of the blisters, sterilized it and covered it with plastic. They
then tested the fluid in the blisters five hours later and then
24 hours later.
They were looking for two specific cytokines
and the number of cells called neutrophils (a key cell your body uses to
repair an injury).
The number of neutrophils was no different
in stressed and unstressed people. But the number of cytokines
was significantly lower in stressed people. They tested the volunteers'
stress level by measuring the cortisol in their saliva. There
was a strong correlation: The higher the cortisol level, the
lower the cytokine level. Stress directly suppressed their immune
And thinking pessimistically, cynically,
and defeatedly increases your stress level. That is one reason
pessimism must be crushed! ;-)
Researchers at the University of Texas
Cancer Center discovered that stress hormones like norepinephrine (also known as noradrenaline)
blocked the ability of macrophages to kill tumor cells. Macrophages
are one type of white blood cell that surrounds and destroys
Here again, we see a chain reaction: An
event happens and you interpret it. If the lamprey has a hold
of your mind, the event causes stress hormones to be released
into your blood stream. The stress hormones then weaken and hobble
your immune system, making you more vulnerable to any number
of health problems.
Feelings of confidence can influence your
immune system. UCLA researchers tested the immune systems of
a group of first-year law students at the beginning of a semester.
By mid-term, those who thought pessimistically about their chances
of succeeding had weaker immune systems by mid-term. Those who
weren't under the influence of pessimism still had strong immune
systems by mid-term.
If you know anything about evolution, you
have probably had the thought, "Wouldn't our immune systems
have evolved to kick into high gear during stress rather than
slowing down?" But the body is making a trade-off. Stress
hormones activate your body to deal with an immediate, physical
threat. Stress hormones release blood sugar and rush it to your
muscles. They speed up the heart and breathing rate, etc. When
a virus enters your system, however, it doesn't upset you. No
adrenaline is poured into your blood stream. You don't even know
it happened until later. It is an altogether different kind of
threat, and we have evolved an altogether different system to
deal with it.
A stress response is an evolved response
designed to be brief and infrequent. During a stress reaction,
your immune system is temporarily hampered, but for a good cause:
You moved quickly up a tree and evaded the pride of lions. Given
the world we now live in, which is much different than the environment
our bodies evolved to handle, pessimism, cynicism, and defeatism
can produce more frequent stress reactions that last longer,
which puts our immune systems are in danger.
As if this wasn't enough, it gets worse.
Pessimism influences the way you speak, and the way you speak
influences the way you argue with your spouse, and the way you
argue determines how stressful those arguments will be.
Negative speech patterns obviously express
negative thought patterns. And when you argue with your spouse
using "negative fighting behaviors" as the researchers
call them, it causes extra stress for your spouse. And the stress
you cause your spouse impairs your spouse's immune system. But
your negative fighting behaviors also impair your own immune
Negative fighting behaviors stem from negative
thinking patterns. Pessimism, cynicism, and defeatism are expressed
in arguments in the form of name calling (labeling your spouse
with a negative label), being sarcastic, finger-pointing, and
withdrawing in hopeless exasperation (giving up, feeling helpless
These negative fighting behaviors have
been studied and they do indeed result in impaired immune functioning.
They also increase the chance that the marriage will end in divorce,
and divorce itself usually has an enormously negative impact
on the immune system.
The average married couple has a serious
argument about once a month, with small quarrels in between.
Studies show if a couple never disagrees, if they avoid conflict,
they will have less intimacy and problems are more likely to
go unsolved. That's pretty obvious.
But if they disagree badly if they
think pessimistically, if they are cynical, if they get defeated
easily by setbacks they are more likely to divorce, and,
more to the point for this section, it will be bad for their
Howard Markman of the University of Denver,
an expert on marital discord, has tried to figure out what the
financial costs of marital fighting is. He estimates that Americans
lose almost three billion dollars a year in diminished productivity.
That's not even counting the damage to doors and frying pans.
Conflicts between husbands and wives lead
to more illnesses and sick days. And even when they go to work,
an argument with a spouse is likely to impair their performance
at least a little.
Ohio State University researchers coaxed
married couples to spend a half hour arguing about whatever topic
got them the most angry at each other. The researchers looked
at their fighting behaviors and measured their immune systems.
The researchers labeled behaviors like
accepting responsibility, finding points of agreement, and suggesting
compromises as "positive fighting behaviors." They
labeled behaviors like criticism, blaming, sarcasm, disapproval,
dismissal, and withdrawal as "negative fighting behaviors."
The couples' immune functions were tested
before and after the half-hour argument. Everyone's immune function
was weakened at least slightly from the argument. But the immune
function was significantly weaker in those who used the most
negative fighting behaviors.
So this is another angle on the same point:
Pessimism is bad for your immune system. The researchers also
found that the negative fighters had more antibodies for the
virus, a virus that most of us keep in check fairly easily.
The presence of more antibodies means that their immune systems
were not just impaired from the immediate stress, but that their
immune systems were not as effective in general. The way they
fight is only an easily-seen display of the way they think, and
the way they think is constantly disabling their immune system.
This information only scratches the surface.
The studies go on and on. New ones are continually coming out.
You can use this summary, however, to give you ammunition when
you influence your loved ones to destroy the lampreys in their
own minds. This information gives us a strong motivation to do
something about it. It is not merely "nice" to feel
more positive it is imperative if we want to live a healthy
And hopefully it motivates you to root
out and destroy the last remnants of pessimistic thinking lurking
in your own mind. And to protect yourself from further infection
from the pessimism
that is constantly trying to worm its way into your mind.
Here is where to start: Undemoralize
Pessimism doesn't just weaken your immune
system. It is also hard on your heart. Read more about that here:
Pessimism and Heart
Click here for a