Happiness and optimism don’t go together well with illness and pain, torture and violence, war and hunger, accidents and handicaps, dependence and decay. Neither for the sufferer nor their nearest and dearest.
Health is the second most important factor for personal happiness in humans after the immediate family. This is confirmed by every opinion poll and nearly every birthday wish.
However, the unfortunate reality is that countless people suffer from serious diseases and chronic pain. But what an ode to optimism it is to hear how most of them deal with it!
The doctors are right not to distribute suicide pills for “just in case”, and for pointing to the amazing ways in which people cope with situations that they would previously have considered unbearable.
Even in the face of extreme pain, we carry in us a life-preserving glimmer of hope that comforts and supports us. Sometimes it is all but extinguished, but then it flickers back up, enabling even people in cancer wards to smile. The finest example of this is Sophie van der Stap’s book, The Girl With Nine Wigs. At the age of 21, Sophie van der Stap was diagnosed with an extremely aggressive form of cancer. For a year she fought it with all the means at her disposal – and maintained her sense of humour and joie-de-vivre. When chemotherapy made her hair fall out, she bought attractive wigs so that she could go out again.
Even children’s hospices have playrooms, cuddly toys and discos. Life wouldn’t be possible without them.
And many of those who are thrown completely off course by a botched operation or dreadful accident doggedly battle their way through rehabilitation clinics and in retrospect look back upon this process as a heartening test of all their strengths. And no matter how restricted their life may now be in so many ways, they live it more consciously and better than ever before. Because every little thing counts, is acknowledged, and makes them proud. Because they can’t take anything for granted anymore. Because every flower smells sweeter than ever, and every sunset is experienced more intensely. Because gratitude flows through everything.
Optimism knows many hidden pathways.
Whether this helps to prevent illness in the first place is a question the fields of psychosomatics and immunology have been trying to answer for years. In the case of extreme illnesses like cancer, medicine now tends to think that mental and spiritual factors do not have any major influence on the threat to the patient.
By contrast, it is clear that a basically optimistic attitude increases immunity against day-to-day diseases like the flu. After all, germs and bacteria are everywhere, so it depends to a large extent on our personal constitution and strength as to what we let them do to us. We all know that we remain impervious to the illnesses around us at times of particular stress or challenges at work or school, but the moment we can “afford” to, we end up in bed.
So like I said, optimism knows many hidden pathways.
We are delighted to feature daily excerpts from Florian Langenscheidt’s inspiring Dictionary of Optimism. He is a renowned author, journalist, publisher and television presenter and has been researching and writing about happiness for over 40 years.