Monday, 8 July 2013


I learned a few things today, in a Times article by Michael Mosley.  The piece was about optimism.  Apparently a person with an optimistic outlook on life will live for seven and a half years longer, on average, than a pessimistic person (after adjustments have been made for life events, such as illness, that may have caused the pessimism).  He said, to put this into context, that if a cure for cancer were invented today, it would only improve average life expectancy by three and a half to four years.

'Right!' I told the family at dinner time this evening, after telling them about the article.  'From now on, we are all optimistic.  Everybody loves us, we love everybody.  We are all amazing.  We deserve the best... And,' I went on without missing a beat, 'Older son CAN get down from the table'.  (He had been providing a background refrain to my lecture that went, 'Can I get down from the table Mum?  Can I get down from the table?' ad infinitum.

The optimism thing may, I think, help to explain my recovery from schizophrenia.  Others may believe either that I am not recovered, or that I never had schizophrenia.  They may be right.  Or - as Mosley said - optimism can rewire the brain.  I am optimistic these days, and I have been for some time. 

Since I had my children, my whole attitude to life has changed.  I see how fortunate I am, I am sure that my good fortune will continue.  I even - as I said in the afterword to my memoir - since the birth of my children believe that there is a God and that He is looking after me.  (I also, slightly cynically, acknowledge the fact that I can't lose by holding this viewpoint, but it's true, I feel blessed and I feel supported and I attribute all that to faith in a higher being.  I wish I'd been able to believe in God years ago). 

I have gradually become more positive, and the positivity itself has been rewarded (the world is a better place for those who see the good in it - Mosely cites Elaine Fox's book Rainy Brain, Sunny Brain, to support this notion) and the upwards trajectory continues.

The good thing about the optimism theory is, you don't have to have children to benefit.  I really want to help others recover from severe mental illness - I feel that I owe it to others to them to pass on my experiences in the hope that it will help.  However, I sometimes feel that my good fortune is simply that - luck - and so as hard as I try to find a formula that will benefit others, I am destined to fail.  Many people with a diagnosis of schizophrenia will find it hard to meet a partner, or medications will stop them conceiving.  Some of those people can't cope without their medication.  Many other people would not find having children to be a therapeutic occupation - the reverse can often be the case.  My recovery was unique to me.

But here, we see, simple optimism - or hope - is enough in itself to make a change in the brain.  Mosley investigated the matter scientifically, and he was convinced.  Try it - believe it - and see what happens.  Good luck!

The other thing I learned in the article was about 'epi-genetics' - the fact that 'throughout our lives, in response to life events, our genes are constantly being switched on and off'.  I have heard this term before, I am sure, but never understood its exact meaning.  I tend to dismiss mental health theories that involve genetics, for various reasons, but am slightly unnerved by the possibility that perhaps my kids have inherited some weakness, some susceptibility to psychosis. 

Now I am thinking - maybe after all there is a gene for susceptibility to psychosis (or, so what if there is?).  Maybe my psychosis gene was switched on, but if so, it has gone off again now.  I honestly don't think I have a susceptibility to psychotic breakdown any more (although obviously I can't rule it out the possibility entirely).  Anyway, I think the more likely truth is that everyone has the gene for psychosis, if there is one, but some peoples' brains are not wired in such a way that it can be switched on as easily as others.

Mosley wrote about personality - how he had thought it was fixed in childhood and that he had a natural tendency to pessimism, but realised he could change this tendency by something as simple as mindfulness meditation.  He also recommends something called Cognitive Bias Modification (the test he tried involved training the brain to look for positive images on a computer - a skill which could then be generalised into everyday life). 

In all, it was a very enlightening and positive - and optimistic! - article.  Well done Michael Mosley, and thank you. 

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