For generations, working-class families have steadied themselves in the struggle to get ahead by the notion that, in this country, a better life was possible if we just worked hard. For the most part, that has held true. Research shows that during the past 50 years, a majority of children grew up to achieve the markers of what we identified as a better life; tending to earn more money, to live longer and enjoying higher living standards than their parents had achieved. That is, until now.
According to a recent economic study released by Stanford University, the widening gap between rich and poor Americans has pushed the chances of children earning more money than their parents down to nearly 50 percent; a sharp fall from 1940, when 90 percent of kids were destined to move up the income ladder.
Meanwhile, another study, this one on mortality rates released by the National Center for Health Statistics, shows – for the first time since 1993 – a drop in overall American life expectancy, particularly among people younger than 65. This drop is being viewed by health experts as a “uniquely American phenomenon.” And, while researchers can’t identify a single problem driving the drop, they suspect that the strain of income inequality in the United States – and the stress this causes – could be a contributing factor. With the release of these two comprehensive and independent studies, predictions that the current generation would neither live longer nor prosper greater than the one that succeeded it – are now being certified.
While it may seem difficult at this point in time for some to find something to be optimistic about – and these study results certainly don’t help – we have to try. For, as poet Ralph Waldo Emerson once reminded us: “For every minute you remain angry, you give up sixty seconds of peace of mind.” In the United States, resiliency has long been a defining trait of our national character. It’s what makes us great and keeps us great. The best fuel for resiliency is a sense of optimism. Just a simple boost of optimism has shown to be associated with healthier behaviors and healthier ways of coping with life’s challenges.
This point was underscored earlier this month with the release of a study conducted by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health published in the American Journal of Epidemiology. The Harvard study analyzed data from 2004-2012 from 70,000 women enrolled in the Nurses’ Health Study, a long-running study tracking women’s health via surveys every two years. The study found that over an eight-year period women who were optimistic had a significantly reduced risk of dying from several major causes of death – including cancer, heart disease, stroke, respiratory disease, and infection – as opposed to women who were less optimistic. The study suggests that having an optimistic outlook on life – defined as a general expectation that good things will happen – could have a direct impact on our biological systems and contribute to people living longer.
A popular current therapeutic treatment approach for avoiding negative thoughts and dealing with the stresses of today’s world is mindfulness-based cognitive therapy. In its most simple definition, mindfulness means the act of paying attention to present-moment experiences with openness and curiosity; paying attention to one’s experience in the present moment. The more clinical definition of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy involves two treatment approaches – guided mindfulness practices combined with aspects of traditional cognitive behavioral training. The first part is designed to increase awareness of negative spirals, while the second component teaches skills to help resist or counter damaging thoughts or moods.
Medical professionals exploring this option are quick to point out that different people required different treatments, and mindfulness should be viewed as one option alongside drugs and other forms of therapy. It still remains a rather new frontier in treatment. What’s encouraging is it is one that does not come from pharmaceuticals, but from within us. While it’s not seen as a cure-all, a growing body of research is pointing to mindfulness-based cognitive therapy as a potential remedy for anxiety disorders and depression.
It’s important to point out that studies of well-being and achieving a better life also often point to the connection between good mental health and social connections. Keeping up friendships and maintaining social interactions is viewed as an important part of a satisfying life, particularly as people age. This is especially true during the holidays.
In this season of reflection, looking within with some guidance and purpose may be exactly what is called for. To that end, let us also not forget the power and importance of spirituality and prayer. As noted by French surgeon, biologist and 1912 Nobel Prize winner, Alexis Carrel, prayer is a force as real as terrestrial gravity. He adds: “As a physician, I have seen men lifted out of sickness by the power of prayer. It is the only power in the world that overcomes the laws of nature.”
Write to Chuck Norris with your questions about health and fitness. Follow Chuck Norris through his official social media sites, on Twitter @chucknorris and Facebook’s “Official Chuck Norris Page.” He blogs at ChuckNorrisNews.blogspot.com.