Kate Johnson's Medical Musings

Life through the eyes of a medical journalist

Just a Spoonful of Happiness

First published on my iVillage Health Beat blog.

Just a Spoonful of Happiness

Mary Poppins was really onto something with her “spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down”. Who hasn’t used their sweetest powers of persuasion to win compliance from a reluctant child, parent, boss or spouse? Even toddlers know how to get what they want with a cuddle and a sweet smile!

So why is it that doctors so often use scare tactics to strongarm their patients to diet, or to quit smoking, or to take their medication properly?

As a mother I learned quickly that force is a recipe for disaster, as I watched harried parents drag their screaming children to their first day of kindergarten. I didn’t want my daughter to comply by force and threats, I wanted her motivation and enthusiasm.

Whether it’s the first day of kindergarten, or the first day of the rest of your life, there’s hopefully a long, long road ahead for all of us, and things will go so much better if there is no kicking and screaming involved.

Experts in the field of behavioral medicine agree strongly with this idea because it produces impressive results, they told me when I attended the annual meeting of the Society of Behavioral Medicine (www.sbm.org ) last week.

While many medical doctors tear their hair out about heart patients who won’t exercise, asthma patients who won’t take their medicine, and diabetic patients who won’t lose weight, behavioral medicine specialists are getting patients to willingly comply – with a spoonful of happiness.

Inspired by the positive psychology movement (http://www.ppc.sas.upenn.edu/), which focuses on what is right in your life, rather than what is wrong. Dr. Mary Charlson and her team got patients with high blood pressure to walk 12 extra blocks per week simply by boosting their mood and confidence levels. “That’s a powerful effect,” said Charlson, who is a doctor of Internal Medicine at Weill Medical College’s Center for Complementary and Integrative Medicine in New York.

“It’s simple stuff,” added her colleague John Allegrante, PhD, professor of Health Education at Columbia University. “We know that good mood can come from very modest positive experiences and that this can influence thoughts, behaviors and motivations. So, I tell my patients that maybe life is not so bad for them, that there are lots of things to be positive about, and if they search back through their life they will discover lots of things about which they can be proud, and they should remember those things every day when they are faced with challenges.”

“By taking a moment in the morning when you get up to think about something that makes you feel good – and checking back in with that throughout your day – it can make a very big difference in your overall ability to sustain the kinds of lifestyle changes that are necessary to preserve your overall health,” said Charlson. “Doctors who scare patients are are actually having the opposite effect.”

But, for some people, taking a positive view of life is almost impossible, no matter how hard they try, because they are struggling with depression. There’s hope for them too.  More on that in my next blog! –KJ

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June 18, 2009 - Posted by | Uncategorized

1 Comment »

  1. […] also, by the way, reveals his poor understanding of behavioral medicine. As I’ve written before, studies clearly show that scaring people will not help them quit smoking. As Frieden said himself […]

    Pingback by Scanning the Scrum at the Association of Health Care Journalists. News and Naval-Gazing Challenges for Journalists and Scientists Alike « Kate Johnson's Medical Musings | April 27, 2010 | Reply


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